On Nov. 3, 2009, a United Kingdom judge ruled that Tim Nicholson’s environmental principles qualified as a “philosophical belief” under the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations. The former head of sustainability from Grainger plc can now sue the company for religious discrimination, as they fired him because of his environmental policies. This treatment of environmentalist views as a religion is indicative of the role that environmentalism holds in today’s society.

The most prominent environmental issue is climate change, the science of which has long been contested. That is what one expects in science – an idea is put forward and, ideally, is rigorously tested. Even if the idea seems to be proven, the debate is left open in the interest of determining scientific truth. Nevertheless, scientific objections to the theory of climate change have been ignored and the so-called “deniers” censored and even ridiculed within the mainstream media and peer-reviewed journals, as evidenced by the “Climategate” e-mails. Global warming is considered gospel truth in the educational and political spheres and the only issue is the salvation of the planet by repenting of the use of fossil fuels.

Once science ceases to be subject to criticism and becomes the justification for a messianic campaign to prevent a natural apocalypse, it ceases to be science. According to Vaclav Klaus, “Environmentalism as a metaphysical ideology and as a worldview has absolutely nothing to do with natural sciences or with the climate” – in effect, it is a religion. After all, its followers accept a predetermined belief system and resist any changes to its core principles. They are determined to defend the idea in the face of contradictory facts. Those who depart are deniers and are branded “heretics” by their more radical adherents.

A particularly chilling example of the impassioned defence of global warming is David Suzuki’s speech to the McGill Business Conference on Sustainability in 2008, in which he encouraged the crowd to find “a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they’re doing” – ignoring his take on climate science – “is a criminal act.”

Environmentalism could even be considered a state or international religion. Regulations limiting man’s freedoms are put into place, such as the elimination of incandescent lightbulbs or a requirement to pay a carbon tax. All are forced to participate in this movement, because it is enforced from above: the state. Rousseau, in his Social Contract, identified the concept of a state-imposed civil religion, which involves the unification of personal beliefs under a set of “social sentiments (predetermined by the sovereign) without which a man cannot be a good citizen.”

There is reason to believe that there is a campaign to implicate religious groups under the larger “civil religion” of environmentalism to create good citizens. In a 2009 interview with Newsweek, Al Gore said he was appealing to religions to justify action against climate change: “I trained 200 Christian ministers and lay leaders here in Nashville in a version of the slide show that is filled with Scripture references.” The moderator of the United Church of Canada, Mardi Tindal, wrote in an open letter to Canadians upon returning from the Copenhagen climate conference: “Science describes what is. Faith describes how things can and should be. On this issue science is not enough … ecological issues are also fundamentally moral, ethical and theological concerns.”

But, in a secular world, the religious connotations of climate change and environmentalism, and the movement’s popularity, may have a deeper, psychological explanation. The late science fiction writer Michael Crichton said, “You cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You cannot believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life and shapes your sense of the world.” The denunciation of Christianity since the Enlightenment, then, has merely led to other forms of worship, from Rousseau’s civil religion to environmentalism.

Pauline Kosalka is an arts student at the University of Toronto and a contributor The Interim.