- The deepest religious conflicts in the American public arena todaythe New Holy Warsare crusades fought between two secular religions: economic religion and environmental religion. Each claims to be scientific, even value-neutral, yet they seldom state their underlying commitments explicitly, let alone subject them to scrutiny. Environmental religion views wilderness as sacred, seeks salvation through the minimization of humankinds impact on nature, and proselytizes using imagery meant to stir spiritual longings. In contrast, economic religion worships technological innovation, economic growth (as measured by GDP), and efficiency (as revealed by cost-benefit analysis) and is presided over by a priesthood of Ph.D. economists who communicate in a liturgical language unintelligible to the layperson.
- Although rarely acknowledged, environmental religion owes its moral activism, ascetic discipline, reverence for nature, and fallen view of man to the Protestant theology of John Calvin. A remarkable number of American environmental leaders, including John Muir, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Edward Abbey, and Dave Foreman, were raised in the Presbyterian church (the Scottish branch of Calvinism) or one of its offshoots. Earlier forerunners of modern environmentalism who were influenced by Calvinism include the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who offered a secular version of the fall of man from the original state of nature [in which] man lived happily in peace.
- Economists often rely on assumptions that are better categorized as theological than as scientific. Many economists assume that human welfare is a product of the consumption of goods and services alone and that the institutional arrangements that produce those goods and services can be ignored. Some economists assume that eradicating poverty will end crime and usher in a new era of morality. Also, economists typically assume that psychological stress caused by an economic transition to a more efficient allocation of resources is negligible and not worth factoring in. If [emotional burdens] were actually given full account, it would be impossible to say in principle whether a market system is economically efficient, writes Robert Nelson.
- The missionaries of environmental religion have managed to get some of their dogmas implemented in poor countries, often with devastating consequences for local populations. Under the banner of saving the African environment, they have promoted conservation objectives that have displaced and impoverished Africans. This catastrophe has occurred because environmental religion has misunderstood African wildlife management practices and problems.
- Economic religion exerted greater influence over public policy for most of the twentieth century, but in recent decades the clout of environmental religion has grown rapidly. In response, disciples of economic religion have attempted, rather apologetically, to bridge the divide. One such endeavor has been to try to measure the existence value that people attach to wilderness that is kept off limits from human encroachment, rather than conserved for future production and recreation, but this approach is untenable. Efforts to reconcile economic religion and environmental religion are doomed to fail so long as they uphold fundamentally opposing values.
Economics and environmentalism are types of modern religions. So writes Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson, author of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, an in-depth study of the origins and implications of the conflict between these two opposing belief systems.
If it makes a reader of this book more comfortable, he or she may think of it as an examination of the spiritual values of economics versus the spiritual values of environmentalism, writes Nelson in his introduction. For me, though, it is a distinction without a difference.
In The New Holy Wars, Nelson probes beneath the rhetorical surface of economic and environmental religion to reveal their clashing fundamental commitments and visions. By interpreting their conflict as theological, Nelson is able to show why these creeds almost invariably talk past each other and why their conflict is likely to continue to dominate public discourse until one party or the other backs downor unless an alternative outlook rises to challenge their influence in the public arena.
In addition, by exploring little-known corners of American intellectual history, Nelson shows how environmentalism and economics have adapted Judeo-Christian precepts in ways that make them more palatable in an age of secularism. In many cases, Nelson is able to demonstrate a direct lineage from traditional religious beliefs to tenets held by mainstream economists and environmentalists.
The New Holy Wars will fascinateand challengereaders interested in environmentalism, economics, public policy, religion, philosophy, and the role of fundamental ideas in shaping American life.
The False God of Economic Salvation
Part I explores the basic tenets of economic religion, highlighting its areas of disagreement with environmental religion. Economics, although it claims to be value-free, relies on value-laden assumptions that are seldom stated openly and rarely examined. These tenets are shared by competing economic religions across the spectrum, from Marxism to the Progressive economists gospel of efficiency to the neoclassical mainstream of today. Chapter 1 briefly reviews the underlying theological logic of economic religion and its large influence on government policy over the course of the twentieth century. Chapter 2 shows how economic religion has interpreted the rise of Islamic terrorism and contrasts this view with a biblical interpretation that attributes the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to the sins of America.
Some economists have taken to heart criticisms levied against their profession by disciples of environmental religion, and they have proposed new concepts and methods of analysis designed to incorporate environmental values within the framework of economics. Chapter 3 argues that efforts to extend the domain of economic rationality to encompass environmental religionvia the concept of existence valuehave been theologically confused and practically unsuccessful. Chapter 4 examines how some economists have attempted to replace traditional economic judgments based on efficiency with new ethical standards of sustainabilityand the large difficulties that they encountered. Chapter 5 shows how the all-out pursuit of economic progress in the twentieth century all too often ignored various types of social and environmental consequences, resulting in wide abuses in the name of a secular religion.
Part II examines the seldom-acknowledged Calvinist roots of American environmental religion. Chapter 6 shows how environmentalism revived the old Calvinist doctrine of a fundamental corruption of human nature since mans fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. In the secular version held by environmental religion, humankind since the advent of organized agriculture has been a malignant presence in the world (the cancer of the earth, in the words of Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman). Paradoxically, environmental religion views human beings as a product of nature, but views activities that come naturally to our species as unnatural.
Chapter 7 traces the religious significance of the natural world in Calvinist thought, beginning with the central role of the Book of Nature in John Calvins theology. Calvins message was elaborated by the influential theologian Jonathan Edwards and other Massachusetts Calvinists; it was prominently secularized for the first time in the United States in New England transcendentalism; John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, wrote about going to nature to find God; and in the 1980s deep ecology reflected a powerfully renewed Calvinist outlook on the world.
The environmental movement has increasingly employed the language of protecting the creation. This term is not meant merely as a powerful metaphor, as Part III shows. Environmentalists experience a sense of religious reverence and awe in the presence of nature untouched by human hand, which is a modern equivalent of devout Christians in previous centuries encountering the Book of Nature as written by God at the creation.
Although biblical notions of the creation underlie many core doctrines of environmental religion, any explicit ties to Christian creationism are typically rejected. Chapter 8 explores how tensions such as this one have been prominent historically in the thinking of leading ecologists Frederic Clements, Aldo Leopold, Eugene Odum, and others, and how the science of ecology itself tells an implicit creation story. Chapter 9 examines the attempts of some environmentalists to reconcile the outwardly secular character of environmental creationism with its actual underlying Christian creationist contents.
Chapter 10 analyzes the large theological problems that arise in seeking to restore wild naturethat is, to re-create the creation. And Chapter 11 shows how the thinking of environmental creationism in some cases has led to ill-conceived and unjust environmental policies, as when many black Africans were evicted from their native lands in the twentieth century to protect the creation, as it was said to have existed until recent times in African national parks and other so-called wild areas.
Environmentalism and Libertarianism
The roots of libertarian thought date back at least to Adam Smith and John Locke, whose writings reflected the strong influence of Calvinism in Scotland and England. Thus, there is an economic Calvinism to match the environmental Calvinism of Part II, although it has played only a small role within the American economics profession and had a limited impact on American government policies in the twentieth century. However, the influence of a broadly Calvinist outlook in economics may grow in the twenty-first century, partly as a result of the waning faith in standard economic religion.
Part IV examines the possibility of an emerging religious synthesis that would incorporate elements of both environmental and economic Calvinisma new libertarian environmentalism, as it might be called. Chapter 12 describes the Calvinist economic religion of Frank Knight, so different from that of most of his contemporaries. Chapter 13 sketches briefly a possible design for blending the thinking of economic libertarians such as Knight with the views of many environmental Calvinists.
Nelson compellingly argues that religion is a powerful force in economic and social life, . . . even if that fact is seldom recognized by most academics and policy makers. The dominant religious influences are secularized versions of Catholicism and Protestantism, not because the leading scholars are piously trying to advance their faith by other means, but because their intellectual horizons have been shaped by worldviews that have framed their consciousness. He convinces me that unless these presuppositions are acknowledged, examined, broadened, and revised, the economic and ecological crises that the world now faces will not be understood or met at their deeper levels.
Max L. Stackhouse, Rimmer and Ruth de Vries Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life, Princeton Theological Seminary
A completely different framework for thinking about ways in which both politics and theology have affected thinking about climate change is found in The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America by Robert H. Nelson. Nelson, an economist who worked in the Department of the Interior for 18 years and now teaches environmental policy at the University of Maryland, offers a provocative analysis of environmentalism and economics as two competing forms of secular religion in America.
Robert Nelson argues that environmentalism is a religion. . . . This provocative thesis raises hard and embarrassing questions about the bases of environmentalism that every serious student of the subject must confront.
Dan Tarlock, Director of the Program in Environmental and Energy Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law
Robert H. Nelsons new book is engaging, provocative, and occasionally vexing. The basic message is that economics and environmentalism have emerged as oppositional secular religions in modern-day Americasecular religions that owe a deep debt to, and now compete with, a set of American Christian traditions. Throughout the book, Nelson works to uncover and articulate underlying religious (read Christian) themes in American economic and environmental systems of thought. He does this on the assumption that greater intellectual coherence and maturity of policy will result from a deeper understanding of these secular religions largely Christian roots. Rich historical analysis is offered in support of this notion. . . . The struggle between economic and environmental religions will surely continue, but whether such a battle can be meaningfully resolved only by assigning ultimate authority to God is a question that remains open in The New Holy Wars.
Perspectives on Politics
Anyone who wants to understand twenty-first century politics should begin with The New Holy Wars, which makes clear the fundamental conflict between how economists and environmentalists see the world.
Andrew P. Morriss, H. Ross and Helen Workman Professor of Law and Business, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Robert H. Nelson, one of the worlds leading natural resource economists, long has argued that the ideologies in economics are secularizations of traditional religion and that this concealment is ill advised. . . . He now also brands environmentalism as a secular religion whose roots need examination. This book postulates a war between that religion and the economic religion that he previously criticized. For decades claims of scientific objectivity in policy advice have been easy targets for charges of a pretense of knowledge. Critics noted the obvious implicit value judgments and the hopeless incoherence of the concepts of scientific and objective. Substantial obstacles plague efforts to go further, and all efforts with which I am familiar are noble failures at best. Environmentalism is an even easier target. Many excellent refutations exist. Thus, Nelson has the challenge of adding something new. Nelson, in fact, provides a solid and unfamiliar argument. At best, environmentalists stress preserving natural conditions while ignoring billions of years of regular change in nature. At worst, they argue that the rise of homo sapiens is uniquely unnatural. . . . His religious approach very nicely skewers the intellectual incoherence of environmentalism. Its basic flaws are false claims. Humanity becomes an illegitimate species, and the environmentalists ignore billions of years of massive natural changes in the environment. Nelson is warning environmentalists that they must come to grips with the reality of scarcity. . . . The New Holy Wars combines devastating criticism of environmentalism.
Significant University Press Title for Undergraduates.
The provocative premise of Robert Nelsons The New Holy Wars is that the most important American religions today are not any of the world religions (nor the fundamentalist strands that populate the headlines), but actually two forms of secular religion that have emerged out of the Judeo-Christian traditions of Western civilization. First, economic religion, which Nelson argues is responsible for the modern centralized regulatory and welfare state, promotes a narrative that human beings can produce an ideal world, or heaven on earth, by ending material poverty through productivity, efficiency, and scientific management. Second, environmental religion proclaims that [W]e once had an ideal world, or Eden, which was destroyed by progress, economic growth, and industry, and ... we must repent and return, to Eden. Environmental religion is in part a reaction against the perceived excesses and dominance of economic religion, and its influence is growing in the 21st century. And, Nelson argues, the conflict between these secular theologies is not only the foundation of our modern social debate, but will continue to have deep implications for how we order our societys relationship with nature. . . . This ambitious book was awarded the Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize and a Silver Medal from the Annual Independent Publisher Medal from the Annual Independent Publisher study, both for its rich treatment of the development of these so-called secular religions as well as for the implications the holy wars of economic religion and environmental religion have for contemporary policy debates. In tracing the development of the secular religions of economics and environmentalism, Nelson invites their adherents, as well as adherents of non-secular religions, to explore the theological roots of these seemingly secular frameworks and to identify common ground between them. In a time of deep disagreement about environmental issues, such as climate change and regulation of the oil industry, and a time of religious divisiveness, Nelsons work is a timely invitation both to understand the roots of the struggle between environmentalists and economists, and to think more deeply about the relationship between society and nature that we envision.
The Review of Faith and International Affairs
Nelson makes an overwhelmingly persuasive case that in our times the leading secular religion was once economics and is now environmentalism. . . . Out of that utterly original idea for scholarly crossoversgood Lord, an economist reading environmentalism and even economics itself as theology!come scores of true and striking conclusions. . . . Its a brilliant book, which anyone who cares about the economy or the environment or religion needs to read. Thats most of us.
Deirdre McCloskey, Distinguished Professor of Economics, History, English, and Communication, University of Illinois at Chicago
The New Holy Wars is not so much a disquisition on the clash of religions as those have traditionally been identified, e.g., Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, Judaism or Islam, but on the clash of the new, secular religions: . . . the new holy wars are today being fought outfortunately mostly with wordsby two clashing secular religions grounded in the messages of economics and environmentalism. . . . The central contentions of The New Holy Wars are largely convincing. Its central thesis is incontrovertible. It should be required reading for orthodox religious believers so that they may know where the real challenges to their faiths lie. If such believers wanted to practice one of the spiritual works of mercy (counseling the ignorant) they could get copies of this book into the hands of those of their friends and neighbors who, perhaps unthinkingly, are adherents of the new religions.
Journal of Faith and the Academy
In his most recent work, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion, this non-theologian proves capable of out-theologizing many theologians. Nelsons earlier volumes and articles position him as one paying sustained attention to key questions being ignored by many others. Apart from the gospel of prosperity and discredited liberation theology, how many meaningfully connect theology and economics? How many believers credibly use the term God to understand the social, political, and economicand not merely personaldimensions of their lives? Nelson convincingly argues that economics and environmentalism are two new secular religions that require theological understanding. The novelty of Nelsons approach, however, is not so much in the identification of these approaches as secular religions, but in his analysis of their conflicting values and articulation of their internal inconsistencies. . . . This book raises important questions that theologians, ethicists, and pastors should engage. Nelson defines economics and environmentalism as secular religions because they offer comprehensive worldviews and myths that provide humans beings with the deepest sense of meaning. Insofar as that is true, Christian pastors and theologians have their work cut out for them. One strategy might be to follow Nelsons analysis, and then offer theological rejoinder. . . . Nelson is required reading for theologians and pastors today. To engage issues he raises, they will need allot more time to reading sociology, economics, and theology and less time for psychology and spirituality. That might be thought of as the opportunity cost of doing Gods business in the early twenty-first century.
Economists of the twentieth century looked upon the depravity surrounding them and pinpointed the source of this sin: material shortages. By promoting the development of financially profitable natural resources, progressive economists believed this sin could be erased. A century later, however, this economic religion is suffering and as Robert Nelsons The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion argues, it may well be on its way out. . . . Nelsons new book offers a fascinating interpretation of this dilemma. By examining the fundamental tenets of both economics and environmentalism The New Holy Wars provides a fresh perspective on one of the most debated issues of our time. The New Holy Wars proposes that at their cores, both environmentalism and Western economic theory are informed by Judeo-Christian beliefs. However, the theological underpinnings of these disciplines have been remapped to form secular versions of Christianity. Taking this a step further, Nelson argues that the clash of these two competing secular religions represents the most important religious controversy in America today. It is a startling proposition for which Nelson presents a convincing case. By framing the environmental debate in spiritual terms he makes sense of the intensity with which both sides promote their worldviews. At the same time The New Holy Wars digs beyond the rhetoric to unearth those presuppositions which are essential to understanding both sides of the debate. Perhaps most intriguing is Nelsons treatment of environmentalism. Nelson argues what few practitioners are willing to admitthe environmentalist worldview is very much a religious one. . . . While The New Holy Wars does not offer a solution to the economic-environmental debate, it does provide significant insight into the issue. Nelsons stimulating case for the role religion plays in the economic and environmental philosophies dominating current public policy is bound to challenge his readers. Those seeking to equip themselves for todays challenges should pay heed to Robert Nelsons work.
Family Research Council Blog
In his excellent book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, Professor Robert H. Nelson likens the contemporary struggle between those two secular religions to John Calvins struggle against the establishment of Catholicism 500 years ago. Nelsons book concludes: It is time to take secular religion seriously. It is real religion. In the twentieth century, it showed greater energy, won more converts, and had more impact on the western world than the traditional institutional forms of Christianity.
Thomas P. Sheahen, former Senior Scientist, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy
Robert H. Nelsons book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, . . . aims to deconstruct modern economics and the environmental movement, purporting to reveal them as literal religions. . . . Robert Nelson has a relatively easy time of it pointing to the Calvinist roots of John Muir. David Brower, and other early environmentalists, highlighting the awe and inspiration they found in nature while jettisoning their Protestant, i.e., Calvinist or Presbyterian backgrounds. The same is true for the lapsed Baptist E. O. Wilson. Nelson quotes the contemporary environmental advocate on climate change, Bill McKibben, who has written that many people, including me, have overcome it [crisis in belief] to a greater or lesser degree by locating God in nature. . . . Nelson links economics and religion, going back to the social gospel movement and its transformation into Progressivism, with its emphasis on scientific management, centralized government concentrated in Washington, and the control of nature.
The Environmental Forum
It would be a mistake to view The New Holy Wars as about the narrower topic of religion and the environment. Nelson has much to say about important belief systems of contemporary society and research agendas of the social sciences. In his view, economics and environmentalism are competing faiths, constituted from modern secular assumptions. . . . Three novel contributions come from Nelsons analysis. First, the argument about economics as fundamentally religious provides details about its implicit assumptions and policing actions and perspectives on its exalted status and claims of rigour. . . . Second, Nelson draws on the American notion of the separation of religion and government to argue for a form of progressive libertarianism as the only legal status for government intervention in economic policy. The third contribution is the many examples of public policy built on the faith assumptions of either economics or environmentalism. . . . Nelson believes that the social sciences have been dismissive toward religion, which he depicts as the disdain of one faith as expressed toward a religious competitor.
Robert Nelson argues that environmentalism and economics represent competing religious worldviews. Within this framework, debates over issues like global warming and acid rain become veiled theological disputes between these two secular religions. Nelson paints with a broad, aggressive brush. This is both the strength and weakness of his book, as he conjures a world of epic battles between the economic faithful, who worship material progress, and the environmentally pious, who bemoan the corruption visited by humans upon the natural world. In each case, Nelson finds deeper historical and theological roots for current debates. . . . Nelson means to be provocative, and he succeeds. . . . Nelson teaches at a school of public policy, where students will learn much about economic analysis and organizational studies, but little about history and religion. If my own classroom is any measure, Nelson has interesting and provocative things to say to such students and to the broader public. And while professional historians may disagree with his analysis, we all need to think more about the metaphysical and religious foundations of ideas that seem, on their surface, merely technical.
Technology and Culture
Forget the Culture Wars and the assault of Christianity. The real conflict in America is thoroughly secularbetween environmental and economic religionsor so says Robert Nelson. He makes the argument. Long known to conservatives, that religion never really goes away. Modern secular religions, like these two, borrow from the Christian tradition. As such, they inherit the same theological language and ideas. Most importantly, they inherit age-old theological debates and animosities. . . . But the greatest similarity between these two secular religions is that both distort the traditional Christian idea of sacramentality, which sees the divine in all thingseven the most ordinary.
Nelson argues that, even if they are not aware of it, economic growth and environmental protection advocates in America both approach their advocacy positions with religious convictions drawn from the influences of Judeo-Christian history and thought in the United States. . . . Nelson points out that both groups also tend to believe that one of the main barriers to achieving ideal economic or environmental states-of-the-world are people who just will not do the right thing because of their flawed characters (e.g., they just dont appreciate the environment enough or they just dont care enough about providing good jobs for everyone). . . . The structure, organization, and style of the book are very clear and readable. . . . This book is a good read for economists of all backgrounds and persuasions, including Christian economists, for several reasons. First, the overall theme and theses of the book provide stimulating food for thought and insights into the possible ethical and philosophical drivers underlying the economic growth and environmental protection advocacy positions, movements, and policies in contemporary America. . . . Reading his book will provide everyone with very useful information and background on the history and development of both the progressive economic growth and well-being movement and the environmental protection and quality movement. . . . To the extent that religious or philosophical conflicts or wars exist between people in these two movements, I believe reading the book may help both economists and environmentalists (including and perhaps especially those of the Christian faith) to better understand each other and perhaps reach common ground and complementary solutions to our pressing economic and environmental problems. . . . In his final chapter, Nelson also provides a discussion of challenges posed by various secular religions and some personal reflections on this topic which Christian economists and others should find interesting.
Faith and Economics
It is well know that churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious organizations play a central role in the U.S. religious landscape. It is no surprise, then, that these institutionalized forms of religion also dominate the social scientific study of religion. More recently, however, scholars have been paying more attention to the noninstitutionalized shape of contemporary religion. Interesting questions begin to arise when we step outside of these institutional locales where we might not otherwise expect. In The New Holy Wars, Robert Nelson ventures on such a quest, and explores modern economics and the modern environmental movement as two competing modern religions, each of which, he argues, is a reembodied form of Christianity. Nelson, a trained economist and long-time analyst for the Department of the Interior, is particularly well suited to explore the ideological, or religious, underpinnings of economics and environmentalism. Drawing from this experience, Nelson produces a book that is highly readable, well-researched, and for the most part, able to cash in on its provocative premise. . . . This book should be of interest to a wide variety of audiences, not only to scholars of religion, but also to economists, environmentalists, and the general public interested in religion. It is highly readable and touches on many relevant and controversial issues in contemporary society, and concludes (most likely to the chagrin of economists and environmentalists) that these are religions like any other. For the scholars of religion, it reminds us to reconsider the social movements of our time, and to devote more energy to uncovering and considering the implicit assumptions buried beneath these movements, many of which are not secular at all, but are saturated with adapted versions of traditional religious beliefs and practices.
Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion
In The New Holy Wars, former civil servant and current professor of public policy Robert H. Nelson argues that the main conflict in contemporary U.S. political life is between economic and environmental forms of secular religion, each with their own brand of theology rooted in the Western Christian heritage. . . . if Nelsons central thesis about the theologies inherent in U.S. socio-political life is well founded, then the problem here is particularly pointed, especially if those who might be said to belong to economic religion and environmental religion, more often than not, fail to recognize the dogmatic nature of their respective secular religious beliefs. For Nelson, this phenomenon is compounded by the manner in which many social scientists and environmentalists are avowedly anti-religious and thus predisposed not to recognize the theological quality to their beliefs.
Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture