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.