Unitarianism and Climate Change


We are heading into a bleak, bleak winter. Uncertainty shuffles around every frosted corner, and fear hangs in the blackened sky. It’s no coincidence that in the depths of December (in the Northern Hemisphere) there is a recurring pattern of jubilant celebrations. These festivals of light act as a glimmer of hope. It makes perfect sense because, in the hardest, coldest days, logic and reasoning seem futile and tiring. In the bleak mid-winter our hearts ache for a bit of spirituality and faith.
          My inspiration for this month’s article is one of Bill Darlison’s sermons from his book ‘Enlightenment and Ice Cream.’ This sermon, called ‘Amphibians’, is a plea for us to become reacquainted with the ‘mythic, poetic dimension.’ While reading it, I was reminded of the times I have heard many people in this congregation yearn for a bit more mysticism in Unitarianism. I was also reminded, of how little I actually know about Unitarianism at all. So I decided to do a bit more reading – this time it was ‘The Elements of Unitarianism’ .
          The book took me through all the important people involved in the origins of Unitarianism. I became particularly attached to a man called ‘Joseph Priestley’ (1733-1804), who you may know as the man credited with first isolating Oxygen. He also helped to establish the first chapel to be explicitly labelled ‘Unitarian’. It might come as no surprise that he had quite a scientific approach to religion, asserting that he could not accept the Virgin Birth or that Jesus was sinless or infallible. He was also a strong supporter of the French Revolution, and came up with many of his own political ideologies. He eventually fled London to go to New York, where he aimed to aid the anti-slavery movement there. In my head, Joseph Priestley is the ultimate Unitarian. He is a scientist, a free-thinker, a believer in civil rights and social justice, but most of all he had faith.
          Often we are told that Science and Religion are two separate ideas that cannot co-exist. Priestley believed that you could aim to understand the earth scientifically, while constantly being aware that there are larger things at play. He may not have believed in the Virgin Birth, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand the emotion behind it. He argued that just as science influences religion, our faith should have an impact on our reason.
          It is this idea that I think needs to be brought to the helm of climate activism. So far, I’d say we can agree on one thing – whatever way we have tried to fight climate change in the past, it doesn’t seem to be working all that well. The focus for the last few decades has been on ‘trusting the science.’ However, there is only so much convincing that you can do from an economic or scientific standpoint. At some time or other you’re going to have to appeal to people’s emotions. We can see this in those pleas by environmental organisations to ‘save this adorable panda’ or ‘rescue this child from climate disaster.’ In my life, I’ve come to notice that the environmental disaster that brings about the most earnest reactions is the destruction of the Rainforest.
          Why might this be? For many scientific reasons, the destruction of the Rainforest is an ecological catastrophe. From a personal point of a view, it is the destruction of a uniquely spiritual place. The idea of the forest is prominent in lots of myths and fables i.e Hansel and Gretel. The forest acts as this transitional space where one has the time to think, reflect and change. The Rainforest takes this a step further. The extraordinary magic of the many species of plants and animals and the way they interact with each other, reaches into a specific part of us. It is for this reason that people are so offended by the burning of the Amazon in particular. Many climate-related disasters seem very far removed from us, but to know that the Rainforest is being destroyed on a gargantuan scale, for industry and greed, seems like a crime against humanity and a personal attack.
          It is time that we bring spirituality to the forefront of climate action. There is a way for us to believe in the science, and also to recognise the undefinable quality in nature that makes us yearn to save it. As Unitarians, we have been practising balancing reason with faith since our very foundations. Our mysticism may not come from bells and whistles, but it could be channelled and felt through our attempts to save our planet. We must recognise that not all things that are industrialised are automatically ‘more advanced’. Some of the most primitive and Ancient cultures have managed to do things that scientist could only dream of – because of their humanity. The Neolithic people of Ireland didn’t build Newgrange because the wanted to see if they could. They needed it, they prayed for it. They connected a tomb with the patterns of the sun, with nothing but their hands and their heads. In the depths of winter, they used their intelligence and their stewardship to light up the darkness.

I urge you to do the same.



Éle Ní Chonbhuí
Dublin Unitarian Church




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