Is ecology about religious guilt?

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Is ecology about religious guilt?

Environmentalism has been called ‘a lifestyle’, ‘a fad’, ‘a totalitarianism’. Some sceptics also imply that it is ‘the new religion’ because it (allegedly) runs on guilt. Is this argument fair?

This weekly comment was written by Clémence Sauty and reflects her personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

What is environmentalism?

Environmentalism is sometimes called a religion.[1] The similarity between the two is undeniable. Religious institutions do promote awareness and action towards sustainability. Besides, people have told how their experiences in ecologist movements resemble religious experiences: there is a sense of togetherness, and an urge to improve in paying attention to something other than oneself.[2]

However, this narrative is problematic. The main reason that environmentalism is not a religion is that it is scientifically grounded. Environmentalism is the political movement that stems from ecology, which is “the study of the relation of plants and living creatures to each other and to their environment.”[3] Ecology is not a matter of beliefs.[4]

In this comment, I will raise another problem that this narrative poses: it uses skepticism towards religion to fuel skepticism towards ecology. This tactic is neither fair to religions nor to ecologist movements.

To do so, I will explore the specific argument that environmentalism is a religion because it generates guilt and fear.[5]

What is the connection between religion and guilt?

In 2002, French historian Marcel Gauchet suggested that ecology movements recycle Christian theology. Environmentalists and Christians alike denounce those who ignore that neither themselves nor ‘Creation’ are their own.[6] Supporters of this hypothesis have also noticed that environmentalism requires examinations of conscience, changes in behaviour, and asceticism. Some have even compared carbon offsetting (i.e. giving money to NGOs in order to compensate for one’s carbon emissions)[7] to Catholic indulgences (i.e. giving money to the church in order to undermine punishment for one’s sins).[8]

This hypothesis is witty and thought-provoking. Even so, it does not reflect the historical distinction between ecology movements and religions. Sociologist Jean-Michel Le Bot shows that in the 1970s, French environmentalism deliberately challenged Christianity. As he explains, environmentalists accused Christian churches of replacing people’s ‘love of nature’ and compassionate attitude towards evil with shame and guilt. “They declared that the here and now was a vale of tears,” he quotes.[9] [10]

Those who claim that environmentalism is religious, as well as those who claim that it is rather anti-religious, equate Christianity[11] with guilt. This is because some prominent historians have abundantly researched how Christian churches “over-exaggerated sin in comparison with grace.”[12] Theologies from the Reformation and counter-Reformation about the “abundance of grace”[13] seem to not be taken into account in this debate.

Is environmentalism about religious guilt?

Press reviews of ecologist movements are as follows: “Unprecedented disasters are ahead of us,”[14] “Cataclysmic climatic effects are expected,”[15] “It is necessary that we emit far less carbon in the short term.”[16] The media coverage of the 2021 report of the IPCC[17] can indeed cause guilt and fear. But are eco-awareness and eco-anxiety related to religious guilt?

Those who argue that environmentalism perpetuates Christian guilt in the form of a new religion should examine their own deduction:

  • Christianity is a religion that used to preach guilt
  • I believe that environmentalism preaches guilt today
  • Therefore, I believe environmentalism is the religion of our day

For this reasoning to be valid, much would need to be changed.[18]

Under what conditions could we assert that?

Here is the first condition for the religion-guilt-environmentalism deduction to work: theology would have to be the only discourse that promotes guilt. Le Bot explains that thinking of environmentalism as a religion is wrong because “fault and guilt have nothing specifically religious.” He argues that fear and guilt are anthropological constants that permeate all societies. For each misfortune, humans try to find causes.[19]

The cause may be scientific. We feel bad when we are exposed to climate-conscious discourses because it triggers stress responses in our brains. Another cause may be social. In this case, our feelings of guilt and fear come from a specific group of people who are responsible for our misfortunes. This explanation can turn to scapegoating. The last cause that humans find for their own problems is their collective inadequacy. Climate-conscious discourses trigger guilt and fear because we know that we are going to be ‘punished’ for our collective inadequacy.[20]

The religious notion of sin does tap into this last category, but many others do so too. “The COVID-19 pandemic took global proportions because of the way we currently live”[21] is one of these other narratives that blame collective inadequacy.

The second condition for the religion-guilt-environmentalism deduction to work is as follows: denunciating our collective inadequacy would have to be the main point of Christianity and ecological movements. Equating religion and environmentalism with guilt involves a misunderstanding of both.

Scientific reports usually focus on the technical developments of the climate crisis.[22] The coverage of these reports by the media and by activist movements varies. Some of it does indeed blame our collective inadequacy. But some of it focuses on finding groups that are responsible for the crisis. The connection between religious guilt and environmental guilt is no longer appropriate. This is reflected in other press reviews, stating that “in fact, twenty firms cause a third of all carbon emissions,”[23] and asking: “who is responsible for tackling climate change? You, me, politicians or energy producers?”[24] On these accounts, environmentalism preaches responsibility and action rather than guilt.

Neither religion nor environmentalism specifically aim at making people feel like ‘they are not enough’.

Who is to blame for my environmental guilt?

My final hypothesis is that some people experience environmental guilt and fear as a misfortune. As humans, they need to find the causes of their harm. Because they are struggling with the belief that we are ‘collectively inadequate’, they find specific groups they can blame for their struggle.

Here is the amusing turn of events: they blame religion for their own guilt. Instead of turning to organisations that caused the climate crisis,[25] or the media and activists who interpreted the scientific data in a daunting way, they turn to Christianity. Still, no religion can become the scapegoat for our environmental worries. No anti-religious discourse can alleviate the pain of acknowledging our environmental situation.

This weekly comment was written by Clémence Sauty and reflects her personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

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[1] The Religion of Environmentalism

[2] Environmentalism: a new religion | Rowenna Davis

[3] ecology noun – Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes | Oxford Advanced American Dictionary at

[4] Environmentalism is not a religion | By James Murray for BusinessGreen, part of the Guardian Environment Network

[5] Nuclear heresy: environmentalism as implicit religion By: Caroline McCalman

[6] Marcel Gauchet, La démocratie contre elle-même, Paris, Gallimard, 2002

[7] Carbon offset – Wikipedia

[8] Iegor Gran, L’écologie en bas de chez moi, Paris, Gallimard, 2012

[9] Morvan Lebesque, Comment peut-on être breton ? Essai sur la démocratie française, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1970

[10] Écologie et culpabilité : un recyclage post-chrétien ?

[11] But arguably all religions too.

[12] Jean Delumeau, Le péché et la peur. La culpabilisation en Occident. XIIIe-XVIIIe siècles, Paris, Fayard, 1983

[13] Jean Daniel Causse, Denis Müller, Introduction à l’éthique. Penser, croire, agir, Labor et Fides, 2009

[14] Des désastres sans précédent menacent l’humanité, prévient le GIEC

[15] Des retombées climatiques cataclysmiques prévient le GIEC

[16] Rapport du GIEC : « Il faut décarboner de toute urgence et de manière très radicale nos sociétés et nos économies »

[17] Sixth Assessment Report

[18] Syllogism

[19] Écologie et culpabilité : un recyclage post-chrétien ?

[20] Jean Delumeau, Le péché et la peur. La culpabilisation en Occident. XIIIe-XVIIIe siècles, Paris, Fayard, 1983

[21] COVID-19 has shone a light on how globalization can tackle inequality

[22] Sixth Assessment Report

[23] Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions

[24] Who is responsible for tackling climate change? You, me, politicians or energy producers? | Unit

[25] One of which might even be Christian churches. See here: Do passages in the Bible justify cutting down forests?