Beyond belief

“They loved each other beyond belief-

She was a strumpet, he was a thief.”

-Henrich Heine, “New Poems,” 1797-1856


The vocabulary of religion is not serving us well when it comes to battling – or even discussing – climate change.

Recently a friend sent me a link to a video of Karen Armstrong accepting the TED prize in 2008. In her speech the former nun turned world-renowned scholar and author had this to say:

“Belief is only a very recent religious enthusiasm. It surfaced only in the West in about the 17th century. The word ‘belief’ itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. In the 17th century, it narrowed its focus…to include, to mean, an intellectual assent to a set of propositions.

“Credo, ‘I believe,’… did not mean ‘I accept certain credal articles of faith’. It meant ‘I commit myself. I engage myself’…

“So if religion is not about believing things, what is it about? What I’ve found across the board is that religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something, you behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths….”

Stay with me, I promise to bring this back around to my main thesis.

Armstrong goes on to talk about the primacy of compassion in all the major religious traditions. The Golden Rule is present in the scriptures of the three Semitic religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – and was articulated by Confucius five centuries before Christ taught it to his disciples.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

I was aware, of course, that compassion is common to all the world’s religions, but Armstrong’s other words were a revelation. That “belief” originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear, was new information. And it has caused me to wonder how different the world would look today had we not lost that core meaning.

For one thing, we might not be facing a global climate crisis. If religious people through the centuries had spent more time behaving differently, engaging with and committing to each other, and applying the Golden Rule to all aspects of their lives – more than they spent judging and isolating themselves from people who think differently – I doubt the polar ice caps would be melting, extinctions of plant and animal species would be soaring or food shortages would be multiplying.

Armstrong’s insights also made me question the words most of us use to talk about climate change today. People with a wide range of views on the subject often employ the language of faith, of belief, to frame the debate. We either “believe in” climate change or we “don’t believe in” it. Those who don’t “believe” get labeled as “deniers,” or, at best, “skeptics.” We’re just a stone’s throw from “heretic” or “infidel” here (pardon the pun).

The irony is that secular folks, many of whom think science clearly shows climate change is occurring and is caused primarily by our use of fossil fuels, toss around these terms just as much if not more than the devoutly religious, many of whom think the matter is about as settled as the Arab-Israeli conflict. We wouldn’t dream of saying we “believe in” the weather, the tides, or the seasons…

But those on the other “side” are far from blameless in this regard. Just this past week during debate on legislation that would weaken Minnesota’s renewable energy law, a state legislator decried “the climate change religion.”

The use of such language immediately polarizes the issue and shuts down dialogue and discussion – and therefore greater understanding and cooperation. People are dismissed or written off for their “beliefs” instead of heard and engaged as human beings. Understanding, and the potential to work together in areas where we agree, comes to a standstill.

A recent Pew poll shows that both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, overwhelmingly support greater investment in and development of renewable energy, as well as a move away from fossil fuels. And yet we’ve let our entrenchment into so-called belief (or disbelief) keep us from working together to bring about a cleaner, greener economy and a more sustainable world. The common ground becomes a no man’s land, lying untilled and barren as we snipe at each other from the hedgerows.

There are forces out to change this, of course. One recent bright spot is the film Carbon Nation, which highlights the work of Americans, many of whom identify as conservatives politically, to develop and promote clean energy. We need more projects like this, because whether climate change is ever proven 100 percent to be caused by the burning of fossil fuels, those fuels are running out fast and it will take all of us, not just the “elect” (or elected), to build communities and economies that can survive and thrive without them.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

If we take Armstrong’s question, “If religion is not about believing things, then what is it about?” and substitute the words “climate change” for “religion,” we might really start to make some progress toward building something worth living in on that common ground of ours. Isn’t the answer to the question the same, either way? Isn’t it about behaving differently, about treating others – including future others – the way we would want to be treated?

If faith really is about loving and prizing and holding dear, about engaging and committing, then most of us, if we’re honest, must admit that we have a long way to go before we can begin to think of ourselves as true believers in anything – no matter our world view or spiritual tradition.

Meanwhile we should all watch our language.