Economists and environmentalists find it difficult to communicate. In their debates they often simply talk past one another, yet fail to understand the reasons why. Could the answer be that economics and environmentalism are actually two modern secular religions that represent fundamentally different worldviews? Perhaps any mutual discussions must begin at this level—not the specific policy disagreements that are in fact mere reflections of the underlying religious conflicts.

“Economic religion” and “environmental religion” both indeed claim a true and proper understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature, a subject of ancient and still immense religious significance. But they assert a scientific and, as they perceive it, a non-religious status, sometimes even a “valueneutral” status. In economic religion, the true source of sin in the world is the severe economic deprivation in which most human beings lived for almost all of human history. By eliminating scarcity, modern economic progress hopes to solve not only the material but also the spiritual problems of the human condition. Nature is seen as a “natural resource” to be used in the service of progress.

In environmental religion, such progress is regress. Human beings, for their own selfish reasons, are destroying the natural order. Humanity is playing God with the earth—thus tampering with God’s original creation. We will be punished severely for this transgression with environmental calamities of a biblical magnitude; the God of the Old Testament transposed to a new environmental rhetoric.

Beneath the surface of the technical language, economic religion and environmental religion are talking about a Judeo-Christian God; describing the character and thinking of this God; locating the original source of sin in the world; addressing God’s ethical commands; and prophesying a final outcome of history. But most of this is left implicit. For the many people skeptical of institutional Christian religion, but seeking greater religious meaning—a greater sense of the “spiritual” in their lives—a disguised “modern” form of religion is more attractive to them.

The past tensions within Christian theology are now newly mirrored in conflicts between economic and environmental religion. Economic religion encourages the enjoyment of the fruits of the earth. It takes a favorable attitude toward the pursuit of riches. A new priesthood of economic professionals, separate from the laity, holds in its hands the expert knowledge to save the world. Environmentalism, on the other hand, preaches a new skepticism with respect to the real benefits of modern economic progress and a new asceticism of human lifestyles. More economic growth is a greater temptation to sin. Environmental religion sees personal encounters with wild nature as the path to a greater connection to God, implicitly borrowing heavily from creationist messages.

Many people in the twentieth century thought that religion was in decline and might disappear entirely. This proved to be false by the end of the century. In order to understand our public controversies, much greater appreciation and study of the role of religion in public life will be necessary, including economic religion and environmental religion, the two leading secular faiths in the public square.