# Religion, nature and environmentalism

March 4, 2013, 7:06 pm
 Topics:

Source: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

## Context

Religion can be the most powerful influence on the worldview, values, attitudes, motivations, decisions, and behavior of individuals, groups, and societies for better or worse. Religions are alternative ways of affording nature various cultural, moral, and spiritual meanings, and defining the place of humans in nature including how they should act toward non-human beings and other phenomena. A religion may be grounded in the idea that nature as a whole is sacred, and/or that particular places in nature are especially sacred such as the mountains of Fuji in Japan, Kailash in Tibet, Shasta in California, and Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia. Whatever someone regards as sacred or spiritual is more likely to be revered and protected.

Many discussions of the relationship between religion and nature describe each of the major world religions separately, emphasizing their distinctions, and occasionally implying or explicitly stating that some are closer to nature and more environmentally friendly than others. The famous essay published in Science in 1967 by Lynn White, Jr., stands out as condemning the prevailing interpretation of the Bible in Christianity for humans to multiply and dominate the Earth as the primary cause of environmental crises. His analysis generated a major controversy that continues and stimulated the growth of the fields of environmental ethics and ecotheology. Nevertheless, towards the end of his essay, White, a Christian with an M.A. in theology, pointed to Saint Francis of Assisi as an alternative path for Christians that would be more environmentally friendly.

A more affirmative approach to the relationship between religion and nature was launched in 1986 when some 800 people gathered for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. The meeting was invited by His Royal Highness Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, as President of the International WWF. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish leaders each extracted a viable environmental ethics from their faith. These Assisi Declarations transcended the idea that any single religion is the cause of environmental crises. Instead, they advocated that each religion may help resolve environmental problems for its followers, a more pluralistic, constructive, and pragmatic approach. Assisi was also a historical turning point in initiating the Network on Conservation and Religion associated with the WWF. This network published the newsletter The New Road from 1986-1995 and the book series World Religions and Ecology from 1986-1998 on Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and First Nations Faiths. A subsequent interfaith conference, the Summit on Religions and Conservation, was held in 1995 in Ohito, Japan, followed by one at Windsor Castle, England. These conferences added declarations from Bahaii, Jainism, Sikhism, and Taoism. Also the name of the network was changed to Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). By 2001 declarations were added from Shintoism and Zoroastrianism. ARC is currently working on about a hundred conservation projects with 11 major faiths. Among these projects are the preservation of churchyards and sacred land in the United Kingdom, Huichol sacred landscapes and pilgrimage routes in Mexico, Buddhist and Daoist sacred mountains in China, and ancient pilgrimage sites of Vrindavan and Sri Jgannath Forests in India. Martin Palmer of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture (ICOREC) at Manchester Metropolitan University is the driving force behind much of the work of the ARC.

During recent decades an environmental movement that explicitly encompasses religious and spiritual as well as intellectual and political components has been growing exponentially in the United States as well. Sometimes it is called spiritual ecology. For example, Steven Rockefeller was the primary organizer of an interfaith conference on “Spirit and Nature: Religion, Ethics, and Environmental Crisis” at Middlebury College in 1990 which yielded an edited book on the topic. Then Mary Evelyn Tucker and John A. Grim organized a series of ten international and multidisciplinary conferences attended by a total of 800 participants at the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) of Harvard University during 1996-1998. Each conference focused on a different world religion and ecology: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Indigenous Traditions, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, and Shinto. Furthermore, each conference generated a substantial edited book with an extensive bibliography published from 1997-2003 by the CSWR and distributed by Harvard University Press, except for the one on Shinto which is only available in Japan in Japanese. Concluding conferences were held in 1998 at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Museum of Natural History, and United Nations. The Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) arose out of the original ten conferences. It has grown into a global network of more than 5,000 individuals. The associated web site with a wealth of information is in eight languages. FORE inspired in turn the Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology and the European Forum for the Study of Religion and the Environment established in 2003.

Bron R. Taylor is another major catalyst in this movement. He is Editor-in Chief of the benchmark reference work Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature published in 2005 in two volumes with around a thousand entries contributed by 518 authors. Also he is the primary scholar behind the development of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture and its inaugural conference in 2006 as well as its Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture launched in 2007. Furthermore, Taylor was instrumental in the creation of the Religion and Nature track within the Department of Religion at the University of Florida in 2003.

By now extensive educational resources on spiritual ecology are also available. David Kinsley published the first textbook in 1995 and Roger S. Gottlieb edited the first major anthology in 1996 with a second edition appearing in 2004. The journal Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion started in 1997. In recent years training and research programs variously focused on spiritual ecology have evolved in institutions such as the Boston Theological Institute’s Certificate in Science and Religion with its Religion and Ecology option, University of Chicago Religion and Environment Initiative, University of Florida in Religion with its Religion and Nature track, University of Hawaii in Anthropology with its Spiritual Ecology Concentration, Vanderbilt University in the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture with its Ecology and Spirituality Group, and most recently the Yale University Project on Climate Change, Religion and Ethics in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

All of the scholarship outlined above has deep roots, among them the diligent work of members of the Religion and Ecology Group of the American Academy of Religion since the 1990s. Penetrating information, ideas, and discussion with constructive criticism and debate provide the necessary foundation for actions to generate individual, institutional, and societal changes in the ways that humans relate to nature. In her 2003 book Tucker expresses the optimistic opinion that world religions are entering a second axial age which she calls their ecological phase. Her view is sustained by the above developments and by the fact that increasingly pragmatic organizations like the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), World Bank, WWF, and Worldwatch Institute have recognized the positive environmental potential of religions as well. For instance, the Interfaith Partnership for the Environment was founded as a UNEP project in 1986. It has become a worldwide network of different religious organizations working to promote collaboration between their representatives and environmentalists. Also Tucker's view is affirmed by the fact that since the 1980s various international, multidisciplinary, and interfaith conferences have called for moral responsibility and action on behalf of the environment, such as those of the Parliament of World Religions, Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders, and the UN Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders.

## Parallels

By now research and dialog on the environmental relevance of each of the world's major religions has advanced to the point that some attempts have also been made to identify common denominators or at least parallels among them. For instance, in the last chapter of his textbook on spiritual ecology David Kinsley identifies these ten basic principles:

1. Many religions consider all of reality, or some of its components, to be an organic whole or a living being.
2. There is an emphasis on cultivating rapport with the local environment through developing intimate knowledge about it and practicing reverence for its beauty, mystery, and power through ritual celebrations of recognition and appreciation.
3. The human and nonhuman realms are directly interrelated, often in the sense of some kind of kinship, and in certain cases, even to the extent of animals being viewed as another form of humans or persons.
4. The appropriate relationship between humans and nature should be reciprocal; that is, humans do not merely recognize interdependence, but also promote mutually beneficial interactions with nature.
5. Ultimately the dichotomy between humans and their environment is nonexistent; humans are embedded in nature as an integral part of the larger whole or cosmos.
6. This non-dualistic view reflects the ultimate elemental unity of all existence; nature and spirit are inseparable, there is only one reality, and this continuity can be sensed and experienced.
7. This underlying unity is moral as well as physical; humans and nonhumans participate in a shared moral system wherein environmental issues are first and foremost ethical concerns; and nature has intrinsic as well as extrinsic values.
8. Humans should act with restraint in nature by avoiding the anthropocentric arrogance of excessive, wasteful, and destructive use of the land and other resources, and in other ways they should exercise proper behavior toward plants, animals, and other aspects of nature as sacred.
9. Harmony or balance between humans and the rest of nature must be maintained and promoted, and, if it is upset, then it should be restored.
10. Frequently the motivation, commitment, and intensity of ecological concerns are essentially religious or spiritual.

Next, one example each from the Middle Eastern, Asian, and Animistic religions that reflects some combination of the above principles will be discussed briefly by focusing on its religious constructions of nature and presenting a case of its response to an environmental issue. However, any generalizations should be tempered by five cautions. There is tremendous diversity within each religion such as different sects in Christianity and in Islam. In some regions individuals may follow elements of more than one religion like Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan. There are degrees of religiosity from nominal to strict adherence as well as non-believers. There are discrepancies between the professed ideals and actual behavior of individual adherents. An example of this fourth complication is the Ganges which is the most sacred river in India for Hindus for ritual purification yet also the most polluted physically. Lastly, particular religious beliefs and practices may be ecologically adaptive, maladaptive, or neutral. Thus, oversimplification needs to be avoided in considering the relationship between a religion and the environment.

## Islam

The three major Middle Eastern religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have more in common than is generally recognized with political conflicts in the region. Here Islam will be considered because space does not allow a discussion of all three of these religions and it is less known and appreciated in the West.

There are more than 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, three million each in the United States of America and France, and nearly as many Muslims in Indonesia as in all of the Arab states of the Middle East combined. Accordingly, there is tremendous diversity among Muslims including in aspects of their religious beliefs and practices, depending on the particular historical, geographic, cultural, political, and national contexts. Nevertheless, underlying this regional diversity is the unity provided by the sacred texts, most of all the Qur'an, and by the five pillars: profess faith in Allah (God) and Muhammad as Allah's prophet; pray five times a day facing the sacred city of Mecca; fast from sunrise to sunset and refrain from smoking and sex during the month of Ramadan; give alms to support the poor, orphans, and handicapped within their communities (zakat); and make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. To be a Muslim one must agree to submit to and obey the one and only God who is the omnipotent, omniscient, and absolute sovereign. The word "Islam" carries the dual meaning of submission and peace.

In Islam, nature, like the Qur'an, is God's revelation. Divine truth is inherent in nature. In principle, the sacred is found everywhere, all space is sacred and everything that exists is sacred, given that it is God's creation. However, human constructions may also be considered sacred, especially mosques and shrines as well as certain cities associated with holy personages including Jerusalem, Medina, and most of all Mecca. At the same time, parts of nature may also be considered especially sacred such as trees and especially palms.

Muslims have a responsibility to treat nature with respect and reverence because it is God's creation, humans are distinguished from {C}animals by their capacity of reason to make moral choices, and they are entrusted and accountable as God's agents and stewards on Earth (khalifa). Care for animals and plants is sometimes viewed as an extension of the fourth pillar of zakat. Islamic law permits some things (halal) and prohibits (haram) others. Eating carnivores, scavengers, dead animals, and pigs is prohibited. Killing an animal for food is supposed to be a devotional act, thus it must be done in the quickest and least painful manner by slitting its throat. Also God's name must be invoked when the animal is killed. An animal should not be killed in front of another animal to avoid causing undue distress. Animals should not be treated cruelly, caged or beaten unnecessarily, allowed to fight each other for human entertainment, or mutilated. In short, Islam affords humans power over animals to use them for food, clothing, and transportation, but this must be done responsibly with as much consideration and kindness as possible. For instance, in a 10th century Islamic fable a debate occurs between humans and animals. Among other points, the relative strengths and weaknesses of humans and animals are recognized.

In Islam nature is viewed as a web of mutual services and benefits between humans and animals. Also there is the idea of maintaining the balance or equilibrium of nature, and accordingly Islam divides land into developed, undeveloped, and protected zones (haram). Justice is a primary concern in Islam, and because an abuse of the environment can cause harm to people this can be seen as injustice. In addition, natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and droughts are interpreted by some in Islam as God's warning that they have strayed from the righteous path.

Islam emphasizes pragmatism, thus many Muslim leaders have developed guidelines to safeguard water resources, protect fisheries, prevent over-grazing, conserve forests, and the like, following the environmental implications of Sharia (Islamic law). For instance, around Misali Island in the Zanzibar archipelago of Tanzania, some 1600 local Muslim fishers from Misali and Pemba islands resorted to the extreme practice of using dynamite blasts to recover fish. Clearly dynamite fishing is unsustainable in the long term because it destroys juvenile fish and reef habitats. Moreover, Misali Island is an important area for biodiversity conservation because it has one of the most significant coral reef ecosystems in the western Indian Ocean and is one of the principal sites for sea turtle nesting in the Zanzibar archipelago. Years of a government ban on fishing with dynamite reinforced by gunboat patrols and educational programs by environmental agencies failed. Finally, local Muslim leaders applied principles from the Qur'an and Sharia in order to halt dynamite fishing. Moreover, this local Islamic conservation initiative has become a model for other Muslim fishing communities around the world. Beyond Zanzibar, Islamic environmentalism is represented in organizations like the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences in Birmingham, England; the Islamic Foundation for Science and Environment in Delhi, India; and the Center for the Study of Islam and the Environment at Lampeter University in Wales. Muslim environmentalists include Hashim Dockrat, Yasin Dutton, Fazlun Khalid, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Omar Vadillo.

## Buddhism

In contrast to the Abrahamic religions, the principal religions of much of Asia are far more diverse including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism originating in India, Confucianism and Daoism in China, and Shintoism in Japan. Here it must suffice to consider only one of these religions. Buddhism is selected because it is more widespread geographically with in excess of 376 million adherents worldwide making it the fourth largest religion. Also it shares several important attributes such as nonviolence (ahimsa) with Hinduism from which it sprang and Jainism with which it coevolved.

There are three main types of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) each with various manifestations; thus, there is a wide range of approaches to nature as well as to the religious life. Nevertheless, underlying this diversity are the core principles of the Triple Refuge, the Fourfold Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path.

A person becomes a Buddhist by publicly vowing to take refuge in the enlightened one (Buddha), his teachings (Dharma), and the community of Buddhists (sangha). These three refuges can be related to nature. The birth, enlightenment, teaching, and death of the Buddha were each closely associated with trees. Dharma means nature, among other things. One common source for Dharma instruction is the Jatakas, fables that illustrate the core virtues in the Buddha's teachings. Also they exemplify pivotal principles like interdependence, the first precept of nonviolence, and moderation (Middle Way). The more than 200 rules for monks (vinaya) include nonviolence, compassion, and loving kindness towards all beings. Thus, monks are prohibited from killing other animals for food or even in self-defense. They are not supposed to dig in the ground to prevent harming organisms in the soil. Laity, like monks, may practice meditation in natural places such as forests and caves, pursue pilgrimages to sacred sites associated with the Buddha, practice vegetarianism to reduce harm to other beings, and participate in environmentalism as a form of socially engaged Buddhism. Environmental degradation obviously contributes to the suffering of humans and other beings. Buddhist practice includes nonviolence, compassion, and loving-kindness through awareness, simplicity, restraint, and action on behalf of all sentient beings. Non-harming (ahimsa) is the cardinal ethical precept of Buddhism, recognizing that other beings and things shun suffering and seek happiness each in their own ways.

The Four Noble Truths that the Buddha discovered through enlightenment are that all existence is suffering (dukkha); suffering is caused by ignorance, hatred, and desire; suffering can end by eliminating these causes; and the means to end suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. This path encompasses right view, resolve, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and meditation. These can be related to nature in various ways. For example, following right livelihood ideally includes avoiding any occupation that harms other beings such as hunting, fishing, or butchering. Also Buddhism distinguishes between need and greed. Accordingly, a Buddhist would pursue the Middle Way by minimizing harm to other beings through modestly satisfying the four basic needs recognized by the Buddha (food, medicine, clothing, and shelter). Clearly restraint in material consumption would also reduce pressure on the environment as well as waste and pollution.

Since the 1970s, there has been a growing movement in many parts of the world that is variously called Buddhist ecology, Buddhist environmentalism, ecoBuddhism, or green Buddhism. This movement applies concepts and principles from Buddhism to deal with particular environmental issues in order to relieve the suffering of other beings. Among Buddhist environmentalists are Robert Aitken, Allan Hunt Badiner, Stephen Batchelor, Rita Gross, Ruben L. Habito, Daniel H. Henning, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Kent Jones, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Philip Kapleau, Stephanie Kaza, Kenneth Kraft, John Daido Loori, Joanna Macy, Thich Nhat Hanh, Steven C. Rockefeller, John Seed, Padmasiri de Silva, Sulak Sivaraksa, Gary Snyder, Michael Soule, Christopher Titmuss, and Duncan Ryuken Williams.

The Asian open-billed stork (Anastomus oscitans) provides a striking example of the practical side of Buddhist environmentalism. By the mid-1950s this stork had been extirpated from most of its natural range in Asia, the most notable exceptions being India and Sri Lanka. Although in Thailand this bird was supposed to be protected by law since 1960, its numbers were still diminishing as a result of poaching and habitat destruction. Indeed, the only remaining colony in the country was located in the vicinity of a Buddhist temple called Wat Phai Lom north of Bangkok. Monks and wildlife conservationists joined forces, and the temple was recognized as a bird sanctuary by law in 1970. The population of open-billed storks in Thailand increased from 4,000 in 1964 to 30,000 in 1980, about half of the world's population of this species. Wat Phai Lom is the most important reason for the conservation and recovery of this {C}species in Thailand. It provides a protected area, especially during the autumn and winter months of the stork's annual migration cycle in Asia.

## Animism

As a generic category, Animism is by far the most ancient, geographically widespread, and diverse of all religions. Usually it focuses on spiritual beings and/or forces that reside in trees, forests, animals, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, springs, mountains, rocks, and so on. Accordingly, in Animism modernist dualisms such as natural/supernatural and matter/spirit are irrelevant. In other words, for Animists all that exists is alive and sacred. Animism is most inclusive in extending personhood, kinship, community, morality, and spirituality far beyond human society. The ideal of Animism is to respectfully engage in a morality of kinship and reciprocity with others, especially extraordinary beings in nature encountered in daily life, rituals, and/or visions. While Animism is the religion of many of the some 300 million indigenous people in the world it is not limited to such societies. For instance, Asians often embrace aspects of Animism along with Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or another faith in their own personal religion. Also in North America, Europe, and elsewhere, there has been a resurgence of Animism in the form of Neopaganism with an estimated one million followers. Furthermore, reflections of Animism appear in the writings of pioneering environmentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson as well as more recently in those of organizations like Earth First! and Earth Liberation Front. Among Native American spiritual ecologists and/or environmentalists are Paula Gunn Allen, Gregory Cajete, Phillipe Deere, Vine Deloria, Jr., Nicholas Black Elk, Donald A. Grinde, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Winona LaDuke, Oren Lyons, Simon J. Ortiz, Audrey Shenandoah, Leslie Marmon Silko, David Sohappy, and Jace Weaver.

Given the great antiquity and former universality of Animistic religions together with their obvious potential ecological relevance through special respect for the sacredness of nature, most likely through space and over time the cumulative environmental impact of these religions has been largely benign and adaptive. Indeed, most indigenous societies that pursued Animism were relatively sustainable ecologically, as proven by their persistence for centuries or even millennia in the same region without causing natural resource depletion and environmental degradation to an irreversible degree. Traditional indigenes who intimately interact with their natural habitat on a daily basis for survival and subsistence through deep knowledge of their bioregion and its ecosystems, and who revere nature as sacred, are unlikely to seriously degrade their environment unless faced with exceptional circumstances. This last point challenges some of  the assertions of Robert B. Edgerton, Arne Kalland, Shepard Kretch III, and Kent Redford in their various attempts to refute the so-called "myth of the ecologically noble savage."

A most remarkable case of the practical application of an indigenous spiritual ecology is the Kahoolawe Island Reserve. The small island of Kahoolawe, located six miles southwest of Maui in the Hawaiian archipelago, was inhabited for over a thousand years. Native Hawaiians called the island Kanaloa for the god of the ocean. It has long been a sacred place (wahi pana) for spiritual regeneration (puuhonua). From the beginning of World War II until 1990, the U.S. military took control of the island for bombing practice from ships and airplanes. Native Hawaiians formed the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana to protest the bombing of the island and call for its return. Finally in 1993 this transpired with the passage of a law by the U.S. Congress recognizing the cultural significance of the island and directing the Navy to remove unexploded ordnance and restore the environment. In the same year the State Legislature of Hawaii established the Kahoolawe Island Reserve restricting the land and a two mile zone around it for exclusive use by Native Hawaiians for their subsistence, cultural, and spiritual purposes as well as for environmental restoration, historic preservation, and education. Ancestral temples, shrines, and other religious and cultural places have been rededicated through appropriate ceremonies.

## Conclusions

Since Earth Day on April 22, 1970, numerous and diverse secular approaches, including environmental sciences, technology, education, ethics, economics, policies, laws, and regulations have contributed significantly toward resolving or at least reducing particular environmental problems such as some types of air and water pollution. Nevertheless, environmental problems continue to erupt from the local to the global levels. Many who are astute observers and deep thinkers are convinced that the situation worldwide is increasingly grave and urgent. Their view is sustained by the recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and many other studies. Thus, while secular approaches to environmental concerns are certainly necessary and have achieved significant progress, they have proven insufficient in resolving environmental crises.

Religion is usually the primary source of an individual's worldview, values, and attitudes toward nature as well as toward other humans and the supernatural. Since the 1980s, one of the most interesting and promising developments has been the growing dialogue among religions as well as between religions and sciences regarding the environment, this despite centuries of recurrent mutual antagonisms. Although there are many problems and issues that these parties do not seem to be able to discuss together let alone to achieve any agreement about, environmental crises have become a catalyst for dialog and concerted action among these diverse groups.

Much more needs to be done by various scientists, academics, and professionals in objectively and systematically examining in depth the specific relationships between religions and nature in both theory and practice. Nevertheless, from the foregoing discussion it should be obvious that substantial accomplishments have been accumulating in research, education, and action concerning the relationship between religions and nature. Accordingly, it is in the interest of the environmental sciences, environmental studies, environmentalism, and nature conservation to seriously consider this subject. This is being increasingly recognized by prominent biological scientists like Paul Ehrlich, Ursula Goodenough, Alister McGrath, Bill McKibben, Rupert Sheldrake, David Suzuki, and Edward O. Wilson. Furthermore, environmentalism and many religions are natural allies because nature spirituality has been an important part of the environmental movement since its beginnings although mostly implicitly.

Spiritual ecology encompassing religious environmentalism may finally be the turning point in alleviating environmental crises, although there are critics and skeptics like Murray Bookchin and Robert Whelan. Spiritual ecology, nature religions, and even religious naturalism can provide critiques and alternatives to the exclusively anthropocentric, dualistic, materialistic, reductionistic, and utilitarian worldview that has contributed to environmental problems. Many advocates of spiritual ecology are convinced that the existence of viable environmental ethics, even a global one like the Earth Charter, is not enough. They assert that such ethics must be effectively implemented in regular practice, and that this requires the driving motivation of spirituality. They think that spiritual ecology may generate the profound and holistic personal and communal transformations that ultimately are sorely needed to promote a more sustainable and greener society.

Image by Lucca Galuzzi

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• World Wildlife Fund, 1986. The Assisi Declarations: Messages on Man and Nature from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. Gland: WWF International.
Glossary