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Religion and the Environment: Developing a Comprehensive Ecological Ethic

Updated on March 23, 2011

Throughout history religion has shaped the way we as humans interact with the environment. With the global population expanding and environmental destruction rampant, many religions are beginning to develop an ecological ethic describing how humans ought to interact with the natural world. In some religions, such as Christianity, traditional views on how man should interact with nature are being challenged and changed. Instead of viewing Earth as a resource provided solely for man’s interest, such as it suggests in the Old Testament, Christian scholars have suggested that man’s role is as a guardian to the Earth, a gift bequeathed unto us by God himself. Man has an obligation to care for the Earth, not permission to squander its resources. Traditional anthropocentric views of man as the all-important being on planet Earth are what hinder environmental philosophy- it is impossible to live in harmony with the Earth if we constantly view ourselves as greater or more important than all other beings and processes necessary to the planet.

Although Buddhism does value human life over all other forms of life, the concept that Earth is here solely as a storehouse of resources for man is not indoctrinated in the religion. Trishna, which can be loosely translated to “greed” or “desire” in English, is the source of all unhappiness according to Buddhist tradition. By limiting our desire of material things we increase our overall happiness. The concepts of non-harm and interdependence of all things are central to Buddhist tradition and could be powerful tools for forming a comprehensive environmental ethic. Because nothing can exist apart from the conditions that gave rise to it and because everything affects everything else in some way, it is our responsibility to care for the planet and ecosystems around us.

Buddhist scholars have raised the question of “what values and practices would convince people to consume and reproduce less when they have the technological ability to consume and reproduce more?” It is believed that increased education for women around the globe and an increased standard of living would help to limit the ecological harm we are doing to our planet. Buddhism teaches that we should be more concerned about the right action rather than the outcome of said action.

Islamic tradition adheres to the belief that the Qur’an should be used as the reference to all rules, laws, regulations and ways of living. Our current state of environmental distress and degradation is viewed as a result of humans neglecting spiritual and religious aspects of life. Islam views all the people of Earth as one nation and emphasizes living a balanced life with our surrounding environment. Humans are viewed as the caretakers of Allah’s creation, the planet Earth. The Earth itself is viewed as a resource solely for man, but Islam stewards that man has a responsibility to treat the Earth as a sacred place, such as a temple or mosque.

Confucianism promotes harmony and well-being amidst change. This viewpoint could be very useful in developing a Confucian ecological ethic as we learn to live in harmony with the Earth as industry and technology progress. Rather than an anthropocentric perspective, Confucianism promotes an anthropocosmic perspective in which humans are viewed as merely a small part of a greater functioning mechanism. Much like Buddhism, Confucianism values the interconnectedness of the Earth and Universe. The complex web of relationships that allows our world to function is viewed as a sacred network necessary to life. Confucian emphasis on family and the importance of future generations fall well into an ecological ethic promoting the preservation of our planet for those that will succeed us. Emphasis is placed on cooperative group effort- the common good is more important than individualistic success or wealth. Unlike Western religions, the individual is not seen as being as important as the whole ecosystem in which that individual subsides.

Although indigenous religions cannot all be lumped into one category, there are common themes among many of them that would provide a solid base for an ecological ethic. The theme of kinship or interconnectedness with all other life is prevalent in indigenous religions and specific bioregions are often believed to be sacred or holy. It is in this way that the Earth itself is worshiped and revered. Oral tradition is also often a large part of indigenous religions, linking current generations to the past and the future. Intimate relationships with specific places and regions attest to the importance and sacredness of the surrounding environment.

Hinduism and Jainism center around the daily worship of five great elements: Earth, air, space, fire and water. The very components of the Earth are considered holy and as such deserve reverence and respect. Natural bodies such as trees and rivers are also viewed as holy and are revered in Jainistic tradition. It is believed that humans have a social duty to care for the environment. The five vows of Jainism include non-violence, not stealing, truthfulness, sexual restraint and non-possession. All of these vows are structured to minimize harm done to all other life forms and are strong principles on which to base an environmental ethic. Sexual restraint, for example, could help to limit population growth and non-possession could reduce the desire for material goods. In equating non-harm with happiness rather than possessions, Jainism relieves humans of their insatiable need for “stuff.”

Naturalist Henry David Thoreau developed an ethic of simplicity while living near Walden pond for two years. He lived simply and subsisted on only that which he could provide for himself. His simple way of living is reminiscent of indigenous religions in that he took from the Earth only what he needed, and viewed the Earth with reverence as it was the sole provider for that which was necessary to his life. By working for everything he needed, Thoreau developed an appreciation and understanding of the balance that is necessary for maintaining a healthy relationship with the environment.

To develop a comprehensive ecological ethic I believe that different values from all of the religions discussed (as well as some that aren’t) should be used. Anthropocentric Western religions should be used as a lesson as to what happens when we separate ourselves from our planet. It is destructive to think of ourselves as separate entities. We rely completely on our environment, the planet Earth, and as such we must develop a way to live in harmony with our provider.


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