Religion and Environment: Statistics and Partial Stories

One thing you can take for granted: life is complicated. When you find an odd fact, don’t Featured Image -- 13152challenge it. Instead, ask, what’s really going on? The fact may be true, but the backstory could be far more interesting.

A new piece of research from Indiana University came across the screen this week. Using a historical analysis of Gallup data, a researcher discovered that interest in protecting the environment is declining among US Christians.(1) It doesn’t matter how religious they are or how often they attend church. The mere fact of identifying as a Christian is linked to a declining interest in the environment.

Let’s accept that the data analysis is correct. Why would that be happening? There are several possible explanations. Three obvious ideas are:

  • They don’t feel the need to care because God will take care of any problems that arise.  The “prosperity theology” may be creating a cavalier attitude toward the environment.
  • Christians have lower incomes and have more pressing problems than the environment as their standard of living has declined.

There’s probably some truth to both of these explanations. Personally, I like the second explanation, as it fits with known economic data. Testing it would require a more thorough statistical analysis than I suspect the Indiana team has actually done.

And that illustrates a classic issue of taking research public before doing a comprehensive analysis of the data.

Bottom line: Just because two things happen in tandem doesn’t mean one causes the other. Far from it. The world is more complicated than that.


Sources:

  1. Konisky, David. The Greening of Christianity? A Study of Environmental Attitudes Over Time. Environmental Politics, 2017
  2. Indiana University. “Survey results show Christians becoming less concerned about the environment.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 January 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180123113020.htm>

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