Religion and Environmentalism

by Luigi Kapaj

Environmentalism is often marketed in the language of its intended audience. Business leaders are told of the fiscal sensibility of protecting resources, ethnic groups are given natural symbols of their culture, health professionals are told of the potential medicines yet discovered, and to politicians, the ensuing peace and prosperity which will get them reelected. But to environmentalists, it is seen in moral terms and it naturally follows that protecting the environment is brought to the institutions of morality, world religions, in religious terms.

So how does the morality of environmentalism correspond to the preexisting religious views on nature? Environmentalists stand much to gain by marrying their morality of nature with existing morality of the various world religions. To do so requires a better understanding of the original religious disposition towards nature.

Abrahamic monotheism, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the many denominations, sects and subdivisions thereof, represent billions of people worldwide. It is without a doubt, the single most significant group of religions in the world today. These religions are represented, if not dominant, on every continent and in every country and include most of the major players in the international political arena. They have played a key role in the development of the current industrial and economic system.

Despite the divergence on many fundamental aspects important to their followers, these religions share some commonalities with respect to the environment. These religions have indoctrinated in their followers a sense of superiority over nature. Genesis states:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:27–28)

Similarly, the Qur'an says:

And he has created the cattle for you: you receive warmth (from their skin), and many other benefits from them, and you eat from their (meat). (An-Nahl 16.5)

Interpretations of these texts vary widely from "Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen," (White) to "This stewardship includes many restrictions, enumerated throughout the scriptures." (Troster) What is significant is the distinction and superiority of humans over other creatures of nature. It is also important to note that the sacred texts of these religions do not anywhere advocate the willful destruction of nature. Rather, they do not comment much at all on the subject.

Communism can be seen as an extension of Christian philosophy. (White) The basic principle of having the working class unite to take control of a society away from the bourgeoisie can be interpreted as an attempt to manifest the Christian prophecy that "the meek… shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5) in a time when the "first shall be last; and the last shall be first." (Matthew 19:30) In practice, Communist countries have exhibited the same industrial tendencies as western Christian societies.

Buddhism is widespread in many countries including industrial and developing nations in many regions, predominately in Asia. Buddhist teachings focus on development of a person's spirit, but also acknowledge an equality of spirit with all living things:

Even those who live as bugs, flies or gnats, and even germs, reach matchless, hard-won Buddhahood if they really make an effort. (Tsongkapa)

Buddhists believe that all living things love their life and have a spirit which could just as likely take on a human life as they can of any animal. This transfers all morality taught with regard to other people to be applied onto nature as well.

Hinduism is regarded as a single religion though it can be more accurately considered a closely interrelated group of religions in a concentrated region with a common culture. It is dominant in India, and that alone affords it important consideration on a worldwide scale. The Bhagavad-Gita, a classical text espousing common Hindu philosophy states:

Creatures depend on food, food comes from rain, rain depends on sacrifice, and sacrifice comes from action. (Miller)

In Hinduism, one finds a particular station in life as part of a hierarchy with expected duties. This includes an interrelation with nature. Humans are part of the cycle of nature, rather than simply exploit it.

Shamanism, sometimes referred to as Animism, shall here be considered a loose grouping of religions that are often indigenous to a particular culture and region and share common traits in how they view the world. Some examples include the religions of Native North Americans and Altaic peoples both termed Shamanism, Bam of the Himalaya region, Paganism of ancient and Medieval Europe prior to Christianity, and Shinto of Japan. The common view on nature is that there is a series of spirits, not necessarily but possibly like deities of classical Greek polytheism, which are somehow representative of all things in nature from places such as mountains to creatures such as livestock. All things either possess a spirit equal to a human's spirit, or have a guardian spirit. Such a worldview allows for utilitarian use of nature, but tends to discourage damaging exploitation of nature for fear of direct moral consequences. Politically, Shamanism is more of historical interest than as a world player but retains many adherents worldwide including dominance in some regions. In the past, Shamanistic societies such as the Mongol Empire of the 13th century have enforced environmentally friendly laws including a death penalty for polluting a river. Environmentalists in modern Mongolia, and surrounding Russian territories in Siberia, look to combine Shamanistic philosophies with modern technology to "Leap Frog" over a destructive phase of industrialization to create a system of sustainable development. Should such an attempt succeed, it could prove to be a model for other countries to follow.

Taoism may be regionally limited and suppressed as a practiced religion, but has wide influence through two major cultural exports. Chinese martial arts are widely practiced and understood and have taken on an existence in western industrialized countries independent of its Chinese progenitors. Such martial arts come bundled with an underlying Taoist philosophy of balance and chi (energy), sometimes wrongly attributed to Confucianism or Buddhism. Taoist philosophy has also experience wide export through cinema of both Hong Kong martial art movies and its incarnation as "The Force" in the popular western science fiction movie series Star Wars.

A symbol of Taoism, the Yin-Yang, is well known and correspondingly one of its most basic tenets, balance of seemingly opposing forces, easily understood by many. This concept of balance manifests in a view on nature of non interference:

Does anyone want to take the world and do what he wants with it? I do not see how he can succeed. The world is a sacred vessel, which must not be tampered with or grabbed after. To tamper with it is to spoil it, and to grasp it is to lose it. (Lao Tzu)

Taoism is a religion with an underlying philosophy of coexistence with nature. Humans are to live simply and unobtrusively as a part of nature because they are directly connected with all other things.

Sometimes associated with Taoism, but quite the opposite in many ways, is Confucianism. Confucianism concerns itself with goodness in governance and society. Interpersonal relationships are of high value and practitioners often show disdain or fear of nature. This concept results in a desire to separate society from nature, "One cannot associate with birds and beasts. Am I not a member of this human race?" (Analects) But with regards to exploitation, Confucianism favors a frugal approach of sustainability through only taking what is needed. Mencius, an important early writer of Confucian philosophy, wrote:

If the seasons of husbandry be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fishes and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes and bills enter the hills and forests only at the proper time, the wood will be more than can be used. (Meng-tzu)

This shows a rather pragmatic approach towards the use, but not exploitation, of natural resources. The higher moral for Confucians is good governance, but through the protection of nature, rather than a moral affinity for nature.

Confucianism has actively been spread among most East Asian countries and has shown remarkable staying power within Asian cultures. Confucianism and Taoism share a predominant role among the Chinese people. In consideration of China alone, this represents the single most populated country and a country that at one time had, and the potential to yet again have, the largest economy in the world. This leaves even the smallest philosophies of China having the potential to possess major influence around the world.

New Age religions, or Neo-Paganism, are an anachronistic revival of romanticized religions and often a counter culture against mainstream religion, especially Christianity. This is a grouping of various co-developed sects, with similar practice and "have a remarkably cohesive, identifiable culture and generally shared value set" (Hunter), including Wicca, Magick, and Druidism.

Neo-Pagan religions often emphasize the role of nature in their world view through an emphasis on a mother goddess or the earth being a goddess. Estimates for followers of such religions reach as high as several million and appear to be growing. Adherents mostly reside in some of the most powerful western countries creating a high potential to exert their influence on the international system.

Along with all the various religious views on environment and man's relation to nature, it is also important to keep in mind that many of these religions go to even greater lengths to reconcile themselves with government and have no aversion towards science in general. So while some environmentalists can see the benefit in an ethically based approach, the extreme of renouncing any scientific or economic benefits to environmentalism, such as done by Sagoff, will do more to deter any general acceptance than it would to emphasize the ethical merits. These are not mutually exclusive arguments, even to the intended audiences.

Identifying environmentalism with religious ethics is an approach that shows a high potential for success. Most major religions demonstrate at least a nominal respect for the integrity of nature. Even the religions that relegate nature to an inferior position to humanity leave room for pragmatic interpretations on the treatment of nature. Environmentalists and religious devotees are not the strange bedfellows of modern politics. Rather, theologians of many religions have published much on the common interests of religion and environmentalism. They could effectively work well together.


© 2006, by Luigi Kapaj
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last updated on August 30, 2006

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