Faith and the social sciences

Research by Dr. Erin Lothes helps on the front lines of faith and environmental protection

Does religion help us become better stewards of creation? If so, how? And why do some people of faith embrace this responsibility while others find it harder to connect with climate change as a personal responsibility?

Questions like these are making news in these weeks before the release of Pope Francis’s eco-encyclical. They’re also questions that some of my colleagues in government have been asking. Helping to answer them is Dr. Erin Lothes, an assistant professor of theology at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey.

Dr. Lothes has written extensively on the ethics of energy and climate change. She is especially interested in “the inspiration that motivates spiritual Americans who feel the environmental crisis as a sacred loss, and who are re-imagining their faith and life through environmental advocacy.”

She has kindly shared some of her findings and insights, including several from her upcoming book, Inspired Sustainability: From Ideally Green To Really Green (to be published by Orbis Press).

“I have always been someone who found peace and beauty in nature, especially in forests,” Dr. Lothes told CatholicEcology. “When I eventually began to realize how climate change would affect not only the beauty of nature, and the serenity we experience there, but also how it would make the challenges of the poor even greater, the environmental crisis began to be a very troubling problem for me.”

In time she saw a link between the impacts of climate change and the Catholic Church's support of the poor in its churches, hospitals, food pantries, schools, nursing homes, and international relief programs.

“The fact that hunger could increase was one of the worst things for me to think about. I developed a real case of the environmental blues, or as I call them, the ‘green blues.’”

During her doctoral studies at Fordham University in the early 2000s, Dr. Lothes began working with the group New Jersey Catholic Coalition for Environmental Justice. “Joining almost instantly diminished the green blues I felt because I was working with other people, and I saw we could do something positive.”

In seeing the issues of creation through the eyes of faith, Dr. Lothes says that “there's a more profound overall vision and sense of vocation, recognizing our responsibility to steward the earth's resources for the common good."

The experience of working on the front lines of faith and environmental protection soon had her asking questions. Little did she know that a decade later the world would be asking the same questions as preparations were made for a much-anticipated, game-changing papal encyclical.

“The more I learned about religion and ecology—and all of the theological study that had been done, and the official teachings from every tradition—it seemed more and more obvious that the need to care for creation as an expression of faith was really a settled question. The new question was, why aren't more people engaged in this critical work given the grave risks we are facing?”

And so she set out to find what motivates those involved in faith-based advocacy and what barriers stood in the way for others. With the support of an Earth Institute Fellowship, she teamed up with groups like Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Science and Religion and its Center for Research and Environmental Decisions.

These partnerships allowed her to build off studies in cognitive, psychological, and behavioral patterns that explain how people learn about issues like climate change. She then connected such research with data from focus groups of some two dozen congregations across United States—Catholic, other Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, Jews, two Native American communities, and Muslims.

The findings

Dr. Lothes found significant overlap between what we know from faith and what we know from the social sciences about the limitations in people's understanding and resolve to act when faced with a problem, especially big ones like climate change.

Faith, however, added something to the puzzle that the social sciences could not.

“People of faith have always understood human limitations and have the additional insight to recognize human sin,” Dr. Lothes said. “The difference I think is that within the perspective of faith, there's a larger narrative that surrounds individual decisions. There's a greater recognition of the values that inspire us, how these values are linked to our most profound recognition of ourselves as part of God's family, with a vocation to care for our brothers and sisters.”

With faith there is also “a vision of the abundance that creation is intended to provide, [and] the sanctity of God's creation which we honor because it reveals God to us.”

And, she adds, there is our call to work for the common good.

In seeing the issues of creation through the eyes of faith, Dr. Lothes says that “there's a more profound overall vision and sense of vocation, recognizing our responsibility to steward the earth's resources for the common good. We can see the same limitations that cognitive theory identifies, and resistance to behavioral change, yet also recognize some of this to be our human finitude, and some of it to be sin, which we can resolve to overcome.”

Recurring themes

In listening to over 130 people and analyzing the resulting data systematically, Dr. Lothes found recurring themes that spoke to the importance of scientific literacy and caring about what the science says.

When reason and faith authentically intersect, the desire for action comes next.

Communal responses are what comes naturally to people of faith—especially Catholicism, with its central teachings of incarnation (“being present with”) and communion (“being present with together”).

“When people understood the science, as challenging as it is, they were able to understand that their faith-based desire to work for social justice and extend charity to the neighbor now meant the obligation to work for environmental justice and preserving the purity, fruitfulness, and stability of the environment.”

Communal responses

From the briefings I’ve received at work about communicating climate change, research is showing us that discussing solutions based on individual actions—like changing light bulbs or adjusting thermostats—are not very helpful. People naturally understand that problems like climate change are very big and they require big responses. In other words, they require communal responses. And communal responses are what comes naturally to people of faith—especially Catholicism, with its central teachings of incarnation (“being present with”) and communion (“being present with together”).

This necessity to communicate the communal is precisely what Dr. Lothes found.

“Many people find it hard to make [environmental protection] a priority because of conflicting concerns. Some people are simply disinterested. [But] talking with others is highly effective so that people can work through the difficult scientific questions, the realistic sense of being overwhelmed and conflicted, and finding hope in encouragement to build solutions together. This helps move past the caring gap, enabling us to take action for the common good and build new and healthy structures for our communities.”

Dr. Lothes says that she hopes her work will help people “accept their finitude, and not feel burdened or overwhelmed.”

“It's a serious problem,” she adds. “But there are solutions. It doesn't call us to put on a hairshirt and live in the dark. But it does call us to be pragmatic and realistic, and not salvage our consciences by tossing that plastic bottle in the recycling. We need to be realistic and pragmatic and choose the actions that make a significant difference in the problem at the necessary scale.”

And so, she notes, we certainly can and should purchase renewable energy and convert our homes, sanctuaries, and workplaces to highly efficient systems. We can adapt the lifestyle differences that make a permanent and ongoing difference, for example in our transportation choices.

But we’re not going to be able to change everything all at once by ourselves.

Still, what Dr. Lothes has shown us in this critical age of humanity is that sharing truth with charity will help our brothers and sisters in two ways: first, to better understand what the natural sciences are telling us and, second, that out of love of neighbor we must act.

“I hope that both by accepting our finitude and knowing we can't do everything we will still know that we are called to do something significant—and we can. And working together, that is really an awful lot. The solutions are there. We simply need to encourage and inspire each other to do them, for the sake of future generations and the common good.”

Dr. Lothes's book, Inspired Sustainability: From Ideally Green To Really Green, will be published by Orbis Book in early 2016.

The book shares the hopes and successes of American faith-based environmentalists who shared their thoughts with Dr. Lothes during her research at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The book also resulted from conversations with cutting-edge climate scientists, hydro-engineers, soil scientists, and other sustainability experts, about the intense challenges facing the earth.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.