Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith – Review

Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith – How Changes in Climate Drive Religious Upheaval, by Philip Jenkins, September 2021. Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-750621-9, 257 pages. RRP £29.95

Climate variation and extreme weather events have been a constant throughout history, as have religious upheavals and political turmoil. Whilst the latter two phenomena have been bread and butter topics for historians, it is only comparatively recently that the role of the climate in human affairs has been recognised as of fundamental importance. In this book Jenkins seeks to demonstrate that from the earliest times marked shifts in climate have contributed substantially to disruptive changes in social structures and religious beliefs. His message is that there are valuable lessons from history about the range of possible religious responses to the changes in the climate already upon us, changes which are set to become more damaging and severe.

The subtitle of the book led me to expect a work which explored the intertwined fields of theology, psychology, and sociology. Instead, what we have is a gallop through world political, social and climate history during the Common Era, alongside brief descriptions of the consequential emergence of religious movements and trends, mainly during periods of stress and disruption. With such a huge field to encompass, there is little depth of analysis of individual phenomena, which can make for a slightly repetitive and frustrating read. Without looking them all up, it has to be assumed that the very extensive references in the endnotes (there is no bibliography) provide the evidence for the claims of the text. They certainly provide a valuable resource in themselves.

Having said that, it was salutary for me to learn the extent to which global temperatures have fluctuated in the last two millennia, although Jenkins is careful to point out that the cause of that is down to natural rather than human activity. Nonetheless, it does seem clear that times of benign climate, for instance during the “high Middle Ages” in Europe, tend to promote expressions of religious faith which might be characterised as more stable and rationally-tilted: Aquinas being the exemplar here. Perhaps times of security and prosperity make it easier to explain life in logically reassuring ways. By contrast, what Jenkins calls “a real sense of existential panic,” for which disastrous weather seems often one of the triggers, has in the past prompted scapegoating, pogroms, witch-hunts and large scale violence in the name of religion. It has also, according to some contemporary scholarship, been a factor in enduring religious change such as the Reformation and the “Great Awakening” in the USA starting in the late eighteenth century.

The penultimate chapter provides an overview of the areas of the world, mainly in equatorial regions, that are currently experiencing extreme climate-related stresses. Jenkins believes that further violent conflict is almost inevitable in these regions, which, he predicts, will produce “new religious movements or revivals within existing faiths”.

Jenkins’ broad-brush approach shows clearly how humanity’s attempts throughout history to find meaning in the events of existence – their religious faiths – are inseparable from the context of their climate. His book confirms that contemporary believers in all traditions can expect their own faith to be profoundly challenged as climate change tightens its grip.

Duncan Forbes



Author: Ed Beale | Date: 30 April, 2022 | Category: Book Reviews | Comments: 0

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