Shortly before beginning to write this, I read a transcript of a recent Rush Limbaugh show titled “The Pope's ‘Science Advisor’ Is an Atheist Who Worships the Earth,” which begins:
“My friends, not one to let things go, I have dug deep, and I have found out practically everything there is to know about the science advisor to Pope Francis on this encyclical. And the main thing you need to know, the guy's an atheist.”
Why is that the main thing we need to know? Because atheists are evil, of course, and therefore their judgment can’t be trusted. But then Limbaugh says “the word for it in the story that I found, one of the most credible stories, is a pantheist, which is a variation of atheist.” Really? An a-theist is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but a pan-theist is someone who believes that God is the universe, or that the universe is a manifestation of God. (You know, “pan” means “all” and “theos” means “God,” and all that.) But Limbaugh says that a “pantheist is somebody that believes the earth is a living organism that has the equivalent of a brain and reacts to horrible things done to it by humans,” and that in this view “the earth becomes the deity and there is no God.”
Limbaugh’s deep digging raises more questions than it answers. Does the Pope’s science advisor, Hans Schellnhuber, really believe that the Earth is a living organism like you or me — or God? And if he does, does it matter? Do only atheists believe in anthropogenic global warming? If so, how do you explain someone like Katharine Hayhoe, an Evangelical Christian who “believes her religious faith obligates her to spread the word about climate change”? Can we trust her judgment? Limbaugh should really worry more about her because, as member of their tribe, she has the power to change Christian minds. Christians certainly aren’t going to be swayed by an evil atheist pantheist.
A search for Katharine Hayhoe on Limbaugh’s site turned up only one mention of her name. In a 2011 show where he interviews Marc Morano, who runs the climate denier blog Climate Depot, Limbaugh brings up the fact that Hayhoe was slotted to have a chapter in an upcoming book by Newt Gingrich:
“This woman is writing Newt's chapter on climate change in the new book. She says, ‘It is primarily laypeople like talk show hosts who are perpetuating the idea that there is no scientific consensus.’ Marc Morano, our man in Washington, claims that Newt's new book has a chapter written by a babe named Hayhoe — no offense, Reverend Jackson — that man-made global warming is happening, caused by man.”
Limbaugh doesn’t try to understand how an Evangelical Christian could believe that “among climate scientists, people who spend their lives researching our world, there's no debate regarding the reality of climate change and the fact that humans are the primary cause.” He doesn’t even mention the fact that she’s a Christian. It turns out that just mentioning her on his show was enough to discredit her, though; Gingrich subsequently cut her chapter out of his book completely.
But back to Schellnhuber. Does he really believe in her holiness, Mother Gaia? I’m not 100 percent sure, but I doubt that he believes the Earth is literally a god to be worshipped. In a Nature article from 1999, titled “‘Earth system’ analysis and the second Copernican Revolution,” Schellnhuber argues that “sophisticated information-compression techniques including simulation modelling are now ushering in a second ‘Copernican’ revolution” that strives to understand the Earth holistically, hoping to develop concepts for global environmental management from that. A holistic approach is common in medicine, for example: the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the physical symptoms of a disease. A holistic approach to understanding the Earth seeks to take into account every relevant factor, too. Doesn’t seem too controversial.
Where people like Limbaugh really blow a gasket is when Schellnhuber writes that “ecosphere science is therefore coming of age, lending respectability to its romantic companion, Gaia theory.” To Limbaugh, this is an admission of allegiance to a pagan religion. But the “ecosphere" is just the biosphere of the earth, with emphasis on the interaction between its living and nonliving components. Gaia theory is a hypothesis formulated by the chemist James Lovelock and co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, that proposed that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet.
The philosopher Michael Ruse notes in 2013 that “as science, Gaia never really made it, but it has provoked important scientific work nonetheless. The world as a whole, its homeostasis or lack of it, is interesting, important, and worthy of investigation,” and that even if Gaia theory hasn’t been accepted by most scientists, he says that “‘Earth Systems Science’ flourishes.” A charitable reading of Schellnhuber would lead us to conclude that he’s not shilling for a new religion. Consider his use of the adjective “romantic” to describe Gaia theory. He’s not taking Gaia theory literally, he’s saying that it’s “suggestive of an idealized view of reality,” as my Oxford dictionary defines “romantic.”
In other words, he’s using it as a metaphor to help him understand the issue. Schellnhuber also says that this “hotly debated ‘geophysiological’ approach to Earth-system analysis argues that the biosphere contributes in an almost cognizant way to self-regulating feedback mechanisms that have kept the Earth’s surface environment stable and habitable for life.” Notice that he uses scare quotes to describe Lovelock’s idea of studying the Earth’s “body.” Schellnhuber also utilizes metaphorical language again when he says that the Earth acts in an almost cognizant manner. That is, almost but not really.
Science thrives on the use of metaphor and analogy, especially when trying to communicate complex ideas and processes. Think of Richard Dawkins’s concept of the “selfish gene,” or pretty much anything written on physics by Brian Greene. In an episode of "The Big Bang Theory," Greene has a cameo appearance where he uses a metaphor to introduce a wacky quantum effect:
“You can think of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle much like the special order menu that you find in certain Chinese restaurants, where you have some dishes in column A and other dishes in column B, and if you order the first dish in column A you can’t order the corresponding dish in column B — that’s sort like the Uncertainty Principle.”
Does Greene really believe that quantum physics is like a Chinese menu? Do I really need to answer that question?
I don’t think these subtleties are lost on people like Limbaugh; I think they believe they’re used as subterfuge by what they consider to be evil, liberal secular fascists to control the world. But that still doesn’t explain people like Katharine Hayhoe, who recently commented on the Pope’s “Laudato Si” encyclical at fellow Evangelical and scientist Francis Collins’s BioLogos website. The title of her post is “Why All Christians Should Heed Pope Francis’ Call to ‘Care for Our Common Home,’” where she writes:
“This is why the Pope’s unprecedented encyclical on climate change matters so much. It makes a moral call for action based on the fundamental premises of the Christian faith – premises so fundamental that we can all, and must all, agree...In this world, there is only really one thing we Christians are called to do: to fearlessly express Christ’s love to others. In the case of climate change, how do we express this love? Through acknowledging the reality of the issue; supporting action to help others who are being harmed now, today, and in the future; and taking our responsibility to care for God’s creation seriously.”
I think it’s clear that the Earth system science that people like Schellnhuber and others engage in makes generous use of metaphors to both understand the issue of global climate change and to communicate that understanding to the rest of us. Whether it’s called “Gaia” or “God’s creation,” it’s a poetic metaphor that has the power to motivate us to make the necessary changes because it shows how much we’re actually invested in it.
Speaking of poetic metaphors, the late poet Denise levertov, a former agnostic who converted to Catholicism in her sixties, combines Schellnhuber’s Gaia and Hayhoe’s Creation in her poem “Tragic Error” from her 1992 book Evening Train:
Surely we were to have been
earth’s mind, mirror, reflective source.
Surely our task
was to have been
to love the earth,
to dress and keep it like Eden’s garden.
That would have been our dominion:
to be those cells of the earth’s body that could
perceive and imagine, could bring the planet
into the haven it is to be known.
But as is usual for Limbaugh and others like FoxNews hosts and pundits, the invocation of an atheist who believes in Gaia is meant to instill fear in the GOP base, motivating them to vote against the Democratic Devil.