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Responsibility for the Earth is part of many Christians’ beliefs, but so is skepticism about climate change

Most U.S. adults – including a solid majority of Christians and large numbers of people who identify with other religious traditions – consider the Earth sacred and believe God gave humans a duty to care for it, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Chart shows highly religious Americans overwhelmingly say God gave humans a duty to protect and care for the Earth, but far fewer see climate change as a serious problem.

But the survey also finds that highly religious Americans (those who say they pray each day, regularly attend religious services and consider religion very important in their lives) are far less likely than other U.S. adults to express concern about warming temperatures around the globe.

The survey reveals several reasons why religious Americans tend to be less concerned about climate change. First and foremost is politics: The main driver of U.S. public opinion about the climate is political party, not religion. Highly religious Americans are more inclined than others to identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, and Republicans tend to be much less likely than Democrats to believe that human activity (such as burning fossil fuels) is warming the Earth or to consider climate change a serious problem.

Religious Americans who express little or no concern about climate change also give a variety of other explanations for their views, including that there are much bigger problems in the world today, that God is in control of the climate, and that they do not believe the climate actually is changing. In addition, many religious Americans voice concerns about the potential consequences of environmental regulations, such as a loss of individual freedoms, fewer jobs or higher energy prices.

Finally, climate change does not seem to be a topic discussed much in religious congregations, either from the pulpit or in the pews. And few Americans view efforts to conserve energy and limit carbon emissions as moral issues.

Chart shows religiously affiliated Americans commonly link their religious beliefs to the environment.

The new survey, conducted April 11-17, 2022, finds that about three-quarters of religiously affiliated Americans say the Earth is sacred. An even greater share (80%) express a sense of stewardship – completely or mostly agreeing with the idea that “God gave humans a duty to protect and care for the Earth, including the plants and animals.” Two-thirds of U.S. adults who identify with a religious group say their faith’s holy scriptures contain lessons about the environment, and about four-in-ten (42%) say they have prayed for the environment in the past year.

These views are common across a variety of religious traditions. For example, three-quarters of both evangelical Protestants and members of historically Black Protestant churches say the Bible contains lessons about the environment. Upward of eight-in-ten members of those two groups say God gave humans a duty to protect and care for the Earth. And about eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics and mainline Protestants, as well as 77% of members of non-Christian religions, say the Earth is sacred.

But Christians, and religiously affiliated Americans more broadly, are not as united in their views about climate change. While majorities of all the large U.S. Christian subgroups say they think global climate change is at least a somewhat serious problem, there are substantial differences in the shares who consider it an extremely or very serious problem – ranging from 68% of adults who identify with the historically Black Protestant tradition to 34% of evangelical Protestants. And half or fewer people surveyed in all major Protestant traditions say the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity, including 32% of evangelicals.

On average, people who are less religious tend to be more concerned about the consequences of global warming. For example, religiously unaffiliated adults – those who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” – are much more likely to say climate change is an extremely or very serious problem (70%) than are religiously affiliated Americans as a whole (52%). And people who have a low level of religious commitment are much more likely than those with a medium or high level of religious commitment to be concerned about climate change.1 Most highly religious Americans see climate change as at least a somewhat serious problem, but fewer than half (42%) say it is an extremely or very serious problem, compared with 72% of the least religious adults.

Religious “nones” and Americans with low levels of religious commitment also are far more likely than their more religious counterparts to say the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels. For instance, 70% of people in the low religious commitment category say the Earth is warming due to human behavior, compared with 39% of highly religious Americans. Religiously affiliated adults and those who are highly religious are more likely than those who are religiously unaffiliated or have lower levels of religious commitment to say that the Earth is getting warmer mostly due to natural patterns, or that there is no solid evidence the Earth is warming – though the latter is a less common viewpoint.

Chart shows highly religious Americans are less concerned about climate change, less convinced human activity is causing warmer temperatures.

These patterns raise the question: If many religiously affiliated Americans, including most Christians, see a connection between care for the environment and their religious beliefs, then why are they less likely to be concerned about climate change than people with no religion?

Chart shows climate change gets relatively little attention in U.S. religious congregations.

There is no single, definitive answer to this question, but the new Center survey offers some clues. For one, climate change does not seem to be a major area of focus in U.S. congregations. Among all U.S. adults who say they attend religious services at least once or twice a month, just 8% say they hear a great deal or quite a bit about climate change in sermons. Another one-in-five say they hear some discussion of the topic from the pulpit, but seven-in-ten say they hear little or nothing about it. Similarly, just 6% of U.S. congregants say they talk about climate change with other people at their congregation a great deal or quite a bit.

Answers to these questions are strongly correlated with views toward climate change. For example, among all religious service attenders who say they hear at least some about the topic in sermons, 68% consider climate change an extremely or very serious problem, compared with 38% among attenders who say they hear little or nothing about it in sermons. And 61% of the former group believe the Earth is warming mostly due to human activity, versus 37% among the latter group. This does not necessarily prove that sermons are persuading people to change their views on this topic. It could also be that people seek out houses of worship where the clergy and fellow congregants generally share their views, or that they are more likely to recall sermons on topics that matter to them. But, for whatever reasons, there is a connection between religious attenders’ views on climate change and how much they remember hearing about the issue in their places of worship.

Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, also do not seem to view efforts to reduce carbon emissions in moral terms. When asked whether driving a car that gets poor gas mileage is morally wrong, morally acceptable or not a moral issue, 10% of U.S. adults – including 8% of those with a religious affiliation – say it is morally wrong. There are similar results on a question about eating food that requires a lot of energy to produce: 13% of U.S. adults say this is morally wrong.

Click HERE for a full PDF of the survey.