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Laurie Zoloth has recently been chosen president-elect of the American Academy of Religion; she will be chairing the AAR’s 2014 annual meeting in San Diego. In that capacity, she has decided to emphasize climate change as a major theme of the conference, and has sent out a two-page memo explaining her decision.

Russell McCutcheon finds Zoloth’s emphasis poorly considered, or so he indicates in his response to it at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. McCutcheon expresses his disagreement as follows:

only if we presume that (A) the object studied by scholars of religion is somehow necessarily beneficial and that (B) those who study it therefore have some special duty to spread the good news of their findings to the benefit of humankind, would a convention of scholars of religion (whether humanists, social scientists, or theologians of whatever stripe) be called upon to apply their research to help solve the climate change crisis.

In examining McCutcheon’s objections here, let us first recall what “object” is studied by Zoloth herself. Zoloth is, by specialty, an ethicist. Nor is her ethics merely descriptive ethics, ethics studies; her job is to do constructive ethical reflection herself. Presumably McCutcheon knows this, since she is not exactly circumspect about proclaiming it in the letter he responds to (“I am an ethicist, and I focus on bioethics and health care justice.”) Before speaking about the wider discipline of “religious studies” and/or “the study of religion”, let us pause to consider the field of ethics, which – McCutcheon presumably also knows this – is studied by a significant number of scholars within the broader discipline.

Regarding presupposition (A), what is the object studied by scholars of normative ethics? One could identify it variously, perhaps as morality, perhaps simply as ethics, perhaps (for one with old-fashioned Platonist leanings) as “the good”. But whatever it is, one would imagine that it must indeed be beneficial, more or less by definition. If ethics is bad for a scholar of normative ethics, then something has gone wrong.

Now we may give Nietzsche his due here. From his perspective, the term “morality” refers to a bad thing. (I have myself expressed modest sympathy for this position in the past.) But Nietzsche is the first to insist that “beyond good and evil” – beyond morality, effectively – “does not mean beyond good and bad”. Insofar as we study Nietzsche under the rubric of ethics, it is because he is making claims about the subject matter of ethics which are not exhausted by the “morality” term. His subject matter includes what is good and what is bad. Even for a Nietzschean, if one claims to study what is good and it is not in fact good, one has done it wrongly.

The sarcastic tone in which presupposition (B) is expressed (“spread the good news of their findings”) notwithstanding, (B) seems to follow fairly straightforwardly from (A). If something is indeed good or beneficial (the distinction between the two terms does not seem large enough to matter for the present discussion), then one would expect those who study it to alert humankind of it. If a biologist were to discover a cure for cancer and then do nothing to alert the rest of humanity of her discovery – not publish it, not announce it to colleagues – one would expect that biologist to be taken to task for an abdication of responsibility.

So, I have argued, if we merely substitute the word “ethics” for “religion” in McCutcheon’s quote, presumptions (A) and (B) are in fact both true, and his objection to Zoloth falls apart. The reasonable objection to make at this point is also an obvious one: most scholars of religion are not ethicists. So why should they be asked to think about climate change in their research?

There are, actually, a number of possible reasons, many of which do not in fact presume either (A) or (B). Ethnographers who study the traditions of people on Pacific islands may find it interesting to consider those people’s reactions to the prospect of their homes being wiped out. Sociologists of American Christianity may wish to consider the role it has played in American public policy on climate change. With the increasing role of India and China in climate change, sociologists of those places might consider the same thing. To be fair, Zoloth’s call goes beyond these, when she claims that “it is our scholarly duty… that we bring forward a scholarship from a wide set of traditions that may suggest a meaningful set of actions in response to an unprecedented and shared crisis.” That sounds to me like the ethicist reaching too far and thinking everybody in her wider field does what her subfield does (“every cobbler thinks leather is the only thing.”) But the wider call with which she closes the memo (“I am asking that in thinking about the year after next, you consider thinking in advance about this theme…. What resources do you need to learn more about the issue of climate change and global warming?”) relates to a wider range of study within the discipline.

McCutcheon says nothing directly about such broader possible concerns. But he does write in such a way as to suggest they are unworthy of AAR scholars:

Although I happen to believe–a key term in the memo–that global warming is happening and that human behavior has played an important, perhaps even definitive, role, I am no climatologist and can’t even name the different academic specialties that are required to gather the data needed to draw a sensible conclusion on the matter. So be clear–I’m no so-called denier; but I have a Ph.D. that, like anyone else with one, is in a precise specialty, credentialing me within a specific domain of knowledge, so I sensibly leave to others more qualified than me to pronounce on the so-called “facts” (as they are phrased in the memo) of global warming. Apart from the curious way in which the repeated statements of belief slide into proclamations of fact, I therefore find the well-known fallacy of misplaced authority throughout the text.[emphasis McCutcheon’s]

McCutcheon’s professed belief on the science of global warming is more or less my own. What is troublesome here, however, is that he effectively seems to reduce the role of scholarship on global warming to science, to climatology and related disciplines – the ones that establish merely whether or not “global warming is happening” and “human behavior has played an important… role”. One might well question whether the AAR’s field of study has anything of significance to do with that. But what about those fields of scholarship that have something to say about the effects of global warming, let alone about what we might do about it? If, like McCutcheon and myself, we scholars of religion are not among the “deniers”, then could there not be much for us to say about this phenomenon to whose existence we assent? Should anthropologists of coastal regions really assume that potential sea level rise will have no effect on those whom they intend to study in the future? Should political scientists, sociologists, legal scholars, philosophical ethicists really avoid the question of how human states and societies should respond to global warming? If the answer to these kinds of questions is no, then surely there is plenty for religion scholars – whose field is closely related to these – to say about global warming. It is hardly an abdication of critical thinking for them to do so.