Every so often popular debate breaks out about whether belief in anthropogenic global warming is analogous to religious belief. These debates almost always turn into debates about whether environmentalism is a religion. Typically, one side maintains that the distinctive feature of religious belief is that it appeals to the supernatural, and so environmentalism isn’t a religion. The other side maintains that the distinctive feature of religious belief is the passion with which the belief is held, and so environmentalism, when it’s held passionately, is a religion. (Ben Hale, an environmental ethicist at Boulder, covered some of this territory last year on his blog.)
Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece by philosopher Stephen Asma that pushes the debate in a new and strange direction. His thesis is that the distinctive feature of religion is guilt and self-loathing. That environmentalists feel guilt and self-loathing when they harm the environment suggests to Asma that environmentalism is– or is a stand-in for– religion.
At first I thought Asma’s piece might be a joke. After all, guilt is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of either religion or environmentalism, so it seems a strange place to focus discussion. But to the extent that it’s a call for moral lives that are less sensitive to emotions like guilt and shame, it strikes me as an interesting piece for moral psychologists. Is Asma right that there’s altogether too much guilt and shame in the world? What would moral motivation look like if we were less prone to guilt and shame? Could any movement seeking social change hope to succeed without appealing to our sense of guilt and shame?
Environmental Ethics: An Overview
By Katie McShane (May 2009)
Science and Religion: Philosophical Issues
By Alan Padgett (November 2007)