Rachel Zevin
HCOL 185
December 12, 2012
What Part does Religion Play on Human’s Impact on the Environment?
Iranian-American philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, made a thought provoking
statement when he said, “The environmental crisis is fundamentally a crisis of values,”
(9)
. People are taught environmental issues are based in nature and science, but the human
part of the crisis is not. Science has given people many hard facts about climate change
and other environmental problems, but whether or not a person acts upon them is up to
the individual’s choice. To understand how people will interact with the environment
religion’s influence must be considered an important factor. This is because religion is so
influential on a large portion of the human population.
Currently the top three world religions are Christianity with about two billion
people, then Islam with about one and a half billion, and finally Hinduism with about a
billion people. Together these encompass over half the world’s population. Non-religious
people include about 14% of the world’s populations, but only about a fourth of nonreligious people consider themselves atheists (2, 8, 10).
Christianity, the world’s largest religion, follows the writings of the Bible. Both
Christianity and Islam are Abrahamic religions and practice monotheism. Fikret Burkes,
in his article "Religious traditions and biodiversity," believes that two notions of possible
human interaction with the environment has stemmed from the Bible
(1)
. The first is the
"mastery” interpretation of the Bible, which is that Genesis tells humans that they are
given dominion over the earth, and are expressly asked to subdue it for human gain. This
theory is closely tied to anthropocentrism, which is the belief that the world, if not the
whole universe, was set up and created just for human existence and thus we are meant to
dominate it
. This interpretation is derived from Genesis 128, “Be fruitful, multiply,
(13)
fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the
sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth,” (6).
Similar to Burkes’ “mastery” interpretation of the bible Lynn White, a professor
of medieval history at Princeton and Standford, wrote an article, "The historical roots of
our ecologic crisis," where he argues that religion, specifically Christianity, as being a
large root in the problem of humans over sized self-entitlement. White has two main
points of why he believes this. One is that the Bible is anthropogenic and asserts man's
dominion over nature. Two is that man was formed in God’s own image and thus, since
no other creature can claim this, man must act as God on Earth and rule over his other
creatures (13).
Burkes, however gives a second interpretation of the Bible that contrasts White’s
ideas and gives support that there is some innate environmentalism imbedded in the Bible
Burkes’ second interpretation is called the "stewardship" interpretation which means
humans have the responsibility to take care of the natural world. Burkes puts it simply as,
“Since humans are created in the image of God, they have not only right and privileges
but also special duties and responsibilities. Foremost among these is the human duty to
rule the dominion of nature wisely,”
. Many of the world’s greatest environmentalists
(1)
practiced Christian faith. They believed that nature’s beauty and mere existence was the
most sacred thing in the world. Bill McKibben, a man who has been called "probably the
nation's leading environmentalist" by the Boston Globe, is a very active member of the
Methodist Church. Even more impressively, the father of environmentalism, one of the
first people to suggest that nature has in itself the right to exist, John Muir, was extremely
religious. He was born and raised a practicing Christian and one of his most famous
quotes was, "No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite... The grandest of
all special temples of Nature."
In many ways, Islamic interpretation of human interaction with the environment is
similar to Christianity’s. Both are monotheistic, Abrahamic religions and both believe
that that their single God created humans as a higher species and the vicegerents of God.
However, Islam differs in that the Koran is much clearer and straightforward in its views
on stewardship. The Koran dictates that the world was set up as a test of humankind’s
ability to govern it wisely. In addition, the Koran states that Allah has created everything
in the world including the natural environment. “He [Allah] sends down water out of the
sky, and with it brings forth the buds of every plant. From these he brings forth the green
leaf and the close-growing grain, palm trees laden with clusters of dates, vineyards, olive
groves, and all manner of pomegranates. Behold the fruits when they ripen,”
. Islam’s
(10)
God, Allah, has created all of nature and it is humankind’s job to use it well and
responsibly, “Thus are man and beast provided for. Nothing is on earth, but comes from
His storehouse, and He bestows everything appropriately,” (10).
In Peter Timmerman’s article, “God is Closer to You Than Your Jugular Vein”
Timmerman states that he believed that Allah’s creation of everything natural caused
Muslims to gain interest in the natural world. Timmerman states, “Since nature was seen
as saturated with the signs and just measures of God, Islam was there by stimulated to
explore nature in ways that anticipated by 500 years the rise of science in Europe. Islamic
science embraced geography, history, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry;
and inherited technical terms like algebra, alchemy, Aldebaran, alcohol, algorithm and
alkali show their Arabic roots,”
(10)
. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the philosopher whose words
started this paper, believes that true Islam is environmentalist in nature
(9)
. Timmerman’s
article also adds to this viewpoint with, “The Koran clearly states that humankind is
given only temporary stewardship over the world… and that they will be called to give
strict accounting for the use and abuse of the earth’s resources,” (10).
Aside from the Koran, Islam also derives some of its environmental nature from
the sharia, which means “the path to the water.” Sharia can apply to the rights of
animals, the use of common lands and waters and the pollution of downstream waters. In
Timmerman’s article he also discusses the origin of the sharia, “When Mohammed
finally came to power in Mecca and Medina, he set up protected common spaces around
water and supply wells. He also turned the area around Medina (his first capital) into a
greenbelt park reserve (hima) for the conservation of forests and wildlife,”
(11)
. This
started Islam’s tradition of having himas, which are public, parks fountains and common
pasture land. Parks are extremely important to Muslims in particular because Islam
considers parks to be symbols of Allah’s paradisiac oases.
Nasr and Timmerman believe it is the outside influence of westerners and
Christianity that has detoured Islam from its natural environmentalist state
. “With the
(7)
arrival of the European colonizers in he late 18th century, the Arab world has undergone
shock after shock… throughout this time of turmoil, a number of Islamic states – as well
as philosophers, theologians and others – have tried to mediate between the old and the
new,” (11). Perhaps this is why so many practicing Muslims are not environmentalists and
instead reap the benefits of environmental destruction. Oil production is abundant in
Islamic states and many people in the world now believe oil production and consumption
is causing the worst environmental catastrophe ever; global warming. While Islam might
be environmental in nature originally it does not transfer to all of its modern day
followers.
Hinduism, unlike Christianity and Islam is polytheistic, which means they believe
in and worship multiple gods. In a way, this can make understanding Hinduism and its
relationship to the environment difficult because each follower can believe very different
things and put more emphasis on one god or another. Peter Timmerman also wrote
another article called, “Holding the World Together,” where he discusses Hinduism and
environmentalism. Timmerman states the issue as, “Because Hinduism is all-embracing,
all generating and all consuming, writing and discussing its qualities presents special
problems… One is faced with a proliferation and expansion of millions of names and
forms of the Holy until exhaustion occurs and the limitations of the mind give way,
beaten,”
(12)
. Multiple gods is not necessarily a bad thing its just how each follower
chooses to worship them. Mahatma Gandhi is an example on how Hindu polytheism
could inspire great environmental stewardship. Gandhi was greatly influenced by the God
Krishna. Krishna would argue that He constantly works to sustain the world, so the wise
on earth should do the same (12).
The Bhagavad-Gita, the primary religious document of Hinduism, that, “ether, air,
fire, water, earth, planets, all creatures, directions, trees and plants, rivers, and seas, they
all are organs of the gods body; remembering this, a devotee respects all species,” (3). O.
P. Dwivedi and B. N. Tiwari explain in their book, Environmental Crisis and Hindu
Religion that, “Hindus consider trees and plants as the abode of various Gods and
Goddesses,” (4).
Hinduism also believes in reincarnation. When one is reincarnated, after death,
they might come back as any possible creature. Thus many followers of Hinduism do not
believe in hurting any other sentient beings, which can be very environmentalist in
nature, “Because the individual is an emanation from the eternal to which it returns,
everything is rooted in the same divinity, and is, by extension, interdependent,”
(12)
.
However, some aspects of Hinduism are also not as environmentally based. Hinduism
protects animals, but this is partly to protect Hindus in future lives. Also they do not give
the same provisions to other forms of life and the abiotic parts of nature (6).
Hinduism is the main religion of India, which, is riddled with environmental
problems. Some of the major environmental issues India faces today are growing water
scarcity, water pollution, falling groundwater tables, biodiversity loss, air pollution,
preservation and quality of forests, poor management of waste, and land/soil degradation.
While there is a correlation here in the location Hinduism and massive environmental
damage it does not mean Hinduism beliefs caused it. It is believed that in India
population growth, because it can place increased pressure on the assimilative capacity of
the environment, is a major cause of air, water, and solid-waste pollution. Over-
population, not Hindu religious beliefs, is much more a contributing factor in India’s
environmental degradation.
It seems, with modernization, Hindus have reached the same problems of external
influence the Muslims have. Dwivedi and Tiwari state, “The national indifference to
environment damage, the wrongly placed motive that environmental protection will
reverse the process of industrialization, the callousness with which industries and
municipalities continue to pollute the environment, and the amazing ability of the public
to tolerate the destruction of their precious air, water, and land resources are some
instances of the problems that we face in India,”
(4)
. They too, like Nasr, believe if their
religion went back to their core values, they would all be environmentalists.
Last, we are left with the non-believers specifically the atheists. If you ask a very
religious person, they believe atheists are fundamentally not environmentalist because
they do not feel like they owe it to a greater being to be environmentalist. Pope Benedict
XVI said, “Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation [the earth] begins where God is
marginalized or also where is existence is denied? If the human creature’s relationship
with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the
“final authority,” and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess
the most possible,” (5). Atheists themselves argue that this self-reliance to make their own
moral code makes them more environmentalist than anyone else. Atheists, unlike any of
the other religious groups discussed, do not believe in any god. In the end, they believe
no higher being will save the earth and thus they must save the earth themselves. Jacob
Fortin, an atheist the writer and founder of the site “The Good Atheist” took offense at
the Pope’s words and responded, “We also don’t pray for some magical sky-man to solve
our problems for us, so I would say we actually have the advantage there,” (5).
Each of these religions has shown that their texts and beliefs are not
straightforward when concerning the environment. It is up to the follower to decide just
what their God or Gods want them to do with the environment or when a god isn’t there
the person must decide internally whether or not to care for the environment. Thus none
of these religions or lack of religion can be called entirely an environmental friend or foe
which is why much of humanity cannot be called entirely an environmental friend or foe.
Now that the connection between religion and the environment is clearer environmental
activists can start explaining why caring for the planet can be a religious pursuit as well.
Works Cited
1) Berkes, F., 2001. Religious traditions and biodiversity. In: Encyclopedia of
Biodiversity, Volume 5, pp. 109-120 (S. Levin, ed.) Academic Press, San Diego.
2) Clarke, Peter B. The World's Religions: Understanding the Living Faiths.
Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 1993. Print.
3) Dwivedi, O.P. "Dharmic Ecology." Hinduism and Ecology. Ed. Christopher Key
Chapple & Mary Evelyn Tucker. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 2000, qtd p. 5.
4) Dwivedi, O. P., and B. N. Tiwari. Environmental Crisis and Hindu Religion. New
Delhi: Gitanjali Pub. House, 1987. Print.
5) Fortin, Jacob. "Pope Blames Atheists for Environmental Problems." The Good Atheist.
N.p., 31 Aug. 2009. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.
6) Goffman, Ethan. "God, Humanity, and Nature: Comparative Religious Views of the
Environment." CSA - Discovery Guides: Religion and the Environment. CSA Discovery Guides: Religion and the Environment, Dec. 2005. Web. 31 Oct. 2012.
7) Hope, Marjorie & James Young. "Islam and Ecology." CrossCurrents.
8) "Mapping the Global Muslim Population." The Pew Forum on Public and Religious
Life (2009): n. pag. Print.
9) Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islam and the Plight of Modern Man. London, Longman Group,
1975
10) Oliver, Rachel. "All About: Religion and the Environment." CNN. N.p., 27 Jan. 2008.
Web. 31 Oct. 2012.
11) Timmerman, Peter. "God Is Closer than Your Jugular Vein." Probe Post 12.1 (1989):
n. pag. Print.
12) Timmerman, Peter. "Holding the World Together." Probe Post 12.3&4 (1990): n.
pag. Print.
13) White, L. "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." Science 155.3767 (1967):
1203-207. Print.
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