The Washington Post, Nov.21, 2014
Americans largely concur that God created the Earth. But when it comes to how he wants its environment treated, and how much he’s willing to intercede — the agreement ends.
A new poll released Friday shows major differences between faith groups on topics including concern over climate change, whether natural disasters are a sign of biblical end times and how deeply connected they feel to nature.
White evangelicals are the most skeptical of climate change and the most likely to say recent natural disasters are a sign of “biblical end times.” Hispanic Catholics are, by faith affiliation, the most concerned about climate change, along with religiously unaffiliated Americans and black Protestants.
The poll on religion and the environment was done by Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion. The academy, the major U.S. academic group for those who study religion, hosts its annual meeting this week and for the first time picked the focus of climate.
The topic of God’s involvement in the environment is complicated, and people’s views can at times seem contradictory. For example, the PRRI poll shows Americans overall are more likely to say climate change (62 percent) is causing recent natural disasters compared with end times (49 percent).
Fifty-three percent of Americans say God would allow humans to destroy the Earth, compared with 39 percent who think God would not. Fifty-seven percent say God “gave humans the task of living responsibly with animals, plants and other resources, which are not just for human benefit,” while 35 percent say God gave humans all that “solely for their own benefit.”
Those numbers obviously suggest a very present God when it comes to the environment. However, in another place the poll asks respondents it labels “skeptics” — for their hesitance to believe the Earth is warming — to pick among a list of reasons for their disbelief. Only 2 percent said “God is in control,” while respondents were most likely to cite the weather they see themselves.
But the biggest predictor of someone’s views on climate and God’s role, said PRRI chief executive Robert Jones, is his or her partisan affiliation.
“There is a stronger correlation between partisanship here than among many religious variables,” Jones said. “If I didn’t tell you what the question is, and you just saw the data, you’d think I was talking about the midterm elections.”
For example, the three most GOP-leaning affiliations — white Catholics, white evangelicals and white Mainliners — are clumped together as the least concerned with climate change. And that doesn’t change between older and younger people, Jones said.
Researchers for years have been seeing more explicit partisan divisions in the faith world — where and how people worship, what they believe.
Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of Jewish Americans and approximately six in 10 Hispanic Catholics (61 percent) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (57 percent) are climate change “believers,” a term PRRI pollsters adopted.
Faith-based views on climate and climate change have been pretty steady since at least 2011, Jones said, adding that a lot of activism around the environment among younger evangelicals doesn’t seem to have made their views any different from those of older generations of evangelicals.
Laurie Zoloth, president of the academy, said she was concerned that so many Americans were skeptical about scientific research on climate change.
“While there is a growing consensus among scientists about the urgency of addressing climate change, this landmark survey shows that many in faith communities have not yet heard or understood that message,” she said.
Pollsters also created a “spiritual experiences index” made up of four enviro-spiritual benchmarks. More than half of Americans said they “feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe,” while 64 percent said they “feel a deep connection with nature and the Earth” every day or most days.
Generally, Protestants reported more spiritual experiences than Catholics, Jews and the unaffiliated. Forty percent of white and black evangelicals said they felt “a deep connection to nature and the earth” — much higher than most other faith groups.