The Religion of Apocalyptic Environmentalism

By Sean McDowell Published on October 3, 2020

“I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” — Greta Thunberg, student activist

Have you ever wondered why people are so drawn to apocalyptic environmentalism? Why do so many people believe the narrative that we are irreversibly destroying the environment and the world will end soon? There must be a good reason why stars Leonardo DiCaprio, activists like Greta Thunberg, and so many other upper-middle-class elites promote the doomsday scenario that modern civilization will end soon if we don’t make drastic changes.

The media certainly deserves some of the blame for misrepresenting the facts. And politicians who promote apocalyptic scenarios to pass legislation are guilty too.

The Deeper Reason

But there is a deeper reason. According to humanist Michael Shellenberger, apocalyptic activists are promoting a new kind of secular religion:

“Environmentalism today is the dominant secular religion of the educated, upper-middle-class elite in most developing and many developing nations. It provides a new story about our collective identity and individual purpose. It designates good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. And it does so in the language of science, which provides it with legitimacy” (Apocalypse Never, 263).

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In other words, environmentalism has replaced the Christian religion in the west. In the Christian tradition, humans have failed to be in proper relationship with God. In apocalyptic environmentalism, humans have failed to be in proper relationship with nature. Rather than looking to priests to interpret Scripture, apocalyptic environmentalists look to scientists for authority. Recycling has replaced communion as a “spiritual” practice. And rather than yearning for Heaven, when we are at peace with God and others, apocalyptic environmentalists encourage us to yearn for a future state when we are at peace with nature.

In sum, apocalyptic environmentalism borrows the trappings of the Christian worldview — sin, redemption, rites, salvation, good vs. evil — but tells a different story about reality. According to Shellenberger, apocalyptic environmentalism provides people with a grand story of which they are the heroes, so they can find meaning in their lives.

Environmental Evangelists

Seems right to me. As humans, we need purpose. We need to feel like we are part of a bigger story. If we don’t find meaning and purpose in the way God intended us to, we will find it somewhere else.

My suspicion is that many environmental evangelists are unaware of the religion they are propagating. They sincerely believe the narrative and promote it for the benefit of mankind. And many think they are merely adhering to science, not superstition or fantasy. But they are promoting a religion, nonetheless, and many of their claims are not supported by science.

It should be obvious that I am not critiquing religion per se. I am a Christian who believes God calls us to practice a kind of religion that genuinely loves and cares for people — and especially those who are marginalized (James 1:27).

But apocalyptic environmentalism is a religion too. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

If you are looking for evidence that the Christian religion is true, check out the updated and revised Evidence that Demands A Verdict (co-written with Josh McDowell)


Sean McDowell, Ph.D., is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, the National Spokesman for Summit Ministries, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: 

Originally published at Reprinted with permission.

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