2nd place: Grad student essay contest — Kelsey Kane-Ritsch

Kelsey Kane-Ritsch

Remove religion bias to fight climate change

FFRF awarded Kelsey $3,000.

By Kelsey Kane-Ritsch

Nature is my religion. Growing up, while my classmates spent their weekends in Sunday school, I slipped off into the forest for my own spiritual and moral instruction. Gentle deer reminded me to listen to others, chattering squirrels taught me the importance of advocating for basic rights, a mother bear protecting her cubs displayed the importance of love, and unapologetic peacocks prompted me to never be ashamed to show my true colors. 

My beliefs left me feeling like the pariah of the playground ruled by Catholic Girl Scouts. I didn’t realize until later just how fortunate I was to be defended by a public school system that was legally bound to accept students of all beliefs and not take sides in our spiritual schoolyard squabbles. This separation of church and state allowed me to develop my own understanding of the world that has shaped nearly every personal, educational and professional decision I have made.

I have joined the ranks of Americans who commit their careers and their votes to maintaining this thin “wall of separation.” However, when President Trump was elected, he assembled an administration that took a sledgehammer to that wall (while building a very different wall along the border). The president handed the reins of the federal government directly to the Christian dominionists, who used the bible as an excuse for environmental exploitation.

While a series of political horrors have resulted from this shift (i.e., anti-abortion policies, immigration bans and much more), none is more devastating than the assault on the health of our planet. Thanks to the skills and values gained from my forest friends, I now spend my days working for the Natural Resources Defense Council advocating for the lives of my fellow inhabitants of Earth and against the destructive climate policies based on religious rationales. 

Climate policies should be based in sound science. This is not news to world leaders, except perhaps former President Trump, who skipped the key climate crisis talks at the United Nations in 2019 to chair his own conflicting event on “religious freedom.”

Promoting science is also unfamiliar to his staunchly Christian former Vice President, Mike Pence, who has argued on the floor of Congress that evolution is only a theory and that creationism should be taught in public schools. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that Trump “blessed” Scott Pruitt with the opportunity to run the Environmental Protection Agency, where Pruitt used interpretations of religious texts to conveniently justify destructive EPA policies meant to bring the president’s powerful industry backers immediate wealth and power.

According to Pruitt, “The biblical worldview with respect to these issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind.” He has also argued that “God has blessed us with natural resources,” but “the environmental left tells us that, though we have natural resources like natural gas and oil and coal, and though we can feed the world, we should keep those things in the ground, put up fences and be about prohibition.”

Even the pope strongly disagreed with these statements. Yet, our federal government invoked this religious interpretation while forcibly suppressing the sound science calling for the end of extractive practices fueling climate change. The suppression of science illuminates just how damaging the blind application of any “religious justification” can be to fair political decision-making. If God’s word is considered the final word in politics, whose interpretation of God’s word is correct and who gets to decide?

While I’d love to turn to my old forest friends and let them decide, my own spirituality must remain removed from politics, as well. Our democracy thrives off of healthy political debate fueled by a mix of economic, scientific, and moral arguments.

This discourse must continue unencumbered by religious bias in order to craft fair policy. It just so happens that science, economics and morality are all on the same side of the climate change debate, so removing the Trump administration’s rules based on dominionist religious theory will clear the path to our own futures. 

In keeping with what I learned from the squirrels, the people must bury this collection of nuts in order to grow a more sustainable future.

Kelsey, 26, is from the Los Angeles area and attends Columbia University.

“During my undergraduate years at Princeton, I focused on anthropology and environmental studies. Today, I work as a program coordinator for the Science Center and Oceans team at the Natural Resources Defense Council while pursuing my M.S. in sustainability management.”