Holy Hippopotamus, Batman

November 4, 2009

Looks like Tim Nicholson has won his lawsuit in which he argues that belief in climate change is philosophically akin to a religion. Roger intimated at the potential fallout of such a case a few weeks back, and I picked up the thread too. Of related interest, Leo Hickman pushes the obvious line in his column yesterday.

In my earlier thread, I argued that belief in climate change is not like a religion. In that post, I wanted to take up the philosophical question relevant to the legal claim that a belief in climate change is like other religious beliefs. I proposed that the difference between a religious belief and a non-religious belief lies in the former’s appeal to the supernatural. Many respondents, including philosophy grad student Richard Chappell, pointed out that “when people ask ‘is belief in X a religion?’ they are typically not asking whether X is supernatural.” Richard said that the focus of the claim is not on the content of the belief, but on the psychology of the believer. This is an important observation, but one that seems to me tangential to the legal question.

On this psychological account, if one believes anything fervently enough, then that fervently held belief might qualify not just as religion-like, but as a religion. Fervent belief in Objectivism might qualify as a religion, even though Rand (and presumably her acolytes) fervently condemn religion. More damningly for this view, if one does not believe in the supernatural fervently enough, then that belief is presumably not a religion, even though it may be, according to most people, a religion. So I might believe in God, say, but not have a religious belief in God (whatever that means).

I’d be curious to hear the legal reasoning behind this ruling, as it strikes me as strange. I suspect it has something to do with the UK’s “2003 Religion and Belief Regulations,” which I know nothing about.


  1. It does have something to do with the UK’s “2003 Religion and Belief Regulations.” Because the UK is a secular, post-religion society, the law protecting religious beliefs had to include the non-religious. After all, atheists want the legal goodies too. As a result, they added the word “philosophy” to the law, sop that atheists could be covered without the indignity of having their beliefs besmirched as a religion.

    The failure of this court decision is not that it considers science a religion. The failure is in that acceptance of the belief in a need to act based on scientific research as a philosophy. It’s the word philosophy that’s being tortured here, not religion. There is no more philosophy in the gentleman’s “belief” in the need for action on global warming than there is in the belief in the second law of thermodynamics. His “belief” is a political preference, nothing more.

  2. Somehow I can’t help but suspect that Chesterton’s Father Brown somewhere had some pointed observations on the tendency to throw the religious cloak over the non-orthodox. Perhaps the inclination is not so modern after all. In fact, I’m pretty sure it isn’t.

  3. I’m canadian so I’m not familiar with the UK law. But I am familiar with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.

    Based on the the Canadian law I’m not surprised that climate change can be viewed as philosophical or religious belief.

    A little story from personal experience. A few years back I was laid of from a local store because I was wearing a labor union jacket. I’m not a strong believer in labor union so I had no claim as to have been treated unfairly, yet if I had been a labor union activist I could have sued my employer for unfair treatment.

    So in this case, yes the belief in climate change can be comparable to a religious belief or philosophical belief. It would help if we knew what the complain of unfair treatment or dismissal.

    A belief under Canadian is personal. If someone cannot be discriminated upon for his belief, this person cannot in return force is belief unto other.

    For example, if the said dismissal was related to the Blackberry story mention in the guardian than no the employer couldn’t force this person to go against his belief and force him to take the plane. On the other hand the employee couldn’t complain that is employer has different belief and decided to fly someone else in his place. In that case the employee cannot complain of unfair dismissal. But he maybe right on the contempt charge.

    Mr Nicholson may have made a disservice to his cause by making the claim that his belief are religious in nature and not scientific.

  4. These tribunals have a strong bais towards promoting politically correct world views and sticking it to “the man”. Logic and consistency are secondary and you are probably wasting your time looking for it. I doubt the ruling would have gone the way it did if a climate sceptic was sacked for refusing to adher to some arbitrary green policy imposed by management.

  5. Doesn’t a religion require a deity(ies)? Is there any religion in the world today that is free of deities (or spirits)?

    A belief in AGW seems to me more akin to a superstition than a religion. Does the UK’s “2003 Religion and Belief Regulations” grant legal protection to superstitions? Judging from the decision in this case, I would think that it must. Strange, that.

    • The deity in the case of AGW is a somewhat idealized world in which the climate is always bringing the correct amount of rain, snow, sunlight, etc.

  6. Can’t say I didn’t tell you so.

  7. A huge can of worms. It seems that his belief, which has qualified as a religious one, is not in the science of AGW, but in the conclusions he draws from acceptance of that hypothesis. He concludes that certain conduct is immoral given the truth of the AGW hypothesis. It is this view that seems to be being protected.

    You can see however the sort of problems this can lead to. We can have two different employees. One believes in AGW, thinks warming is disastrous, and believes in consequence that no-one in the company should fly anywhere. The other believes equally in AGW but thinks its a great thing and will dramatically improve the global climate, and so believes that the company staff should fly whenever possible. Both beliefs are protected religious beliefs now.

    But they both work in the travel department. Along with an ardent feminist who believes in the equal and integrated education of girls and boys, and an equally ardent feminist who believes in segregated education, and a devout Christian who is convinced of the superiority of traditional English cuisine right down to bacon and eggs and fried bread, and right next to him an equally devout Muslim who thinks all non-halal food should be banned from the cafeteria…. Alas, they have both found themselves working in the catering department.

    So how are they supposed to set company policy and ensure that all staff act in accordance with it? They cannot even take a vote? Does this mean that I make whatever policy for a company my religious beliefs dictate? And that all of use may make as many different policies as we believe in?

    And what happens then if one of us becomes an apostate…?

    What a can of worms!

    • Interesting. I want to take this can of worms up at some point; but probably not this morning.

  8. Yes michel, that is the result. Impossibility to live in same rule of law with someone you disagree . We are heading, and easier travel will ensure that Leftists will live in a leftist country, Conservatives in a conservative country and Libertarians in a libertarian country, etc. A society can’t work if there isn’t at least a common understanding in several issues. What happens if not, is a society that wil bankrupt itself and will spend most resources in legal and red tape. Will turn the life impossible to everyone and sooner or later will break apart. That is what will happen when everything is political.

  9. Btw after this what is the difference between “Inteligent Design” and “Global Warming” ? :o)

  10. While you may choose to make the distinction between religion and non-religion logically, based upon the applicability of the term “supernatural,” the courts and the law are no so concerned with logical distinctions. The main issue to them (and subsequently to the lawyers, the media, and the public) is emotional; whether or not anybody’s ‘feelings’ get hurt. Those who have an emotional investment must be placated in this era of political correctness.
    “‘Politically correct’ is a euphemism for ‘not completely correct’ – in other words, ‘wrong’.” – Thaddeus Stout

    • I think you’re wrong. You’re making a strawman of the case. There are other serious issues at play here, many of which don’t have anything to do with feelings; and most of which have nothing to do with “political correctness,” whatever that is.

      For one thing, it is a fundamental principle of philosophical liberalism that the freedom of religion must be tolerated. This isn’t so much a requirement rooted in concern about the feelings of another, but an acknowledgement that religious appeals are pragmatically groundless.

      I may have strong belief commitments to the Great Hippo of Quincy, but my beliefs can’t provide any foundation for an appeal that will make sense to you, a non-believer in the Great Hippo of Quincy. In the face of this conundrum, we can do one of two things: outlaw all religious beliefs or accept that religious beliefs maintain a unique status in civil society, in the public discourse: that they are publicly indefensible, but nevertheless of tremendous value to the individual believer. If we privilege the individual, as we do, but aim to arrive at decisions in the public sphere, as we also do, we’ve got to make space for toleration — as opposed to reconciliation — of divergent views.

      • Please explain “pragmatically groundless” in more detail.

        How does your belief in the Great Hippo differ from say a belief in communism, socialism, libertarianism or some other ism. Why is it going to be more difficult to convince me when discussing religion rather than some other silly faith based “ism” ?

      • I take it that those other -isms aren’t faith-based. Surely, some people can be described as having faith in those -isms, but I don’t think that’s the appropriate description of those -isms. Rand, crazy as she was, has arguments for her views. So does Marx. And so do those who are persuaded by Rand or Marx. They make appeals to the value of the individual or to the failings of massive wealth inequities. Religious arguments don’t make the same kind of appeals. They appeal to a supernatural something, something outside of our natural grasp.

  11. I said this before in the last post, quoting Dawson: “a society that has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture… Every living culture must possess some spiritual dynamic, which provides the energy necessary for that sustained social effort which is civilization. Normally this dynamic is supplied by religion, but in exceptional circumstances the religious impulse must disguise itself under philosophical or political forms” (Dawson, 2001).

    I think the ruling is incorrect, for religion should appeal to the supernatural. But in a secular world that wants to not only recognize but affirm what Dawson says above, it is not surprising the ruling passed. And more will pass. Climate change occupies a space that shouldn’t pertain to it (the supernatural), but for some people it actually does acquire divine qualities, it becomes like God, with belief systems, deities, angels, demons, doctrine, dogmas etc. A similar thing occurs with Nature for Romantics and Transcendentalists, and the Free Market for Neo-cons.

  12. […] when it’s held passionately, is a religion. (Ben Hale, an environmental ethicist at Boulder, covered some of this territory last year on his […]

  13. […] when it’s held passionately, is a religion. (Ben Hale, an environmental ethicist at Boulder, covered some of this territory last year on his […]

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