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Global Development Impact Brief #1

The Global Development Impact Brief series is designed to highlight Global Development’s work across disciplines, issues, and geographies in order to give readers insights into how we are advancing development globally in pursuit of a more equitable, sustainable, and food-secure world for all. The quarterly series is written by Global Development faculty and their partners, and is spearheaded by the Global Development Public Scholarship Committee.

 

The issue

Many U.S.-based studies have found that people with strong Christian beliefs are less concerned, or indifferent about, climate change. Our research shows that concern among Christians may be influenced by competing denominational and scholarly interpretations of biblical passages, such as those about “dominion” over nature. (Genesis 1, Verse 26; White 1967; Hiebert 1996). Here we investigate how Christian religious affiliation and interpretation of the Bible influence perspectives on climate change.

The approach

In our recent study published in the Review of European Studies, we unpacked the relationship between religion and climate change indifference in the U.S. by analyzing data from the General Social Survey for 1993, 1994, 2000, 2016, and 2018. The General Social Survey is representative of the U.S. English-speaking population age 18 and over. In the U.S. in 2021, the proportion of adults professing Christian worldviews was approximately 64 percent versus 7 percent who practice other faiths and 29% who reported “none” (Pew Research Center, 2022).

Because people often blend religious and political ideas, we classify people both politically by a conservative to liberal scale, and by a religious scale. This enables us to statistically distinguish political from religious influences on belief. Our religious scale is influenced by French sociologist Emile Durkheim who defines religion as a thought-system organized around ideas held to be sacred, where these ideas serve to unite its adherents into a community. However, individuals have different approaches to reading the Bible. For many Christians, the Bible is the literal word of God and for others it is the inspired word of God and yet for others the Bible is a book of fables. We therefore classify people according to how they read the Bible, and by whether they are Protestant or Catholic versus all others (we lack sample size to analyze other religious traditions or the religiously unaffiliated). We suspect that different faith traditions will hold different interpretations of the Bible and express those differences in religious rituals and social practices. Finally, our statistical model controls for sex, age, and education.

The findings

Catholics who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God are likely to express climate concern in relation to religious belief. The opposite is true for biblical literalist Protestants who tend to report indifference about climate change, where most of this indifference is in relation to religious belief and not to political ideology. Those individuals who believe the Bible is a book of fables are most likely be climate concerned, and to express this concern in relation to political ideology. These findings suggest that sacred beliefs are most influential for biblical literalists, but that the direction of this influence is contingent on the faith community. Over the past several decades Catholic leaders have publicly advocated for limiting greenhouse gas emissions and for protecting the environment, whereas many Protestants leaders appear indifferent or opposed to these policies.

Next steps

If sacred beliefs are indeed socially influenced as Durkheim proposes, then attitudes will change if and when the pertinent social influences change. Our findings are consistent with the proposition that religion is a belief system based in sacred concepts, however these concepts are disseminated and socially concretized through religious rituals that serve to bring people together into community. In theory, communities are free to reinterpret their beliefs and practices, and our finding about oppositional views on climate within the full set of biblical literalists suggests that this could indeed happen sometime in the future to the extent that people discuss, listen and learn about the issue.

Explore more about the research

Publication

Authors

  • Thomas A. Hirschl (Professor of global development, Cornell University)
  • James G. Booth (Professor of computational biology, Cornell University)
  • Leland L. Glenna (Professor of rural sociology and science, technology, and society, Penn State University)

References

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