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Climate and environment

Pro-environmental beliefs are less likely to lead to action among those who believe in a controlling god

When people believe that it’s important to protect the environment, they’re less likely to act on those beliefs if they’re more religious.

23 September 2020

By Emma Young

We all know that it's vital that we take action to reduce the harm we do to the environment. So understanding the barriers to such action is critical, too.

new paper, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, identifies a potentially important one: when people believe that it's important to protect the environment, they're less likely to act on those beliefs if they're more religious.

Kimin Eom at Singapore Management University and colleagues studied Americans — and when they talk about people being "religious", they're really talking about being Christian. These caveats are important to highlight up front.

In the first of three studies, the team analysed pre-existing data on a nationally representative sample of 3,052 US adults. They looked specifically at answers to three categories of questions. Firstly, questions assessed how strongly an individual endorsed the ideas that a) the world is getting hotter; and b) human activity is an important driver of this.

Secondly, questions related to "religiosity" — a) their belief in the importance of religion; and b) how often they attend religious services. Finally, the team looked at responses to questions that assessed their level of support for pro-environmental policies.

The researchers found that climate change beliefs predicted support for pro-environmental policy less strongly among individuals higher in religiosity.

In other words, "These results supported the idea that environmental beliefs are less in line with pro-environmental support among those who are more, relative to less, religious." These results held even when team took into account/controlled for a range of demographic variables, including political orientation, gender, income, education, age and ethnicity.

In a second study, the team dug deeper into this finding. A total of 424 US students, half from a Christian college and half from a non-religious public university, both in California, completed a series of questionnaires.

The first scale explored the extent to which they believed in climate change. The second measured religiosity. The third measured how strongly the participants believed in a "controlling god" — a god who has a plan and controls events in the world.

They were then asked to report how often they would perform six environmentally friendly behaviours (such as buying green products instead of regular products and unplugging appliances at night) over the next six months.

The participants also gave demographic data — and a few potentially important differences between the groups stood out. Namely, the Christian college students were more likely to be Republican and there were fewer women in the Christian group.

The team took these group differences into account in their analysis, which revealed that higher religiosity was associated with a stronger belief in a controlling god — and it was the strength of this belief (rather than religiosity per se) that affected their intentions to act in a more environmentally friendly way. (Those with the strongest beliefs in a controlling god were the least likely to indicate that they'd be engaging in such behaviours.)

Why should this be the case? The authors argue that, if you believe that a god controls what happens in the world, you are less likely to think that any actions that you take will change any given outcome — and so you are less likely to change your behaviour.

The results from these studies were correlational, however. To explore the idea that belief in a controlling god makes people less likely to act to help the environment, the team ran a third study with 730 Christians. The team measured their environmental beliefs as before.

Half then read a passage that described God as the ultimate controller of the world. This was designed to prime them with the idea that God is controlling. The other read an article about why Pluto had been declassified as a planet (a text chosen to have no influence on attitudes to God).

Participants also rated the extent to which four adjectives (controlling, commanding, caring, compassionate ) described a god. Next, their intentions to behave in a pro-environmental way were assessed (as in the previous study) and they provided demographic data.

Climate change beliefs predicted intentions to behave pro-environmentally less strongly when a participant had a stronger concept of God as being controlling. Or to put it another way, believing in a controlling god "weakens the association between environmental beliefs and pro-environmental support".

This study confirms that it's the belief in a controlling god, rather than a belief in God per se, that weakens that association, the team argues.

As already noted, though, the religious people in this study were Christians, and they were all American. So the findings may or may not extend to people with other religious beliefs. Also, these studies featured a lot of self-report and assessments of "intention" to act. It would of course be interesting to know whether belief in a controlling god makes any difference to actual, real world behaviour.

However, as the researchers also point out, when it comes to understanding which sociocultural factors influence environmental attitudes and behaviour, there is still a lot to learn. This work at least starts to plug part of that gap.

Further reading

– Religiosity Moderates the Link Between Environmental Beliefs and Pro-Environmental Support: The Role of Belief in a Controlling God

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest