I have a few blogs on my blogroll that tend to pretty right wing viewpoints, in particular on climate change. Sometimes they say things that are spot on (otherwise I wouldn't be much interested) and sometimes I question their veracity but one thing that crops up regularly is the comparison between climate change activism and religion. If you wander around the blogosphere and check out opinions ranging from the bonkers "Climate change is all a Zionist conspiracy" to the truthful "Climate change just isn't as serious as some pundits would have you believe" this comes up over and over - environmentalism is unfavourably compared to religion. I tend to find this pretty funny because so often the people making the unfavourable comparison are religious but they tend to think that their Abrahamic religious beliefs are obvious and only other religious beliefs are silly. What is actually interesting from a objective viewpoint is that what these people are saying is actually true in many ways.
Traditional religion in the First World is definitely on a precipitous decline. Much of the fixed social values and goals that were imparted by a common religion are utterly gone and people look for something to replace that which can supply that sense of purpose and certainty. Working out what is moral and what is not by figuring out the complete set of consequences of an action is slow and annoying not to mention hardly worth the time in many cases. How much will society benefit by me figuring out whether the plastic applesauce container goes in the trash or the recycling? If figuring that out takes awhile then it is pretty hard to justify worrying about 2 grams of recycling either way. However, if we operate under the assumption that environmentalism is important beyond the utilitarian calculation then we must work harder to do it right. If we place environmental concerns on an entirely different plane than monetary considerations then the fervour we see from many activists makes logical sense.
In the book Willpower that I blogged about before the authors talk about this. They found that religion and its accompanying useless rituals often helped people achieve greater willpower by giving them practice doing things they did not want to do. They also found that environmentalism was filling this same role in the lives of many modern people, giving them a set of rules and reasons to do things that were hard to justify from a utilitarian perspective. Note that I don't find this an especially bad thing for society. I would much rather people have strong feelings about cleaning things up and living a low impact lifestyle than about the infallibility of ancient tomes advocating racism, discrimination and murder among other atrocities. Of course it is going to have downsides since faith does require a surrender of objective reason but for the majority of people the best thing you can do is give them a set of guidelines to follow without thought as long as the guidelines are right most of the time.
I figure that people just want ideas to idolize and heuristics that simplify their lives. Religion used to supply those but since it is becoming more and more anachronistic people search for other things to fill that gap. That doesn't mean that environmentalism is wrong at all, it just means that many people approach thinking about it in the same way they do religion. You can see this very clearly when small children talk about environmentalism from their lessons in school - their viewpoints have no shades of grey.
As Voltaire said, "If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him."
Voltaire may not have been thinking about other more palatable religious alternatives when he said this but it works for me - many people need something that fills the role of religion and environmentalism can fit the bill.