Do Religious and Secular Beliefs Interact to Shape Climate Change Attitudes?

Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge

We noticed something strange – when conservative religious leaders were talking about environmental policy, they focused on the science and their problems with it. For example, during a sermon in 2006 Rev. Jerry Falwell made the argument that, “‘scientists who are not on the payroll of the government’ believe that ‘the jury’s still out’” on climate change. Rather than focus on the values motivating environmental action, much opposition to climate change action attacked the science and scientists behind climate change claims. Why?

In our new article out at Politics & Religion (open access!), we discuss our suspicions that these leaders had a tacit understanding of the power of what we’re calling “secular beliefs” on the environment. Beliefs are essentially what people would acknowledge as facts about how the world works. They can be religious – e.g., God is active in guiding world affairs – and they can be secular – e.g., human activity is responsible for causing global warming. Once people acknowledge humanity’s role in climate change and care, then the solution naturally follows that humans need to do something about it. Therefore, opponents of environmental action need to prioritize people’s beliefs and undermine the credibility of scientists and science.

More generally, this story suggested to us that the academic study of religious influence on environmental attitudes has been missing a big part of the story. In our review of the literature, we found almost no studies that included secular beliefs about the environment (weather is getting more extreme, humans are responsible for climate change), even if they had good salient and diverse measures of religion (which definitely was not the case in the early days).

We were inspired by a PRRI survey from 2012 that focused on the environment with creative questions and procedures tapping both secular and religious beliefs relevant to attitudes about whether the federal government should do more to prevent climate change. We took two tacks. First, the data allowed us to ask whether religious influence was conditional on secular beliefs. Second, the survey included an experiment assessing the stability of a core religious belief at the heart of religious influence in prior literature.

It’s important to note that secular beliefs have a minimal relationship with religious beliefs about the environment. Take, for instance, the link between beliefs that humans are responsible for climate change (height of the bars) and the religious beliefs that humans have dominion over nature and the end times are imminent. In these data, those who say that humans have dominion over nature are more likely to believe that humans are responsible for climate change and there is no relationship at all with a belief in an imminent end times.

Agreement with Human Attribution for Climate Change by Belief in an Imminent End Times and Human Dominion Over Nature

Source: Public Religion Research Institute, PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, December 2012.

Note: Comparing any two confidence intervals is the equivalent of a 90% (p=.10) test at the point of overlap.

The centerpiece to our research is the finding that religious attributes only have a systematic link to climate change attitudes when they reject human attribution. For instance, evangelicals are more likely to reject human attribution, but only when they reject the idea of human culpability for climate change. In that case, they are no different than other identifiers. We also show that belief in the end times is only linked to climate change attitudes when they believe that the weather is growing more extreme.

Evangelicals Are Only Different From Others in their Climate Change Attitudes when they Reject the Idea of Human Attribution for Climate Change

Source: Public Religion Research Institute, PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, December 2012.

Note: 90% confidence intervals. This shows the marginal effect of being evangelical on the probability of choosing each response in the “US should do more” scale. So, for example, evangelicals are less likely to completely agree with the US doing more about climate change when they do not believe that humans are responsible.

Our other contribution concerns a theological belief. Since the beginning of the field in the 1960s, researchers have been focused on the theological belief among Christians of whether they believe they have dominion to “subdue” (Genesis 1:28) the earth. The King James version says it best (Genesis 1:26), “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Those who believe in “having dominion” have been found to oppose environmental policy or to simply care less, compared to those who believe humans must be stewards of the earth.

PRRI used a simple order experiment presenting either a dominion belief first or a stewardship belief first. And the order was very strongly linked to whether respondents said they agreed with it. Non-evangelicals swung wildly – less than 20% said they agreed with the dominion belief when it was mentioned first while over 60% said they agreed with it when it was mentioned second. Evangelicals still showed an order effect, but it was much, much smaller – about 10% increase in agreement with a dominion perspective. This matters because research using such items presents them as sincerely held and effectively fixed. This experiment is showing that they are strongly a function of asking about them and may, in a clear example of Zaller in action, be “non-attitudes.”

Contingent Dominion: Question Order Effects on Dominion Beliefs By Evangelical Identification

Source: Public Religion Research Institute, PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, December 2012. Note: Comparing any two confidence intervals is the equivalent of a 90% (p=.10) test at the point of overlap.

In this paper we are sending a strong message to religion and politics researchers that we need to do a better job of assessing how religion intersects with secular argumentation. Religious actors and institutions are not just doing religion, but are contributing perspectives on secular topics with religious interests in mind. That necessitates engagement with secular argumentation. Most surveys that have sufficient questions to examine religious influence often make choices to shed relevant questions from a secular perspective. We are convinced that this is a problem, though researchers need to look for these sorts of patterns in other policy areas. Specifically about the environment, our findings suggest that religious actors opposed to environmental protection efforts are fighting a losing battle where they need to stop secular, scientific beliefs for their religious beliefs and arguments to matter. This doesn’t mean religion does not matter, but it does shift our understanding to how it may matter and how we think about religious relevance.

Paul A. Djupe directs the Data for Political Research program at Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog. Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Ryan P. Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois and now appears on 60 Minutes. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

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