Heresy

Dot writes: this is a post liable to be misunderstood, and its argument is this: when we hear somebody unexpectedly reveal themselves as a global warming sceptic, we react rather as people in previous centuries must have done to heresy. I’m not talking a fifteenth-century reaction (burning), more an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century one (social embarrassment, distress, a sudden realisation that this person is one of Them). Attitudes to global warming and the need to reduce carbon emissions really are, I think, comparable to a religious orthodoxy. We accept the information on authority because very few of us are qualified to think it out for ourselves. The belief marks out a social grouping and tends to be connected to a set of political attitudes that don’t follow from it automatically. The belief is associated with virtue and being the Right Sort of Person. Lip-service is carefully payed to it by people who in fact don’t do much about it (e.g. the Labour party). It would take a monastic level of dedication to follow the message properly.

Now for the misunderstanding. By highlighting the parallel between global warming scepticism and heresy I make it sound as though I am myself a global warming sceptic. I should point out here that I’m not (I should also say that those of my nearest and dearest who have expressed the heresy are not therefore banished from my affections – in fact I got over the surprise pretty quickly, and its effect was chiefly to tell me not to assume that everyone of good sense shares my views). But I think this very likelihood of misunderstanding says something rather interesting about heresy. First, if you talk about something these days in terms of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ the rhetoric is weighted in favour of the heresy. There’s an assumption that an ‘orthodoxy’ is a wrong and reactionary belief unquestioningly held – a curious development given the etymology of the word (‘right teaching’) – and that a heretic is a bold, admirable free-thinker. This has to go back to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and the protestant take on the reformation: Wyclif et al were the goodies. I find it pleasing that the admiration of heresy that is so entrenched in modern secularism has such a solid foundation in the Christian churches.

Second, talking about orthodoxy and heresy seems to have a trivialising effect. After all, these days most people think that it doesn’t really matter whether or not you believe in transubstantiation or the Trinity or hell. Do I believe in hell myself? It seems likely that the main factor in whether someone is a Christian or not is their background and social environment: in that case, can I believe that the penalty for not being a Christian is hell? Similarly, the orthodoxy/heresy element of attitudes towards global warming highlights the element of social identification. Republicans seem more likely to be climate change deniers than Democrats; university types like Ken and me seem more likely to be eco-conscious than car salesmen or builders. But, if global warming is really happening and is really attributable to human actions, the penalty really is hell: death and suffering on an enormous scale. It matters what you believe.

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3 thoughts on “Heresy

  1. Dot,

    “Orthodox” in the Christian religious sense tends to have a much more technical meaning than “right teaching”. “Doxa” in the Bible appears as judgment or view only in an apocryphal reference; it is much more associated with having a good opinion or giving glory or praise – thus “doxology.” Such a narrow understanding of the meaning of orthodoxy meant that to question it, was not simply a matter of discussing teaching, but to deny God his due glory.

    Many Christians would still argue that it matters more about whether you believe in hell in the after life, it being eternal, than if you believe in the possibility of a physical, though transitory, hell caused by climate change.

    I believe in climate change and in acting to meet its likely consequences (thus deserving the derision of the Right), but am not convinced that human agency is the main factor (thus meriting opprobrium from the Left).

    And, of course, Protestants are the good guys 😉

  2. But it doesn’t matter what you believe. As you point out, no one is doing anything about it anyway. For every drop you save, someone else wastes a drop. Oil we save by using less electricity here will be burned in China for manufacturing. Humanity will not stop consuming fossil fuels now until they are all gone. At best we can slow this process down, though so far we have failed to do that. What you believe is meaningless. Your actions are meaningless. Collective action — average action — is what matters. And how do you control global collective action? I’m not the man (or woman, strangely enough) who’s going to crack that one.

    A problem with being a philosopher –a true scientist and a skeptic– is you don’t have the luxury of turning off your skepticism when you encounter an idea which it would be easier to accept on faith.

  3. dot

    Ian: thanks for the fine-tuning on orthodoxy. I would be the first to point out that etymology doesn’t tell you what a word means (well, actually Ken would probably beat me to it).

    Jeremy: I agree with you that one can’t do much singly, but it takes the beliefs of individuals to inspire collective action or, in a democratic system, to make government action politically viable.

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