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date: 21 May 2019

Introduction: Religion and Ecology—What Is the Connection and Why Does It Matter?

Abstract and Keywords

In the last two decades, the connections between religion and ecology have been manifest by explosive growth in theological writings, scholarship, institutional commitment, and public action. Theologians from every religious tradition—along with dozens of non-denominational spiritual writers—have confronted religions' attitudes toward nature and complicity in the environmental crisis. This confrontation has given rise to vital new theologies based in the recovery of marginalized elements of tradition, profound criticisms of the past, and new visions of God, the sacred, the earth, and human beings. Religious morality has expanded to include our relations to other species and ecosystems, and religious practice has come to include rituals to help us express our grief and remorse and also to celebrate what is left. Further, dialogues on how traditional religions viewed nature and how these views should be reinterpreted or altered in light of the environmental crisis now join criticisms of economics, technology, energy policies, science, transportation, agriculture, taxation, and education.

Keywords: God, religion, ecology, science, nature, environmental crisis, sacred, human beings, religious morality

From Nature to Environment

For as long as human beings have practiced them, the complex and multifaceted beliefs, rituals, and moral teachings known as religion have told us how to think about and relate to everything on earth that we did not make ourselves. Whether as “nature,” “creation,” the “ten thousand things,” or “all our relations,” humanity's surroundings were both a gift and a problem. Because they were the source of our sustenance, a source for which we clearly were not responsible, they were a gift. Because we had to think about what they meant morally and spiritually, and because while we had to use them to meet our needs, it often seemed intuitively clear that in some sense these other beings had their own integrity, purposefulness, and value, they were a problem.

In the Western monotheistic religions, there was (until recently) a general consensus that we should never forget that nature was God's creation, and ultimately God's property, not our own. However, once divine ownership was acknowledged, we had the full right to use that property to our own advantage. Because of our distinctive spiritual nature we had been given special privileges among all other inhabitants of the earth. As long as we did not waste what we used (p. 4) (and there was rather wide latitude about what legitimate use included) we could do as we wished.1 On the other hand, both individual injunctions concerning our treatment of nature (e.g., not to muzzle the ox while it threshes grain, to leave spontaneous growth in the fields for “wild animals” during the sabbatical year; see Deut. 20:19–20; 22:6–7; 25:4) and local customs (bringing animals to church for blessing, desert monks being instructed in the gospel by animals) seemed to contradict—or at least limit—the ontological gulf which much of scripture emphasized.

In other religious traditions the distinction between humans and nature was not nearly so clear. Indigenous traditions for the most part saw the natural world as “peopled” by beings with whom it was necessary to cultivate mutually respectful relationships. Daoism viewed humans as an essential part of nature, eschewing as well any fixed distinction between the mind or soul and the body. In Hinduism the entire universe is God, and for Buddhism reincarnation as an animal in a future life is fully compatible with being a human in this one. And in any case the goal of a realized Buddhist (at least in the Mahayana tradition) was to ease the suffering of “all sentient beings,” not just of people. Often, however, this more encouraging metaphysical attitude was unaccompanied by actual care for the natural world—and in any case Eastern religions did not have much of a prophetic tradition with which to galvanize adherents to socially critical responses to injustice to people or nature. And with the advent of modernity (or perhaps much earlier) indigenous traditions were marginalized by modern states.

Now all this has changed. Varying perspectives which seemed more or less adequate to the first fifteen thousand or so years of human history have been rendered, if not irrelevant, then clearly insufficient by the environmental crisis. This crisis has at least eight major dimensions, each of which by itself would be a critical problem, but all of which together make for perhaps the most significant challenge human beings have ever faced:2

  1. 1. Global climate change has already damaged, and will damage at an increasing rate, agriculture, wild lands, and animals; raise the ocean level and precipitate more intense storms and worse draughts; expand the range of tropical insects and diseases and kill coral; and in all likelihood have effects that we cannot foresee.

  2. 2. A staggering accumulation of chemical, heavy metal, biological, and nuclear wastes is found in every region, no matter how remote, and leads to a plague of environmentally caused diseases—most obviously the dramatic increase in cancer, immune-system problems, and birth defects.

  3. 3. From overuse of chemical agriculture and the destruction of forests, the loss of topsoil threatens the production of food throughout the developing nations and leads to erosion and desertification everywhere. Massive erosion can also destroy ecosystem balance in rivers and coastal fishing areas.

  4. (p. 5)
  5. 4. In what some call a crisis of biodiversity, the decimation of habitats through expanding human settlements, logging, mining, agriculture, and pollution and the killing of animals for sport, use, or food have raised rates of extinction to the highest they have been for sixty-five million years. Potential medicines vanish, ecosystems are destabilized, water supplies threatened, and irreplaceable natural beauties are lost forever. As we witness the harm we are doing we also lose ethical confidence in humanity's own worth.

  6. 5. Loss of wilderness is seen in the increasing rarity of ecosystems that are free to develop without human interference or intrusion. Besides the dwindling of biodiversity that this entails, human beings face a paradoxical loneliness. People are everywhere; yet we are haunted by a deep loneliness for those natural others who have been our companions for biological ages.

  7. 6. The last examples of human communities integrated into nonhuman nature are giving way to devastation of indigenous peoples. As their environments are poisoned, native peoples lose their land and culture and too often their lives.3

  8. 7. Unsustainable patterns and quantities of consumption deplete natural resources and contribute to global warming and the accumulation of waste. In the underdeveloped world, overpopulation relative to existing technological resources and political organization decimates the landscape.

  9. 8. Genetic engineering menaces us with the dismal prospects of engineered life-forms and the potentially catastrophic invention of insufficiently tested organisms. Given our track record with nuclear wastes and toxic chemicals and our political and economic elites' pronounced tendency to shortsightedness and greed, it seems highly doubtful that we are ready to create new life-forms in a cautious and sensible way.

The sheer scope of this crisis means that nature—however it was thought of before this time—has been transformed into something new: the environment, that is, a nonhuman world whose life and death, current shape and future prospects, are in large measure determined by human beings. If the rest of the universe is beyond our reach, the earth—or at least the earth's atmosphere, surface, waters, and ecosystems—plainly is not. In a sense modern industry, development, land use, and technology means that if a clear-cut distinction between nature and people was ever possible, it is so no longer. Human beings and the environment now form a dialectical totality, each side affecting, and being affected by, the other. If we still depend on nature for food and water, air and minerals, every wild ecosystem depends on some political arrangement for protection, and every living thing is affected by human-made climate change, importation of exotic species, habitat loss, and pollution.

While environmental devastation is not in and of itself a new thing, the scope of the current crisis makes for a totally new life situation. Millennia ago (p. 6) overirrigation may have destroyed the fertility of much of Babylonia, and Native Americans may have extinguished several species of megafauna before they developed their nature-honoring spiritual traditions, but humans simply did not have the power to transform climate, initiate mass extinctions, or make sunlight more dangerous. Above all, earlier ecological problems were local—confined to a region, a community, even an empire. Our plight today is global: there simply is no escape from it on this planet.

It should be stressed that the environmental crisis is not just a problem “out there.” It has decisively changed people as well, inscribing itself in our bloodstreams, our breasts and prostates, our very mothers' milk, all of which carry unhealthy amounts of toxins. It also taints our sense of what is to come, as we realize, perhaps only subliminally, that the future is likely to be worse than the past. The environmental crisis includes not only devastating particular events (Chernobyl, Bhopal, a thousand-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico) but a way of life which appears as a slow, seemingly unstoppable, deterioration in the quality of air, food, water, land, and life.4 At the worst, the crisis provokes a deep fear that the earth will cease to be a healthy setting for human life.5

A Changed World, a Changed Faith

Thus the subject of this book—religion and ecology—reflects religions' historical concern with the natural world and their response to the current crisis. What have the world's faiths believed about the human relation to nature? And how must beliefs (and actions) change as we face the environment? These two questions form the heart of the study of religion and ecology.

Ecology matters to religion for a number of reasons. First, any dispassionate view of the past indicates that religion is partly responsible for the environmental crisis. Religions have been, at turns, deeply anthropocentric, other-worldly, ignorant of the facts, or blindly supportive of “progress” defined as more science, more technology, and much more “development.” The first critical questions about humanity's modern relation to nature, wilderness, and industry were not raised by prominent theologians or religious leaders, but by freelance spiritual types, anticommunist Western Marxists, secular philosophers, or nature lovers.6

Thankfully, however, this is no longer the case. As the following essays show beyond doubt, world religion has entered into an “ecological phase”7 in which environmental concern takes its place alongside more traditional religious focus on sexual morality, ritual, helping the poor, and preaching the word of God. In (p. 7) order to make this change religions have had to engage in several arduous and problematic tasks to discover their own distinctive ecological vocation.

To begin, theologians have had to reevaluate their traditions. Classic texts have been read, and interpreted, anew. Marginalized elements which support an ecological ethic have been recovered and stressed, and some previously unchallengeable teachings have been rejected.

This reevaluation, as necessary as it is, is not enough. Not unlike the changes which religions have had to face in coming to terms with women's equality, preserving the faith has required that it transform itself in fundamental ways. The essays in this book show that this process is underway. Theologies have been created which stress the spiritual value of nature, our kinship with the nonhuman, and our ethical responsibilities to the earth. New concepts of the divine, holiness, spiritual life, and sin are being forged. Innovative liturgies and rituals are being practiced, and a unique sense of moral responsibility that stresses the interdependence of our treatment of nature and our treatment of other people has emerged as the strikingly new concept of “ecojustice.”8 These developments are embraced by theologians, intellectuals, and laypeople, to be sure, but can also be seen at the highest levels of institutional authority. Popes and bishops, leading rabbis and mediation teachers, nationwide groups which include presidents of religious universities, heads of their most important affiliated institutions, and famous public figures have all said in no uncertain terms that what we have been doing is wrong and that it is time to change our ways.9

As well, and perhaps most importantly, coming to grips with the environmental crisis has meant that religious people have had to become political and ecological activists. It is clear to most religious environmentalists that pious words about “caring for God's creation” or “having compassion on all sentient beings” will not come to much unless there are dramatic changes in the way we produce and consume, grow food and get from place to place, build houses and use energy. Yet when environmentalists try to help create the needed changes, they frequently come up against the dominant social structures of industrialized society: profit-oriented corporations and a political elite more interested in preserving power than the environment. Consequently, religious environmentalists are mounting a widespread challenge to the prerogatives of private property and the complicity of do-nothing (or do-too-little) governments. Surprisingly—and ironically—one finds deeper and more sweeping criticisms of the environmental consequences of globalization from the National Council of Churches than from the AFL-CIO, more awareness of the pernicious consequences of an ever higher gross national product among religious people oriented to ecojustice than among some secular progressives who concentrate on who gets the wealth more than on the environmental consequences of how we produce it.

To take but one of hundreds of remarkable particular examples, consider the following statement by Catholic bishops from Alberta, Canada, a statement which (p. 8) reveals how religious authorities, once awakened to environmental issues, are led to progressive, one might even say quite radical, political views:

Over the years, Albertans have lived as if the abundant forests, minerals, oil, gas and coal deposits, fertile prairie topsoil and clean air and water extended without limit. … However, times have changed. Our stewardship of this abundance is now being questioned. Our economic model of maximizing profit in an increasingly global market is unsustainable. … The issue of global climate change being pushed by rising fossil fuel consumption and deforestation goes to the heart of Alberta's economic priorities.

The move to large-scale corporate agriculture in search of greater economic efficiencies runs the risk of destroying the agricultural foundations of fertile topsoil, clean air and water as well as the social ecology of vibrant rural human communities.

The rapid, widespread harvesting of the boreal forest is testing the limits of ecosystem integrity and risks the future of what should be a renewable resource for future generations.10

In short, as religions become ecologically oriented they are at once theologically revitalized and political energized. Committed religious groups have challenged the World Bank's development programs, engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Department of Energy in defense of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, confronted auto manufacturers on automobile fuel efficiency, and worked together with (gasp!) scientists to demand an ecologically responsible social order (see the discussion of these issues in part III).

Objections to Ecological Religion

For my part, not surprisingly, all this is a good thing. The unique cultural status, financial and organizational resources, and moral experience of religions turned to saving the planet—what could be wrong with that? However, not everyone would agree. So we must at this point consider three objections that might be made to my optimistic assessment of religion's contribution to solving the environmental crisis.

To begin, some might point out that religion's proclamations about the sacredness of nature or our necessity to care for God's creation are no more important than anything else religion preaches—which is to say not particularly important at all. In the Christian-dominated United States, for example, one sees very little of the Golden Rule, not to mention “loving one's enemies” or eschewing wealth in order to follow Jesus. In supposedly Buddhist Thailand and Hindu (p. 9) India, religious teachings on the importance of nonviolence are violated without much fuss being raised. In short, what a particular religion says and what that religion's (self-proclaimed) followers actually do are two very different things.

There is much truth in this objection. But in the end it amounts to little more than saying that most people, most of the time, go along with whatever is being done by everyone else and do so with little moral concern beyond their family, neighborhood, or village. It is only rarely—during a civil-rights movement, a revolutionary war, an active struggle for economic justice or human rights—that large numbers of people actually live out the highest aspirations of their moral code, whether that code is religious or secular, anthropocentric or environmental. So if people do not always, or even for the most part, get inspired by religion to act in moral ways, at least they do sometimes. Of course, religious support for environmental sanity cannot guarantee victory to the environmental movement—but then again, what can? At the very least having large, wealthy, and highly respected institutions throw some of their weight in that direction can only increase our chances of a modicum of success. If we are to make the necessary but extraordinarily difficult changes in the way we live, we will certainly benefit from every voice which can help motivate us.

A deeper complaint is that the last thing a democratic society needs to help solve its problems is the participation of religion in political life. The Iranian mullahs' repression of women and the American religious right's attacks on gay rights, religious incitement of ethnic violence in the Middle East and opposition to teaching evolution in the United States—all these and more show that we would be better off if religion, like sex, were practiced only by consenting adults in private.11 The more religion in public life the more intolerance, bigotry, and rejection of the gains of human rights, women's equality, and social justice that have been won by the secular left over the last two hundred years. Religion is in fact the enemy of those movements, which have helped make society more just and humane and which are environmentalism's necessary allies in the attempt to make society sustainable as well.

I agree that there is much to lament in the religious presence in modern society. But despite the fact that conservative and fundamentalist forces in religion have been at the center of public attention for some time, a blanket claim about religion's backward social role is dreadfully sloppy. Thinking that all of religion is conservative obviously ignores those many instances in which religious political action furthered, rather than hindered, the expansion of democracy, human rights, and simple justice. In countless instances leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, or Ang San Suu Kyi saw themselves (and, more importantly, were seen by their followers) as embodying religious values as they struggled for values which are the hallmarks of liberal, democratic modernity. There have been powerful religious voices in the fall of communism and the challenge to American imperialism, in the antiglobalization movement and in (p. 10) support of feminism and even gay rights. These voices find no incompatibility between devoted faith and democracy, no tension between serious commitment to their own faith and accepting that the faith of others deserves respect as well.12

Further, any unbiased look at the last century of political life shows that society is endangered as much by fanaticism of the secular variety as it is by that of the faithful. For every Al-Qaeda there is a Sadaam Hussein. In fact, it could well be argued that the most effective forms of antidemocratic repression and totalitarianism have been, at least until recently, movements that were explicitly secular. It has even been suggested that central ideals of democracy such as human rights are actually rooted in religious ideas. What, ultimately, justifies the idea that “all men are created equal” if we are not all “created in the image of God”?13 The upshot of these points is that identifying a person or a movement as either religious or secular tells us nothing about their political commitments. Violence and repression of difference are no more the province of one than the other.

The third caution against religious environmentalism comes from those who may wonder if a direct confrontation with society's politics, economics, energy policy, transportation, and agriculture is really religion's business. Perhaps the problem is not that activist religion is bad for society, but that it diminishes religion.14 When the values of environmentalism are put into practice, after all, they involve complex changes of a nation's legal and industrial infrastructure. It is much more complicated than dismantling segregation or stopping a war. To accomplish such changes, environmentalists must engage in the political process: making alliances, promoting a partisan point of view, compromising certain principles in order to win on other issues. Above all, this kind of political activism is aimed at political power: to change laws, limit what corporations can do, prohibit certain kinds of production, support new technologies, and educate our children to be environmentalists rather than consumers. Yet—many religious thinkers argue—the pursuit of these kinds of political and social power is anathema to the religious goals of creating a community governed by values of love of God, discipleship of Christ, following the Mitzvot, or seeking enlightenment. Politics is grubby, and if we seek to be holy we should avoid it.

Perhaps unfortunately, as distasteful and morally complicated as the political process may be in today's world, seriously religious people are not free to refrain from it. Minimal reflections show why this is so. Obviously, any serious religious commitment includes an ethical one, and the simple fact is that in a technologically and politically globalized world, ethics requires politics. Are we to treat our neighbors as ourselves? Then our gasoline use—for shopping, commuting, or even going to Mass—had better not threaten the health and livelihood of other people. But given the relation between fossil-fuel use and global warming, that is just what is happening. To change U.S. energy policies, however—or to challenge the use of pesticides which spread throughout the world or acid rain caused by (p. 11) Midwest smokestacks which can kill forests in Canada or northern Europe—requires precisely the political organization and clout which religious quietists so shun. And this is not even to mention that actively following specifically religious commands to respect God's creation or prevent needless pain to other sentient beings requires a wholesale alteration of current environmental practices. Thus as difficult as it is, religious people must engage in political life if they are to fulfill the minimum ethical requirements of their faiths—if, that is, the consequences of the way they live are not to make a mockery of what they claim are their values. (People do often make much of how hard this is, ignoring the fact that a committed religious life is always difficult: loving our enemies or giving up attachment to desire is, after all, no day at the beach.)

Spiritual Challenge, Spiritual Opportunity

Besides the fact that it has an obligation to help clean up the mess it helped make (or which it ignored), there are other reasons why religion must confront the environmental crisis. This crisis is, among other things, a spiritual problem, affecting both the passion and the intimacy of religious life.

It does so first by raising in a particularly compelling form the problem of evil. If one believes in a transcendent God we can ask—as the twentieth century has compelled us to do in increasingly urgent ways after its historically unprecedented world wars and genocides—where God is in a world filled with so much pain and loss. Of course, there is no purely logical reason why familiar solutions to the problem of evil—that suffering is produced by human freedom, that God is a mystery, that later on all will be made clear—cannot be applied in this context as well. Yet (as Hegel observed) sometimes a change in quantity leads to a change in quality. And in this case—irreversible damage permeating the fabric of the earth's life-forms—we have a scope of destruction which is so great that the problem of evil may threaten us anew.

In a way this spiritual quandary is less an issue of arguments about how God can coexist with evil than it is about our sense of God's own limits and vulnerability and about our own (in)ability to feel God's presence. If nature has ended, as Bill McKibben suggests, because the impact of human beings is everywhere, then this will surely, and tragically, diminish our sense of the sacred as found in nature.15 We will look to the earth for comfort and find broken beer bottles on mountaintops or seabirds choking on plastic bags; we will find, that is, only (p. 12) ourselves. For those to whom creation embodies God's presence more than scripture does, or who do not directly hear God's voice, this is an irreparable loss. Or, at the very least, it is a challenge we have never faced before. If God is, as some say, everywhere, then she must be found in the toxic-waste dumps, the clear-cut forests, and your aunt dying of breast cancer as easily as in a majestic mountain peak or a meadow filled with wildflowers. As the Raji people, forest dwellers facing extreme deforestation on the Nepal-India border, put it: “Before, we knew where the gods were. They were in the trees. Now there are no more trees.”16

This dilemma can arise in a number of religious settings, not only those based in transcendent monotheism. For example, the center of much traditional Buddhist meditation is using a mental focus on the breath to calm the mind or reveal the mind's deep currents of unregulated attachment, fear, or anger. Yet what is the meaning of a meditation teacher's injunction to “focus on your breathing” on a day when ground-level ozone readings have reached dangerous levels and the weather forecasts warns the old and the ill to “stay inside until the air” (the air!) “becomes less dangerous”?

From the most sophisticated theologian to someone who takes religious seriously but not intellectually, from the most devout monotheist to someone who is “spiritual but not religious,” this problem requires a vital reorientation. As we face a decimated forest after a clear-cut or read about skyrocketing cancer rates after mining companies start to operate on native lands, we must deal with our shame and despair and struggle to retain a sense of God's presence and our belief that existence really has meaning. It remains a grave question as to how world religions will manage to do this.

What Can Religion Offer?

Once focused on the environmental crisis, the resources of religion have a distinct—and I would argue enormously valuable—role to play in trying to turn things around. It is not just a matter of tens of thousands of Catholics, Methodists, or Buddhists joining Greenpeace or demonstrating to demand stricter fuel-efficiency standards (not that those would not be good things!). If the environmental crisis means that religion has to change, it is also the case that over centuries religions have developed powerful resources to help us understand and respond to critical forms of suffering and injustice.

To begin with, we should remember that for hundreds of millions of people religion remains the arbiter and repository of life's deepest moral values. In this context, religions provide a rich resource to mobilize people for political action. (p. 13) As one observer trenchantly stated: “Only our religious institutions, among the mainstream organizations of Western, Asian, and indigenous societies, can say with real conviction, and with any chance of an audience, that there is some point to life beyond accumulation.”17 More broadly we might say that it is part of the essential role of religion in social life to serve as a realm in which the pursuit of power, pleasure, and wealth is suspended in favor of attention to and conformity with humanity's “ultimate concern” (borrowing the phrase from Paul Tillich). Religion prompts us to pursue the most long-lasting and authentic values. If religious institutions themselves often reveal an all-too-common attachment to secular goals, our disappointment with them only underscores how such behavior violates our expectations.

Thus if religious leaders start to preach a green gospel, condemning human treatment of nature for its effects on the nonhuman as well as the human—it is likely to have more of an effect than statements by, say, a comparable number of college professors. To take but one example, consider the by-now well-known 1997 pronouncement by Bartholomew, spiritual leader of three hundred million orthodox Christians worldwide: “To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin … to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation … to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands …  to contaminate the Earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances—these are sins.”18 Bartholomew went on to suggest that we should seek “ethical, legal recourse where possible, in matters of ecological crimes.”19

It is important to note that Bartholomew did not simply say that bad environmental policies are wasteful, inefficient, or troublesome. In using the language of “sin,” he asserted that these matters are of the highest importance, essential to the health not only of our rivers and lungs, but of our souls as well. I believe that many in the general public, and in the ostensibly secular environmental community as well, can resonate with the inherent solemnity of this language and the moral posture it expresses. With or without a literal belief in God or scripture, our society can make the requisite changes to keep us from drowning in our own wastes only if we take our relations to nature with grave seriousness, a seriousness which is still, despite everything, perhaps best articulated by religion.

Though often criticized as being an escape from real life, religion can also be of service in one of the central problems facing the human community: our tendency for avoidance and denial in the face of the looming environmental threat. Both as individuals and in our major institutions we expend a good deal of energy in simply pretending that these problems do not exist. Individually, we read the morning paper and skip over the latest environmental disaster story (“30% of world's coral dying from human causes”; “Burning of rainforest consumes 73,000 square miles”; “U.S. government gives $14 billion for road building project in Boston, $14 for public transportation”), immediately suppressing that (p. 14) slightly queasy mix of fear, anxiety, and guilt by focusing on something, anything, else.20 On a global level many of the world's most powerful institutions—governments, the World Bank and World Trade Organization, major corporations from Exxon-Mobil to Ford—act as if business as usual can continue indefinitely. Their executives seem to assume that the oil will last forever and that using it does not change the climate; that large dam projects are not by and large destructive (even though their own reports tell them that they are); that the earth will continue to be fertile no matter how many chemicals we drench it with; or that it makes some kind of sense to spend ten times as much money on advertising their environmental responsibility than on exercising it. They seem to think that even though the climate changes, the land becomes less fertile, and clean water is increasingly hard to find, their own children will be exempt from the social turmoil and health dangers that will arise.

If religions themselves are often oriented to their own forms of escapism, they are also at times deeply immersed in realities which are frightening. They can provide a saving impulse to face life—and our own moral failings—as they actually are. Catholic confession can be trivialized or serve as a constant reminder to assess one's behavior. Through a special prayer intended to honor the memory of those we have lost, the reality of death is brought into every single Jewish worship service. Buddhist meditation can tell us to focus on our own mortality in distressingly concrete ways (what will your body look like, one is asked, in a hundred years). Thus religion attuned to the environmental crisis can help us, in Joanna Macy's phrase, “sustain the gaze,”21 that is, to focus on what is actually happening long enough to see what we are doing to ourselves, our planet, and our future. In helping us maintain this focus, religion can thus enable us to take at least the first step toward collective change.

Environmentalism and Spirituality

If the environmental crisis represents both a deep obligation for religious response and an important opportunity for a specifically religious contribution, it is also the case that environmental movements are by their very nature hospitable to religion. This is because environmentalism (though, of course, not without some very unpleasant exceptions)22 tends to have a spiritual dimension which other liberal or leftist political movements lack. Compared to often partial and partisan struggles for democracy, in support of rights for workers, women, or racial minorities, against colonialism, or for more economic justice, environmentalism bears remarkable and crucially important affinities with religion. These affinities (p. 15) make the emerging alliance between secular environmental organizations and institutional religion particularly appropriate; and they mean that at times it is quite difficult to talk about the “relations” between religion and environmentalism since the two so shade together that it becomes hard to tell them apart.

In the contemporary environmental movement even those groups totally unconnected to religiously identified organizations are often inspired by a political ideology, or at least by a moral sensibility, with powerful religious overtones. This sensibility has been present in much environmentalism since its origins in the mid-nineteenth century and has evolved into a comprehensive worldview which in many respects is often undeniably spiritual in nature.

These claims are supported by the fact that much of early conservationism itself emerged from a religious sense of the earth as God's creation, a “temple” that we should not despoil. Thus in the initial years of conservation leading voices as disparate as Thoreau, John Muir, Robert Marshall, Sigurd Olson, and John Burroughs celebrated nature not only for its physical beauty and utility, but for its spiritual value as well. As historian Michael P. Nelson observes, it is quite common for people to argue for the preservation of wilderness as a “a site for spiritual, mystical, or religious encounters: places to experience mystery, moral regeneration, spiritual revival, meaning, oneness, unity, wonder, awe, inspiration, or a sense of harmony with the rest of creation—all essential religious experiences.”23

A similar orientation can be found within all aspects of the contemporary environmental movement. From Greenpeace to Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics to the environmental justice-oriented Southwest Organizing Committee, care for the earth is motivated by two inescapable principles: because “human life depends on it, and because there is a widespread sense that the earth is kin to us.”24 The Principles of Environmental Justice adopted at the historic first meeting of people of color environmental activists begins with a remarkable statement whose tone simply would not be conceivable in the Socialist Party, Democratic National Committee, NAACP, or the National Organization of Women: “Environmental justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.”25

Most contemporary environmental organizations repeatedly stress that their goal is not just to save wilderness, but to protect all of life.26 At its best the religious spirit has a similarly inclusive goal. We are all, says the Bible, made in the image of God. We all, says Buddhism, suffer and deserve release from our pain. Each community, says the Qur'an, has its own purpose and value. Any violence against one of us, teach the Jains, can only hurt us all. Looked at in this light, then, the universal missions of truly compassionate religion and of truly global environmental politics naturally converge, at least in the attempt to forge the widest possible social and ecological ethic. Both believe that life deserves a reverence that (p. 16) cannot be reduced to dollar value, that self-examination and spiritual practice make the most important kind of sense, and that there is more to human well-being than money, power, and pleasure.

It should be obvious that no society can function without some comprehensive framework of values. Every time we apply (or fail to apply) the Endangered Species Act or choose between energy efficiency and more oil-drilling (no matter where or with what effects), we are expressing a sense of what is important to us, how we ought to live, and what we regard with reverence. The spiritual dimension of secular environmentalism and the new religious environmentalism are joining forces to offer us a fresh choice as to how we should answer those questions. Since spirituality has been a key part of the environmental movement from its inception to the present, it makes environmental politics particularly fertile ground for an alliance with religion. This alliance has been manifest in a host of particular circumstances, including common work between the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches and the U.K.-based Alliance for Religion and Conservation and the World Wildlife Fund.27

About This Book

In the last two decades the connections between religion and ecology have been manifest by explosive growth in theological writings, scholarship, institutional commitment, and public action. Theologians from every religious tradition—along with dozens of nondenominational spiritual writers—have confronted religions' attitudes toward nature and complicity in the environmental crisis. This confrontation has given rise to vital new theologies based in the recovery of marginalized elements of tradition, profound criticisms of the past, and new visions of God, the sacred, the earth, and human beings. Religious morality has expanded to include our relations to other species and ecosystems, and religious practice has come to include rituals to help us express our grief and remorse and also to celebrate what is left. Further, dialogues on how traditional religions viewed nature and how these views should be reinterpreted or altered in light of the environmental crisis now join criticisms of economics, technology, energy policies, science, transportation, agriculture, taxation, and education.

This book reflects and furthers this fundamental shift toward ecological concern and commitment—as well as the academic study of this shift. In terms of scholarship, the last twenty years have witnessed the birth of what is virtually an entirely new field: the academic study of religion and ecology. Of the many developments which this birth has occasioned, we can list a few highlights. (p. 17) Harvard Divinity School has sponsored a comprehensive series of conferences and subsequent publications on the connections between ecology and virtually all of the world's religious traditions.28 Academic journals now focus on the subject.29 A massive two-volume encyclopedia with more than one thousand entries and a rich online resource has recently been published.30 The University of Florida now offers a PhD concentration in religion and ecology. And an academic society focusing on the topic—the Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture—has been formed. Even a partial bibliography of relevant books, articles, and websites would run to nearly a thousand entries. Twelve years ago, while I was editing the first comprehensive text on the topic,31 I would receive many a quizzical query from academic colleagues: “Religion and ecology? What is the connection?” Now just about everyone knows.

The writers whose essays grace these pages are among the key voices that have helped make this change possible. Within their own faith traditions, in academia, and as members of society at large, they have been leaders in goading religions, scholars, and their fellow citizens to take nature, the environmental crisis, and the connections between God, holiness, ecology, and more traditional social-justice issues more seriously. They have analyzed texts, reported on institutional changes, and themselves drafted key documents for the leaders of their own faiths. Here are just a few of the many examples of how these authors not only study this movement but are part of it: John Hart, whose essay focuses on Catholicism, helped write major public environmental statements for the church, including the Columbia River Statement of American and Canadian bishops of the Columbia River region;32 Protestant John Cobb was part of a group writing early—and highly influential material—for the World Council of Churches;33 Mary Evelyn Tucker, whose essay surveys the academic field of religion and ecology, is cochair of one of that field's most important resources: the Forum on Religion and Ecology; Bron Taylor, who describes the role of spirituality in American environmental activism, edited the massive and groundbreaking Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature; and John Chryssavgis, who wrote the essay on Orthodox Christianity, advises that religion's highest authority on environmental matters. Most of these authors, including the editor, have been active in the American Academy of Religion's Religion and Ecology section, organizing and participating in panels which have spread the word to hundreds (if not thousands) of other scholars and teachers at the premier meeting of college-level teachers of religion in the United States.

The goal of the book as a whole is to make available in one place a comprehensive, organized, and high quality survey of all this field's essential concerns. It will be of use to the scholar or intellectual who is unacquainted with the subject; to the scholar knowledgeable about one area (say, Christianity and ecology) who desires to know more about related issues (ecotheology from other traditions, religious environmental activism, etc.); to the reasonably educated nonacademic (p. 18) environmentalist or religious professional who is interested in this vital connection; and to the undergraduate and graduate student researching religion and ecology. The essays are serious, readable, and important.

In terms of organization, the book's three sections reflect the several dimensions of this field. Each chapter in part I is shaped by the boundaries of a particular religious tradition. Theologians, leaders, clergy, and laypeople have had to ask how their own faiths—so essential in defining their understanding of the cosmos and their guidelines for living within it—have to change to face this new reality. These essays describe the resources with which each religion began and the varying contours of their responses.

Part II contains essays which explore some of the subject's complex and multifaceted connections and internal tensions. Separate papers on genetic engineering, animal rights, population, the contested ethical and religious meanings of ecology, and ecofeminism show that despite a large amount of agreement among religious environmentalists, many controversies remain. David Barnhill's treatment of the spiritual dimension of nature writing and Holmes Rolston's essay on religion and science show the significant ways in which any study of religion and ecology takes us beyond the limits of religion considered in isolation. Mary Evelyn Tucker surveys religion and ecology as a field of academic study.

Part III is rooted in what should be the obvious premise that the ultimate goal of the religious response to the environmental crisis is moral—and hence political—activism. It surveys concrete social practices of religious environmentalism throughout the world, showing that from the United States and Latin America to south Asia and Africa people of faith now make up a vital presence in the global environmental movement. People of faith, motivated in part by their faith, are demonstrating in Washington, planting trees in Zimbabwe, resisting deforestation in Latin America, and seeking sustainable development in Sri Lanka. As Bron Taylor argues, such activity resonates with an international environmental movement which often has its own spiritual dimension.

It is heartening to realize that, because of the sheer number of groups and activities involved, even the excellent essays included here can only scratch the surface of what is actually going on. What they do reveal is that to a greater extent than at any previous time in history religious people from around the world are active members of a progressively oriented global movement for social change. And as Calvin DeWitt's essay shows, this activism is not limited to the “usual suspects” of Reform Jews, liberal Protestants, and dissident Catholics—but includes some socially conservative evangelical Christians as well.

It is my firm belief that religion's response to the environmental crisis, as well as to the social forces of industrialization, globalization, militarization, and consumerism which give rise to the crisis, will be the single most important factor in determining whether religion will be a vital part of humanity's future or sink into increasing irrelevance. The essays in this book—and the realities they (p. 19) describe—show that the world's faiths are well on their way to meeting this challenge and thus that there is every reason to expect that if humanity can somehow learn to live without destroying other species and poisoning itself, religion will have been one of the forces teaching us how to do it and encouraging us to do so.


(1.) In Jewish tradition the emphasis on not wasting could be stated quite seriously. For a summary of this position in the tradition, consider the following from a widely respected nineteenth-century German rabbi: “ ‘Do not destroy anything’ is the first and most general call of God. … If you should now raise your hand to play a childish game, to indulge in senseless rage, wishing to destroy that which you should only use, wishing to exterminate that which you should only exploit, if you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving God Who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood, instead of using them only as the means of wise human activity—then God's call proclaims to you, ‘Do not destroy anything! Be a mentsh [responsible person]! Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mentsh and have the right over them which I have given you as a human. However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human but an animal and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me!’ ” Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, chap. 56 §398, citing Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 105b; quoted in “Bal Taschit” on the COEJL website: For an important earlier source, see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 6.10.

(2.) There is no end of websites, books, articles, and so on, which detail the crisis. One excellent summary of the dismal facts is Frederic Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life (New York: Routledge, 2004).

(3.) “The discovery of anything which can be exploited is tantamount to the crack of doom for the Indians, who are pressured to abandon their lands or be slaughtered on them. And economic discoveries do not have to be exceptional for the Indians to be plundered.” Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, quoted in Al Gedicks, The New Resource Wars (Boston: South End, 1992), 13.

(4.) Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life.

(5.) Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley: Parallax, 1991), 114.

(6.) Social critics like Thoreau, visionary poets like William Blake or Walt Whitman, disaffected political or cultural radicals like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Martin Heidegger, or vaguely spiritual nature lovers like John Muir.

(7.) Mary Evelyn Tucker, Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter Their Ecological Phase (Chicago: Open Court, 2004).

(8.) For example, consider this quote from a leading Protestant ecotheologian: “The structural institutions and systemic forms separating the haves and the have-nots in our time, [we must] … name them for what they are: evil. They are the collective forms of ‘our sin.’ They are the institutions, laws, and international bodies of market capitalism.” Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 176.

(9.) For an overview see Roger S. Gottlieb, A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), chap. 3.

(10.) “Celebrate Life: Care for Creation, the Alberta Bishops' Letter on Ecology for October 4, 1998” (emphasis added), on the Western Catholic Reporter website:

(11.) There is by now an extended debate on this position. My own treatment can be found in Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change (Cambridge, MA: Westview, 2002), chap. 2. See also John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996); J. Judd Owen, Religion and the Demise of Liberal Rationalism: The Foundational Crisis of the Separation of Church and State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997); and Kent Greenwalt, Religious Convictions and Political Choice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

(12.) For a large collection of writings which confirm this claim, see Liberating Faith: Religious Voices for Justice, Peace, and Ecological Wisdom (ed. Roger S. Gottlieb; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

(13.) Michael J. Perry, The Idea of Human Rights: Four Inquiries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Others argue that John Locke, whose political philosophy is an essential foundation to modern democracy, rooted his account of political equality in an essentially religious perspective. See Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

(14.) This viewpoint permeates the position of Stanley Hauerwas. The most effective critique of Hauerwas is Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). I also provide an extended justification for religion's need of secular political insights in Joining Hands.

(15.) Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (10th anniversary ed.; New York: Anchor, 1997).

(16.) Eric Valli, “Golden Harvest of the Raji,” National Geographic (June 1998).

(17.) Bill McKibben, “Introduction,” Daedalus 130.4 (fall 2001): 1.

(18.) “Address of His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Environmental Symposium, Santa Barbara, CA, November 8, 1997,” in This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (ed. Roger S. Gottlieb; 2nd ed.; New York: Routledge, 2004), 229–30.

(19.) This position reverberates throughout a good deal of Orthodox Christianity. Metropolitan John of Pergamon, a theologian and church leader, points the finger at Christians as well as humanity in general: “The ecological crisis is the most serious contemporary problem facing us. To some extent the Christian tradition bears responsibility for causing it.” John Pergamon, “Orthodoxy and the Ecological Problems: A Theological Approach,” on the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople website:

(20.) See extended discussion of this in Roger S. Gottlieb, A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), chap. 2.

(21.) “Guardians of the Future” (interview with Joanna Macy), on the In Context website:

(22.) For example, Michael Zimmerman describes the congruence of Nazism and environmentalism in “Ecofascism: A Threat to American Environmentalism?” in The Ecological Community (ed. Roger S. Gottlieb; New York: Routledge, 1997).

(23.) Michael P. Nelson, “An Amalgamation of Wilderness Preservation Arguments,” in The Great New Wilderness Debate (ed. J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson; Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 168.

(24.) Interview with Lisa Grob, publications manager at the National Resource Defense Council; 29 Oct. 2004.

(25.) Charles Lee, ed., Proceedings of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (New York: United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1992), xiii (emphasis added); repr. in This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (ed. Roger S. Gottlieb; 2nd ed.; New York: Routledge, 2004).

(26.) A summary of similar statements from a variety of groups, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth International, and National Resources Defense Council, can be found in Gottlieb, Greener Faith, chap. 5.

(27.) See ibid.

(28.) See the Harvard Forum on Religion and Ecology website:

(29.) Worldviews: Religion, Culture, Environment ( and Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.

(30.) Bron Taylor, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2 vols.; London: Continuum, 2005); see

(31.) Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (2nd ed.; New York: Routledge, 2004 [orig. 1996]).

(32.) John Hart's contribution was to “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for the Creation and the Common Good,” online at

(33.) John Cobb helped write “Liberating Life: A Report to the World Council of Churches,” in Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches to Ecological Theology (ed. Charles Birch, William Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990).