There is the worldwide recognition of the present environmental/ecological crisis and there is a central belief amongst the religions that nature was created by God and should be protected. As environmental degradation has occurred, we begin to ask ourselves about the relationship between human beings and nature.
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The focus on religion and the environment has grown in recent years. Researchers have looked specifically at the role of religion and ecology. Taylor defines the field of religion and ecology as one that focuses on:
Identifying the obstacles that the worlds mainstream religions may pose to environmental sustainability, and secondly the resources such religions may have available for promoting environmentally beneficent behaviors, (992).
There is the recognition that the Earth is in danger from human activity and use and changes need to be made in order to sustain life on the Earth (Taylor 998).
Why is it important to use religion as a means for environmental action?
Berry states that it is human carelessness and greed that caused the environmental problems that we are faced with today (30).
With this in mind, we look to religion as this is what some individuals believe holds a large degree of responsibility for the start of our environmental problems.
Lynn Whites 1967 essay, The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis suggested a link between religion and the environment. White singled out Christian attitudes as a reason for the environmental crisis. He proposed that the attitudes of individuals who do not regard nature as a central importance need to be changed. The earth needs to be respected and used in a manner that will help to preserve it for future generations, rather than exploit it for the present.
White suggested that it was when the Industrial Revolution began that the human concern for the environment was lost to a greater degree than had been seen in the past.
White interpreted the Bible as presenting human dominance over nature, leading individuals to care about themselves and industrial progress rather than about environmental matters and the ultimate effects of their actions on the earth.
Besides Whites interpretation, there are many other suggested explanations for how humans viewed the world, and their resulting actions.
From the philosophy of Rene Descartes, the universe was seen as a machine. It was from this time that economic progress was a priority and the long-term effects from the development and use of nature was not regarded as an issue (Sevier, 41).
This is a view similar to that held by White, in that human progress and development has led to the environmental effects. However, this view does not specifically mention the role of religion.
Carters interpretation of this issue suggests that the ecological crisis is not a result of Judeo-Christian traditions, but rather stems from the interpretation of the Bible and giving human beings dominance over other life forms (animals, plants) (358). This led to the exploitation of natural resources and ultimately to where we are today with the issue.
Regardless of how it initially happened, we have to face reality and realize that as a society we have caused considerable damage to our planet.
The role of religion
Anthropologists suggest that religion persists because it has value to us, and such value can be either intrinsic, instrumental, or a combination thereof, (Strada 59).
Sevier writes that, Traditionally, religion used to play an integral role in linking people to the natural world, imbuing people with the knowledge and values that make caring for it a priority, (38).
Six major religions
There is a universality of suffering.
Being aware of suffering and produces compassion.
Though traditional Buddhism regarded human life over that of animals, there is presently the recognition that all life forms should be respected equally.
As humans we got ourselves into this ecological/environmental crisis and we are the ones that need to get ourselves out.
There is often seen to be a failure on the part of Christians in how they had interpreted the Bible and used the resources that God made available to them. Lynn Whites 1967 essay is an example of this.
However, this is not the belief of all individuals.
There recently has been an increased awareness of the environment in the United States as churches are initiating responsibility towards environmental protection.
Hindu images relate to the powerful natural world.
Ecological sensitivity is based on the relationship between humans and how they respect the gods and goddesses related to the earth.
In South Asia, the effects of pollution, both in the air and water, have been felt, particularly in recent years.
With the values that Hinduism has towards the environment, reflection is starting to occur on how individuals can best approach the ecological challenges that are occurring.
An environmental ethic is in the Quran, but leaves an opening for Muslims to incorporate creative and innovative solutions in the contemporary context.
A green jihad has recently begun. This is a common term for the green movement that promotes environmental protection.
Ecological issues were never a central focus of Judaism, but rather were dealt with as they came about.
An environmental perspective suggests that a belief of Judaism is that we are only tenants on this earth. The earth must then be cared for as there are other inhabitants, both presently as well as in the future, that will be living here.
For individuals following indigenous religions, there is an understanding of their place in the local environment.
Native Americans have believed that there are spirits in nature and the environment needs to be taken care of.
Grim writes that in indigenous beliefs, to analyze religion as a separate system of beliefs and ritual practices apart from subsistence, kinship, language, governance, and landscape is to misunderstand indigenous religion.
The respect for nature and the environment is still present amongst the Indigenous peoples.
What is evident, however, is wherever indigenous peoples have endured, they have maintained a loving experience of place and an understanding that spiritual forces capable of leading humans into both utilitarian and self-understandings abide in all of these places, (Grim).
How do we create a solution?
An environmental crisis is here. It is recognized throughout the world, and its presence is agreed upon by the major religions. But what is the next step? How do we go about creating a solution?
Can there be a common ground for science and religion in that both work together towards a solution?
Bouma-Prediger quotes Edward O. Wilson in saying that religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world todayif religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem [of biological catastrophe] would soon be solved (1392).
Can religion and science work together?
Hossein Nasr writes, The environmental crisis now encompasses the entire Earth, (3).
He suggests that there is a crisis of values and that as humans, we have participated in creating the destruction of the environment.
A need exists to develop a path across religious frontiers without destroying the significance of religion itself and to carry out a comparative study of the “Earths” of various religions as has been carried out for their “Heavens,” if these terms are understood in their traditional metaphysical and cosmological sense, (Hossein Nasr 3).
We need to regain the loss of a moral and social awareness as ecology becomes more individualistic and systems based.
Many researchers recognize that a global stance needs to be taken by religions, with them working together to create a more comprehensive worldview and ethics to assist in reversing this trend, (Tucker and Grim). This is along similar lines with what Hossein Nasr writes, that dialogue on the environment must take place between religions on a global scale.
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Tucker and Grim continue by writing that, This is critical because the attitudes and values that shape peoples concepts of nature come primarily from religious worldviews and ethical practices. The moral imperative and value systems of religions are indispensable in mobilizing the sensibilities of people toward preserving the environment for future generations.
Religious factors and environmental behaviors and attitudes
Sherkat and Ellison analyzed data from a 1993 General Social Survey to look at religious factors and environmental behaviors and attitudes.
Their study revealed that contradictory findings on the connection between religion and environmental concern and activism are the result of varied influences of religious schemata and resource interactions on different indicators of environmental concern and activism, (83).
Sherkat and Ellison were not able to conclude specific religious influences on the environment, but suggested that Whites 1967 essay had the possibility of being a primary influence for religious leaders to take a pro-environment stance and actions (83).
Religion and the environment are intertwined in that they have had a history and will continue to have a role together in the future. This may be one area where science and religion can find a common ground both have the environment in their best interest and can work together to find a solution to the current environmental crisis. As religious traditions and beliefs have shaped human values and behaviors towards the environment in the past, this is one possibility for working toward positive environmental attitudes for the future.