Poll: Religious Americans are least concerned about climate change

Storm clouds approach a church in Mequon, Wisconsin, August 2, 2020. A new Pew Research Center report released Thursday explores how religion in the United States intersects with views on the environment and climate change. (Morry Gash, Associated Press)

Estimated reading time: 5-6 minutes

NEW YORK – Most adults in the United States – including a large majority of Christians and people who identify with other religions – consider the Earth sacred and believe that God has given humans the duty to care for it.

But highly religious Americans — those who pray daily, attend church services regularly, and view religion as crucial in their lives — are far less likely than other U.S. adults to express concern about global warming.

These are among the key findings of a comprehensive report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center, which surveyed 10,156 U.S. adults from April 11-17. The margin of error for the entire sample of respondents is plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.

The poll says religious Americans tend to be less concerned about climate change for several reasons.

“First of all it is politics: the main driver of US public opinion on climate is the political party, not religion,” the report said.

“Highly religious Americans are more likely than others to identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, and Republicans tend to be far less likely than Democrats to believe that human activity (such as burning fossil fuels) is warming the Earth or to consider change climate is a serious problem.”

The community and the planet

Responding to the findings, the Rev. Richenda Fairhurst, climate administrator at nonprofit Circle Faith Future, said America’s isolated culture sows further division instead of inspiring teamwork.

“I don’t know who it’s for,” he said. “But it doesn’t serve the community and it certainly doesn’t serve the planet.”

The survey found that about three-quarters (74%) of religiously affiliated Americans say the Earth is sacred. A larger share, (80%), feel a sense of stewardship and agree fully or mostly with the idea that “God gave humans the duty to protect and care for the Earth, including plants and animals” .

Religious Americans who show little or no concern about climate change also say that “there are much bigger problems in the world, that God is in control of the climate, and they don’t believe the climate is actually changing.”

Many American clerics are also concerned about the potential consequences of environmental regulations, including the loss of individual freedoms, job cuts or rising energy prices, the report said.

The survey also found that two-thirds of U.S. adults who are religiously affiliated say their faith scriptures include lessons about the environment, and about four in 10 say they have prayed for the environment in the past year.

Split views

The views, the report said, are common across a range of religious traditions.

Three-quarters of evangelical Protestants and members of historically black Protestant churches say the Bible includes lessons about the environment. According to the survey, eight out of ten American Catholics and Protestants say the Earth is sacred, as do 77 percent of non-Christian religions.

But Christians, and religiously affiliated Americans more broadly, are divided in their views on climate change, the report said.

Those who consider climate change “an extremely or very serious problem” range from 68% of adults who identify with the historically black Protestant tradition, to 34% of evangelical Protestants.

In none of the mainstream Protestant traditions have the majority argued that the Earth is warming primarily as a result of human activity; only 32% of evangelicals thought so.

The report says the religiously unaffiliated — the fastest growing group in polls asking Americans about their religious identity — are far more likely to say climate change is an extreme or very serious problem (70%) than Americans religiously affiliated (52%).

Commonly known as “nons,” they describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular.” The report said they are far more likely to say the Earth is warming primarily due to human-induced activity (66%) than those who are religiously affiliated (47%).

Climate change in sermons

The survey offers clues as to why religious Americans are less likely to worry about climate change than those without religion despite seeing a link between their beliefs and caring for the environment:

  • For US congregations, climate change does not seem to be the focus. The report said that among all U.S. adults who attend church services at least once or twice a month, only 8 percent say they “hear a lot or enough about climate change in sermons.”
  • One in five says they hear some discussions on the subject from the pulpit.
  • And just 6 percent of American churchgoers say they talk a lot or enough about climate change with others in their congregation.

Highly religious Americans are also less likely to view inefficient energy practices as morally wrong, the report said. This same pattern is also seen when asked to eat food that requires a lot of energy to produce.

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and executive director of GreenFaith, a New York-based multifaith global environmental organization, said he was not surprised by the findings as he does not see culturally and politically conservative Americans prioritizing action to the climate .

“What this study doesn’t tell us, however, is the role that religion, when used effectively, can play in getting interested but inactive people to take public climate action,” Harper said. “This deserves further research so that we can all better understand what positive role religion can play in the fight against climate change.”

The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support through the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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