InsightSeptember October 2004

The Emerging Alliance of World Religions and Ecology

Mary Evelyn Tucker

The growing alliance of religion and ecology within the academic world and within religious communities is bringing together for the first time diverse perspectives from the world’s religious traditions, regarding attitudes toward nature with reflections from science, policy and ethics. Scholars of religion from various parts of the world have begun to identify symbolic, scriptural, and ethical dimensions within particular religions in their relations with the natural world.The growing alliance of religion and ecology within the academic world and within religious communities is bringing together for the first time diverse perspectives from the world’s religious traditions, regarding attitudes toward nature with reflections from science, policy and ethics. Scholars of religion from various parts of the world have begun to identify symbolic, scriptural, and ethical dimensions within particular religions in their relations with the natural world. They are examining these dimensions both historically and in response to contemporary environmental problems. Religious practitioners and environmentalists are utilizing these resources as a source of inspiration and activism to motivate long term changes regarding the environment in many parts of the world.

The State of the World 2000 report notes that in solving environmental problems, “all of society’s institutions-from organized religion to corporations-have a role to play.” That religions have a role to play along with other institutions and academic disciplines is also the premise of this emerging alliance of religion and ecology.

Several qualifications regarding the various roles of religion should be mentioned at the outset. First, we do not wish to suggest that any one religious tradition has a privileged ecological perspective. Rather, multiple perspectives may be the most helpful in identifying the contributions of the world’s religions to the flourishing of life for future generations. This is an interreligious project.

Second, while we assume that religions are necessary partners in the current ecological movement, they are not sufficient without the indispensable contributions of science, economics, education, and policy to the varied challenges of current environmental problems. Therefore, this is an interdisciplinary effort in which religions can play a part.

Third, we acknowledge that there is frequently a disjunction between principles and practices: ecologically sensitive ideas in religions are not always evident in environmental practices in particular civilizations. Many civilizations have overused their environments, with or without religious sanction.

Finally, we are keenly aware that religions have all too frequently contributed to tensions and conflict among ethnic groups, both historically and at present. Dogmatic rigidity, inflexible claims of truth, and misuse of institutional and communal power by religions have led to tragic consequences in various parts of the globe.

Nonetheless, while religions have sometimes preserved traditional ways, they have also provoked social change. They can be limiting but also liberating in their outlooks. In the twentieth century, for example, religious leaders and theologians helped to give birth to progressive movements such as civil rights for minorities, social justice for the poor, and liberation for women. More recently, religious groups were instrumental in launching a movement called Jubilee 2000 for debt reduction for poor nations. Although the world’s religions have been slow to respond to our current environmental crises, their moral authority and their institutional power may help effect a change in attitudes, practices, and public policies.

As key repositories of enduring civilizational values and as indispensable motivators in moral transformation, religions have an important role to play in projecting persuasive visions of a more sustainable future. This is especially true because our attitudes toward nature have been consciously and unconsciously conditioned by our religious worldviews. Over thirty years ago the historian Lynn White observed this when he noted: “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny-that is, by religion.” White’s article signaled the beginning of contemporary reflection on how environmental attitudes are shaped by religious worldviews. It is only in recent years, however, that this topic has been more fully explored, especially in the ten conferences on world religions and ecology held at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School from 1996-1998. Over 700 scholars and environmentalists participated in these conferences. The published conference volumes identify religious perspectives especially rich in resources for defining principles that may help us preserve nature and protect the earth.

In soliciting essays for these conferences and volumes scholars of particular religions were asked to address a few key questions: 1) What cosmological dimensions in this tradition help relates humans to nature? 2) How does this tradition and its sacred texts support or challenge the idea of nature as simply a utilitarian resource? 3) What are the core values from this tradition that can lead to the creation of an effective environmental ethics? 4) From within this religious tradition, can we identify responsible human practices toward natural systems, sustainable communities, and future generations? It was considered important to have the religion scholars reflect on these broad questions in order to identify those attitudes, values, and practices that might be most appropriate in addressing contemporary environmental problems.

Call for the participation of religious communities

Many organizations and individuals have been calling for greater participation by various religious communities in meeting the growing environmental crisis by reorienting humans to show more respect, restraint, and responsibility toward the earth. Consider, for example, a statement by scientists, “Preserving and Cherishing the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion,” issued at a Global Forum meeting in Moscow in January of 1990. It suggests that the human community is committing “crimes against creation” and notes that “problems of such magnitude, and solutions demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension. Mindful of our common responsibility, we scientists-many of us long engaged in combating the environmental crisis-urgently appeal to the world religious community to commit, in word and deed, and as boldly as is required, to preserve the environment of the Earth.” It goes on to declare that “the environmental crisis requires radical changes not only in public policy, but in individual behavior. The historical record makes clear that religious teaching, example, and leadership are powerfully able to influence personal conduct and commitment. As scientists, many of us have had profound experiences of awe and reverence before the universe. We understand that what is regarded as sacred is more likely to be treated with care and respect. Our planetary home should be so regarded. Efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred.”

A second important document, “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” was produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992 and was signed by more than two thousand scientists, including more than two hundred Nobel Laureates. It states that: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course…. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.” These changes will require the special assistance and commitment of those in the religious community. Indeed, the document calls for the cooperation of natural and social scientists, business and industrial leaders-and also religious leaders. It concludes with a call for environmentally sensitive attitudes and behaviors, which religious communities can help to articulate: “A new ethic is required-a new attitude towards discharging our responsibilities for caring for ourselves and for the earth. We must recognize the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.” Responses from the world’s religions: Although the responses of religions to the global environmental crisis were slow at first, they have been steadily growing over the last twenty-five years. Several years after the first UN Conference on Environment and Development in Stockholm in 1972, some Christian churches began to address the growing environmental and social challenges. At the fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Nairobi in 1975, there was a call to establish the conditions for a “just, participatory, and sustainable [global] society.” In 1979, a follow-up WCC conference was held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on “Faith, Science, and the Future.” The 1983 Vancouver Assembly of the WCC revised the theme of the Nairobi conference to include “Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation.” The 1991 WCC Canberra conference expanded on these ideas with the theme of the “Holy Spirit Renewing the Whole of Creation.” After Canberra, the WCC theme for mission in society became “Theology of Life.” This has brought theological reflection to bear on environmental destruction and social inequities resulting from economic globalization. In 1992, at the time of the UN Earth Summit in Rio, the WCC facilitated a gathering of Christian leaders that issued a “Letter to the Churches,” calling for attention to pressing eco-justice concerns: solidarity with other people and all creatures; ecological sustainability; sufficiency as a standard of distributive justice; and socially just participation in decisions for the common good. In addition to major conferences held by the Christian churches, various interreligious meetings have been held, and various religious movements have emerged. Some of these include the interreligious gatherings on the environment in Assisi in 1984 under the sponsorship of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and under the auspices of the Vatican in 1986. Moreover, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has established an Interfaith Partnership for the Environment (IPE) that has distributed thousands of packets of materials for use in local congregations and religious communities for more than fifteen years. The two most recent Parliaments of World Religions-held in Chicago in 1993, and in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999-both issued major statements on global ethics, stressing environmental issues as well as human rights. The Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders held international meetings in Oxford in 1988, Moscow in 1990, Rio in 1992, and Kyoto in 1993-and each time devoted significant attention to environmental issues. Since 1995 a critical Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC) has been active in England, while the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE) has organized Jewish and Christian groups around this issue in the United States. A member group of NRPE, the Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), is helping to mobilize the American Jewish communities regarding environmental issues, especially global warming. The World Bank has developed a World Faiths Development Dialogue on poverty and development issues with a select group of international religious leaders. Religious groups have also contributed over the last five years to the drafting of the Earth Charter, which arose out of concerns for equitable means of sustainable development identified at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. For the three years during the drafting process discussions of the Earth Charter were central components of the Harvard conference series on religion and ecology. Many religious groups are currently helping to support the Charter in their communities. Represented in the Charter are long standing concerns of many of the world’s religions for the alleviation of poverty, the equitable distribution of wealth, respect for human rights, an end to war and violence, and the extension of compassion to all living things. In addition, current religious sensibilities regarding respect for the environment are also present in the Charter. The religious communities are increasingly aware of the growing need for a Global Environmental Ethics and they see the Earth Charter as representing this in a comprehensive and inclusive way. In light of this, religious leaders and lay persons are increasingly speaking out for protection of the environment. The Dalai Lama has made numerous statements on the importance of environmental protection and has proposed that Tibet should be designated a zone of special ecological integrity. Rabbi Ishmar Schorsch of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has frequently spoken on the critical state of the environment. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has sponsored several seminars to highlight environmental destruction in the Black Sea and along the Danube River, calling such examples of negligence “ecological sin.” From the Islamic perspective, Seyyed Hossein Nasr has written and spoken widely on the sacred nature of the environment for more than two decades. In the Christian world, along with the efforts of the Protestant community, the Catholic Church has issued several important pastoral letters over the last decade. Pope John Paul II wrote a message for the World Day of Peace, on January 1, 1990, entitled “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility.” More recently, John Paul II has spoken of the need for ecological conversion, namely, a deep turning to the needs of the larger community of life. In August of 2000, at a historic gathering of more than one thousand religious leaders at the UN for the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, the environment was a major topic of discussion. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, called for a new ethic of global stewardship, recognizing the urgent situation posed by current unsustainable trends. Religions of the world and ecology project It was in light of these various initiatives that a three-year intensive conference series, entitled “Religions of the World and Ecology,” was organized at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School to examine the varied ways in which human-Earth relations have been conceived in the world’s religious traditions. From 1996-1998 the series of ten conferences examined the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Shinto, and indigenous religions. The conferences, organized by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim in collaboration with a team of area specialists, brought together international scholars of the world’s religions as well as environmental activists and grassroots leaders. Recognizing that religions are key shapers of people’s worldviews and formulators of their most cherished values, this broad research project has identified both ideas and practices supporting a sustainable environmental future. Three culminating conferences were also held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, at the United Nations, and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. These conferences brought representatives of the world’s religions into conversation with one another as well as into dialogue with key scientists, economists, educators, and policy makers in the environmental field. At the United Nations press conference an ongoing Forum on Religion and Ecology was announced to continue the research, education, and outreach begun at these earlier conferences. A primary goal of the forum is to help to establish a field of study in religion and ecology that has implications for public policy. The forum has held various scholarly conferences at Harvard and on the West coast. In addition, it has been initiating workshops for high-school teachers, distributing curricular resources for college courses, supporting a journal on Worldviews and Ecology, and creating a comprehensive web site under the Harvard Center for the Environment ( Just as religions played an important role in creating sociopolitical changes in the twentieth century (e.g., human and civil rights), so now religions are poised in the twenty-first century to contribute to the emergence of a broader environmental ethics based on diverse sensibilities regarding the sacred dimensions of the natural world. Whether it is from the perspective of Western religions that the earth is part of divine Creation and therefore should be respected, or from the perspective of indigenous traditions that nature is infused with a sacred presence, or from the perspective of particular Asian religions that the universe participates in ongoing creative transformations with which humans should harmonize themselves, the notion of nature as a numinous reality to be reverenced is widespread. How to identify and foreground these views most effectively is the task of both the Harvard research and publishing project and the ongoing efforts of the Forum on Religion and Ecology.

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