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New study reaffirms the link between conservative religious faith and climate change doubt

Last week, I blogged about a striking figure created by evolutionary biologist Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, plotting U.S. based faiths and denominations based on 1) their members’ views about the reality of human evolution and 2) those members’ support for tough environmental laws.

The figure (below) has created much discussion, both because of what it seems to suggest about the unending debate over the relationship between science and religion, but also because of how it appears to confirm that more conservative leaning denominations harbor a form of science resistance that extends well beyond evolution rejection and into the climate change arena.

[The surprising links between faith and evolution and climate denial — charted]

Because let’s face it — we already knew that conservative religiosity in the United States was closely tied to denying evolution. What wasn’t so obvious was why views of global warming, or the environment, would seem to so closely track views on where we humans (and the rest of all life on Earth) come from. Yet it seems they do:

I’m writing on this again now because after posting about Rosenau’s work, I learned about a new academic study that seems highly consistent with his research, even as it also casts new light on the environmental side of things.

“I think looking at that graphic, it very much resonates with our own work,” explains David Konisky of Georgetown, co-author of the new paper.

The study, which Konisky authored with Matthew Arbuckle of the University of Cincinnati, draws on a vast dataset from the 2010 installment of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which not only asks people about their religious views, affiliations, and habits, but also samples a huge group of Americans — some 55,000 of them.

That large number allows the researchers to conduct a fine-grained analysis of the divergences in views on environmental matters between members of different major religious traditions (Catholics, Protestants, Jews) and also members of different denominations (Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and so on) in the United States. That includes looking at how “religiosity,” a measure of how committed people are to their faiths and how much they’re involved in religious activities (like going to church), seems to influence those environmental views.

To measure environmental views, the paper examined responses to two survey questions. One was about the reality and magnitude of the risk posed by climate change.  The other was about how people felt about protecting the environment as opposed to saving jobs — a kind of tradeoff question in which individuals are asked how much they’d privilege one over the other. (The latter question is a bit problematic, the authors note, given that the original poll was conducted just after the great recession in 2010. Below, I’ll generally highlight findings about the climate change question.)

The result, at the broadest level, was that Catholics and Protestants were generally less worried about climate change than those who are religiously unaffiliated (although Jews were more worried). Zooming in more closely, meanwhile, Arbuckle and Konisky found that it was evangelical Protestants who really stood out as being climate unconcerned. “Individuals that affiliate with an Evangelical Protestant church, all else equal, are less likely than both Mainline and Protestant churches to be worried about climate change,” they wrote.

And not just that — the study goes further and singles out the role of biblical fundamentalism. “These findings suggest that individuals in religious traditions that are more prone to teach biblical literalism are less likely to express high degrees of concern about the environment,” the authors write.

All of which mirrors the analysis presented by Rosenau above. Biblical literalism also, needless to say, is tied to conflicts with the theory of evolution. (We’ve all seen that movie.)

Moreover, these results persisted even after the researchers controlled for other major variables that influence views on the environment, including gender, level of educational attainment, and most of all, ideology and party affiliation (which have the biggest influence of all on environmental views). Despite these controls, faith remained an important factor in shaping environmental stances. “What we find is that the effects of these denominational affiliations is on par with some sort of typical demographic variables,” said Konisky, like gender or level of education.

In other words, while faith doesn’t have as much of an influence on environmental views as outright politics does, it still has a meaningful one.

And so in some cases does religiosity, or, how intensely a faith is practiced through factors, such as prayer and church attendance. For Catholics and Evangelical Protestants, the study found, more religiosity was also linked to less climate concern.

However, one group on the list in particular could potentially change its outlook in the coming year, notes Konisky — Catholics. “With this statement coming out of the Vatican, there could be a shift,” he said. “And to the extent to which Catholics respond to the Pope, there could be a chance for movement on that front.”

[Why Pope Francis is about to make a dramatic wave in the climate debate]

Asked to comment on the new study, Rosenau called the work “fascinating and nicely-done.” “They make clear that politics is the dominant driver of environmental attitudes, but religion plays a large role,” he added by e-mail. The study is also consistent with a 2008 survey — reported on here — finding that U.S. evangelicals were less likely than non-evangelicals to think global warming is happening and caused by humans.

The new study does not probe why evangelicals seem more inclined to reject climate concerns, but a recent blog post by Christian author Scott Rodin, entitled “As a Conservative, Evangelical Republican, Why Climate Change Can’t be True (Even Though It Is),” provides an intriguing hint.

Much of the animus in what he calls the “conservative evangelical” community, Rodin suggests, is about viewing environmentalists negatively, as a sort of “other” who don’t share the same worldview and values. Thus, Rodin writes that he had been “conditioned” to think that “People who care about the environment are left-wing, socialist, former hippies who have no job and hate those who do” and that “People who care about the environment are atheists who worship nature, hate Christians and believe humans are intruders on the earth.”

Rodin says he used to believe such things, but was “slowly worn down by the unquestionable scientific evidence that became impossible to ignore” — and calls on his fellow conservative evangelicals to “stop being influenced by our cultural conditioning and start thinking as God’s people.”

Also in Energy & Environment:

The subtle — but real — link between global warming and extreme weather events

This is climate skeptics’ latest argument about melting polar ice — and why it’s wrong

How to get the real estate market to properly value green homes

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