Is Going to Church A Sin?

By: Alton C. Thompson

But not the only sin, of course. And although going to church—in the United States, at least—is usually a sin, it is not one for all attendees: Those who travel to church as pedestrians or by bicycle are not thereby sinners—although they may be guilty of other sins. But wait! Even those who travel to church as pedestrians or by bicycle commit a sin by their attendance at church. Let me explain:

Of the possible sins that I might be referring to here, my focus is solely on the sin of emitting “greenhouse” gases (such as carbon dioxide, CO2) into the atmosphere. Given that the amount of these gases in the atmosphere for which any of us is responsible is miniscule, and we can’t readily perceive the consequences of emitting these gases into the atmosphere, it is difficult for anyone to perceive oneself as a sinner in being an emitter. Indeed, few are even conscious of being emitters, in part because one can not only be directly responsible for emissions, but be indirectly so responsible as well—with the latter entering the consciousness of but few people.

If one is responsible for being an emitter, but is not aware of the fact that one’s emissions are a problem—and are not even aware of the fact that one is an emitter—how can one perceive oneself as a sinner? The answer, of course, is that one can’t. Which fact, however, does not prevent one from being a sinner. And if one has no consciousness that some of one’s behaviors—such as going to church—involve emitting (whether directly or indirectly) greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and thereby sinning, one lacks a basis for changing one’s behavior—and therefore is unlikely to do so.

If people are to reduce, if not eliminate, their emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, they must first recognize what activities result—indirectly as well as directly—in such emissions. In brief, here are the main categories:

  • The transportation of raw materials to places of production.
  • The manufacture of the equipment used for the extraction of those raw materials.
  • The manufacture of the vehicles used for transporting the raw materials.
  • The process of production—whether the product being manufactured is a “producer” good or a “consumer” good. This includes the emissions associated with the processes involved in heating/cooling the buildings that house the production processes.
  • The “journey to work” of the employees of a given manufacturing firm (and the manufacture of the vehicles used for that purpose).
  • The building and operation of facilities that sell fuel to people for the purpose of operating their vehicles—the transportation of the fuel to the facility site itself involving emissions, of course.
  • The building of the buildings housing the various operations of a manufacturing firm—the building and operation of the equipment, the manufacture and transportation of the material used, the “journey to work” of the builders, etc.
  • The building of buildings created for the purpose of retail, wholesale, and “service” activities.
  • The “journey to work” of the employees associated with those activities.
  • The heating and cooling of any building—whether for manufacturing, commercial, service activity, or residential use.
  • Consumption—in that the products that one is consuming involved pollution during the course of their production process, and the consumption of services usually involves travel to a service establishment (and the performance of services itself involves the use of products whose manufacture involved pollution during the course of the production process). All of us are consumers, and thus have both direct and (especially) indirect responsibility for pollution.
  • Leisure traveling—whether by automobile, bus, train, or airplane—the operation any of these (to say nothing of the manufacture of the vehicles themselves) involves pollution.
  • Etc.

Virtually everyone living in an “advanced” country is responsible for some pollution, for our way of life is such that virtually everyone is required to engage in some travel that involves pollution, and is required to purchase products and services that involve pollution. Despite that fact, the individuals in an “advanced” country vary in the degree of their “pollution contribution.” No data exist to demonstrate this fact, however, which leads one to ask: Is there a variable for which data exist that can be regarded as a surrogate for “pollution responsibility”? And I would answer: Yes, income data. For we would expect a strong positive correlation between income and pollution contribution because:

  • The higher one’s income, the more does one tend to purchase.
  • The higher one’s income, the more does one tend to travel.
  • The higher one’s income, the more does one tend to invest—thereby being responsible for more production for that reason alone.

However, given that even that person who “contributes,” directly and indirectly, the most carbon dioxide to the atmosphere during some given period of time does so to such a small degree relatively (in effect, “contributes” an amount so small as to be practically unmeasurable), there is little point in making much of this variation. There is, though, irony in the fact that the mythology of our society states that the higher one’s income, the more important one is as a member of the society in terms of one’s contribution to the society’s “health” (Mitt Rhombney certainly seems to think so!), but when the matter of pollution is brought into the picture, we have a reversal of this relationship!

To say that it is a sin to attend church, is to recognize that traveling to church usually involves some pollution “contribution”—because it is usually accomplished by driving a vehicle. If one travels to church as a pedestrian, one avoids such “contribution,” but if one uses a bicycle, its manufacture and sale involved pollution (as the above discussion suggests). But even if one walks to church, one becomes a pollution contributor in doing so—for the building of the building involved pollution, as does the heating/cooling of that building—and one must share a part of the responsibility for that pollution.

An important distinction that can be made regarding behaviors is that some are (virtually) necessary, some are discretionary. That fact means that some behaviors can be more readily changed than others—i.e., behaviors that are discretionary can most readily be changed in that they can be reduced in their number and frequency, and even stopped.

For example, one must continue to work (if one has a job!), and in traveling to work may be forced to drive an automobile—and thereby directly “contribute” greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Even if one uses public transit, and argues that it will “run” whether or not one uses it, the fact that one does use it means that when one does, one is partly responsible for the pollution emitted by the transit vehicle.

On the other hand, many of one’s activities are more definitely discretionary: One does not need to attend baseball games, go to concerts, participate in the nightclub scene, take vacations—or go to church. One could “cut out” such activities, thereby reducing one’s pollution “contribution,” and thereby reduce the total amount of emissions for, e.g., a year.

The problem is that even if all members of our society ceased all of those discretionary activities that involved—indirectly as well as directly—pollution, it is now too late to prevent catastrophic change in our society. (See, e.g., my “McKibben on Our Uncertain Future” essay.) Thus, terminating one’s church attendance would do nothing to prevent that catastrophe.

On the other hand, merely continuing one’s church attendance poses a threat to oneself and one’s family. For if one does not also engage in adaptive activities, one will reduce the chances that one will be able to survive the changes—attributable to global warming—that will be inevitably occurring.

Ironically, however, given that the adaptive activities that one might engage in could very well involve moving to a different location—one where no churches are nearby—one may be forced to cease one’s church attendance. If one finds such an option not to one’s liking, one can always, though, create one’s own church!

About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.