Christians show greater concern for climate change and environmental issues in general when presented with religious material (from credible sources) that advocate humanity’s role as stewards of nature, new research reports.

Miracle.

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A big factor shaping how Christians view environmental issues is whether they view humanity as having stewardship or dominion over the Earth, report psychologists from the University of Illinois (UoI) and the University of Warwick (UoW). Reading material advocating for either of these two views can shift those attitudes, they add, with religious material promoting a stewardship interpretation increasing concern for the environment and climate change.

Cleanliness is next to godliness

“Stewardship and dominion ideas are common among Christians. We were interested in whether these ideas, as well as having them advocated by credible or trusted sources among Christians such as the Bible or Pope Francis, had an effect on Christians’ attitudes toward the environment,” said lead author Faith Shin, a psychology graduate at the UoI.

“Religion has a powerful influence on moral concerns. Climate change is arguably the biggest challenge facing the world, and most of the world’s population identify with a religion or belief in God. It makes sense that religious beliefs should also have powerful influence on moral attitudes toward the environment,” adds Jesse Preston, a professor of psychology at UoW and paper co-author.

The team surveyed 292 (Christian) participants on their stewardship and dominion beliefs as well as their attitude towards environmental issues such as climate change. Overall, they report, viewing humanity as stewards — i.e. that God commands us to take care of the Earth and all life on it — was associated with greater concern for environmental issues. Protecting nature was perceived as a moral imperative by those who believe humans are designated stewards. Dominion beliefs, meanwhile — that God gave humanity free rein to do as they please with the Earth — were associated with lesser concern for climate change, the team adds.

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They then tested to see how trusted religious sources influence participants’ interpretation of humanity’s role on Earth. In the first experiment, 588 participants were given one of three articles to read: two using the Bible to support either a stewardship or dominion belief and a control article on an unrelated topic.

“We took real Bible passages that could be interpreted as supporting one view or the other, then wrote up mock articles for the participants to read. Right after they read the passages, they answered some measures about their moral concern for climate change and their belief in climate change,” Shin said.

In the second experiment, 498 participants read articles that cited Pope Francis as a source. One group received an article quoting from the pope’s 2015 encyclical on environmental stewardship and climate change measures, the second group read an article about his stance on birth control, and the third read an unrelated control article.

People who read material promoting stewardship in both experiments showed greater moral concern for the environment and climate change compared to the control group, the team reports. Reading material supporting dominion views did not reduce these concerns in the same way.

“There appears to be more power for religious messages to enhance moral concerns for climate change than decrease these concerns, which we think is a very hopeful result,” Preston said. “When trusted religious sources endorse stewardship messages consistent with religious values, it encourages concern for climate change as a moral and religious issue.”

Next, the team hopes to study how other religious beliefs or faith systems affect their adherents’ attitudes toward climate change and the environment.

The paper “Green as the gospel: The power of stewardship messages to improve climate change attitudes” has been published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.