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Environmental concerns

Responses by organized religions: Introduction

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Religions generally show a lack of concern:

It is of great urgency to utilize the insights of the world’s religions for helping to solve the global ecologic crisis. The World Council of Churches has had for a long time a program on forming a just and sustainable society, but, as yet, very little has trickled down to the churches. Theologians have not addressed themselves to the fact that religious beliefs had not kept pace with the radical transformation of society, and, as a result, the churches have had very little to say on the environmental issue.1

Western organized religions remain without any dominant ethic of the environment, 2 and little inspiration in this respect flows from their teachings. Various responses to the ecological crisis have already been given from the perspective of different religious traditions, but specific proposals seem too partial and palliative. Without religion, neither science nor technology are going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis, nor will atavism or prettification. 3 No one yet knows how to deal with the problem effectively. It appears that in our effort to seek a new relationship with the natural world we have to find a new religion. A religion that will help us recapture much of the respect and reverence which earlier generations had for the natural world.

There is an alternative, namely to rethink the old teachings along eco-friendly terms, but it practically amounts to the same path. (Eco-friendly religions believe that humans and nature are intimately inter-linked.) We need to change radically and develop a new respect for all life before it is too late. This is easier said than done. Still, it has to be attempted. Organized religions must be willing to stick their necks out and take a strong stand against the more intolerable aspects of economic development. 4 They must help all those people who seek to reverse the present trends.

Observers occasionally claim that although the great religions of the world exhibit theologies quite different from each other, their approach to nature is very much alike -- especially when the question of how nature is to be used is concerned. When John M. Cuble asks:

“Does a true man of God allow the rape of God’s earth and God’s creatures? Can a man of God look upon desecrated land and see God’s will? Can the destruction of animals and naturalness be arguably part of God’s plan for us?”

we would hope that the answers would be the same regardless of the religion of the person asked. However, there are obvious differences in basic teachings by various religious groups: While a sympathetic identification of humanity with nature is expressed in general terms in Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Buddhism, the approach in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and perhaps the Baha'i faith) is much less positive.

Individual religions were originally embedded in cultural settings that were widely different from each other. Further, cultures have since changed. Religions were not conceived in response to the specific problems which beset us here and now. All the key faiths came into being at a time when climate change, endangered habitat and species, or overpopulation were unheard of concepts, and when the hereafter was considered much more important than this life. (Looking to the past can be avoiding looking at the present. 5) This is why religions may not feel equipped to deal with the ecological challenge, and why they show little responsibility for the fate of the earth. All this must change.

In the Western world, we consider man to have been crowned the pinnacle of creation. This is in spite of the fact that we are only one species among millions on a planet that is only one of many, orbiting a medium-size star in a four and a half billion year old solar system, one among half-a-billion stars in a galaxy that is one in one hundred billion galaxies in the universe. This is incredible. There are many questions to be asked in the context of our claimed exalted position, with answers decisive for ecology:

bulletDoes the earth exist for the benefit of humanity?
bulletDo humans have any ethical obligations with respect to the natural world?
bulletHave we the right to take all the Earth’s resources for our own use?
bulletDo we have a responsibility to be good stewards over the Earth?
bulletDo other species have an intrinsic right to exist?
bulletWhat do the various religions have to say about humanity’s relationship to the rest of the living world?

Sean McDonagh wrote:

“The claims that humans had the right to subjugate the natural world were promoted by theologians by referring to the Genesis texts 1:26, 1:28 and 9:2-8. Humans were considered unique among the species of the earth. On the other hand, animals were assumed to be inert, lacking any spiritual and emotional dimension. Humans stood to animals as did heaven to earth, soul to body. The logic of domination, embedded in this hierarchical perspective, gives those on the top a divine right over whatever they consider inferior to them. Humans judged that they had ascendancy over plants and animals. These had no intrinsic right and no other purpose apart from their role in serving human needs.”

Such were the views of the mainstream Western religions, which, however, were not shared by the so-called heretics. Consider, for example, the Cathars: If attacked by a wild animal, the Cathars had the right to defend themselves, but not to kill. For the Cathars, killing even in self-defense was as grievous as murder. Respect for all living things was vital. When the Cathars found an animal in a trap (set by a stranger), they were obliged to free it, sometimes leaving money in its place.

Lynn White, an American historian, in 1966 indicted the Christian tradition 6 and maintained that our present ecological troubles will continue until there is a major shift in Westerner’s religious perspective. White maintained that Westerners feel ‘superior to nature, contemptuous of it, and willing to use it for our slightest whim.’ He continued:

“Both our present science and technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance towards nature that no solution for our ecological crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our troubles are largely religious, the remedy must be essentially religious, whether we call it so or not.”

As to the notion that man is the pinnacle of creation, how can we be certain that humanity will still keep this position into the far future? Remember the dinosaurs? Life on earth started about 3.8 billion years ago. It gradually developed and differentiated into all the species we know now. Who can claim that some hidden process will assure that humans will always develop faster than all the other species who will stay behind and never overtake us? There are the ants who show, as members of a colony, reasoning power in building an ant-hill 7 and crossing a dangerous track. 8 Or there are the flattid bugs who disguise their colony as a coral-coloured flower rather like a hyacinth, which does not exist in nature. 9 We do not know what makes them do it. How far can the ants and the flattid bugs develop in the next 3 billion years, if we do not destroy them? Is there a limit to the speed and range of their development? How can we exclude that they have a chance of overtaking humans? Who can say what will happen in the billions of years to come?

Destruction of nature, whether quick and immediate, like the slash-and-burn agricultural practices, or gradual, such as the destruction of the ozone layer, dulls our sensitivity to the presence of God in the natural world. Religions need to get involved with the development of a more comprehensive worldview and ethics to assist in reversing this trend. Such ideas have been accepted, but apparently without much effect. For example, the notion that Logos, the Word, must be renewed spiritually and practically through the conduct of everyday life, became the guiding light of the Patmos Circle. Also, in an open letter to the religious community, Carl Sagan and other scientists wrote, in part:

"The environmental crisis requires radical changes not only in public policy, but in individual behavior. The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment."

"As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred. At the same time, a much wider and deeper understanding of science and technology is needed. If we do not understand the problem, it is unlikely we will be able to fix it. Thus, there is a vital role for religion and science." 10

Unfortunately, there has been little response from religious groups since this letter was written in 1990,

It seems that people still pay lip-service to a transcendental religion. However, the real religion with which they have been imbued since their most tender childhood is the secular religion of progress. 11

We cannot assume that God is going to take care of our present crisis, to pick up the pieces and remedy the disasters we bring about. God is not going to save the planet if we decide to destroy it. All we can do is to do our best and trust God to salvage what can be salvaged from our failures, and to make the most of what can be made of our successes.2 We must strive to be the people who chart their futures by what they can give to their next generation, not by what they can take from it.

For some reasons religious leaders have failed to understand the magnitude of the ecological crisis that was unfolding during the past sixty years. There were many words and pronouncements from them, but very little action where it counted (where it could influence the believers). One cannot help wondering how history will judge them. 12

bulletIn 1971, the Anglican Church declared that environmental abuse was ‘blasphemy’.10
bulletIn 1996, the Metropolitan (bishop presiding over a province) John of Pergamon declared that environmental destruction must be regarded as a sin. It was, in effect, an indictment of our modern industrial society. 13
bulletIt was only in 1997 when, for the first time, the head of a major world religion, Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I., stated clearly and unequivocally that destroying the environment is a sin. 3 At the Symposium on Religion, Science and the Environment, in Santa Barbara, California, in 1997, he said:

“For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands, for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances – these are sins.”

It was encouraging to see that dignitaries from other religions – the Church of England, and Catholicism – concurred, as did the Hindu, Jain, and Zoroastrian speakers. Edward Goldsmith commented:

“This view provided an indictment of the very principle of economic development which we identify with progress and which involves the systematic substitution of the world of human artifacts or the surrogate world for the natural or real world – a process that by its very nature must lead to the latter’s annihilation.” 4

It is difficult to reconcile the notion that environmental destruction is a sin with modern mainstream religions. For though they do not see the natural world and indeed the cosmos as evil, they seem to have little interest in it. 13

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Russell C. Train, "The Environmental Crisis: A Challenge to the Churches," Woodstock Report No. 211, 1990-MAR at: http://www.georgetown.edu/
  2. Charles Birch. "Purpose in the Universe: A Search for Wholeness," Zygon, 6, No.1, Pages 4-27, 1971-MAR.
  3. Lynn White Jr, "Machina ax deo: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture," MIT Press, (1968).
  4.  Edward Goldsmith. "Re-embedding religion in society, the natural world and the
    cosmos,
    " at: http://www.edwardgoldsmith.com/
  5. Paul McCartin, "A Theology of Environment," at: http://www.columban.com/
  6. Lynn White Jr.. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science 155 (No. 3767), 1967.
  7. Douglas R Hofstadter. "Gödel, Escheer, Bach. An Eternal Golden Braid," Penguin, (2000).
  8. Thomas Belt. "Naturalist in Nicaragua," University of Chicago Press, (1985).
  9. Robert Ardrey, "African Genesis," Collins, (1963).
  10. Timothy P Wendler, "Religion and Environment," at: http://www,churchoftruth.org/
  11.  Edward Goldsmith, "The Cosmic Covenant," at: http://www.edwardgoldsmith.com/
  12.  Dalai Lama, "Compassion and the Individual," at: http://www.bodhicitta.net/
  13. Edward Goldsmith, "Religion at the Millennium," long version, at: http://www.edwardgoldsmith.com/

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Copyright © 2006 % 2007 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-AUG-08
Latest update on: 2007-MAR-04
Author: Vladimir Tomek

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