Cornwall Alliance / September 10, 2021

Is Religious Environmentalism an Evidence-Free Zone? Is Christianity?

I object to the notion, common as it is, that “claims not backed by evidence” are characteristic of specifically of Christianity.

By E. Calvin Beisner

The headline caught my attention: “Environmentalism as Religion: Unpacking the Congregation,” by Ryan M. Yonk and Jessica Rood of the American Institute for Economic Research. Having studied and written about environmentalism and its relationship with religion for over 30 years, I hoped the article would explain how and why religion motivates many environmentalists to forsake hard science (which it does) and why they should reconsider.

Instead, the article was primarily a critique — mostly good — of a study that purported to give scientific support for the claim that average annual energy consumption per capita around the world should not exceed 27 gigajoules (GJ). (A GJ is roughly 278 kilowatt-hours, or enough to power a 60-watt bulb nonstop for six months.) This, the study said, was true despite the facts that

  • only 31 out of 139 countries for which 2013 data were available used that little;

  • only countries whose people consumed at least twice that much reached “sufficient need satisfaction levels” (and only 62 didn’t exceed that);

  • in 47 countries people consumed at least 4 times that much; and

  • per capita income and per capita energy use strongly correlate — i.e., the more energy people use, the wealthier they’re likely to be (which is unsurprising since it takes energy to do all the things that create wealth).

Yonk and Rood gave good reasons to think 27 GJ of energy per capita would leave people in poverty. Our World in Data shows this clearly.

However, rather than explaining how religion had driven the study’s conclusion that per capita energy use should be 27 GJ per year, Yonk and Rood explained, after showing that the conclusion was scientifically unsupported, how ideology drove it. And they did that well, but they didn’t show how religion drove it.

They did, however, characterize much modern environmentalism as “religion” because, citing Laurence Siegal, environmentalism makes “claims not backed by evidence,” urges “self-denying behavior to assert goodness,” and focuses on “the supposed end of times.”

Most religions do call self-denial a virtue, and I doubt that Siegal, Yonk, or Rood would want to reject that value. Most also have an eschatology, though its character and the extent to which they focus on it vary.

What brought me up short, though, was Siegal’s claim, which Yonk and Rood cited with no objection, that making “claims not backed by evidence” is “characteristic of a religion.”

Grammatically, Siegal might have meant only that “claims not backed by evidence” were characteristic of just one religion, but the context makes that exceedingly unlikely. “Characteristic of a religion” really means “characteristic of religion per se,” across the board.

That may be true of some religions, but I suspect most adherents of most religions don’t think so of their own. What they consider evidence may not satisfy Siegal, but evidence they will claim.

As a Christian, however, I object to the notion, common as it is, that “claims not backed by evidence” are characteristic of specifically of Christianity. Granted, it’s become common, sadly enough, even for many professing Christians to characterize their faith that way. However, two things stand against using that fact to justify the claim that Christianity per se is characterized by “claims not backed by evidence.”

First, we must distinguish between subjective faith (Suzy or Brad’s act of believing something) and objective faith (the facts, or alleged facts, Suzy and Brad believe). Suzy might believe something on solid evidential grounds, while Brad believes it without them. In this case Suzy’s act of faith, subjective, is backed by evidence, while Brad’s is not — even though they believe the same thing. But the objective faith — the propositions believed — might still be backed by evidence even if neither Suzy nor Brad knew that evidence.

Contrary to common assumptions post-Kant and post-Kierkegaard, faith — as the Bible uses the term, and as Christian theologians used it for centuries before them — is not blind, and it is not emotion, though it may stimulate emotions, such as joy and gratitude and peace. As used in the Bible, faith is assent to propositions, whether “1 + 1 = 2” or “George Washington was America’s first President” or “the circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles,” or “Jesus Christ rose from the dead” or “justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” All faith is assent to propositions; Christian, that is, saving faith, is a subset of all faith, and it is assent to the propositions of the gospel (summarized in 1 Corinthians 15 as “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures …”).

Second, the Christian faith — not someone’s subjective act of believing but the doctrines believed — is not characterized by “claims not backed by evidence.” Certainly the earliest Christians didn’t think so.

The Apostle John began his First Epistle, “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life — and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us — what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also ….”

The Apostle Peter wrote in 2 Peter 1, “we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased’, and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.”

In 1 Peter 3, the same apostle instructed believers to be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account [logos, reason] for the hope that is in you.”

The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15 that the “good news” he preached was

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

He also wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5, “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” — a mentality essential to science.

Paul’s companion, the Greek physician Luke, began his Gospel:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

After ending his Gospel with an account of how skeptical the various disciples were when some women told them Jesus had risen from the dead but then were convinced by their own direct encounters with Him — "flesh and bones as you see that I have,“ Jesus said to them — he began his second volume about Jesus, the Book of Acts, this way:

The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days ….

Clearly, the early Christians believed what they did on the basis of evidence. It may not satisfy Siegal, though perhaps he’s never examined it carefully (as Paul would have welcomed him to do), but it is evidence, nonetheless.

Indeed, Simon Greenleaf (1783–1853), Dane Professor of Law at Harvard, whose Treatise on the Law of Evidence (3 vols., 1842–1853) was "a standard textbook in American law throughout the Nineteenth century,” also wrote The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice (1874), in which he argued that the four Gospels provided sufficient evidence, of high enough quality, to justify a decision of fact in any court of law that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead.

Then of course there are those who, having set out to build an evidential case against the Christian faith, instead wound up convinced of its veracity. Sir William M. Ramsay (1851–1939), a Scottish archaeologist and Oxford professor trained up under the skepticism of F.C. Baur’s “Tübingen school,” became convinced of the New Testament’s historical accuracy through his thorough archaeological and historical studies. His The Church in the Roman Empire Before AD 170 (1893), St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (1895), and Pauline and Other Studies in Early Christian History (1906) are just three of over 20 books he wrote exploring the historical and archaeological evidence of the New Testament’s veracity.

Greenleaf and Ramsay were, of course, not the only Christians after the apostolic era to make an evidential case for the truth of the Christian faith. Many have done so in every century since then — philosophers, historians, and lawyers, as well as theologians.

The claim that the Christian faith is “not backed by evidence” can only be made with honesty by those who are ignorant of the long saga of Christian apologetics, carried on ably today by such thinkers as Douglas Groothuis, Michael O'Connell, J.P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, John Warwick Montgomery, John Lennox, and many others.

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is founder and national spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and author of Answers for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Thoughtful Skeptics: Dialogs about Christian Faith and Life.

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