Help Us Stop Unsustainable U.S. Population Growth


Might our religion be killing us?

Is what we preach — and ultimately, what we believe — hastening the destruction of our planet? The answer appears to be a resounding yes. So then what?

Monday, April 21, 2008


USA Today

"Be fruitful and multiply," says the book of Genesis, and Lord knows we have. To the tune of more than 300 million at home and more than 6 billion abroad. But as we go about the heavenly task of multiplying, a poignant question arises: Might our religion be killing us?

(Illustration by Sam Ward, USA TODAY)

We all remember the Aztecs. Some say their religion, with its penchant for violence and human sacrifice, played a critical role in the destruction of their civilization. We moderns are far more sophisticated, of course, but if we persist with some of our religious practices, we could be heading down the same disastrous dog trot. Sort of a reverse Noah story. Noah is credited with saving humanity during the big flood. We could be the ones who get blamed for destroying it.

Here's why. The hundreds of scientists who make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned recently that the environmental crisis is more dire than originally believed. We might have reached a tipping point. Even if we stop producing harmful greenhouse gases immediately, temperatures could continue to rise and ocean levels along with them for the next 1,000 years. How much? The IPPC says by as much as 11 degrees this century with a corresponding rise in ocean levels of nearly 2 feet. Other scientists, such as Britain's James Lovelock (who is credited with discovering that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were polluting the atmosphere), say it will be far worse and happen sooner. Both predictions portend drought, starvation and species extinction.

Downsizing families

Hopefully, not ours. Of course, much of our environmental problem is due to overpopulation. There are simply too many people for the planet to sustain — at least the way we expect to be sustained. Each new person requires more food, water and oxygen. At the same time, each is producing more carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane (the big culprits of global warming). For each additional human, planet Earth (and the rest of us) pays a price. The world knows where this is all headed. In fact, we even devote an entire day — Earth Day, which we'll mark Tuesday — to promote awareness.

Now, consider the Roman Catholic Church's continued opposition to modern birth control or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' (i.e. Mormons) encouragement of large families. This might not alarm you unless you realize that nearly one in every five humans on the planet is Roman Catholic and that the Latter-day Saints belong to one of the fastest-growing religions in the Western Hemisphere. Many Orthodox Jews and some Muslims also eschew birth control.

In the interest of preserving our planet and our species, shouldn't religious organizations be encouraging smaller families? Do our spiritual leaders need additional divine revelation to realize that our current doctrines — which threaten to take the entire world down with us — have become ethically and theologically questionable?

Population growth hits hardest in the poorest nations, and as poverty increases, public health declines. I am quite certain that God is not the author of human misery, but by preaching against birth control at the same time we are preaching against abortion, it seems that we're making God out as cruel, a buffoon, or both.

I recognize that religious organizations tend to be conservative institutions. Their continued resistance to equal rights for women and gays is a good example. A woman may be president of Harvard or speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, but in the largest religious organization on the planet, women still can't get ordained as parish priests. It's even worse for gays and lesbians.

All this is to say that religion often comes late to the party — sometimes kicking and screaming, as did most Southern churches on slavery and civil rights. Only this time, we can't afford it. Not when the fate of the planet might hang in the balance.

How should people of faith respond to this gathering environmental storm?

First, we must stop having so many children. Clergy should consider voicing the difficult truth that having more than two children during such a time is selfish. Dare we say sinful? The average American might not listen to his elected representatives, but he darn sure listens to his pastor. Every week. This will be a hard message for pastors to preach and parishioners to hear, but without it we court disaster.

Government's role

In addition, Americans should be having important policy debates as we anticipate a hotter, more hostile natural environment. Instead of providing tax breaks for having more children, shouldn't Congress be providing incentives for having fewer? When it comes to energy policy, should we go nuclear? If droughts persist, don't we need to start drinking the oceans and ramp up our production of synthetic foods? Instead of wrangling like school boys over the remnants of Lake Lanier, shouldn't the governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida be building more desalination plants?

Here's the thing. We need visionary religious and political leaders to start thinking about these problems if we are to have any chance of solving them. Not decades from now, when coastal cities could be flooding and Southern states struggling to secure enough fresh water.

There's little doubt that the human species has the ability to survive what lies ahead. There is considerable doubt, however, as to whether we have the ability to rise above our personal and tribal interests to earnestly seek the common good. This includes our religious interests. It might be my belief that I should have as many children as God will allow, but if having additional children imperils my neighbor's ability to obtain food, water or shelter, I need to think twice about it. Even if my neighbor is in Uganda. People are unlikely to do these things until their religious leaders and their government tell them they must.

When Aztec society was threatened by disease and military defeat, their religious leaders appear to have let them down. Most likely, these leaders encouraged even more human sacrifice to appease the gods, thereby further weakening the society and ultimately facilitating its collapse.

Let's hope we can learn from their mistakes.

Oliver "Buzz" Thomas is a minister, lawyer and author of 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job).

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