Paul MacRae
First appeared in the Victoria Times Colonist, January 7, 2000

Here’s why I agree with University of Victoria Prof. Jeffrey Foss that environmentalism is a religion, based as much in faith as in science, and have believed this for quite some time:

In the mid-1970s, living and working in Thailand, I heard the occasional story about Christian missionaries in the previous century trying to convert the Thais from Buddhism to the Western faith.

The missionaries rarely succeeded — those who did convert were humourously called “Chrit-satangs” (a satang being a small Thai coin) because they often joined to get food and other aid from the missions — and King Mongkut IV (he of Anna and the King) is supposed to have remarked that “What you Christians do is very good, but what you believe is foolish.”

Missionizing was still in full swing by the time I arrived in Thailand in 1975, but the missionaries were preaching a different religion — modernization.

The new missionaries were bureaucrats with the United Nations and World Bank, and Western and Japanese businesses bringing the Industrial Revolution to Thailand.

But — and here is the point I want to make — they did not consider themselves missionaries. They did not think they were propagating any kind of “religion” — they believed so totally in what they were doing that it never occurred to them any other truth was possible. Modernization was Reality, not a set of beliefs.

And I realized, in a flash of insight, that the Christian missionaries of the 19th century were no different.

They didn’t think they were bringing a bunch of “beliefs” to the Thais — for them, Christianity was Reality, Christ was Reality, heaven and hell were Reality, the soul was Reality. Their Christian beliefs were as real to them as gravity to a physicist, or molecules to a chemist, or the benefits of industrialization to the World Bankers.

Religion isn’t just a ‘belief’, it’s how we see the world

I also realized that the religion we truly believe in isn’t what we say we believe in; our true religion is how we see the world (which isn’t necessarily how the world actually is). And, if we are strongly attached to that view, we refuse to accept that any other way of seeing the world might be just as valid.

Like the Christian missionaries, like the modernizers, most environmentalists I’ve met have no doubt their vision of a deteriorating environment that must be saved at all costs is Reality. They also believe that vision is based in science.

But is it? Many in the environmental movement fear genetically modified foods, for example. But where’s the scientific evidence they do harm? Where are the reports — you’d expect to find them on the Internet, if nowhere else — of people growing sick or dying from eating GM foods? Personally, if I can’t get organically grown fruit, I’d rather eat an apple with a gene that resists pests in it than an apple that’s had pesticides sprayed on it.

A while ago we ran an editorial supporting environmentalists who called for an accurate census of grizzlies in B.C. In reply, we got letters from the provincial environment minister and one other writer noting that the province is already spending millions keeping track of grizzlies, thanks, and that they were convinced grizzlies were in no danger if 200 or 300 a year were hunted.

Environmentalists reject scientific data

The environmentalists refuse to accept this data, of course — they believe the province is essentially involved in a conspiracy to protect grizzly sport hunting, and that its scientists are part of this conspiracy.

You know what? I believe the province’s science on this one. I can’t imagine any sane politician, especially in B.C., being so stupid that he or she would take the risk of exterminating grizzly bears here just to make the hunting industry a million dollars a year. And, once we’ve established that scientists will sell their souls, why should the environmentalist scientists be any more credible than those working for the province?

Don’t get me wrong: I think religion is a good thing, and I think what environmentalists are doing is very valuable.

But I also believe the environmental movement tends to present fears about things like GM foods and salmon farming and logging and global warming and grizzly bear extinctions as if they were iron-clad scientific facts, not theories. Yet in every case, there are other views about these issues in the scientific community that may be just as valid.

It’s the assumption environmentalism is beyond criticism that, in my opinion, marks it more as a religion — strongly held beliefs and values — than the objective science its followers believe it to be.

I will probably get a slew of letters angrily denouncing me for holding this view — as a “heretic” I obviously don’t see the world properly.

But a few centuries ago, in a less enlightened time, I would have been tortured for my beliefs and, if I didn’t recant, burned alive. So we are making progress.