New Book Finds Religious Core to Economics, Environmentalism: News Releases: The Independent Institute

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News Release
January 11, 2010

New Book Finds Religious Core to Economics, Environmentalism

OAKLAND, Calif., Jan. 11, 2010—“Climategate” shocked the world as it became clear that many leading climate change scientists were willing to compromise their academic integrity for the sake of the environmental cause. Their zeal to save the world—as they saw it—was greater than their commitment to scientific truth.

In an unprecedented, in-depth study of the two dominant civil religions of our time, Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert H. Nelson’s new book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America (January 15, 2010 / Pennsylvania State University Press with the Independent Institute) provides a timely analysis of the problems that arise when secular gospels pose as hard science.

Nelson, a Professor of Environmental Policy at the University of Maryland, argues that both economics and environmentalism are not true sciences, but at their core are civil—or secular—religions with many of the features of traditional faiths: commandments, sects, dogmas, priesthoods, heretics, and messages of salvation. It’s not hard to detect the theological overtones present when environmentalists proselytize the spiritual benefits of experiencing nature; nor is it difficult to see when economists preach a credo of ever-expanding material outputs solving the problems of the human condition.

“Economics will save the world. This is the core message of economic religion,” explains Nelson, and it pervades nearly every aspect of politics, especially in the international arena where it is widely accepted that poverty is a breeding ground for terrorism. Those who maintain “faith in the tenets of economic religion” believe that, with the elimination of poverty through the application of economic methods, terrorist activity will eventually cease to exist. Nelson makes it clear that economics is not as value-neutral as many would claim. As another example of the importance of secular religion, he points out that “the Iraq war has been fought as a missionary crusade to spread ‘American religion’ across the globe.”

He also argues that such false secular religions proved “a centralizing influence that spawned many of the worst abuses both of wild nature and of individual liberty in the twentieth century.” The most extreme cases were Marxism in the former Soviet Union and National Socialism in Germany. In America, laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the wetlands provisions of the Clean Water Act have undermined private property rights under the banner of saving the natural world. At the same time, American economic religions have promoted dams and other wasteful government projects in the name of progress, thereby decimating entire ecosystems. These modern-day “gospels” have encouraged a religious zeal among their followers that has too often blinded them to the negative consequences of their beliefs.

The twentieth century saw the rise of secular religions to positions of overwhelming influence in determining government policies in the public arena. However, both economic religion and environmental religion today face a growing challenge, partly owing to their own internal contradictions, and also to the spreading participation of Christian and other traditional religious groups in public debate.

The New Holy Wars effectively strips away the scientific pretensions of both economics and environmentalism, revealing their underlying core religious foundations. Robert Nelson’s analysis of these two secular religions and their impact on individual liberty and the natural world, as well as his concluding description of what a peaceful synthesis of these warring religions might look like, comes at a crucial turning point in the struggle to reconcile the competing demands of economic progress and the protection of the natural environment.

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