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This essay examines two questions: “Can an evolutionist celebrate Earth Day?” and “Can a creationist celebrate Earth Day?”
Today marks the 36th annual celebration of Earth Day, one of the high holidays of secular humanism.1 Originally devised as a student-led initiative for promoting environmental causes, Earth Day is now observed globally by over half a billion people according to the Earth Day Network, which claims that Earth Day “is the only event celebrated simultaneously around the globe by people of all backgrounds, faiths and nationalities.” 2
Less well noticed, however, is the fact that Earth Day provides a prime opportunity for people around the world to act contrary to their worldviews. Millions of evolutionists3 will take time from their day and resources from their pockets to proclaim and further the notion that humankind has a duty to be good stewards of this world—an idea that comes not from any evolutionary tenet, but rather is found in the first chapter of the Bible. There is no logical justification for individuals who believe in evolution to promote or participate in any celebration of the Earth. The very concept of an evolutionist caring for the environment is without basis, as I will outline below.
At the same time, many Christians, even while upholding the reality of Genesis, fail to adhere to God’s commandments concerning our stewardship of the Earth. Environmentalism, rather than being seen as a logical outgrowth of biblical thinking, is disregarded because the environmentalist camps have been almost thoroughly overrun by those who worship the creation rather than the Creator. I will examine two questions in this essay: “Can an evolutionist celebrate Earth Day?” and “Can a creationist celebrate Earth Day?”
To answer the first question, I would like to respond to and refute three different types of “evolutionary environmentalists,” as they might be called. The boundaries between these are not always distinct, however, so many of these refutations apply across the board.
First, let’s examine evolutionary environmentalists who neither accept God nor attempt to deify nature. These individuals argue that there is nothing supernatural either inside nature or outside of it; that evolution explains not only all of biology, but also all of human behavior. In other words, this is a materialistic viewpoint. The fundamental axiom of naturalists was stated concisely and eloquently by the late astronomer Carl Sagan in his 1980 book Cosmos:
THE COSMOS IS ALL THAT IS OR EVER WAS OR EVER WILL BE.4 [emphasis in original]
In the naturalist’s universe, there can be no supernatural authority. Therefore, even if there were absolutes, there could be no way of ever knowing for certain that one knew those absolutes. Because everything is a product of evolution—stellar, geological or biological—all our actions are the result of the mindless collision of atoms obeying scientific law. Everything simply is; there is no right or wrong, no truth or falsehood. Rather, everything is a product of nature itself, and all ideas and values are simply atoms in one position or another in the human mind.
Because of this, naturalism strongly argues against our ability to make valid normative statements (statements like “Tobias, you should not steal,” which make value judgements). If no normative statements can be made, then all the ideas of “responsibility” or moral correctness in caring for the environment are excluded by necessity.
Some naturalists believe we can make accurate positive statements (statements like “Tobias has stolen the money,” which state fact). (Others believe we cannot ascertain anything certainly and therefore can make neither normative nor positive statements.) If only positive statements can be made (and, again, many naturalists would deny even this), then the most we can do is make a claim like “The environment is being destroyed, and the result will kill all humanity.” Therefore, the only possible motivation for environmentalism is either due to an evolutionary “leftover” (for example, that our love for lush green lawns is due to millennia of evolutionary change in the Serengeti) or is out of a desire for self-preservation.
Naturalist Carl Sagan promotes the latter justification in a chapter titled “Exploring Other Worlds and Protecting This One” in his book Pale Blue Dot.5 He presents protecting the environment as a matter of self-preservation: humanity must care for the Earth purely for the sake of human survival.
This idea, however, would override one of the key principles of evolutionary natural selection: intraspecies competition. Hypothesize for a moment that we live in a purely material universe and that humans have made a pact to save themselves from environmental disaster by uniting to “protect the environment” (though this terminology wouldn’t be used, as it makes an entity out of the environment, a notion naturalism denies). Now, in this world, no one cares for anyone outside themselves. There is no concern for “future generations” and certainly no concern for the future of the planet as a whole. The only concern is the quality of life for me and my ability to pass on my genes. As for my quality of life, the most rational action would be to exploit the Earth as much as possible; if others get in the way of my exploitation (either through their exploitation or through “irrational” ideas about caring for the environment), I should attempt to counter their actions—if possible, by destruction. That’s intraspecies competition. That’s evolution. The most rational actions for me to undertake would be to consume as much as possible, then destroy the rest. That would be my responsibility, not caring for the Earth—if naturalism (and molecules-to-man evolution) were true. And my actions would simply be furthering the “evolutionary story.”
However, what if these actions diminished the chances that my offspring could survive and carry on my genes? In this hypothetical scenario, the best strategy would be to become a free rider.6 In essence, if I can avoid “doing my part” to save the environment while others stave off environmental destruction, I can benefit without exerting any effort. For in this hypothetical world of naturalism, what motive would anyone have for compliance with environmental regulations?7 Within this model, the only goal Carl Sagan had in mind when writing Pale Blue Dot was to get the reader to bear the burden of maintaining the environment while Sagan benefited from it—after all, this would be good strategy within evolution. Of course, the evidence is that Carl Sagan truly wanted the Earth to be kept beautiful—evidence that he, too, was borrowing ideas from theism.
The idea that a mass extinction may be the “next phase” of evolution isn’t too conducive to the environmentalist message!
Within this school of thought, if some environmental disaster had the capacity to destroy all life on Earth tomorrow, the only motivation for shedding even a single tear or lifting a finger to do something about it would be out of the evolutionary instinct to protect yourself and your genes. And the idea that a mass extinction may be the “next phase” of evolution isn’t too conducive to the environmentalist message!
Even if people band together and proclaim that we should preserve nature simply because of the enjoyment humans receive from it, what’s to stop me from responding, “So what if you’re a weak sentimental type and love lush green forests? You know what I really enjoy? Toxic waste spills, deforestation, the torture of animals, polluted water and general environmental degradation. Since it’s survival of the fittest, I want to trash this planet and see if anyone’s genes can outlive mine! What do you say to that?” If evolution is true, all these ideas are equally valid. With no way to objectively label one “right,” it’s merely a battle of rhetoric and fists.
If naturalism can’t give us a reason consistent with its no-absolutes axiom to care for the environment, what about individuals with pantheistic views, who deify nature?
Many of the people in this category would not consider themselves “pantheists”; rather, they would simply consider themselves agnostics. However, individuals in this category believe that, regardless of evolution and the lack of a distinct god, nature is to be seen as inherently good, to be worshipped or honored, etc. Many common phrases associated with this type of environmentalism have a pagan origin—for example, “Mother Earth” or “Mother Nature,” the “circle (or web) of life.”
Let me also point out that numerous arguments offered by the individuals in this group are really just well-wrapped arguments about preserving humankind’s resources. For example, some advocates of protecting the rainforest hypothesize that the depths of the forest could hide miracle drugs. But an argument like this is still focused on human consumption, rather than a focus on the actual welfare of the rainforest for nature’s sake. These arguments would be refuted just as the self-preservation arguments above. But what about those who truly want to save nature for its own sake?
For example, the late Stephen Jay Gould, a famous Harvard evolutionist, wrote this about nature:
Yet I also appreciate that we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love (but only appreciate in some abstract sense). So let them all continue—the films, the books, the television programs, the zoos, the little half acre of ecological preserve in any community, the primary school lessons, the museum demonstrations, even (though you will never find me there) the 6:00 A.M. bird walks.
Let me continue and expand because we must have visceral contact in order to love. We really must make room for nature in our hearts. Consider one last image of Ezio Pinza as Emil De Becque in South Pacific, and accept the traditional characterization of nature as female (if this convention offends you, then make nature male and fall “in love with a wonderful guy”). The words may be banal (and Pinza was only extolling Mary Martin, while I speak of all nature), but the emotional setting is incomparable and still can bring tears to any unjaded eye. Think of this greatest of bassos as he soars up on the tonic of his chord:Once you have found her, never let her go.
Once you have found her, NEVER LET HER GO!8
I quote Gould at length to show the depth of his absurd (from the perspective of his evolutionary worldview) passion—and I believe his diction merits this noun—for nature. “It is so hard for an evolutionary biologist to write about extinctions caused by human stupidity,” he wrote. “Emotions well up and extinguish rationality and writing.” 9
My first question to pantheistic-type promoters of environmental stewardship is to ask about the nature of the environment (no wordplay intended): is there any pain/suffering/evil in nature? Or, is nature perfect? Is it ideal? For years, I blindly deified nature, until a friend of mine recounted her afternoon drawing near Four Mile Creek in Oxford, Ohio. It was a warm spring day and she described the beauty of the new foliage, the birdsongs in the air and the peacefulness of the stream. But as she absorbed the moment, the bloated body of a dead fish floated downstream in front of her. My deification of nature ended a few moments later.
If nature is perfect, then we have neither right nor need to meddle in its workings, so any holding this view should balk at environmentalism. After all, if nature is ideal, and if we’re “children of the Earth,” then our actions—including pollution, etc.—are just as natural as anything else. But if nature isn’t ideal, why does it deserve to be deified?
Many people (and nearly all in this pantheistic category) would claim that nature was ideal, but that humans have tarnished once-perfect nature.10 But if you accept naturalistic ideas about human origins, whence comes the wedge that separates man from the rest of nature?
You might ask one of these individuals: at what point did apemen suddenly transcend nature and their actions begin to constitute pollution? In what year did the first hominid pollute the Earth, rather than simply acting naturally? All animals consume resources; what would make us different in that worldview? If one postulates “responsible” usage of resources out of duty to “the rest of the circle of life,” this goes against evolution, which teaches inter- and intraspecies competition.
Herein lies the contradiction: evolutionary ideas require that humans are simply evolved apes, so how can our actions be any more or less a part of nature than those of apes (or any other life form)? According to this view, everything in this world is natural—including every action humans take. Each human action, whether to preserve or destroy, is just as “natural” as any other.
Another problem one keeps running into while promoting a pantheistic view of “Mother Earth” is that there is no authoritative voice of Earth. Individual humans claiming we have a responsibility to protect the Earth do not make me responsible; what if I claim Mother Earth wants us to use her resources as quickly as possible? The discussion is a degenerate debate between fallible and subjective humans. “Why should I accept your sentimental views when I am busy evolving?”
I found a quotation online that epitomizes the third view, that of “compromisers”—people who accept major evolutionary tenets while accepting the existence of a god:
I agree that religious groups can help us to make an emotional connection to nature. I gave a talk at my church about my own spirituality being derived from my work with protecting the environment. It mostly has to do with feeling spiritually connected with all living things because I also believe in the theory of evolution. That can be a stretch for some religious groups (but probably appeals to atheists); however, if you emphasize our dependence on other living things and their dependence on us, then most people will be motivated to conserve and protect. For me, I just feel energized by nature - by the beauty, wonder, and power of it all.11 [emphasis added]
This website has much material explaining why compromise in Genesis undermines Christian doctrines (see our Old-Earth Creationism topic page), so I don’t want to revisit that discussion here. Rather, let’s take a look at why this third view within “evolutionary environmentalism” is illogical—for the incompatibility of evolutionary theory with the Christian God is straightforward.
If we have evolved under the eyes of a god who has instilled in us the values of environmental stewardship, we have a major problem: do we fulfill this god’s bidding by allowing evolution to continue, in accordance with the system it [the god] set up, or do we follow the values that say species should be protected?
If we follow the former, then what room is there for environmental actions (which interrupt the forces of evolution)? If we follow the latter, how do we know any of our partially evolved ideas about what the environment needs are not actually hampering “divine” evolution? “Where should the god’s (or gods’) evolution go? How is mortal man to know?” After all, we may be repulsed by the extinction of a whole species (or brought to tears, as Gould was), but if we believe the deity used species [and genus and family] extinctions (and evolutionary theory certainly emphasizes the role of extinctions, going so far as to say we would not exist were it not for the extinction of the dinosaurs), would it be right for us to undertake actions that would be an obstacle to the progress of evolution?
Of course, if a god wanted morals to evolve, then no one’s morals are any “righter” than any other’s morals. Individuals who disdain environmental activism should either be pitied because their evolution is so lacking, or be heeded because their evolution has exceeded our dim ideas of environmental custody. If the ideas are due to our genes, then one idea might be evolutionarily “better” than the other, in which case it will be selected for. But in all these situations, there’s no way to authoritatively determine an absolute right attitude toward the environment.
In fact, the only logic justifying human stewardship of this planet is if:
This is exactly what the Bible teaches! Genesis tells us that God created a world that was perfect (Genesis 1:31), but that, because of the sin of our ancestor Adam, creation was cursed (Genesis 3:17–19, Romans 8:20). This is the only reason there is even “room” to improve creation: that it has become imperfect. Just like my friend drawing at Four Mile Creek, we see a fallen version of creation, where death can literally float down the middle of a beautiful spring day. Yet we all comprehend that “it wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
Outside of this model, any “caring for the Earth” is irrational, hypocritical and displays the individual’s deep-seated understanding that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat nature (an absolute concept given to us by our Creator). That’s why almost everyone on Earth, even those who flatly deny any Creator or absolutes, will cling to the nobility of caring for the Earth (Romans 1:25). Furthermore, why do secular scientific researchers—who claim to formulate the theories they hold so dear based purely on empricist, evidentialist observation—ignore the clear evidence that in our hearts, we all understand that we have a responsibility to protect and manage the environment? Why do they ignore the fact that the vast body of human thought on the environment is completely contrary to what evolution says we should be thinking?12 Romans 1:21–22 makes it clear:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.
Evolution and environmentalism are incompatible notions, for environmentalism is based on the Creator’s commission in Genesis, whereas evolution contradicts the plain teaching of Genesis and the biblical worldview. Evolutionary theory can only provide the most absurd reasons for why environmentalism even exists, and argues strongly against environmental responsibility (indeed, against any responsibility outside of serving oneself).
More difficult than pointing out the inconsistencies of others, however, is ensuring our actions are consistent with our beliefs. Yes, many of the proponents of Earth Day (and similar events) have no proper basis for predicating their environmental whims. But we, as Christians, do have an undeniable biblical basis for caring for the Earth. As disappointing as it is to see naturalists and evolutionists uphold the idea that humankind has a responsibility to care for creation even while they reject the Creator, it is just as disappointing to see Christians who fail to pay heed to our responsibility to care for the Earth. Sadly, evolutionists have largely displaced Christians in the camp of those committed to environmental protection and caring for the Earth.
The Bible makes it very clear that this Earth is a temporary, fallen domicile (2 Peter 3:10, 12)—with environmental problems a specific curse that came as a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:17–19, Romans 8:20)—that will ultimately be destroyed through God’s actions, and, thus, none of our actions will “heal” the Earth (Isaiah 51:6, 65:17; Romans 8:21; Hebrews 1:10–12; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1).
Though there will one day be a new Earth, Christians have a proper basis from the Bible to:
True “environmentalism” is obedience to God—out of deference for some of the earliest commands He has given us and in accordance with Romans 1:20. Active human stewardship of the Earth is also a recognition of the fact that humans have the most prominent role in God’s creation. Don DeYoung, in Weather and the Bible, adds these reasons:
In spite of sin, the creation remains a rich testimony to God’s goodness. Stewardship of this silent witness is an act of worship. Our minds will someday be made perfect, yet we spend our lives studying and exercising them. The same arguments apply to caring for the present, temporary earth.13
An excellent microcosm of our responsibility for God’s creation can be found in the story of Noah. It was the wickedness of humans in the antediluvian world that incurred God’s destruction (Genesis 6:5–8), just as the Fall in Genesis (Genesis 3:6–7) is responsible for the environmental problems (Genesis 3:17–19) we have today (and all other problems). Yet Noah, a man, was responsible for saving the [land] animals from God’s consequence for human sin. In the same way, we, today, have the responsibility to bear the burden of the Fall’s environmental consequences, which fall not only on us, but on all of creation (Romans 8:22).
It is, therefore, our Christian duty to be passionate about this planet and to show a greater, truer devotion (a justifiable devotion) for protecting the Earth than do non-Christians—most of whom who show devotion in contradiction to their worldview. Ken Ham puts it this way:
Most of all, we need to continue to adopt and develop a Christian environmental ethic based on the Bible, and we need to practise it. We need to take dominion, ruling over the earth and subduing it, gaining fruit for our labour, all the while understanding that our own sinful nature may blind us, and we must reject wanton and needless exploitation of the creation for selfish gain. There will be no better solution to the environmental crisis until God makes a new heaven and a new earth in which ‘righteousness dwells’.14
Yet another important reason for caring for nature is so that we can follow the example of the Lord. Numerous men of faith were called away from society to nature, and it was in nature that they communed with God. Consider the great number of Psalms that use metaphors from nature—including the well-known 23rd Psalm. Throughout the Bible, lush vegetation and clear streams are used to symbolize God’s love (Isaiah 32:15–17, 35:1–2, 6–7), just as barren deserts are shown as the results of God’s curse (24:1, 3). And—the most important example—when Christ sought solitude and went away to pray, it was in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36), where He went often (John 18:2). This responsibility—to worship and seek God through understanding what God has created—begins in Genesis, was upheld by Christ, and is our responsibility today. And beyond the prominent way God has used His creation to draw man closer to Him are the many practical benefits to exploring nature, including stress relief and the benefits of exercise.
As the advocates of Earth Day would say, we all do need to “do our part”; but as Christians, we must go beyond this and exert the effort to prove to the world that the church is living in accordance with what the Bible says about creation. I suspect that many of us actually have somewhat disdainful views of environmental “causes,” when in fact, we must have a reputation for caring for the created Earth.
One step in the right direction could be if the church were to emphasize its desire to be a godly steward of creation through a “Creation Day” that would highlight the Christian view of the environment, rather than elevating the environment to a godlike status as does Earth Day. This way, the focus of the day would not be on “Earth” as a standalone entity or in some pantheistic sense of “Mother Earth,” but rather, the focus would be on creation and its Creator. Through this day, we could spearhead an upheaval of the humanist near-monopoly on dictating humankind’s role in caring for the Earth. A Creation Day could be focused on enjoying God’s creation within the framework of Genesis: helping future generations understand the perfection of God’s original creation and the consequences of the Fall, even as we upheld God’s commission for protecting the environment through practical acts of environmental service, such as collecting litter, emphasizing recycling and reduction of waste, planting trees and making wise decisions about energy usage.
My final question, then, is this: is your passion—or lack of passion—for the creation all around us built on the foundations of your worldview, or do your actions lie in contradiction with your beliefs? In other words, are you treating the Earth as your worldview says you should? For Christians, we must fulfill the stewardship responsibilities God has given us. On the other hand, if you realize your sense of awe at creation and passion for the world around you contradicts what you believe about the origin of life, then read the words of Romans 1:20, and understand that creation is one of the most prominent signs of the Creator’s handiwork!
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.