Religion and Environmentalism

Religion and environmentalism is an emerging interdisciplinary subfield in the academic disciplines of religious studies, religious ethics, the sociology of religion, and theology amongst others, with environmentalism and ecological principles as a primary focus.

General overview

Crisis of values

This subfield is founded on the understanding that, in the words of Iranian-American philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “the environmental crisis is fundamentally a crisis of values,” and that religions, being a primary source of values in any culture, are thus implicated in the decisions humans make regarding the environment.

Burden of guilt

Historian Lynn White, Jr. made the argument in a 1966 lecture before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, subsequently published in the journal Science, that Western Christianity, having de-sacralized and instrumentalized nature to human ends, bears a substantial “burden of guilt” for the contemporary environmental crisis. White’s essay stimulated a flurry of responses, ranging from defenses of Christianity to qualified admissions to complete agreement with his analysis.

Buddha Zen Calm Peace Floral Decoration Serenity

Buddha statue in nature

Eastern religions and indigenous peoples

Some proposed that Eastern religions, as well as those of indigenous peoples, neo-pagans, and others, offered more eco-friendly worldviews than Christianity. A third, more obscure camp, argued that while White’s theory was indeed correct, this was actually a benefit to society, and that thinning the populations of weaker plant and animal species via environmental destruction would lead to the evolution of stronger, more productive creatures. See Kaitiaki in Māori religion.

Religion and ecology

By the 1990s, many scholars of religion had entered the debate and begun to generate a substantial body of literature discussing and analyzing how nature is valued in the world’s various religious systems. A landmark event was a series of ten conferences on Religion and Ecology organized by Yale University professors Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim and held at the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions from 1996 to 1998. More than 800 international scholars, religious leaders, and environmentalists participated in the conference series. The conferences concluded at the United Nations and at the American Museum of Natural History with more than 1,000 people in attendance. Papers from the conferences were published in a series of ten books (The Religions of the World and Ecology Book Series), one for each of the world’s major religious traditions.

From these conferences, Tucker and Grim would form The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. The Forum has been instrumental in the creation of scholarship, in forming environmental policy, and in the greening of religion. In addition to their work with the Forum, Tucker and Grim’s work continues in the Journey of the Universe film, book, and educational DVD series. It continues to be the largest international multireligious project of its kind.

An active Religion and Ecology group has been in existence within the American Academy of Religion since 1991, and an increasing number of universities in North America and around the world are now offering courses on religion and the environment. Recent scholarship on the field of religion and ecology can be found in the peer-reviewed academic journal Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology and in reference works such as the encyclopedia The Spirit of Sustainability.

Religion and nature

Another landmarks in the emerging field was the publication of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature in 2005, which was edited by Bron Taylor. Taylor also led the effort to form the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, which was established in 2006, and began publishing the quarterly Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture in 2007.

Religions and the environment

Buddhism

The best asset religion offers is the moral framework by which practitioners must abide. Since many environmental problems have stemmed from human activity, it follows that religion might hold some solutions to mitigating destructive patterns. Buddhism idealizes and emphasizes interconnection, thereby creating a mindset that creates a productive and cooperative relationship between humans and nature. That all actions are based on the premise of interconnection makes the Buddhist mindset effective in cultivating modesty, compassion, and balance among followers, which may ultimately mitigate the harm done to the environment.

One benefit of the Buddhist interconnected mindset is the inevitable humility that ensues. Because humans are entwined with natural systems, damage done upon the Earth is also harm done to humans. This realization is quite modifying to a human race that historically pillages the Earth for individual benefit. When rational humans minimize the split between humanity and nature and bridge the gaps, only then will a mutual respect emerge in which all entities coexist rather than fight. Buddhism maintains that the reason for all suffering comes from attachment. When release from the tight grasp humanity has on individuality and separateness occurs, then oneness and interconnection is realized. So rather than emphasizing winners and losers, humanity will understand its existence within others; this results in a modesty that ends egoic mind.

Another benefit of Buddhist practice to the environment is the compassion that drives all thinking. When humans realize that they are all connected, harm done to another will never benefit the initiator. Therefore, peaceful wishes for everyone and everything will ultimately benefit the initiator. Through accepting that the web of life is connected—if one entity benefits, all benefit—then the prevailing mindset encourages peaceful actions all the time. If everything depends on everything else, then only beneficial events will make life situations better. Acceptance of compassion takes training and practice, which is also encouraged by Buddhist moral conduct in the form of mediation. This habitual striving for harmony and friendship among all beings creates a more perfect relationship between humanity and nature.

Lastly, Buddhist mindset relies on taking the middle road or striving for balance. Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, spent his life searching for the outlet of human suffering, eventually concluding that a balance must be established between self-destruction and self-indulgence. While modern, industrial humans emphasize economic and social aspects of life and lastly environmental aspects, this view is lopsided. When human preferences are leveled with environmental preferences—giving a voice to natural systems as well as human systems—then can balance and harmony be realized.

Therefore, using this idealized and disciplined framework that Buddhism has to offer can create lasting solutions to amending the broken relationship between humanity and nature. What ensues is an ethic, rather than a short-term policy or technological fix. When never-ending consumption patterns cease for the betterment of the world as a whole, then all systems will harmoniously interact in a non-abusive way. Without needing to adopt a new religion, just recognizing and accepting this mindset can help to heal the environmental injuries of the past.

Buddhists today are involved in spreading environmental awareness. In a meeting with the U.S Ambassador to the Republic of India Timothy J. Roemer, the Dalai Lama urged the U.S to engage China on climate change in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has also been part of a series on discussions organised by the Mind and Life Institute; a non-profit organisation that specializes on the relationship between science and Buddhism. The talks were partly about ecology, ethics and interdependence and issues on global warming were brought up

Christianity

Main article: Christian views on environmentalism

Christianity has a historic concern for nature and the natural world. At the same time, ecological concerns operate in tension with anthropocentric values, such as the Biblical notion of human dominion over the Earth. (Gen 1:28) A broad range of Christian institutions are engaged in the environmental movement and contemporary environmental concerns.

Latter Day Saint movement

Mormon environmentalists find theological reasons for stewardship and conservationism through biblical and additional scriptural references including a passages from the Doctrine and Covenants: “And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion” (D&C 59:20). The Latter Day Saint movement has a complex relationship with environmental concerns, involving not only the religion but politics and economics. In terms of environmentally friendly policies, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a history of utilizing elements of conservationist policies for their meetinghouses.

The church first placed solar panels on a church meetinghouse in the Tuamotu Islands in 2007. In 2010, the church unveiled five LEED certified meetinghouse prototypes that are that will be used as future meetinghouse designs around the world, the first one having been completed in 2010 in Farmington, Utah.

Hinduism

In Hinduism, practitioners and scholars find traditional approaches to the natural environment in such concepts as dharmic ethics or prakrti (material creation), the development of ayurveda, and readings of vedic literature. Hindu environmental activism also may be inspired by Gandhian philosophy and practical struggles, such as the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan and Chipko resistance to forestry policies in Uttar Pradesh, India.

Mahatma Gandhi played a major role in Indian environmentalism, and has been called the “father of Indian environmentalism”. Gandhi’s environmental thought parallels his social thoughts in that environmental sustainability and social inequalities should be managed in similar fashions. His non-violent teachings left a lasting impact, even agriculturally. Contemporary agrarian practices use the Bhagavad-Gita to establish practices that are deemed non-violent.

Islam

See also: Islam & the Environment, Islam and the Environment and Islam And The Protection Of The Environment
See also: Man and Ecology: An Islamic Perspective

The Quran and the Prophetic Traditions [sayings and actions of Muhammad] make it clear that the environment is a blessing and a sign of the divine. The Quran refers to natural phenomena numerous times and compels readers to ponder over the environment as a reflection of the truth – a signpost to a designer. One can gain profound knowledge from nature, so human beings are to preserve it and look after it.

The concept of humanity having ‘Khilafah‘ or guardianship over the planet means that many Muslims believe that we should not exploit natural resources.  The Quran refers to living beings as ‘communities like yourselves  Some scholars have said that this entails that other living beings have rights.

Sayings of Muhammad related to the environment:

– “If a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift for him.” [Bukhari]

– The Companions [i.e. the disciples of the prophet] said, “O Messenger of God! Is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied: “There is a reward for serving any living being.” [Bukhari]

– “A woman entered the Fire because of a cat which she had tied, neither giving it food nor setting it free to eat from the vermin of the earth.” [Bukhari]

– “The world is beautiful and verdant, and verily God, be He exalted, has made you His stewards in it, and He sees how you acquit yourselves.” [Muslim]

– “Do not waste water, even if you are at a running stream.” [Ibn Majah]

– “If the Hour (the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a sapling, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it.” [Al-Albani]

Verses of the Quran linked to environmental protection:

‘He is the One Who has placed you as successors [Khalifa] on earth … so He may test you with what He has given you.’

‘O Children of Adam! … Eat and drink, but do not waste. Surely He does not like the wasteful.’

‘…do not commit abuse on the earth, spreading corruption.’

‘Indeed, We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they ˹all˺ declined to bear it, being fearful of it. But humanity assumed it, ˹for˺ they are truly wrongful ˹to themselves˺ and ignorant ˹of the consequences˺’

‘All living beings roaming the earth and winged birds soaring in the sky are communities like yourselves.’

One of the primary figures of the religion and environmentalism movement, Iranian Muslim philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, details the theme of “man’s total disharmony with his environment.” Nasr believes that to overcome the environmental crisis there needs to be a recognition that “the whole of nature is descended from higher spiritual realms.” According to Nasr, the desacralization of the West has led to the increase of ideology promoting dominion over the earth and its resources, which is contrary to Islamic thinking. According to conservationist and scholar Jonathan Benthall, Islam offers a useful perspective of environmentalism through two primary themes. The first being the “glory and logic of the cosmos and of the cyclical regeneration of life” that is visible through Qur’anic passages, particularly ones referencing stewardship (khalifa). The second theme Benthall references is the very environmental basis from which Islam was founded, “an environment where natural recourses, especially water, fruit trees, and livestock have always had to be carefully conserved to ensure human survival, a concern which is inevitably reflected in the Qur’an.”

Many Muslims have taken up climate activism. The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Science is charity organization dedicated to offering up dialogues and encouraging activism that combines both Islamic perspectives and ecological sustainability. The organization’s objectives are to generate a center for Islamic research that will also serve as a location with which to gather and experiment with new sustainable technologies.

In Islam, the concept of a hima or “inviolate zone” refers to a piece of land that has been set aside to prevent cultivation or any use other than spiritual purposes. This concept, in addition to alternative interpretations of Islamic teachings, such as sufism, are found to be helpful in developing an Islamic pro-environmental ethics.

Judaism

Main article: Judaism and environmentalism

In Judaism, the natural world plays a central role in Jewish law, literature, and liturgical and other practices. Within the diverse arena of Jewish thought, beliefs vary widely about the human relation to the environment, though the rabbinic tradition has put Judaism primarily on an anthropocentric trajectory. However, a few contemporary Jewish thinkers and rabbis in the US and Israel emphasized that a central belief in Judaism is that the Man (Ha Adam – האדם whose root comes from Haadama (earth) – האדמה, in Hebrew language), should keep the Earth in the same state as he received it from God, its eternal and actual “owner” (especially for the land of Israel), thus the people today should avoid polluting it and keep it clean for the future generations. According to this opinion, Judaism is clearly in line with the principles of environmental protection and sustainable development.

In Jewish law (halakhah), ecological concerns are reflected in Biblical protection for fruit trees, rules in the Mishnah against harming the public domain, Talmudic debate over noise and smoke damages, and contemporary responsa on agricultural pollution. In Conservative Judaism, there has been some attempt to adopt ecokashrut ideas developed in the 1970s by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. In addition, Jewish activists have recruited principles of halakhah for environmental purposes, such as the injunction against unnecessary destruction, known as bal tashkhit.

In contemporary Jewish liturgy, ecological concerns have been promoted by adapting a kabbalistic ritual for the holiday of trees, Tu Bishvat. Biblical and rabbinic texts have been enlisted for prayers about the environment, especially in Orthodox Judaism and Jewish Renewal movements.

In the U.S., a diverse coalition of Jewish environmentalists undertakes both educational and policy advocacy on such issues as biodiversity and global warming. Jewish environmentalists are drawn from all branches of religious life, ranging from Rabbi Arthur Waskow to the Orthodox group Canfei Nesharim. In Israel, secular Jews have formed numerous governmental and non-governmental organizations to protect nature and reduce pollution.

While many Israeli environmental organizations make limited use of Jewish religious teachings, a few do approach Israel’s environmental problems from a Jewish standpoint, including the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, named after Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Taoism

Taoism offers many ideas that are in line with environmentalism, such as wu wei, moderation, compassion and Taoist animism. Parallels were found between Taoism and deep ecology. Pioneer of environmentalism John Muir was called “the Taoist of the West”. Rosenfeld wrote ‘Taoism is environmentalism’.

Jainism

In Jainism, the ancient and perhaps timeless philosophical concepts, like Parasparopagraho Jivanam, were more recently compiled into a Jain Declaration on Nature, which describes the religion’s inherent biocentrism and deep ecology.

See also

References

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Leave a Reply

Scroll Up
%d bloggers like this: