Questioning the Role of Religion in the Perfect Moral Storm, A Response Paper

perfect moral storm

Gardiner’s (2006) article that questioning the morality and ethics in debate surrounding climate change issue has triggered a further question: if everything in the world, including morality and ethics of human behaviour that create global warming, could and should be measured through rationality and science,  where is the place for  religion? In his article, “A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the problem of Moral,” Gardiner argues that there are three big challenges that lead into what he describes as a perfect moral storm; the spatial, intergenerational, and theoretical challenges. None of these challenges has cited religious morality and ethics as a basis for the arguments, in such way that presumes all individuals in the whole world, despite their geographical location and cultural background, would employ “rationality” as a sole and ultimate approach in shaping their behaviour and decision making in addressing global warming.

Morals and ethics of climate change policy are a philosophical quest on what is right or wrong, good or bad, obligatory or non-obligatory, and responsibility or voluntary,  which govern human behaviour from harmful action (Posas, 2007). Religion, as a system of beliefs including morals, ethics, practices and values have been referred to by various scholars as a driving force in addressing complex environmental problems. For example, Posas (2007) argues that religion can play a significant role in filling the “gaps” that science, technology, economics and policy cannot fulfil, by mobilising individuals and societies to take necessary action in addressing global problems, including climate change. Another example shown by Wardekker, Petersen, and Van Der Sluijs (2009) found three main themes of religious climate change movement groups in the United States: climate stewardship, intergenerational equity, and environmental justice. Similarly, Colon Jr. (2008) reviews numbers of climate change statements issued by religious groups and argues that the climate crisis is a reflection of humanity’s sin and offers the chance to reconsider bourgeois lifestyles. In sum, Posas (2007) suggests three major reasons why religious morals and ethics could trigger and fuel practical action in confronting climate change. First, undeniably human civilization emerges from religious belief and therefore should be referred as wisdom that may offer guidance to avoid catastrophe. Second, there are significant numbers of people who still believe in religion, therefore could be used to influence, engage, and initiate change. Finally, religion can facilitate dialogue to bridge diverse views across spatial boundaries to stop further environmental degradation that can cause global warming.

Although the argument that puts religion as a driving force behind moral and ethics is compelling, there are number of factors that need to be considered. First, the types of moral corruption are so rich and varied. Since it is hard to isolate or identify the morally corrupt behaviour from the merely unintended action, therefore, it is difficult to point out anyone, individually or collectively to be blamed for a moral corruption. Religion, in this sense, should not be used to blame or prosecute anyone or an institution, which may be morally corrupted (Gardiner, 2011). As warned by Colon Jr. (2008), religious groups could be slipped into confrontation with politician, scientific communities and private companies that may hinder the positive action to jointly fight global warming. Second, there is a tendency that religious messages are twisted, abused and used to validate the opposite actions which cause environmental destruction. There are much evidence that religions are used to support unsustainable practice and harm nature, for instance in Islam (Adebayo, 2013) and Christianity (Klostermaier, 2010). Thirdly, religious metaphors are often inappropriately used by popular media which hinders progress toward more sustainable development practice. Woods, Fernández, and Coen (2012) argue that the religious morality representation in the United Kingdom newspapers can detract the attention from constructive scientific and theories debate. Scientific evidence and theories are framed as religious symbol, for instance the impact of climate change is perceived as a doomsday. These religious metaphors, doomsday, Judgment Day, and Noah’s Great Flood are considered as irrational and unscientific from most of Western points of view. Another example, UK newspapers frames environmental activists as religious extremists intolerant of criticism that seemingly deny open discussion. In summary, applying religious morals and ethics to climate change discussions could lead counterproductive results.

Perhaps, that is why Gardiner’s argues that the main objective of moral and ethics is not to blame or prosecute the morally corrupted. Instead, he insist on highlighting that it  depends on us (individually and collectively)  to judge what is morally right or wrong, what is ethically good or bad. If we are able to understand and recognise the various manifestations of moral corruption, we may be able to resist the temptation to slip into moral corruption. At this level, I would argue that morals and ethics derived from religion may be used as motivation in addressing climate change; on condition that the religious messages are well framed and communicated. Nevertheless, as a conclusion point, the quote from Albert Einstein below illustrates how difficult it is to translate morality and ethics into action in the modern world that has no place for irrationality (religion?):

It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I also cannot imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.


Adebayo, R. I. (2013). Abuse of religion and environmental pollution in nigeria: An islamic perspective. Intellectual Discourse, 21(1)

Colon Jr., R. L. (2008). Religious groups and climate change.

Gardiner, S. M. (2006). A perfect moral storm: Climate change, intergenerational ethics and the problem of moral corruption. Environmental Values, , 397-413.

Gardiner, S. M. (2011). A perfect moral storm: The ethical tragedy of climate change Oxford University Press.

Klostermaier, K. K. (2010). Ecology, science, and religion. Seaweeds and their role in globally changing environments (pp. 401-421) Springer.

Posas, P. J. (2007). Roles of religion and ethics in addressing climate change. Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics, 7, 31-49.

Wardekker, J. A., Petersen, A. C., & Van Der Sluijs, Jeroen P. (2009). Ethics and public perception of climate change: Exploring the christian voices in the US public debate. Global Environmental Change, 19(4), 512-521.

Woods, R., Fernández, A., & Coen, S. (2012). The use of religious metaphors by UK newspapers to describe and denigrate climate change. Public Understanding of Science, 21(3), 323-339.

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