The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion

The New Holy Wars by Robert H. NelsonWe have all argued or debated with someone who resists facts and resorts to emotional or idealistic rhetoric. Conversely, we have all found ourselves in positions where we want to ignore the real-world implications of our beliefs for the sake of some perceived justice or goodness.

Whether we’re talking about the foods we eat, the medicines we take, or the public policies we support, we all have a tendency to get religious about the material.

For Robert H. Nelson, author of The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, these examples represent various forms of secular religion. If you look close enough into somebody’s core ideology, Nelson argues, you will surely find parallels to the holy books, priesthoods, and dogmas typically found in “regular” religions.

Nelson acknowledges that there are plenty of competing secular religions in the public sphere; however, he believes that two religions in particular have engaged in what is now the most prominent conflict in American society — namely, economic religion and environmental religion.

But why these religions, and why now?

Nelson argues that both religions emerged during the nineteenth century as a result of the Industrial Revolution. During this time, technological innovation boomed, living standards soared, and access to education expanded.

As Nelson explains:

For the first time ever, one of earth’s creatures — human beings — had literally acquired the capacity to remake ‘the creation’…Astonishingly enough, human beings had now acquired knowledge and powers previously reserved for God.

In other words, the dream of creating heaven on earth was suddenly realistic for those who thought such a feat was actually attainable or desirable. Over time, Nelson argues, the successes of the Industrial Revolution resulted in the emergence of two factions — one that “exalted human control over nature” (economic religion), and one that offered “a precisely opposite view” (environmental religion).

But how do these religions look like in application?

For Nelson, economic religion has its roots in the Progressive Era, where a so-called “gospel of efficiency” was embraced by many intellectuals.

As Nelson explains:

In the American Progressive Era, ‘efficient’ and ‘inefficient’ came to replace for many modern men and women the older Christian categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’…Actions that were efficient or inefficient served to advance or impede the arrival of a new heaven on earth, much as good or evil actions in an earlier time had been said to move Christians closer to or further from God…In short, the economic faith assumes that the true causes of sinful behavior in the world are ultimately material.

This explanation is puzzling, because economists of all ideological molds promote “efficiency” as an end goal. I argue that this religious label could apply to anyone putting economic efficiency before the will of God, but for Nelson, this religion is primarily comprised of “high priests” such as Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, and Paul Samuelson.

Environmental religion, on the other hand, seems to have emerged a bit later — once the effects and implications of industrialism became clearer.

In our own time, environmentalism is in effect telling us, humankind has once again turned to worship other gods — above all, in the twentieth century, the god of economic progress…With the rise of modern industry, for example, and the resulting great increase of carbon dioxide…human actions have been literally changing the climate of the earth. But this domain must be reserved for God.

I agree with Nelson’s fundamental argument about the religiosity of both movements, but he runs into a few problems along the way. Many of his applications aren’t as neat and tidy as he makes them out to be. In fact, when applied within the full scope of history (or even the full scope of any particular movement), much of Nelson’s analysis seems to contradict itself.

For example, Nelson claims that the “social gospel” was all about efficiency. Although that was certainly the self-professed goal of the movement, we all know that the redistributionism of the Progressive Era was a failure of inefficiency in application (particularly during the Great Depression). The curious part is that Nelson seems to understand this, even though he simultaneously gives the movement credit when he talks about environmentalists being enraged by the “progress” of such [self-proclaimed] efficiency.

Aside from that, perhaps the greatest hindrance to Nelson is that he does not seem to really understand Christianity (or any other religions) in any real, spiritual sense. Whether the “spiritual” should have a place in our academic analysis is up for debate, but to someone who believes in the spiritual realm (like me), much of his analysis is rendered mostly irrelevant. For Nelson, there are no spiritual forces outside of organized religion (or maybe even therein), and thus we need to simply achieve traceability on the intellectual and historical fronts to win our arguments. These are important areas to explore, but it would never occur to Nelson that the widespread earth-worship of modern-day environmentalism might have some origins outside of the physical realm.

But going back to my first criticism, even if we disregard spirituality altogether, many of Nelson’s arguments still fall short and seem utterly contrived. Even the average surveyor of religious history could probably tell you that there are more similarities between Marx and the pagans than there are between Marx and, say, the Calvinists. With these types of comparisons, it seems that Nelson is more interested in the argument of comparing environmentalists to Calvinists than he is in the actual merits of that argument in real life.

To put it simply, Nelson is at his best when he sticks to analyzing the religiosity of movements in and of itself. He is at his worst when he tries to point out the origins.

Nelson’s approach is a good representation of something I like to call Ivory Tower Syndrome. It is as if Nelson came up with an “interesting” thesis and blindly set out to prove it, regardless of the overall weight of the evidence. Much of it feels as though he is trying to throw out evidence for his outline, rather than think critically about what the evidence actually implies.

This doesn’t mean the book offers no value to the discussion at hand. Indeed, Nelson’s analysis is fascinating on a number of levels. But if you are looking for a well-rounded, historical critique of economic and environmental religions, Nelson’s narrow approach to their origins and implications may leave you disappointed and uninspired.

Nelson’s analysis is impressively elaborate, but in the end, it is highly unpersuasive.

Click here to purchase Robert H. Nelson’s The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America.

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