Can Religion Be a Positive Resource for Thinking about the Environment?

We are performing a very dangerous experiment with our planet, and I don’t want my grandchildren to suffer the consequences of that experiment’ – Prof. Sir Brian Hoskins, Meteorologist and Climatologist at Imperial College London.

The modern ecological crisis represents what is surely the most formidable challenge that humankind is likely to face in the 21st century. The calamitous effects of anthropogenic global warming, in particular, are now widely accepted as posing the most critical of threats to the future of the earth and her inhabitants, human and non-human. The 2014 Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), for example, enumerates the probable outcomes of a continued increase in ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions and of the subsequent rise in global temperatures. This series of projections makes for sobering thought, evoking scenarios not dissimilar from the Hollywood disaster-movie: rising sea levels; intensified dry seasons; irreparable damage to areas of the biosphere; severe disruption to the planet’s weather patterns leading to an escalation in extreme weather conditions; major population displacement; ocean acidification; and a worldwide surge in infectious diseases, to name but a few. Small wonder why concerted efforts are being made by nations and peoples across the globe to help mitigate the impact of human-induced climate change, the need for which, as the IPCC report makes abundantly clear, is as urgent and essential now as it has ever been.

This more profound appreciation for humankind’s relationship to the natural world has provided the context for much reflection in recent decades on the environmental legacy of religious belief. It is, after all, only natural that, confronted with the potential for ecocatastrophe on an unprecedented scale, ecologically-conscious religious believers should seek to engage their respective faith traditions from an environmental perspective, to discern what (if anything at all) those traditions might be able to offer a discussion of ‘green’ issues. Given the seriousness of the situation in which humankind now finds itself, this ecologically oriented approach to religion must be considered a necessary enterprise: contemporary concern over the perceived threats to the natural world, coupled with the massive influence which religion continues to exert worldwide, means that what faith traditions ‘say’, or are purported to say, in relation to the environment cannot easily be ignored. The question must be asked, is religion a useful resource for thinking about the environment? Or might it be a hindrance to the formulation of positive 21st century ecological ethic?

Certainly, Princeton historian Lynn White’s view of Christianity’s ecological credentials, in a now infamous 1967 paper (‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’), is less than flattering. To White’s mind, the advent of the Christian faith, particularly in its triumph over pagan religion, initiated a dualism of humanity and nature, promulgating the alien notion that the human race existed above, and apart from, the rest of the created order. The biblical account of creation in Genesis 1-2, writes White, in fact legitimizes the exploitation of the natural world; its insistence that humans are created in the image of God, and thus share in God’s transcendence of nature, actually set humanity in direct opposition to the natural world. White’s opinion of the environmental legacy of the Christian tradition is as uncompromising as it is controversial: ‘Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen’. As such, it ‘bears a huge burden of guilt’ for the contemporary ecological crisis.

Though his analysis of the biblical creation myth remains controversial, the publication of White’s paper provided a genuine watershed moment in the context of 20th century eco-theological discourse: the article is almost single-handedly responsible for instigating a debate about the ecological value of the biblical material. White’s charge – that the Judeo-Christian tradition bears an innate anthropocentric bias that has paved the way for the ecological crisis – elicited a fierce response from scholars keen to demonstrate that the creation story in Genesis does not preserve or promote any ‘anti-environmental’ sentiment. More than this, it stimulated an intense interest in the environmental credentials of the biblical tradition as a whole. Many works of eco-theology composed in the wake of White’s paper were written to show that the biblical texts do endorse a positive view of creation, and that these ancient writings can be viewed as a relevant and useful tool in generating an ethical stance with regard to green issues.

The Green Bible may be seen as the culmination of this kind of approach, and its publication is arguably the most momentous occurrence in the history of the Christian environmental movement to date. This recent edition of the NRSV takes seriously its claim that the Bible functions as a ‘powerful ecological handbook on how to live rightly on earth’. Accordingly, those verses considered to disclose some ecological wisdom are demarcated by green ink; over a thousand passages are highlighted in this way. The inference to be drawn, therefore, is that the biblical texts do not simply convey the occasional exhortation to environmental care, but that they are veritably chock-full of ecological insight and guidance. That is, they can be shown to tender a blueprint for human interaction with the earth, and delineate exactly the kind of role and responsibility humans are called to have in caring for God’s creation (see, for example, such favourite ‘eco-friendly’ passages as: Gen. 1-2, 6-9; Ps. 8, 19, 24, 98, 104; Isa. 9-11; Mt. 6:26-30, 10:29-31; Rom. 8:18-23; Col. 1; Rev. 21-22).   

But, that is not to say that the Bible can be read as a green manifesto at every turn. In fact, a number of texts, in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, have proven particularly problematic to eco-theologians keen to demonstrate the ecological worth of the biblical tradition. More often than not, these are the texts which – at least on a superficial reading – appear to portend great disaster upon the earth as a part of their eschatological outlook. The Synoptic gospels, for example, envisage ecological and social meltdown as a concomitant of the coming of the Son of Man (Mk. 13; Matt. 24:1-44; Lk. 21:5-36), while images of divinely-sanctioned ecological catastrophe abound in the Book of Revelation (8:6-9:21; 16). The idea that appears to emerge from these passages, and others like them, is that the earth has been earmarked for destruction. These images of environmental collapse tend to be accompanied by the anticipation of a new creation or new earth, a dwelling place which is often radically different in character from the old and significantly better in quality (e.g. Mk. 13:31; 2 Cor. 5:1-5; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21-22). Given such eschatological expectation, what possible motivation to environmental care can there be for the believer if the current earth is destined for the proverbial scrapheap, ready to be replaced by a superior model? Clearly, there are serious problems in viewing the biblical material as uniformly green. It is certainly worth remembering that the Bible is not an eco-centric document; its texts do not bear the weight of 21st century concern over the state of the environment or the well-being of earth. With that in mind, and although the material does have much to offer in terms of a modern environmental ethic (as the above list of texts traditionally accepted as ‘eco-friendly’ attests), it is probably healthier to exercise a level of scepticism when assessing the overall ecological value of the biblical tradition.


And what of the environmental legacy of the world’s other major religions? Evidently, there is much in these other faiths traditions that can make a positive contribution to issues of environmental sustainability and care in the 21st century. Although Islam sees humans as enjoying a privileged position within creation, Muslims are reminded that this is not a licence to the exploitation of the natural world. Rather, humans are called to act as responsible stewards or managers of creation. The Qur’an does state, after all, that the creation of humankind is not as significant as the creation of the heavens and earth (Surah 40.57). What is more, humans and animals are fundamentally connected since not only do they share an origin in the same common element (i.e. water, Surah 24.45) but all too eventually return to the earth from which they were made (Surah 20.55). Also within the Islamic tradition is the notion of the purity, or sanctity, of the earth. As the Prophet Muhammad is quoted in the Hadith: The earth has been created for me as a mosque (place of worship) and as a means of purification’ (Sahih Muslim 521).


Anthropocentricism is a charge not easily levelled at the major eastern religious traditions since, unlike the Abrahamic faiths, they do not grant to humans a unique position of authority or honour within the created order. Instead, creation is viewed as a ‘cooperative’, with a further emphasis on the power and worth of the natural world. The Vedic traditions of Hinduism, for example, place the gods and goddesses associated with the earth (Prthivi), water (Ap), fire (Agni), and wind (Vayu) at the forefront of worship. Even today, the daily devotional practices (puja) of Hindus include a focus on the five chief elements (Mahabhuta). Trees and rivers have also long occupied an important place within Hindu tradition: in ancient seals from the Indus Valley the tree stands as a powerful symbol of abundance and prosperity, while rivers continue to play an integral role in Hindu religious ritual and devotion (the Ganges in northern India, often personified as the goddess Ganga, is particularly revered). The emphasis in Buddhist philosophy, meanwhile, is on the interconnectedness of all things. Every sentient creature, human or non-human, experiences suffering and rebirth; awareness of this truth necessarily generates compassion for all forms of life. The concepts of karma and samsara thus point to the universe as a complex system of interdependent relationships. In the words of Thai monk, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu: ‘The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise . . . then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.’




Rhodri Thomas

PhD student and Graduate Tutor, School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies, University of Wales Trinity Saint David