The New Fundamentalism

In religion, fundamentalism would normally be interpreted as a belief that the doctrines espoused in the founding scriptures are literally true.

As an extreme example, the fundamentalist Christian, Irish Bishop, James Ussher, relying on biblical genealogy, calculated that the earth had been created by God circa 4004 BC. Geologists, using more objective assessments, proved he was wrong by billions of years.

But you might ask, despite such logical disputations  why religion is so pervasive throughout the peoples of the world?

Virtually every civilisation in recorded history (up until the last century or so) was underpinned by religious beliefs. Religion seems to meet some innate human needs. The three most important needs which religion addresses seem to me to be:


  1. Putting a sense of meaning and purpose into our lives. (Meeting our spiritual needs.)


We need to believe that somehow we make a difference and that our lives are not pointless. For many, striving to meet the moral requirements of our particular God or gods seems to help in that regard.

  1. Confronting the overwhelming forces of Nature.


Our prehistoric ancestors and indeed ourselves, bewail our inability to counter the forces of nature – storms, floods, cyclones, droughts etc. Most probably this was one of the original driving forces for religion – to help Mankind feel it could have some influence on or perhaps even an explanation for these catastrophic events. This is certainly a driving force for fundamentalist environmentism.


[Humans in the face of the might of Nature seek ways to appease Nature. Robert Wright tells of the people of the Haida, a people indigenous to the north-west coast of North America. It is said that when caught in a storm whilst out at sea they would try to appease the gods of Nature by pouring a cup of fresh water into the sea or putting deer tallow on the end of a paddle. As he points out the myth is reinforced by the fact that those who return safely will extol the virtues of their efforts to appease the gods. We of course never hear from those who tried the procedure or indeed another method of appeasement but perished!]

  1. Providing hope for a future of some sort after death. (Countering the existential angst.)

This is a potent human driver.

The pyramids attest to that fact!

Of course some religions didn’t need gods. Taoism, Vedanta and Buddhism were all very influential despite the fact that they did not promote a particular deity. But these religions were often practised by people who retained some belief in the traditional animistic gods of their particular history.

Communist states have also survived for reasonable periods without any support for organised religion. But even in these states religions continued to thrive underground. One might even argue that for many, communism itself became a pseudo-religion.

So God or gods have been instrumental in meeting some basic human needs. In the beginning, before the evolution of large scale cities most people lived in tribal groups of perhaps no more than forty or fifty people.

The Gods of these people (just like Yahweh of the Old Testament) were seen as glorified chieftains with very human characteristics. They displayed such human emotions as jealousy and hate and even adopt very human habits.(In Yahweh’s case, he was pictured as walking in the evenings in the garden with Adam.)

The intense social pressures of such small, tight-knit communities would have made it extremely difficult for individuals to stray from the accepted, conventional wisdom of their tribe. Such pressures, not generally as intense, still exist in today’s societies. Most believers adopt their particular religion and their particular god because of their fear of death and in assuaging that concern they select a religion based on their need to belong and not from a reasoned assessment of available belief systems. Our social and emotional needs will often trump our rationality.

In the modern world our concept of a god (if we need one) must surely be more sophisticated than the one that evolved in our tribal history. As we have become more aware of the nature of our world, for example, there is no longer a need to have a thunder god, or a storm god.

But let me challenge you with the statement that our spiritual needs will never be satisfied by the application of rationality and science. The pervasiveness of materialism, supported by the success if science would have us believe that the human mind has the capacity to understand the world without recourse to spirituality.

It is often argued that we need religion only because of our ignorance. Since the beginning of time people have stood in awe at Nature’s majesty and resorted to supernatural devices to explain its overwhelming power. All manner of gods arose to explain natural phenomena that were beyond the comprehension of the ancients.

As human understanding progressed and our understanding of the physical sciences evolved many of those mysteries disappeared. Scientists slavishly adhering to their rational materialism, disparagingly referred to the “God of the gaps” implying that any concept of God was only underpinned by our ignorance and the inexorable progress of science would render the concept of God redundant.

But this argument can easily be refuted by two facts:

  1. The scientific explanation of crucial phenomena, (like the explanation of the birth of the universe via the “Big Bang” theory) requires just as much reliance on faith as any religion.
  2. The assumption that an understanding of the world can be arrived at solely by study and analysis of the material world is demonstrably in error.

(For a brilliant expose´ of my first point see Cosmology on Trial by Pierre St Clair.)

Religious historian, Karen Armstrong believes that in order to understand the world we need not only to embrace Logos (logic and reason) but also to embrace Mythos (the wisdom that arises from parables, intuition and mysticism).

Traditional religious institutions are on the wane in most Western countries. As a result, some citizens are replacing traditional belief systems with new ones that help meet some of these basic needs.

For some decades now one of those belief systems has been environmentalism. In its most virulent form, environmentalism has morphed into a movement dedicated to preventing, or at least slowing, climate change.

The fundamental tenets on which this movement relies are:

  • Climate change is largely caused by human induced gaseous emissions into the earth’s atmosphere.
  • Unless such emissions are curtailed, global warming will within decades render much of the earth unsuitable for human habitation.
  • This impending catastrophe is so threatening and so imminent that it must be countered at whatever cost.

Some might baulk at this protesting that such fundamentalism should not be equated to religious fundamentalism. Yet the climate catastrophists display all the zeal and unfounded certainty of evangelical Christians.

But you might argue these fervent believers are not promoting a God or gods as most religions do. However, as mentioned above, there are religions that exist without the need for gods as well.

Or indeed you might cogently argue that underpinning the faith of environmentalism is a belief in a god. That god is the Greek goddess of the earth, Gaia, popularised in the Gaia Hypothesis by one of the founding environmental scientists, James Lovelock.

And just like other religions, these worshippers of Gaia have their religious rituals like gluing themselves to roadways thus impeding ordinary law abiding folk from going about their daily business. Or they chain themselves to elevated structures at bulk coal terminals to prevent people in third world countries having access to heating and electricity. 

What’s more this religion has regular Synods to refine and propagate its doctrine. These Synods are called COPs (Conferences of the Parties) and are guided by high priests from the United Nations. (The most recent was COP 26 hosted by the UK in Glasgow where Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison abandoned his purported conservative beliefs and pledged Australia to strive for net zero emissions by 2050.)

And like fundamentalist Christianity this religion relies on prophecies of catastrophism to convince its adherents to see the error of their ways and to repent. As an example the chief High Priest at the United Nations recently warned that if the fundamentalist doctrine is not followed we would all be “boiling” within a decade or two echoing the ancient fundamentalist threat of eternal damnation by hellfire..

As I write this essay I have cause to reminisce about how it all began. Being present at the beginning of a new religion must certainly be a privilege or if not at least a time of transcendent enlightenment!

To put things in perspective, we should give some thought to what environmentalism actually entails and explore some thoughts about the origins of the movement.

.Perhaps I might be allowed to share with you some of my own experiences as I try to answer that question, even though it will probably cause me a little embarrassment.

To begin with it seems essentially true that most people are more idealistic when they are young and I was no exception. When I left school and went to university my idealistic inclinations were certainly reinforced. (Of course I wasn’t in the same league as Greta Thunberg!)

I vividly remember at university going to a lecture by one of Australia’s greatest poets, Judith Wright, She railed against the Queensland government because they were providing farmers incentives to clear more land. What’s more she claimed that dairy farmers were clearing remnant rainforest on the Atherton Tablelands on slopes so steep that the cattle could not possibly graze. That seemed such a travesty to me.

And of course we well-meaning idealists were influenced by the books of the day.

Perhaps the most influential book in establishing environmentalism was Rachel Carson’s  The Silent Spring. This book showed the unintended consequences of the use of pesticides.

And then there was Paul Erich’s signature piece, The Population Bomb, where he warned that human fecundity would result in Malthusian consequences.

In 1972 , the Club of Rome Report, The Limits to Growth was published. Its computer simulations suggested that economic growth could not continue indefinitely because of resource depletion. It forecast that many of the resources that modern industrial economies relied on would be exhausted about now. (Does this sound familiar? Right from the very beginning the fundamentalists of this misguided sect have been trying to alarm us with the false projections of dubious computer modelling. But more about this later.)

Meanwhile, in my youthful idealistic naiveté, I had progressed my career. I had initially been employed in the Electricity Industry as an Electrical Engineer. But I escaped from engineering into management quite early. At the ripe old age of twenty six, guided by my environmental idealism, in the early 1970’s I took up a position as the manager of a hydroelectric power station. My reasoning was that electricity was essential and we could no longer do without it, but if I was to be part of the electricity generating effort I could at least contribute in a relatively environmentally friendly way.

Following my idealistic environmental ideals I became a member of the Queensland Littoral Society. (The Society is now extinct having been subsumed by the Australian Marine Conservation Authority.)

As a result I added my voice to protest against the dredging on Ross River in Townsville to establish a marina.  This dredging removed a very large yabby bank from the estuary that many recreational fishers used to get their fishing bait to provide moorings for large boats owned by wealthy people. This issue piqued both my environmental ideals as well as my sense of social justice!

As my career progressed, I continued to support environmental protection where it made sense. As a result the enterprises I ran received many environmental awards recognising our contribution to the environmental cause.

But in the meanwhile I had indulged myself by getting a degree in what the Scottish Philosopher and essayist, Thomas Carlyle called “the dismal science”, viz Economics. As a result I began to pay more attention to the efficacy of spending, and particularly government spending.

My light bulb moment came when I went to South Korea to negotiate a power agreement with one of our biggest customers. During these negotiations, at a break, my counter party asked me, “I notice your organisation has shifted its generation focus to renewable energy. Can you explain why you are doing that?”

I replied that we had decided that our business strategy was to pursue renewable energy projects because of the threat of global warming.

I was taken aback by his response. He said, “Western countries are championing renewable energy to prevent third world countries from attaining the same standard of living as you have,” And contemplating his remarks later it seemed to me that climate policy did indeed have great impacts on the wealth distribution around the world. And it seemed true that developing countries would be the losers if we prevented them from improving their energy supplies by resorting to international restrictions on the use of fossil fuels.

But over time the zealous supporters of climate change had begun to turn their climate ideology into somyhing approaching a secular religion.

 In the short history I have outlined, Yahweh, the God of the Israelites began to morph into a God of all nations. And accordingly the salvation promised to believers went from the physical preservation of the state of Israel to the spiritual preservation of the souls of believers.

And so I now imagine whether the pseudo-religion of environmentalism might also be reformed to be more encompassing, to embrace an understanding that global warming is not the only issue that the world has to contend with.

The fundamentalist believers of Christianity have often concerned themselves with the prospect of Armageddon or the second coming of Christ, but these prophecies have failed to eventuate. The catastrophic prophecies of the fundamentalist environmentalists have so far not eventuated either.

But most religions are not static. We believe that they are founded on the core beliefs of their founders, but in fact they are moulded in the longer term by the beliefs of their followers. We should be pleased that most modern believers in Christianity have a more inclusive viewpoint and have now largely concluded that every human being is deserving of our love.

My fervent hope is that sooner or later the stridency of the fundamentalist environmentalists will be moderated just as the rigid xenophobic beliefs of the original Christians were.

In my mind the problem with fundamentalists is that they become obsessed with one issue.

Fundamentalist Christians believe that all the problems of the world would be solved if we just acknowledged that Jesus was the son of God who came to absolve of us of all our sins.

Fundamentalist environmentalists believe that preventing or ameliorating climate change is of such importance that we should focus on nothing else. They would have us believe that we should pursue this end to the exclusion of everything else. As a consequence it seems to matter not at all that we should commit our governments to spending whatever it takes to thwart global warming. And of course we know that Australia’s efforts in this regard will have little impact on the global impact of  gaseous emissions.

Despite the unwavering belief of climate  zealots  in climate catastrophism many respectable scientists have called for caution.

Steven Koonan who was the Undersecretary for Science in the Department of Energy under the Obama administration participated in a study on global warming only to come to the following conclusions:

  • Humans exert a growing, but physically small, warming influence on the climate. The deficiencies of climate data challenge our ability to untangle the response to human influences from poorly understood natural changes.
  • The results from the multitude of climate models disagree with or even contradict each other and many kinds of observations.

Our fervent hope would be that as this fundamentalist religion ages it might moderate its extremist views.

Perhaps it should be boring enough to learn a little from the “dismal science”- economics. Nobel Prize recipient, Bjorn Lomborg has been trying to press this point of view for a decade or more. Because he doesn’t agree with an unseemly and costly rush to renewables, Lomborg is often called a “climate denier” and this is entirely in error. Lomborg concedes that climate change is a physical fact. What he disputes is our response to climate change. He argues convincingly that climate change is not the only threat to modern society and what’s more he maintains that human wellbeing might be better progressed by investing more in such things as eliminating Malaria or ameliorating starvation in third world countries.

You see Lomborg is not an environmental fundamentalist and understands that humanity has to confront more issues than global warming. Consequentially we need to prioritise our spending so that it maximizes human welfare and has more than a singular goal and ensure our focus is broader than responding just to the threat of global warming.

This is the kind of thinking that we need to encourage ensuring we are not illogically caught in the trap of environmental fundamentalism.

6 Replies to “The New Fundamentalism”

  1. Yet again Ted, I’m compelled to say “quite”……………Prophets of doom have been around for many thousands of years, all with the catch-cry “the end of the world is nigh!” In my lifetime there have been the doom generation of the 50’s, the running-out-of-oil shocks of the 70’s , the Millenium bug of the last fin de siècle, the Mayan calendar of 12.12.12, and occasional suicide sect who predicts the end of time and he second coming etc etc. Not to mention Chicken Licken! It seems to be a recurrent theme that the sins of the fathers are predicted to be visited upon the sons. I have long been of the belief that the rise of pantheism in the so-called Western World (which could be readily be considered the post-Roman world, or since the time of Constantine – the Christian World) is directly connected to the decline of religion. Nature and the worship of nature is the new god…… yes Ted, quite so!

  2. Dear Ted,
    You have completely misattributed the purpose of science. It is a way of amassing knowledge through hypothesis and evidence gathering, and continual improvement and change of the hypothesis.

    For instance the Big Bang Theory is just that: a theory, not a doctrine of blind belief. The theory explains some factual observations, so is given some credence. More work is needed. If additional evidence is gathered, it will be dropped or re-made.

    When you use calculations to estimate electricity flow, you are not required to believe in atoms, or the transfer of charge. But it is a pretty useful working theory and seems to fit the observable facts at this time.

    Religious doctrine has no basis in fact or observation, is immutable and its proponents demand blind belief.

    That current climate change is based on human activity is based on overwhelming evidence. It is our best prediction that fits the facts. I suppose we won’t know for sure until things play out. Hopefully you will live to see the outcome, given the longevity afforded to you by science.

    1. Kath, thank you very much for your considered reply.
      You describe science the way it is supposed to work, but in practice it often doesn’t work that way at all. Science isn’t immune from the very human trait that most of us want to believe certain things and we search out evidence to support the thesis we want to believe.
      When scientists write learned papers they have them peer reviewed. But mostly they seek out like minded reviewers who will more than likely support their deductions.
      Climate change has become a very lucrative field for researchers. Those who are ensconced in this field have a vested interest in magnifying public concerns about global warming and the like because it ensures a continued stream of research funding. The more alarmed they can make the public the more assured they can be of funding.
      I have spent more than thirty years involved in university research institutions. I can assure you that researchers are inordinately attracted to where the research funding is available and will try to fashion their research in such a way as to access such funding.
      Now as an engineer who studied chemistry and physics to the same level as those obtaining basic degrees in science I am quite happy to concede the huge benefits science has contributed to our lives. But science has its limitations. It is beyond human capacity to completely understand the Universe.
      Physics first encountered this limitation in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. It showed for example if we were to examine an electron we could ascertain its position but could not simultaneously know its momentum or vice versa.
      In mathematics Gödel’s Theorem showed in number theory we could have propositions that were accurate but never all encompassing. Alternatively if we wished to be all encompassing there would always be undecidable propositions.
      I have explored this problem in other essays if you care to read them.
      As I mentioned in my essay some have justified their concept of God as necessary to understand the gaps in our understanding. As I wrote this concept of deity has been called the “God of the Gaps”.
      As a regular reader of my essays you would be aware that I don’t believe in the popular concept of God, or indeed gods. But I do believe that because of our limited understanding there is an inherent mystery in the Universe that is beyond our human capacity to understand.
      But to get back to more mundane things, my prime concern about our response to global warming is its lack of efficacy and the poor use of our resources.
      To gin with I don’t believe that climate change is as catastrophic as many would have us believe. Our problem is that our perspective is very short term. We know that humans have suffered from warming episodes in the past and adapted adequately We also know that CO2 levels in the past have often been much higher than they are now in the earth’s atmosphere without undue warming.
      More importantly we know that our efforts to constrain emissions come at huge cost even though Australia’s emissions are miniscule in the context of global emissions.
      I believe the Bjorn Lomborg has a point when he protests that human welfare might be better advanced by spending our scarce capital more wisely.
      I appreciate your interest.

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