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Denial

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1

Doubting Thomas

Christians understand that people are often reluctant to accept a truth that they do not want to hear. After all, one of the world’s most famous deniers is the apostle Thomas — often referred to as “Doubting Thomas”. Thomas was the only disciple not to have seen the resurrected Christ. When he is told of the resurrection by the other disciples, he refuses to believe them. 

 

The other disciples therefore said unto him, “We have seen the Lord”. But he said unto them, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 

John 20:25

 

Thomas epitomizes those who refuse to believe what they are told unless they are presented with irrefutable evidence which they can see with their own eyes.

Broadly speaking, there are five types of denial: honest, faith/belief, dishonest/cynical, techno-optimism and “bright green”. Further discussion is provided in a .pdf file that can be downloaded here.

 

Honest Denial

George Washington and the cherry tree

There are two reasons for honest denial of climate change and other Age of Limits issues. The first is that someone may look at the facts and associated research and conclude that the climate is not, in fact, changing. These people are in a decided minority, but their insights, analyses and opinions should be respected.

The second reason is to do with the cause of climate change. Some people may accept that the climate is changing (it really is hard not to do so), but their analysis may lead them to the point of view that the changes are not being caused by human activity.

Faith/Belief Denial

Chapter 3  of Faith in a Changing Climate describes the extraordinary success of the scientific method over the course of the last five centuries. That success created a sense of hubris that is now leading to a nemesis — science and technology have led us into a trap, and it is unlikely that they can save us. This is the opportunity for people of faith and for the church to provide leadership. But first it is important to distinguish between faith and belief. Harvey Cox says,

. . . for many people ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ are just two words for the same thing. But they are not the same . . . We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us, but we place our faith only in something that is vital for the way we live.

If someone has adopted a point of view as a belief or as part of their ideology then they cannot be challenged by scientific studies or the presentation of facts. They will merely buttress their beliefs with cherry-picked factoids.( Within this group there is a subset that accepts the phenomenon of climate change but denies that humans are a leading cause of that change.)

 

Faith represents a core understanding, something that cannot be negotiated. Belief, on the other hand, expresses a person’s understanding as to what is taking place, but that belief can be changed without challenging core values. As an example of the distinction between the two words in the context of this book, consider the following two statements,

 

  • I have faith that there is a God and that He created moral rules that we are expected to live by.

  • I have a belief that human activities are leading to global warming.

 

Beliefs are based on observable facts and rational analyses. Faith systems are not based on empirical information. Any challenge to the existence of God and to the rules of morality would be a challenge to that person’s way of thinking and living, to their core values. But, were someone to show that global warming is not actually happening, or that it is not being created by human activity, then that person could change their belief based on the evidence presented. The change would not affect “who they are”.

Dishonest/Cynical Denier

Hamlet: "What news?"

Rosencrantz: "None, my lord, but that the world’s grown honest."

Hamlet: "Then is doomsday near. But your news is not true."

The third group of deniers consists of people who fully understand what is going on with regard to the climate but who cynically choose to take no action because doing so would be against their short-term interests. Many business people fall into this category — they recognize that a truly honest response to our problems could put them out of business.

There is little point in discussing the science and ethics of climate change issues with these people. However, if they sense a business opportunity they could react very quickly thus, ironically, making them one of our best hopes. If they figure out that the best way to make money is to come up with new technologies or low-energy products then they will do so. (The rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates how quickly such a change can take place — see the blog post The New Normal (10) — A Theological Paradigm Shift.)

 

Some energy companies fall into this category. For many of them their core business consists of extracting hydrocarbons (oil, gas and coal) from the ground, turning them into usable fuels and then encouraging people to burn those fuels — thereby elevating the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration. Managers in these companies may deny or ignore climate change issues because they would have to cut back on their production of oil, coal or gas and therefore on profits. But their business model is changing — more and more of their investors recognize that the current approach is a financial dead end and new strategies are needed.

 

Techno-Optimists


Some people do not deny the events that are taking place, but they assumed that some technical solution, some deus ex machina, will come along — just in time to save us. Examples of futuristic technology include nuclear fusion and new types of nuclear fission. The unspoken assumption that many of these people make is that “because something can be done, it will be done”. (Further background to this way of thinking is provided in the blog Alternative Energy Reality.)

Bright Green Deniers


The fourth type of denier is one that includes many readers of sites such as this one. They support changes such as growing vegetables at home, driving hybrid cars, using public transport and installing solar panels. They make extensive use of words such as ‘green’, ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘recycling’. This response — referred to here as 'Bright Green Denial' — is practiced by people who fully accept the conclusions of climate scientists and are even modifying their lifestyle in response. Yet this form of denial may, in the long run, be the most dangerous of all because, fundamental to their way of thinking, is an assumption that these changes will allow us to avoid making serious sacrifices. It is an insidious form of maintaining Business as Usual.

Responding to Denial


The fourth type of denier is one that includes many readers of sites such as this one. They support changes such as growing vegetables at home, driving hybrid cars, using public transport and installing solar panels. They make extensive use of words such as ‘green’, ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘recycling’. This response — referred to here as 'Bright Green Denial' — is practiced by people who fully accept the conclusions of climate scientists and are even modifying their lifestyle in response. Yet this form of denial may, in the long run, be the most dangerous of all because, fundamental to their way of thinking, is an assumption that these changes will allow us to avoid making serious sacrifices. It is an insidious form of maintaining Business as Usual.

By and large, it is probably not worth responding to those who deny the changes that are taking place. Any type of argument, or even discussion, is likely to them digging in their heels even more vigorously — particularly if they see denial as being a part of their faith system or political ideology. They will merely buttress their beliefs with cherry-picked factoids.

However, as the reality of climate change becomes ever more self-evident some deniers may start to wonder if they need to rethink some of their opinions. In such cases, a non-challenging discussion may be make sense. Humor, such as that in Terry Jones’ Hy Brasil may also have an impact.

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