Should we try to leverage religious beliefs in environmental messaging?

by | Jan 11, 2018

In our recent Eco Pulse special report, United We Understand, we delved into attitudinal drivers and phrases that sparked both agreement and dissension among Americans. A couple of findings caught my eye and got me thinking about the relationship between religious beliefs and environmental attitudes and behaviors.

First, I noticed the weak affinity for the phrase “environmental stewardship.” While not overtly negative, reaction to the phrase was more neutral (40%), and there was a distinct age divide. We also found three distinct environmental views in our study – two of which closely relate to differing theological viewpoints regarding humans and their relationship with the earth.

“Stewardship” was a turn-off to those less engaged in sustainable behaviors and (possibly) organized religion.

The word “stewardship” carries behavioral connotations. To be a good steward means to actively protect or manage something, be it time, money or the environment. Affinity for this word strongly correlated with self-reported behaviors – 63% of people with high activity counts rated it positively, compared to only 31% of those with few self-reported green behaviors.

Sustainable behaviors generally increase with age. Our Millennial Pulse study found that Millennials, while very attitudinally engaged in protecting the environment, are more likely to act on these beliefs through conscious consumerism – buying from environmentally responsible brands – than by engaging in environmentally responsible behaviors. Only 48% of Millennials rated the phrase “environmental stewardship” positively, compared to 59% of Seniors.

“Stewardship” can also carry religious connotations. Christian churches in the U.S. sponsor annual “stewardship campaigns” to encourage making both behavioral (time) and financial commitments for the coming year. It’s possible that thoughts of religious obligation or commitment could have also reduced affinity for “environmental stewardship,” particularly among Millennials, for the reasons noted below.

Specific mention of God was divisive along generational lines.

We saw a similar age-related response pattern when we asked participants to rate their agreement with the statement, “Because God created the natural world, it is wrong to abuse it.” Agreement increased significantly with age: while the majority of survey respondents agreed with this statement (57%), only 50% of Millennials did so (compared to 63% of Boomers and 64% of Seniors). Millennials are, as an age cohort, less engaged in organized religion. The 2017 Pew Research Religious Landscape Study found that religion is very important to only 38% of younger Millennials and 44% of older Millennials, compared to 53% of Gen X, 59% of Boomers and 70% of Silent/Greatest Generations. In addition, only 28% of Millennials regularly attend religious services.

The theology of environmentalism.

According to the Religious Landscape Study, the majority of the world’s population claims a religious affiliation, with the largest groups being Christian (31.2%) or Muslim (24.1%), along with an additional .2% who are Jewish – all of whom share the first five books of Moses, or the Pentateuch, as holy scripture.

In our recent Eco Pulse study, we found three distinct environmental value systems, one of which closely aligns with older interpretations of Genesis 1:26, part of the “creation story” shared by these three religions. Here is one of the oldest (King James Version) English translations of Genesis 1:26:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

Human-centric mindset

This way of thinking about the world, which places mankind as “ruler” over the earth, is widely shared by Christian Evangelicals and aligns strongly with the “Human-centric” environmental value system held by 42% of our Eco Pulse study respondents. Human-centrics were significantly more likely to agree with statements like “people’s only responsibility to nature is to make it serve their own best interests” and “if there is no economic, aesthetic or other human use for a species, then there is no reason to worry much about it becoming extinct.”

Earth-centric mindset

In contrast, 28% of respondents fell into an environmental value group we termed “Earth-centric,” who value the earth for the earth’s sake – not for the value it provides humans. They agreed strongly that “we have a moral duty to leave the earth in as good or better shape than we found it” and “other species have as much right to be on this earth as we do – just because we are smarter than other animals doesn’t make us better.” This way of thinking aligns with a more modern interpretation (The Message) of Genesis 1:26:

God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.”

What does this mean for environmental messaging?

With only 16% of the world’s population considering themselves to be completely unaffiliated with any religious tradition or denomination, it would seem that referencing the responsibility of religious believers to protect the earth would be a relatively safe messaging choice. But given what we’re seeing in our research, and in light of the subtle but important nuances in interpretation of even the shared Islamic, Judeo-Christian holy text, it’s likely that communicators should tread carefully on this messaging path.

Recent research in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing by Kathryn Johnson, Richie Liu,, offers an alternative (and potentially more effective) strategy. This study finds that people are less likely to feel a connectedness with nature when reminded of the attributes of an authoritarian or loving, person-like God. The researchers theorize that those concepts trigger more traditional (hierarchical) thinking about nature being created merely for the use of humans. This study found that a more limitless, abstract or mystical conception of God – particularly utilizing messaging that leverages our connectedness to nature and images that inspire awe can be much more effective in eliciting appreciation for and protection of the earth.

Your messaging strategy should be built based upon your specific target audience. Referencing the responsibility of “being a good steward of God’s creation” can be very effective in communications aimed at an older (Boomer and up) target audience. But the most broadly effective “religious” messaging approach (less fraught with theological and generational barriers) is most likely one that doesn’t focus on the Creator, but rather, the creation – conveying reverence for the Earth, with all of its beauty and diversity, and our interdependence with it.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann started Shelton Group's research department in 2000 and paved the way for us to become the insights-grounded creative agency we are today. After 17 years leading our research team, she recently moved to New Orleans, handing down the title of Vice President of Research & Insights, but remains an integral part of that team as she continues to oversee client projects and proprietary studies.

About the Author

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann Head

Lee Ann started Shelton Group's research department in 2000 and paved the way for us to become the insights-grounded creative agency we are today. After 17 years leading our research team, she recently moved to New Orleans, handing down the title of Vice President of Research & Insights, but remains an integral part of that team as she continues to oversee client projects and proprietary studies.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the article and research. It supports what I have experienced in Asheville NC. We are a mix of Billy Graham, Rolling Stones and Tree Huggers. In 2011 I worked with Asheville Buncombe Christian Collation Ministry (ABCCM) to create a Stewardship Environmental Program that involved weatherizing churches as well as individual homes. Interestly, the members supported financially the improvements of the churches but would not pay $200 to improve their own home.


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