‘This is God’s Stuff We’re Messing With’: Geoengineering as a Religious Issue (Opinion Article)

Carr (2014) – This is God’s Stuff We’re Messing With – Click for download

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 16.48.47“It’s very dangerous to try and play God. This is God’s stuff we’re messing with. Historically speaking, any time we try to play God, we lose every time. That’s what I think about it.” This is how Peyton[1]—an Alaska Native, subsistence hunter, and wildlife specialist in Barrow, Alaska—described his impressions of geoengineering after hearing about it for the first time. The ‘playing God’ metaphor Peyton utilizes is not novel; it appears time and again in discussions about emergent scientific and technological issues.[2] In recent years, the phrase has been employed by journalists, philosophers, bloggers, and members of the public alike in reference to geoengineering.[3] Ethicist Clive Hamilton suggests ‘playing God’ resonates with both theists and atheists because it captures a sense of, “humans crossing a boundary to a domain of control or causation that is beyond their rightful place.”[4] In other words, the metaphor indicates that the prospect of intentionally modifying the global climate evokes deeply held beliefs about the proper place and role of humans in the order of the cosmos. For many people these deeply held beliefs are religious in nature. Consequently, religious beliefs could play a critical role in future discussions about geoengineering at local, national, and international levels. This article draws upon past social science research and recent interviews with religious individuals to argue that religion will play a role in public support for, or opposition to, geoengineering research in many countries.

In the United States, a large majority of the population claims a religious tradition, and religious groups exert significant social and political influence.[5] Social science research indicates that religion also affects perceptions of emergent science and technology. Studies have found that religion negatively impacts belief in climate change and support for scientific research on issues like biotechnology and nanotechnology.[6] Brossard et al. for example, found that in the US, religion played a more important role in shaping perceptions of nanotechnology than factual knowledge about the topic, with more religious individuals significantly less likely to support funding for research.[7] In a similar study that compared the US with Europe, Scheufele et al. found that more religious countries like Italy and Ireland were similar to the US, exhibiting lower levels of public support for nanotechnology research than less religious countries such as Denmark and Germany.[8] These studies indicate that religion provides a key perceptual filter, or framework through which people interpret science communication, and form opinions about emergent scientific and technological issues.

Religious beliefs will likely play a similar role with regards to geoengineering. As Kahan et al. (forthcoming) argue, “cultural values are cognitively prior to facts in public risk conflicts … groups of individuals will credit and dismiss evidence of risk in patterns that reflect and reinforce their distinctive understandings of how society should be organized.” In other words, people interpret information about science and technology within a particular cultural context and in light of the values that they hold individually and share with others. As a result, people accept or dismiss scientific evidence not on content, but whether or not it is framed in a way that aligns with or threatens their values and beliefs. Interestingly, Kahan et al. found that the prospect of geoengineering better aligned with the values of certain cultural groups who view “human technological ingenuity as the principle means by which our species has succeeded in overcoming environmental constraints on its flourishing”.[9] Geoengineering could therefore make cultural groups who extol technological ingenuity more open to discussing climate change solutions. The exact opposite may be the case for religious groups.

Drawing on theological reflection as opposed to social science research, Forrest Clingerman suggests that religious responses to geoengineering are likely to emerge along a continuum that emphasizes human fallibility at one end and human capability on the other.[10] The fallibility perspective or narrative stresses the finitude of human knowledge and past examples of human hubris in trying to interfere with divinely ordered processes. As such, this perspective is likely to caution against geoengineering and suggest that attempts to modify the climate are likely to result in calamity. The capability perspective, on the other hand, views human nature and ability more optimistically. It suggests that despite past failures, humans should still employ their ingenuity and new technologies to address contemporary problems.

This tension between human capability and fallibility arose time and again in interviews I conducted with over 100 individuals (like Peyton quoted above) in the Solomon Islands, Kenya, and Alaska (United States) about their views on geoengineering.[11] The majority of interviewees openly wrestled with whether or not they thought humans should try to modify the global climate. Roughly a quarter of the individuals I spoke with invoked religious beliefs or spirituality explicitly (and unprompted) as they grappled with this question. For example, Rachael[12], a Native Alaskan who directed an organization dedicated to including indigenous people and knowledge in science, described her initial response to geoengineering in the following way:

The indigenous side of me has an automatic reaction to messing with the creator’s plans. I would venture to say that that’s probably going to be the reaction from most indigenous communities. … Our first concern is always the care of Mother Earth. That’s the way we’re taught from the day we can breathe, that we are the original stewards of the universe and our homelands. Our environment around us is meant for us to protect. … I’m pretty certain if I had my elders sitting here, that they’d probably feel pretty much the same way.

Rachel’s wariness of geoengineering is not necessarily surprising, or unique to religious persons. As David Keith et al. have noted, “It is a healthy sign that a common first response to geoengineering is revulsion. It suggests that we have learned something from past instances of over-eager technological optimism and subsequent failures”.[13] A key difference for religious individuals is that this initial revulsion stems from deeply held beliefs about the proper order of the world, not just from anxieties based on past technological failures. In other words, in addition to concerns about human fallibility, religion may prompt a sense that humans simply should not intentionally interfere with the ‘domain of the Gods’.[14]

This concern was, in fact, a common theme across all interviews where individuals discussed religion, regardless of location or religious tradition.[15] More specifically, all of the individuals who referred to religious beliefs said their faith was a key reason they were dubious of geoengineering. This should not be taken as an indication that all religious traditions or religious individuals will react the same way. There will not be any single religious response to geoengineering. As Clingerman points out, “Different religious traditions have different authorities, rituals, scriptures, historical contexts, and theological commitments. These result in a dialog between different approaches to technology, politics, and environmental concerns …”[16] My point therefore is not to argue that religious individuals will interpret geoengineering in any particular way. Rather, the interviews I conducted suggest that the prospect of geoengineering evokes religious beliefs for religious individuals. Geoengineering confronts our perceptions of the proper place of humans in the world. For many, these perceptions are explicitly informed by religious beliefs about where humans stand in relation to nature, creation, and the divinities. While religion was not the focus of the interviews, and this sample is certainly not representative of the broader population in these three countries, these findings align with past research, and indicate that religion is a powerful frame that many people will draw upon to make sense of geoengineering.

So why has religion been largely absent from previous assessments of public perceptions of geoengineering? The most likely reason is that most studies to date have taken place in the United Kingdom[17], a “less religious country”.[18] While 83% of Americans claim that religion is either very important (60%) or fairly important (23%) in their lives, only 47% of Britons say the same thing (with only 17% indicating that religion is very important).[19] However, there is ample evidence across existing research that geoengineering does raise questions about the concept of nature and how humans relate to it.[20] In one UK based public engagement exercise in particular, Corner et al. found ‘messing with nature’ to be a dominant narrative.[21] They concluded that, “The wide variety of ways in which people … conceptualised and debated the relationship between geoengineering and the natural world suggests that this will be a key factor determining public views on the topic as awareness of it grows”.[22] They also noted that it would be interesting to see whether or not religious individuals employed similar narratives.

Considering that nearly 85% of the world’s population claims membership in a religious group[23], religion will undoubtedly have much to say about geoengineering.[24] Future research needs to explore the connections between religious beliefs and geoengineering more explicitly. Religion will not only affect individuals’ perceptions, but also the tenor of public discussion, media frames, and even policy proposals in countries with large religious populations. As Corner et al. argue with regards to public perceptions of geoengineering more broadly, researchers and policy-makers need to resist the temptation to dismiss religiously informed perspectives as irrational or anti-science.[25] While certain religious traditions in countries like the US have a long history of clashes with science, concerns about geoengineering based on religious beliefs are fundamentally concerns about how humans should understand and relate to the world around them. As a result, effectively engaging religiously informed perspectives means discussing deep-seated values—including the values that scientists and policy makers bring to the table. Geoengineering research could face stiff opposition if religious values are not taken into consideration. Furthermore, certain geoengineering approaches may be deemed wholly unacceptable from certain religious perspectives regardless. Advocates for geoengineering research should therefore bear in mind that for many people around the world, this is God’s stuff we’re messing with.


Brossard, D., D.A. Scheufele, E. Kim, and B.V. Lewenstein. 2009. “Religiosity as a Perceptual Filter: Examining Processes of Opinion Formation about Nanotechnology.” Public Understanding of Science, 18(5): 546-558.

Carr, W., A. Mercer, and C. Palmer. 2012. “Public Concerns about the Ethics of Solar Radiation Management.” In C. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management. Plymouth: Lexington Books.

Clingerman, F. 2012. “Between Babel and Pelagius: Religion, Theology, and Geoengineering.” In C. Preston (Ed.), Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management. Plymouth: Lexington Books.

Clingerman, F. 2014. “Geoengineering, Theology, and the Meaning of Being Human.” Zygon, 49(1): 6-21.

Corner, A., K. Parkhill, N. Pidgeon, and N.E. Vaughan. 2013. “Messing with Nature? Exploring Public Perceptions of Geoengineering in the UK.” Global Environmental Change, 23(5): 938-947.

Corner, A., N. Pidgeon, and K. Parkhill. 2012. “Perceptions of Geoengineering: Public Attitudes, Stakeholder Perspectives, and the Challenge of ‘Upstream’ Engagement. WIREs Climate Change, 3: 451-466.

Donner, S. 2007. “Domain of the Gods: An Editorial Essay.” Climatic Change, 85(3-4): 231-236.

Drees, W. B. (2002). “Playing God? Yes!” Religion in the Light of Technology. Zygon, 37(3), 643-654.

Farrell, P. 2012. “6 Ways Billionaires Try to Play God on Climate.” MarketWatch, November 2. Retrieved from http://www.marketwatch.com/story/6-ways-billionaires-try-to-play-god-on-climate-2012-11-02.

Gaskell, G., E. Einsiedel, W. Hallman, S.H. Priest, J. Jackson, and J. Olsthoorn. 2005. “Social Values and the Governance of Science.” Science, 310(5756), 1908-1909.

Hamilton, C. 2013. Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Geoengineering. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jelen, T. G., and L.A. Lockett. 2014. “Religion, Partisanship, and Attitudes toward Science Policy.” SAGE Open, 4(1).

Kahan, D., C. Silva, T. Tarantola, H. Jenkins-Smith, and D. Braman. (forthcoming). “Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization: Testing a Two-Channel model of Science Communication.” Annals of American Academy of Political & Social Science, in press.

Keith, D., E. Parson, and G. Morgan. 2010. “Research on Global Sunblock Needed Now.” Nature, 463: 426-427.

Maibach, E., H. Roser, C. Renouf, and A. Leiserowitz. 2009. Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009: An Audience Segmentation Analysis. Retrieved from www.climatechange.gmu.edu

Peters, T. 2007. Are We Playing God with Nanoenhancement?” In F. Allhoff (Ed.), Nanoethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Nanotechnology. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Pew Research Center. 2012. The Global Religious Landscape. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/files/2014/01/global-religion-full.pdf

Ray, J. 2003. Worlds Apart: Religion in Canada, Britain, U.S. Washington, D.C.: Gallup Inc.. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/9016/worlds-apart-religion-canada-britain-us.aspx

Scheufele, D.A., E.A. Corley, T.J. Shih, K.E. Dalrymple, and S.S. Ho. 2009. Religious Beliefs and Public Attitudes Toward Nanotechnology in Europe and the United States. Nature Nanotechnology, 4, 91-94.

Silk, M. 2008. One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Pub.

Silver, L. M. 2006. Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life. New York: Ecco.

Wagner, G., and M. Weitzman. 2012. “Playing God.” Foreign Policy, October 24. Retrieved from: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/10/22/playing_god


[1] Pseudonym

[2] Peters 2007; Silver 2007

[3] Carr et al. 2012; Farrell 2012; Wagner and Weitzman 2012

[4]Hamilton 2013, 177-178

[5] Pew Research Center 2012; Silk 2008

[6] Gaskell et al. 2005; Jelen and Lockett 2014; Maibach et al. 2009

[7] Brossard et al. 2009

[8] Scheufele et al. 2008

[9]Kahan et al. forthcoming, 19

[10]Clingerman 2012; 2014

[11] Unfortunately there is not room here for a thorough discussion of the methods or results of this research. However, in brief, these three study sites were chosen to explore whether or not individuals in regions experiencing different impacts from climate change were currently aware of geoengineering and what they thought about it as a possible response to climate change. All interviews were conducted in-person between March, 2013 and January, 2014. All interviewees were actively working on climate change or related issues (such as wildlife conservation or ecotourism) at the time of the interview. Interviewees were shown a seven minute animated video that introduced the topic of geoengineering, explained several proposals, indicated some potential harms and benefits, and touched on some of the social and political questions that geoengineering raises. The video was a modified, preliminary version of a film produced by the Climate Media Factory for the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies and used for research purposes with permission. The final version of the film entitled “Engineering the Climate” can be viewed here: http://www.iass-potsdam.de/research-clusters/sustainable-interactions-atmosphere-siwa/news/climate-engineering-trump-card.

[12] Pseudonym

[13]Keith et al. 2010, 427

[14] Donner 2007

[15] All interviewees who brought up religion in the Solomon Islands and Kenya discussed Christian beliefs. Some interviewees in Alaska discussed Native spirituality as Rachael did, while others discussed Christian beliefs like Peyton.

[16] Clingerman 2012, 208

[17] Corner et al. 2012

[18] Scheufele et al. 2008; Pew Research Center 2012

[19] See Ray 2003. Unfortunately similar data does not exist for Kenya or the Solomon Islands. However over 97% of Solomon Islanders are Christian, while 85% of Kenyan’s identify as Christian, and another 10% as Muslim. It is reasonable to conclude that religion is important to the large majority of individuals in both countries.

[20] Carr et al. 2012; Corner et al. 2012; Corner et al. 2013

[21] Corner et al. 2013

[22] Corner et al. 2013, 946

[23] Pew Research Group 2012

[24] Clingerman 2012

[25] Corner et al. 2013

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One response to “‘This is God’s Stuff We’re Messing With’: Geoengineering as a Religious Issue (Opinion Article)

  1. Some of the projects considered “geoengineering” should just be relabeled. Replacing the iron people take out of the ocean from fishing is one of them.

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