Robert Nelson on Environmentalism as Religion
Date: May 21st, 2012

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Can environmentalism be considered a religion?  And if so, what are the implications for the separation of church and state when it comes to the contemporary environmentalist agenda?  Prof. Robert H. Nelson, professor of public policy in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, answers these questions in a fascinating interview that is a bit different than our normal fare.  After Bob details his background working for the US Department of the Interior and how he came to write about environmentalism as a religion, we engage in a debate about what constitutes “religion.”  Tony presses Prof. Nelson about the issue of whether or not a “religion” requires a transcendental being to be truly a religion, a characteristic that Bob doesn’t see as necessary.  Our discussion covers how other secular ideologies, such as Marxism, can be construed as religions.  We then begin to look at why environmentalism qualifies as a theology, documenting the Christian origins of the modern ecology movement.  We review a number of the important figures in the environmental movement — including Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, David Brower, Rachel Carson, and Paul Ehrlich — and how some of these individuals (particularly Thoreau and Leopold) overlayed a moral and spiritual ethos over the natural environment giving it a different status than how economist of the past viewed it as a set of natural resources to be developed.  Through the course of this discussion, Prof. Nelson discusses how environmentalist thinking develops ideas about creation, “end times” (often apocalyptic), and various rituals and sins that the movement has created.  We conclude by looking an interesting argument Prof. Nelson has made about the separation of church and state and how it applies to the environmental movement.  To the extent that environmentalism is a religion, what is the role of proselytization in schools and the state ownership of public lands that may be thought of as “holy shrines.”  Recorded: May 7, 2012.



 Robert Nelson’s biography at the University of Maryland at at the Independent Institute.

The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, by Robert H. Nelson.

Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond, by Robert H. Nelson.

Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government, by Robert H. Nelson.

A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service, by Robert H. Nelson.

Public Lands and Private Rights, by Robert H. Nelson and Sally K. Fairfax.

“Environmentalism Has Become a Religion,” an op-ed by Robert H. Nelson appearing in several newspapers.

“Environmentalism: The New Religion Freely Taught in Schools,” an op-ed by Robert H. Nelson appearing in Forbes.


Fletcher Harper on GreenFaith.

2 Responses to “Robert Nelson on Environmentalism as Religion”

  1. […] This week’s episode of Research on Religion features an interview with Robert Nelson, the author of The New Holy Wars, which I wrote about in this post. Nelson rambles a bit, but he makes several great points about secular religion and the policy implications of the State’s favoring of such religions (which is definitely happening right now). Give it a listen, and come back tomorrow for more economics. Share this:EmailPrintFacebookTwitterMoreRedditDiggStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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