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Environmental concerns

Is there a role for religion to play?

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Potential role for religious organizations:

In spite of all this impressive activity the progress is very slow, and there is the danger that it will run into sand. The human community continues committing 'crimes against creation' on a large scale, and a major catastrophe appears imminent. How-ever, there still may be one hope (not certainty) of reversing this trend: It consists in persuading the church leaders over the world that there is need for immediate action in ecological matters, that this need is urgent, and that just issuing encyclicals and exhortations is not enough. There must be an immediacy in influencing both their flock and the civil authorities. Not only the approach of religion to life on this planet must change, and support for achieving an ecologically sustainable society must become part of the religious teaching, but, primarily, all this must happen now. We do not have enough time for encyclicals and proclamations by church dignitaries to filter down to the ordinary members: The members themselves must directly be activated to go about ecological matters, and to do it straight away.

The solution of the problems we are facing must have not only a scientific but also a religious dimension. Religion still plays a major role in human life, and can bring about the much needed change of heart and a new approach by the general public. This might be our best hope for some kind of an acceptable future, but time is running out fast.

At present, we have many high-level bodies dealing with the relationship between religion and ecology. For example, we have:

bullet The Center for the Study of Religion.
bullet The Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE), which has institutional support from the Harvard University Center for the Environment, the Harvard-Yenching Institute, Bucknell University, and the Center of Life and Environment of the Humane Society of the United States.
bullet As to publishing, there is the World Religions and Ecology Book Series.

Nobody can doubt the competence and standing of these institutions, which are of the highest academic standard. However, they seem to have as little impact as have the above-mentioned institutions approaching the ecological crisis on scientific grounds. This is possibly due to following factors:

bullet The high academic standard maintained may limit the circle of people these institutions are intended to talk to;
bullet The information provided gives the impression of being influenced by the religious affiliation of the authors who try to present their religion in a particularly favorable light.
bullet Academicians often avoid direct confrontation, not always calling a spade a spade.

The situation is critical, our movement in the right direction is imperceptible. With just a few exceptions the Churches just pay lip-service to ecology. Undeniably, there are encyclicals and speeches about our debt to nature, but how much of it has an effect at the grassroots? There is no sense of urgency. For an effective approach the Church leaders must be persuaded of the need to act now, and then find a way to influence the ordinary members of their religions directly: By sermons during the services, in talks organized by the priests, and so on. Examples should be given and plain talk should be used. Academic arguments usually do not lead to action, only to counter-arguments. On the other hand, knowledge of how some other religions proceed and what experience they have gained should be helpful, and this paper tries to provide some clues in this respect.

The way to make the Church hierarchies act without delay is to put them under some pressure, but this is not an easy proposition. However, we must try. The following text attempts to show how the various faiths consider nature, and, hopefully, the examples given will make some church people take notice. Stripped from the rhetoric all that is needed is already there. This paper may not increase the pressure on the church authorities by much. It is just one of many contributions, but the straws add up. Hopefully, this one will somehow filter down directly into the hands of regular church-goers, and make them ask questions; it might even make some higher up in the hierarchy to think on the matter more seriously.

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A potential side-benefit to greater religious involvement:

There exists a great diversity of religious belief in the world. Unfortunately, many faith groups regard themselves, alone, to have the "whole truth." They regard others to be at least partly in error, if not completely misguided. Some conservative Christians even regard all non-Christians to be Satanic. Adding to the conflict is their tendency to assign different meanings to common English words. The end result is a proliferation of religions, denominations and sects which have little contact with each other, and limited ability to communicate. There are some indicators of increased cooperation among faith groups, at least within Christianity. However, these are counteracted by other signs of schism within Christianity and failure of communication and cooperation among other religions.

If at least some of the religions of the world could join in an effort to avoid environmental disaster, these walls of isolation might be partly torn down. All of the major religions subscribe to an Ethic of Reciprocity -- commonly referred to as the Golden Rule. This is a command to treat others as one would wish to be treated. It normally defines "others" as all of humanity. Many religions include future generations, yet unborn. Thus, religious leaders might be motivated to lay down their antagonisms and cooperate to improve the lives of our children and grandchildren

If faith groups and religions could come together and cooperate to lessen global warming and reduce other damage to the environment, they might find other benefits in the areas of reduced religiously motivated hatred, conflict and violence. The entire world might benefit from a reduction in religiously motivated civil unrest and wars.

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Copyright 2006 & 2007 by Vladimir Tomek
Originally posted: 2006-JUN-25
Latest update: 2007-MAR-03
Author: Vladimir Tomek, with a minor contribution by B.A. Robinson

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