Religion and the Environment

And Replenish the Earth

By Gayle Parry, SOC Trustee

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, 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, Chapter1 ,Verse 27 and 28

Are these words responsible for mans’ failure to protect the earth?  If not, they are certainly the catalyst for an argument that started to ferment in 1967 when a paper by Lynn White, Jr. was published in the technical journal Science.  The paper, titledThe Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis started sociological research studies on whether or not this Judeo-Christian doctrine was responsible for man’s failure in caring for the environment. White wrote, “We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man”.

According to researchers, White’s words were an outgrowth of an impassioned ecological movement from the rebellious nineteen sixties and seventies that was associated with a liberal political philosophy.  This philosophy was associated with a negative view toward traditionalism and business.  Unfortunately, it polarized environmentalism within the realm of party politics and in some cases religion.

Responsible individuals have worried about man’s disregard for nature for hundreds of years, but it was after White’s famous paper that the focus of essays and research turned more toward Judeo-Christian religions as the culprits for overlooking environmental degradation.  The researchers considered variables such as the dominion belief, which holds that the world was made for man to subdue and dominate for his own uses; biblical literalism; the importance of religious beliefs in the minds of responders; church attendance; End of World beliefs; Second Coming of Jesus beliefs; supernaturalism, and the merging of traditional religions with politics.

A few studies failed to confirm or deny White’s findings, but most of them did find that religion was one of the most common and important factors mentioned in determining environmental attitudes.   Surprisingly, the study results did not always turn out the way White supporters expected.  Religion was important all right.  It turned out that religion, in most cases, contributed to individuals being more concerned with the protection of the environment, rather than less.

White was proved partly correct in blaming the dominion theory in the Old Testament for environmental apathy; however, this effect depended on some other factors.  The strength of religious affiliation was found to have a positive effect on environmental concern. Good church attendance was found to have positive effects on individual environmental behaviors.  In addition, the dominion theory can be interpreted differently by pointing out a responsibility for practicing stewardship toward the earth.  If human beings alone were created in the image of God, then man must be a good steward by taking good care of the earth that was created for his benefit.  This view is strongly stressed in many churches.  It is when religious fundamentalism, business, and politics enter the mix that the equation changes.

Woodrum and Wolkomir, in their 1997 paper, Religious Effects on Environmentalism (Sociological Spectrum, April-June 1997) state, “The New Christian Right movement forged a political fusion of fundamentalism, anticommunism, and financial conservatism.  Contemporary religionists who feel some sympathy with the movement are suspicious of public programs and regulations because they seem to contradict conservative capitalist principles.  For that reason, they are antagonistic to environmentalism.”  This fundamentalism has had a profound and negative affect on the environmental movement, especially when fundamentalists control the government.

One facet of religious fundamentalism is a belief in the End of World or the End of Times theory.  This belief makes nature irrelevant, as the world will shortly come to an end in the apocalypse.  One study gave a good illustration of how this belief can negatively affect our planet.  It was the advice that former Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, a member of a Pentecostal denomination, gave to Congress in the Reagan years.  He advised Congress not to gaze too far ahead on natural-resource policy because he did not know “how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns”.

So how do the disparate religious and non-religious philosophies measure up environmentally?  Results of the studies suggest that religious fundamentalism does not encourage a nurturing of the environment.  Judaism and Catholicism rate high as do mainline Protestant religions.  Secular Americans show the most concern for the natural world.

Before these scholarly findings are accepted, there is another element that must be addressed when considering religious influence toward the environment.  Every year churches seem to become “greener”.  Why?  The answer may be two-fold: the public awareness of the harm resulting from a neglected and polluted planet, and the fact that the young are intensely interested in environmental problems.  Religious leaders are finding that a way to encourage church attendance among young adults is to address issues relating to environmental responsibility.  More churches than not have environmental messages in their church classes.  These environmental messages are a magnet to youth.  This phenomenon is also spreading to conservative churches.

Save Our Canyons never asks its members their religious affiliation.  Occasionally someone will volunteer the information. Several of our most conscientious and hardest working volunteers are those who believe in End of the World theology.  They have just as profound stewardship attitudes as their Catholic, Protestant, and secular contemporaries.  They feel the same spiritual closeness with nature that most members of SOC feel and express it passionately in their desire to save what is left.

Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) believes in End of World theology, many LDS church members are actively concerned about our treatment of the natural world.  Naturalist Terry Tempest Williams; former mayor Ted Wilson; founder of the Glen Canyon Institute Richard Ingebretsen, and environmentalists George Handley, Rick Reese, Brooke Williams, and Larry Young, to name a few, are vocal and persistent in spreading the message of nurturing and caring for our natural places.

To read some outstanding LDS environmental messages, read A New Genesis, A Mormon Reader On Land and Communityedited by Terry Tempest Williams, William B. Smart, and Gibbs M. Smith.  Each essay is headed by a quote from the Bible, Doctrine and Covenants, or quotes from Brigham Young that attest to a very strong environmental ethic in the LDS Church. Unfortunately, copies of this book are very scarce.  You might find one through Amazon.com or in your local library.  Another article illustrating the environmental stance of some Latter Day Saints is Rosemary Winters piece, Being Green in the Land ofthe Saints, that was published in the December 22, 2003 edition of High Country News.

The National Council of Churches has created the Religious Partnership for the Environment that is a partnership between the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish life, the United States Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Evangelical Environmental Network.  In 1983 they created the Eco-Justice Working Group.  Their Web page states that “Eco-justice” is a holistic term that includes all ministries designed to heal and defend creation. This religious-environmental partnership covers every facet of environmental health from climate change and pollution to deforestation.  They hold classes, send out lesson plans, have environmental charters, publish a magazine, and some even dedicate a Sunday worship service called Creation Sunday to environmental problems with sermons with titles such as: “What Would Jesus Drive?”

The abyss that seems to exist between religious-political factions is disappointing.  Certainly, conserving and protecting our natural resources should be of as much benefit to our businesses as it is to nature lovers and environmentalists.  It makes no difference whether our time on this earth is ten more years or ten thousand.  We should all work together to conserve its resources and protect its beauty as judiciously and wisely as we can.  All of us are guilty of selfishness in the use of the land that was created by some creator of unimaginable brilliance–a creator who made all creatures and plants dependent upon one another.

By working together for the good of the earth upon which we live, we ensure our own health, wealth, and prosperity.
Gayle Parry is a Save Our Canyons board member. 

2 responses to “Religion and the Environment

  1. This is truly an arena in which religions can make a positive contribution. Thank you for what you are doing.

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