Climate change as a religion, and the more general use of “religion” as a term of insult

The newest way to slam a belief you disagree with—or maybe it’s not so new—is to call it “religious.” For example, “Market Fundamentalism is a quasi-religious faith that unregulated markets will somehow always produce the best possible results,” and so is global warming (“The only difference between the religions right and the religious left, is that the religious right worships a man, and the religious left worships . . . Mother Nature”). As is evidence-based medicine (“as religious as possible . . . just another excuse, really—to sneer at people”). And then there’s the religion of Darwinism.

I encountered an extreme example of this sort of thing recently, from columnist Rod Dreher, who writes disapprovingly of “(Climate) science as religion”—on a religious website called Beliefnet (which has, under the heading, “My Faith,” the options Christianity, Buddhism, Catholic, Hinduism, Mormon, Judiasm, Islam, Holistic, and Angels. Dreher actually appears to be a supporter of climate science here; he’s criticizing a dissent-suppressing attitude that he sees, not the actual work that’s being done by the scientists in the field.

Maybe it’s time to retire use of the term “religion” to mean “uncritical belief in something I disagree with.” Now that actual religious people are using the term in this way, it would seem to have no meaning left.


Perhaps I’m a little sensitive about this because back when I started doing statistics, people often referred to Bayesianism as a religion. At one point, when I was doing work on Bayesian predictive checking, one of my (ultra-classical) colleagues at Berkeley said that he was not a Bayesian. But if he was, he’d go the full subjective route. So he didn’t understand what I was doing.

One of my Berkeley colleagues who studied probability—really, a brilliant guy—commented once that “of course” he was a Bayesian, but he was puzzled by how Bayesian inference worked in an example he’d seen. My feeling was: Bayes is a method, not a religion! Can’t we evaluate it based on how it works?

And, a few years ago, someone from the computer science department came over and gave a lecture in the stat dept at Columbia. His talk was fascinating, but he irritated me by saying how his method gave all the benefits of Bayesian inference “without having to believe in it.” I don’t believe in logistic regression either, but it sure is useful!

14 thoughts on “Climate change as a religion, and the more general use of “religion” as a term of insult

  1. Do you have a proposed better name for set of beliefs which cannot be disputed by evidence?

    I agree that using the term religion is problematic for such a name, but cannot come up with a better one right now.

  2. Michael Creighton gave a speech on Environmentalism as religion.

    Here's a excerpt.

    "Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it's a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.

    There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe."

    The global warming alarmists accuse the skeptics of practicing religion and vice-versa.

    As for Bayesianism being a religion– that has some merit. I've met Dennis Lindley and he certainly comes across as a religious zealot. Ditto for Richard Barlow. He took a tour of Bayes's crypt and showed me photographs. The license plate on his SAAB 99 reads "BAYES." Jaynes comes across like a true believer in his book, "Probability Theory: the logic of science." "Religious" is an apt term for these fellows. They are absolutely convinced that the Bayes approach is the only valid approach to statistics. Brad Efron told me that his article, "Why isn't everyone a Bayesian?" produced the biggest response he ever got, and much of which was extremely critical. A whole lot of people were really put off by some of his criticisms. I think he's actually a Bayesian, but not of the religious variety. There does seem to be something about Bayesianism that leads some people to fanaticism.

  3. Zarkov:

    It's hard for me to evaluate Crichton's quote because I don't really know what he means by "Judeo-Christian beliefs." He talks about the idea that we are all sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation. I think we can all agree on the "doomed to die" part, but, beyond that, the doctrine seems more Christian than Judeo. I'm no expert on either religion, but I doubt that environmentalists think they're eating the body of Christ when they munch on an organic tofuburger, and I doubt that Crichton thought this either. The line about pesticide-free wafers is amusing, but I don't think it tells me anything more than that Crichton didn't like environmentalists.

    More generally, I think the interchangeable use of the term "religious" and "fanaticicsm" (as in the last paragraph of your comment) does disservice to two large classes of people: religious nonfanatics and nonreligious fanatics.

    I agree that some retired and deceased Bayesians had an extreme way of writing, sometimes–as did many old-time scientists (check out the writings of Oscar Kempthorne or R. A. Fisher sometime, if you want to see some real extremism). Things have changed, as you can see, for example, in the cool, calm prose of Bayesian Data Analysis.

  4. Would you say you have to "believe in" the priors to accept a Bayesian argument? I've certainly seen Bayesian arguments that seem plausible until you look at the choices of priors (the worst offenders I've seen are "anthropic principle" arguments that use one data point—life on Earth—along with ridiculous priors to make strong inferences about distributions of ideal conditions for life).

  5. By "Judeo-Christian beliefs" he means the set of beliefs and practices generally found among observant Christians and Jews. I don't think Crichton means to say that environmentalism and religion are isomorphic; they just share some common traits. I hope you read the whole speech and not just the excerpt, which might give the wrong impression.

    Those Bayesians I met came across as more than merely extreme and dogmatic; they had a missionary zeal to save non-believers from the evils of frequentism. I never met Fisher, but I have read him and about him, including the biography by his daughter Joan Fisher Box and an article by Kendall. While Fisher was pretty rigid, I would not describe him as messianic. Lindley is messianic, and you really have to meet him and spend time talking to him to appreciate that. He's also an extreme leftist who is highly critical of the Pentagon. Although Elmer Gantry like, he once consulted for them and took their money.

    I'm not saying that Bayesians a group are necessarily more religion like than non-Beyesians. But there is a subset that acts that way. As for "fanatic," I used that term once. Strike it if you like and replace it with "messianic." Messianic means: marked by idealism and an aggressive crusading spirit. Although if we want to regard Bayes himself as the Messiah, or perhaps DeFinnitti then we can take the term more literally.

  6. I'm an academic who use to work with global change researchers. Religious is not how I would describe them, however I also socialize with many in the environmental community. The best way I can describe many of the second tier activists is, well, religious. I describe them that way not as an insult, but because it is the best encapsulation of the way they think, act, and socialize. The description may be used by others to be derogatory. It does not mean they are wrong, about the activist community. It is unfortunate that some commentators can not distinguish between activists and scientists.

  7. This is a hot button for me. To say that climate science is a religion misuses the term because religious belief is counter-factual* while climate science is fact-based. The same is obviously true of evolutionary sciences; though these are characterized as the "Darwinian religion," they are abundantly factual. One may apply it appropriately to a belief system, such as "environmentalism" used to signify a way of life as opposed to scientific enquiry in the environmental sciences or discussions about appropriate environmental policy.

    The amazing thing is that religious people are often the ones misusing the word "religion." And that reveals the purpose: to portray ideas they feel are threatening to their world view as being in opposition to true religion, to the plan put forth by God. When they say that science is a religion, that evolution is Darwinian religion, they create a dichotomy between the holy word of their God and whatever crap these lowly, shifty (often Jewish and foreign) scientist types are making up.

    *When I say religion is counter-factual, it needs to be pointed out that this is relatively recent. When these religions arose, the world was largely unknown and unknowable. Magic seemed possible. Miracles could easily be imagined as real. This state of affairs has eroded slowly but well into the 19th C you'd see discussions of how God is found in the seasons, in the way a tree's bark grows, in how the peacock spreads its magnificent tail. Science has largely but gradually uncovered the mechanisms by which all this stuff happens, and over time many of the religious have been pushed further and further into a corner in which their beliefs either must change or the facts must change. Many have chosen the latter. And so they insist that climate change is nothing but an invention, that evolution is a religious belief (counter to God's will).

  8. Inadvertant remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths (or at least what underlies them) may be to some extent unavoidable…

    Interestingly, Peirce admitted to being a bit pieved that his theory of categories ended up being so closely aligned with the Christian trilogy –
    1st possibility, 2nd reality, 3rd understanding (and perhaps the rational he came up for adopting statistical methods being based on Faith, Hope and Charity)…

    Ideas are entangled and academics often are passionate about their work – some even name their first born Gibbs.

    And Lindley was one of the nicest academics (in person) I have ever encountered.


  9. Zarkov:

    My impression is that religious people in the modern era cite faith as the reason for their religious belief, whereas believers in climate change cite data and scientific models, and believers in neoclassical economics cite logical reasoning and historical evidence.

    Also, I don't think "messainic" is good synonym for "religious." Some religious people are crusaders, but many are not, recognizing that their personal faith is different than others. This is a bit different from a scientific dispute.

    Finally, I agree with you that there is a subset of statisticians in various subfields (some Bayesian, many not) who go around telling other people what to do. I find this very annoying, for example when people say not to do posterior predictive checks because it's "using the data twice." Just as, back when I taught at Berkeley, I got annoyed at the professors there who told the students not to use Bayesian methods. I don't see it as religious; I see it as closed-minded.

  10. In my experience, both from meeting them personally, and from looking at comments on the internet, the term "religion" would be better applied to the views of the climate change deniers.

    The climate change deniers I've met are absolutely convinced that the theory is being advanced on the part of powerful people to, well, do something nefarious. Its not clear what. There hasn't been a single public policy to my knowledge that has changed as a result of climate change theory (quite the opposite, all attempts to address the problem through internation agreement have ended in failure). I know people who don't own a car, don't drive, and would therefore not be negatively affected at all by, for example, a higher gas tax or higher prices to buy less fuel efficient cars who are very upset about what the climate change proponents are up to.

    My experience is that support of the Republican Party in the US is becoming increasingly irrational. You buy into a set of policy positions, even if they don't fit together or are backed by evidence, even if they won't benefit you personnally, because of, well I'm not sure. It puzzles me because I'm used to people rationalizing political positions to claim that they are for the public good even when they are for their own good, but I'm taken aback when people use contorted rationalizations on political issues for no apparent reason at all. Maybe rooting for a sports team is a better example than "religion".

    Also, all the Republicans I know personnally bring up the climate change denialist talking points at the first opportunity in conversation, before they bring up any other political points! They are quite inisitent on this. Where they lose me is why I should care even if every point they make is true. Again, what is the purpose of this great liberal conspiracy?

    For background, I am a genuine climate change sceptic. I don't think I have a strong enough scientific background to evaluate how accurate the claims of people are who claim climate change to be a problem. I trust them more than the climate change deniers who have been given publicicty, by far. But I'm also aware that scientific consensus has been horrifically wrong before from time to time in history so I'm automatically sceptical when the consensus is backing something that seems fantastic. So it honesty wouldn't surprise me to see any claims confirme by events or completely debunked.

  11. 1. Can anyone recommend some good books on the various philosophies behind statistics (and probability)?

    2. To what extent do philosophical views affect statistical analysis in practice? There was an Oxford statistician who claimed that, "frequentist approaches employ flawless logic to answer questions which no one cares about; Bayesian statistics are occupied with questions which people care about with disputable reasoning" – and this is the view to which I'm inclined at this stage.

  12. @Darwinian religion:
    There are a bunch of people who would describe themselves as Darwinists and who would describe the way live evolved without considering concepts like gene drift.

    Whether or not you believe in gene drift has relevance for issues like whether you think that humans should take vitamin C supplements and is therefore no minor detail.

    The thesis that it aren't individuals but genes that compete with each other isn't integrated in the understanding of evolution that a lot of people who call themselves Darwinist have.
    As we haven't strict individual competition humans have a lot more compassion than the would have if everything went entirely on the individual level.

    If someone stoped with their understanding of evolution with Darwin and doesn't believe (mostly out of ignorance) in more recent evolutionary theory I don't think that it's wrong to call that behavior religious.

    Partly it's ironic. Because you don't have good science education which accurately explains the current evolutionary theory to most people, you get those people who are indeed believing in a evolutionary modell that hasn't been updated since a houndred years.

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