Study: Belief in a “Controlling God” is Bad for the Environment

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What’s the harm in religion? It’s a tough question to answer, in part because so many people in the world are religious, and those religious beliefs take so many different forms, that it’s hard to tease out what actions we can blame on religion as opposed to culture in general.

I have two different examples to illustrate that point, and I’m going to split them up into a two-parter. First up for today is this study published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, which found that for people who care about the environment, they are less likely to do anything about it if they believe in a controlling god.

This is a really interesting study that looked specifically at American Christians, most of whom are college students. Which is, honestly, the makeup of most psychological research that is published in English but in this case it’s highlighted and relevant to the study, which is nice.

There were three experiments, the first of which was just looking at existing survey data from about 3,000 American adults. The survey questions included whether or not the respondent believed that global warming is real and exacerbated by human activity, and then whether or not the respondent supported policies that might help alleviate global warming. They also asked the subjects how important they found religion and how often they attended religious services.

Among the respondents who understood the threat of global warming, religious people were less likely to support pro-environmental policies, even when controlling for political orientation and a host of other demographics.

The second experiment drilled down on this to figure out if it’s religiosity in general or a particular religious belief: the belief that “god” controls everything that happens and there’s not really much you, as an individual puny human, can do about it. They surveyed about 400 American college students split between a Christian college and a secular college, and in addition to the questions about global warming and religiosity they added a question about belief in a controlling god. They also tweaked the “support for environmental policies” to specifically ask how often subjects engaged in environmentally friendly behaviors like buying “green” products. Sure enough, they found that people who believed in a controlling god were less likely to do environmentally friendly actions, even if they understood the danger of anthropogenic global warming.

To figure out if this was correlation or causation — if “controlling god” Christians just happen to be disinterested in helping the environment or if they’re disinterested because of their belief — they did one final study in which they asked 730 Christians to describe their feelings about the environment. Then they had them read either an article about Pluto (the control group) or a piece about how god controls the world. Then they asked the subjects what behaviors they planned to do to help the environment.

Sure enough, subjects that read the passage about a controlling god were less likely to say they would partake in environmentally friendly actions. The idea here is that if you think that god is going to do what he will with the planet, it doesn’t really matter what you do, so why bother?

Now, it’s important to note that this problem isn’t necessarily limited to American Christians. You could, for instance, be so depressed by the current state of the world that you feel nothing you can do matters. Or you could believe that the Muslim god is controlling and nothing you can do matters. Or you could feel that large industries contribute such an overwhelming amount of damage to our environment that buying recycled toilet paper isn’t going to matter.

The interesting thing to me about this study isn’t that fundamentalist Christians may be less likely to behave in a pro-environmental way, but that this “nothing I do will matter” attitude may extend to other areas of their lives. Why support policies that give more people healthcare coverage if god determines who lives and who dies anyway? Why support policies that lift people out of poverty? Why improve quality of life for prisoners? Why stop the overbreeding of dogs and cats?

It’s all these questions that, many years ago, made me realize I’m a humanist. I’m an atheist in that I’m fairly certain there is no god, as I’ve never seen any evidence for one. I believe that it’s most likely that when we die there is no afterlife, and we just go into the ground. So why does anything I do when I’m alive really matter? Well, for that exact reason: if there is no heaven, this is the only life each human (and each nonhuman animal) gets. Let’s make it as good as we can for as many people as we can. Let’s do our best to increase the total amount of happiness that’s in the world. And let’s protect the world itself, because the more damage we do to the planet the more miserable we make it for people all over, whether they’re dealing with more severe hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, or fires tearing through their homes and making the air unbreathable. 

Does that make humanism a “better” philosophy than Christianity? I mean, obviously I think my personal philosophy is better or else I wouldn’t live by it, but there are plenty of Christians who try to make the world a better place and plenty of atheists and humanists who couldn’t give a shit. Which is why I think that while we can talk about generalities, it’s more enlightening to drill down on the specifics: what do you believe about our place in the universe and how does that belief inform your actions? It’s fair to say that this study provides compelling evidence that believing that humanity has no control over our destiny is ultimately a dangerous and damaging philosophy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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