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Is God an Environmentalist? Religion’s Role in Sustainability

Leslie Back | Friday June 4th, 2010 | 16 Comments

By Leslie Back

In summer 2009, my small church started a Green Team. We felt a pioneering spirit as non-conforming liberals accepting responsibility for our modern environmental crisis. We were, as corporations and other NGOs have similarly done, positioning ourselves as problem solvers, eager to take on our collective environmental mess. But this venture, new to our congregation, was not new to the world stage or to the world’s faiths. By setting up our team we embraced a long-standing tradition of Earth stewardship, a tradition found at some level in all world religions. Our green team and those at similar congregations are not modern or revolutionary. Indeed, they are the fulfillment of ancient mandates.

All of the Earth’s religions speak of an ethical responsibility to care for the natural world. In Buddhism, the tenets of reincarnation (samsara) and karma, and the acceptance of plants and animals into these modes of salvation lend value to all life, human or otherwise. Man must not harm the plants and animals of the Earth as they, too, are on a karmic journey.

Often referred to as the world’s oldest surviving faith, Hinduism also places great emphasis on care of nature. As Al Gore pointed out in his 1992 book, Earth in Balance, environmentalists regularly cite the ancient Hindu dictum: “The earth is our mother, and we are all her children.”

And, here in the US, we are well acquainted with the Native American tradition and interrelationship between Spirit and care of nature. Indeed, when writing to President Franklin Pierce in 1855, in response to an offer to purchase native land, Chief Seattle eloquently demonstrated the conviction of most Native groups by saying, in part, “The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”

General thought has been that eastern and native cultures place emphasis on conservation and protection while monotheistic traditions have not. The truth is not that black and white.

As also quoted in Gore’s book, the Prophet Mohammed said, “The world is green and beautiful and God has appointed you His stewards over it.” Drawing from the Qur’an, the first Muslim caliph, Abu-Baker, declared, “Do not cut down a tree…and be always kind and humane to God’s creations…” In Islam, man has been granted stewardship, but nature belongs to God.

Because of misinterpretation of Bible texts and the creation story of Genesis, many Christians have presumed that man is superior to animals and nature, and altogether separate. However, in the Christian tradition, as in Islam, men are stewards of nature. Therefore, Christians are charged with protecting nature as trustees of the Creator. Beyond this, other areas of Biblical text point to the interconnectedness of nature and man, in a way that almost reflects eastern or modern environmental thought. In Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, Verse 19, it is said, “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same, as one dies so dies the other…man has no advantage over the beasts…”

So, we can safely assume from the above (albeit not an all-inclusive list of the world’s religions) that historically faiths have mandated care of Earth in accordance with care of Spirit. As my little church has done, today’s religious leaders, in light of our more recent plight and challenges, have picked up these ancient traditions and have reinforced them with greater vigor.

For instance, as head of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II spoke of a new environmental awareness and called upon believers to protect the Earth from environmental degradation.

And, as quoted in Environmental Guidelines for Karma Kagyu Buddhist Monasteries, Centers and Communities, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has said, “ Our ancestors viewed the earth as rich and bountiful… Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, which we now know is the case only if we care for it…”

So as my church team recycles our bottles and filters our water, we follow in great traditions, and hold ourselves accountable for environmental progress and healing. Solutions will not come from business, government or religion alone. All have contributed to the problem and all must contribute to change.

***

Leslie Back is a first-year Sustainable MBA student at Green Mountain College. Study interests include environmental conservation, social responsibility and the power of corporate and non-profit partnerships to bring about positive change. Other areas of interest include social media in sustainable marketing and public policy. She holds an MA in Organizational Management and a BS in Leisure Management. On the rare occasions when she is not studying, she enjoys writing, reading, running, nature walks and yoga. She hopes to use her skills, talents and education to make a positive impact with an environmentally and socially conscious organization.


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  • anon

    There is no evidence for God.

    The magical thinking associated with religon is a big part of the unsustainability problem.

    • Dave Shires

      God is a metaphor. I'm cool with that. But yes, you're basically right about the magical thinking and so on…

    • http://ketinunkantim.blogspot.com Marcos A. Rondineli

      There is, in Brasilia, a huge evidence of architeture and there is, in life, even on Earth, a huge evidence of non-repetition, despites evolucionary.
      There is no evidence of life outside our planet and we still believe one day extra-terreniums will show up at our skies.
      The evidence of Creation are the creatures. No other is needed, but comprehension is expected.
      I agree with you, religion, as everything else, is part, and big, of the unsustainablility problem, and the solution for sure is not the ignorance. Ignoring our purposes we will end up destroying our meanings.
      And … this second part is working fast. The part of knowing our origens…not so fast.

  • http://www.sbdcexcellence.org Tom Pryor

    Check out “The Green Bible” with a foreword by Desmond Tutu. Every reference to the planet and environment is highlighted in green.

    • http://www.care2.com/c2c/people/profile.html Leslie Back

      Thanks Tom!
      That sounds interesting and I will certainly do that. One of many greatest sources for information was the World Wildlife site. Fascinating stuff there.

  • Phelps Murdock

    Based on performance, it doesn't seem to make any difference whether 'god' is an environmentalist or not. What is simply is, as the universe goes and on, with and without intellegent beings, and any notion of 'god' appears to be irrelevant.

  • http://www.lionaid.org/ Lion Aid

    Conservation and religion

    A friend of mine pointed out some years ago that the Catholic Church had never taken an official stance on conservation, biodiversity, and the increasing tempo of species extinction. As I am not particularly affianced to any religion, I could not come up with any answer then as to why this should be the case, but the question stayed with me. It is interesting to examine the possible reasons why this should be, as the Church does acknowledge the wonders of creation – indeed, animals are still referred to as creatures (from the Latin creatus, creare).

    In the Book of Genesis, God said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let him have “dominion” over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Scholars spend considerable time interpreting meanings of words and passages in the Bible, and the word “dominion” can be interpreted in many ways, including “dominance” “sovereignty (rule over)”, and perhaps even “stewardship”. A few passages later, the message is repeated – God said “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 1:28).

    Genesis makes the point again when Noah disembarked – “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you” (Genesis 9:3), but also “Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth” (Genesis 8:17).

    So the message of Genesis is confused, really. On the one hand, “dominion” is open to interpretation. On the other, all animals are there to be “meat”. But then again, the ark was emptied so that animals could abound and be fruitful and multiply.

    An early appreciation of animals?

    The Catholic Church believes in the splendour of God’s creation, and in the Middle Ages, illustrated Bestiaries were circulated, assuming considerable meaning in the Christian allegories of Medieval times. Lions, for example, in addition to being the King of Beasts, had three natures – they erased their tracks with their tails to confuse hunters, they slept with their eyes open, and their cubs were born dead. Lions erasing their tracks represented the way Jesus obscured and concealed his divinity except to his trusted followers. Lions sleeping with their eyes open had many meanings – either representing God who never sleeps as he watches over his children, representing Jesus as the Lion of Judah as being always alert and watchful, or representing Jesus physically dead after the crucifixion while spiritually alive in his divine nature. And the cubs being born dead and revived after three days by the male roaring over them represented God waking Jesus after three days in his tomb.

    Philosophy and animals

    The allegories of the Bestiaries aside, there next came a considerable debate about a religious philosophical dilemma: do animals have souls? Are animals inferior as they lack reason, language, an individual moral identity? If animals do not have souls, is that a justification for humans (who do), to subject animals to eternal servitude? The ensuing debate over the centuries on this matter is too long and complicated to follow here, but I will list a few high (or low) points.

    Rene Descartes said in 1641 non-humans are nothing but “automata” without souls, minds, or reason. Animals were therefore not conscious, and could not suffer or feel pain. In that same year, however, in Massachusetts, the Puritans passed a law that nobody could exercise cruelty “toward any bruite creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use”. In England, Cromwell and English Puritans interpreted “dominion” as stewardship, and opposed blood sports, only to see their interpretation overturned when Charles II was returned to the throne.
    In 1754, Rousseau argued that because animals are sentient, they have natural rights as being part of natural law – “as they partake, however, in some measure of our nature, in consequence of the sensibility with which they are endowed, they ought to partake of natural right so that mankind is subjected to a kind of obligation even toward the brutes”. Immanuel Kant, however, while opposed to cruelty, was quoted as saying “Animals are there merely as a means to an end. That end is man” in 1785.
    Jeremy Bentham in 1789 argued that it was the ability to suffer, above all, which prescribed how we should treat animals. It was not until 1822 that Richard Martin succeeded in UK Parliament to prevent cruel treatment to horses and cattle – the first legislative action rather over a continuing debate of sentience, souls, and human domination. Martin was ridiculed, but his Bill passed, and led to the formation of the RSPCA followed by the American SPCA.

    Along came Schopenhauer, who basically said in 1839 we should have outgrown the concept that that the animal kingdom came into existence solely for the benefit and pleasure of man. Along came Henry Salt, who stated in 1894 that we must recognize the common bond of humanity that unites all living beings in one universal brotherhood.

    And along came the Nazi Party, which passed in 1933 a highly comprehensive set of animal protection laws – while at the same time designing a hierarchy of their own – Aryans on top, then lots of animals like wolves and eagles, and then Jews and rats at the bottom. In 1934, no more hunting of animals was allowed in Germany, but with the new politically determined hierarchy, persecution of Jews, homosexuals, and mentally retarded individuals was encouraged.

    After the war, considerable opposition formed to the increasingly commercialized use of animals, especially in large-scale farming and laboratory animals, and led to the formation of the Animal Rights movement, including grassroots activists whose actions were at times extremely violent.

    Philosophy versus individual responsibility

    The philosophical debate continues today, and to my mind is making little progress. While there is a general agreement that animals should not be made to needlessly suffer, current philosophers discuss ethics, not the underlying and more prickly issue of whether humans should maintain their rights to an utilitarian approach to animals – they were created for us to be used by us. That said, two philosophers on the subject, Tom Regan at North Carolina State University and Gary Francione at Rutgers School of Law, argue that animals have moral rights as they are capable of cognition, learning, and assimilation of experience. Animals are therefore sentient, and whether such sentience parallels ours is immaterial. Note that the debate mostly involved domestic animals, not wildlife.

    But where does this leave the concept of conservation? While the Catholic Church should decry the loss of biodiversity as it is destructive of creation, at the same time it could argue that man was given dominion – ours to do with what we like (well, except for that message in Genesis 8:17 that is interpretable). A strongly utilitarian concept of wildlife still pervades all aspects of life – wildlife must be “useful” to us, otherwise there is no basis for its existence. Such usefulness comes in many ways – humans must be able to enjoy nature, humans must be able to go on safaris, humans should be allowed to hunt, humans should be able to determine where, in what quantities, and under what conditions wildlife exists, and humans should be allowed to use dolphins and killer whales at Sea World for our entertainment.

    The Year of Biodiversity is a flop because we only value biodiversity as a benefit to ourselves and only ask “What if our grandchildren cannot see a panda except in a zoo?”. The panda does not give a hoot for our grandchildren, but that is how its existence is largely being valued. It all comes back to the old question – “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a noise?” – we interpret the world through our experience as if nothing else matters.

    So where do we go from here? Practically, wildlife must be given a value, and not only an anthropocentric commercial one. Dominion must be seen as a stewardship concept, not an utilitarian predetermination. Conservation should be a duty, not a fad. And perhaps the RSPCA should broaden it’s charter to become involved in conservation issues such as assisting to ban the import of “sport” hunting trophies into the UK? Wildlife conservation will require a sea change in attitudes to make it work, and hopefully we are sapient, cognizant, and sufficiently assimilative of past mistakes to earn our status as moral beings.
    http://www.lionaid.org/

  • vasan

    We do not own anything for that matter. We just come and go. When we are guests here, we have to respect the host and that is mother nature.
    Secondly, there is the dimension of need and greed. Mother nature can cater to the need of all but not to the greed of even a single individual. Need and greed are very well defined in Hindu Scriptures.
    Even modern science accepts now that all the living beings can feel, expirience pain and happiness, can respond to the expiriences. Hindu Scriptures have specifically defined group soul in animal kingdom, may be becuase of their (more) common tendencies whereas every individual is different.
    Hindu Scriptures specify even of plucking of plants for our food as a ritual where time, way to pluck, hymns to be chanted (as words have energy in it).
    Non-violence is the ultimate practice for human beings and we are not empowered to live against nature but to live as one with it. Right from touching our feet to ground in the morning to the time we sleep, we have to offer our respect to the nature. This is what Scriptures says.
    But, who are following these sacred aspects. While West is looking at east to derive the knowledge Hindu scriptures offer, East is trying to imitate West and that too, badly.
    Regarding Religions are concerned, every religion was evolved based on the perception of its founder and the prevailed social conditions. It was originated only to improve the prevailed society and not with any negative dimensions. But, language has seen a sea of change from the time these religions were originated and now. Interpreters at several stages in this period have diluted, distorted and commercialised with either lack of perception or with vested interests.
    Honouring everything we come across our life should be our primary objective.
    Wishes,
    vasan

  • Hajylex

    It is a general phylosophy that behind every creature/creation is a creator and this applies to all entities including humans. Just take a look at this complex universe, mankind:our digestive, urinary and reproductive systems. These systems are just too complex and well designed and structured for it not to have a very skillfull architect and designer. There's a creator somewhere who oversees to all these stuff. If even you don't want to call that creator God, there is still an entity somewhere who made all these.
    The Holy scriptures says “It is only a fool who says in his heart that there's no God”. Don't be part of these people who reject this God. Seek Him while He is near and may be found. This God created this world for man to discover all these creations. People ! All our discoveries was already hidden in the earth and beyond “It was covered… and we are discovering them one after the other….therefore should not be boastful in discoveries but rather glorify this creator/ God in all that.
    . The devil is doing all to put us away from God through doubt and unbelief but thank God for the good news that Jesus is here to save us. Believe in Him as the saviour of the world and you shall be saved.
    For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life Stay blessed as you choose the right path today by believing in Jesus..
    Bless you

  • Marc

    Stewardship is an antiquated idea, Earth systems are complex and we can barely manage our own affairs, much less steward the plant. Thomas Berry has a much more beautiful and ecumenical approach, that we are part and player in an unfolding story of the Universe, that we are a oneness with and that we must reinvent ourselves at the species level if we are to avoid collapsing the planets's life giving systems. The world is beautiful and mystical in its complexity, with the eyes of a child we remain curious, engaged and are aew inspired. http://www.TheForestFoundation.org

  • http://ryan2point0.wordpress.com/ Ryan Tracey

    Religion’s role in environmental sustainability is certainly an interesting question, particularly in the corporate sector (in which I work). I've been lucky enough to interview Dr David Bubna-Litic recently, a leading thinker in the field of spirituality and sustainability. Through my discussions with David and my own critical thinking, I've come to the conclusion that religion and sustainability are obviously interwined, but not necessarily so. It boils down to corporate values and personal alignment to those values. In terms of religion, I believe a secular organisation should support, accommodate and tolerate all religious affiliations, but not own them. In terms of a value like environmental sustainability, I believe the organisation has an ethical obligation to translate it into action. If the company can get the balance right, *all* its employees can be engaged and, in turn, be motivated to perform. At the personal level, if that involves your religion, good on you.

  • http://ryan2point0.wordpress.com/ Ryan Tracey

    Religion’s role in environmental sustainability is certainly an interesting question, particularly in the corporate sector (in which I work). I've been lucky enough to interview Dr David Bubna-Litic recently, a leading thinker in the field of spirituality and sustainability. Through my discussions with David and my own critical thinking, I've come to the conclusion that religion and sustainability are obviously interwined, but not necessarily so. It boils down to corporate values and personal alignment to those values. In terms of religion, I believe a secular organisation should support, accommodate and tolerate all religious affiliations, but not own them. In terms of a value like environmental sustainability, I believe the organisation has an ethical obligation to translate it into action. If the company can get the balance right, *all* its employees can be engaged and, in turn, be motivated to perform. At the personal level, if that involves your religion, good on you.

  • Lozpop

    Religion’s role in environmental sustainability is certainly an interesting question, particularly in the corporate sector (in which I work). I’ve been lucky enough to interview Dr David Bubna-Litic recently, a leading thinker in the field of spirituality and sustainability. Through my discussions with David and my own critical thinking, I’ve come to the conclusion that religion and sustainability are obviously interwined, but not necessarily so. It boils down to corporate values and personal alignment to those values. In terms of religion, I believe a secular organisation should support, accommodate and tolerate all religious affiliations, but not own them. In terms of a value like environmental sustainability, I believe the organisation has an ethical obligation to translate it into action. If the company can get the balance right, *all* its employees can be engaged and, in turn, be motivated to perform. At the personal level, if that involves your religion, good on you.

  • christine

    Sustainability requires far reaching economic rethinking, it needs ethics, moral responsibility and science. If religion has anything to contribute to this, it is in our aethetic and emotional levels of being. I have no doubt that there can be beauty and confort in ritual, and that religion can foster a special emotional bond and sense of personal and social responsibility towards Nature. However, all organized religion have placed “man” either at the centre of creation or at its apex and in doing so have legitimised much of our abuse of animals and the environment. Even so called nature oriented religions, such as may be practiced by hunter gatherers are (have been) less preoccupied with the well-being of non-human creatures than with managing the environment for man’s benefit, In many part of the world, animals have been hunted into extinction, and large swaths of the environment have been turned into wastelands – and it is only after such catastrophes that hunters have developped a sense of restraint. Religion of itself has no meaning, what matters is what a particular religion or religious practice stands for and how. What is certain is that humility is the place to start, to me this excludes idle presumptions of knowing or speaking fo what God is and for what God thinks.

  • D. Kelly Clark

    Thank you for focusing on religion and environment. I want to add two quotes from the Baha’i Faith writings about man’s relationship with nature: For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever. . .

    and also: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

  • Trevor LeFiles

    I do know that when “god” said in the abrahamic religions that “having dominion over the earth”, can be taken only in one interpretation. That we are in charge of the animals well being, and health as well as the greenery we see every day. Its sick that people just take plants here and there and place them where ever they please as some sort of “asthetic” beauty all the while it looks fake and unnatural to the trained eye. We all know to work with something and not to add or take away from that which has given us an existence, being the earth (an all incompassing metaphor for all things living and unliving) “god created and everything is good” Therefore everything must be taken into consideration of sorts including our environment. Now all it seems to mean is how to approach this “good” with said correct living and thinking.