An Argument for Religious Environmentalism

You can download a copy of this essay for reference here.

When the Rio+20 Earth Summit concluded with the rhetorically pleasing but weakly phrased document The Future We Want, many observers were disillusioned with the inability of these global multilateral meetings to get countries to decide in unison to enact changes of societal and environmental importance. Greenpeace declared Rio+20 “a failure of epic proportions” (Greenpeace International). The outcome of Rio+20 symbolises a failure in two respects: (1) a failure of politics; of governments to unite internationally for universally relevant causes such as inter alia protecting the environment, eradicating world poverty, and elevating women’s rights, and (2) a failure of the sustainable development paradigm[1] in convincing nations to allow limits to be placed on their economic growth. Could there be any other way for humankind to make our world a better place, where international meetings have failed?

Religious environmentalism might just be a possible solution for our bi-faceted failure. I present it not as the solution, but as one of the many possibilities that could help mankind save itself from self-destruction. Religious environmentalism could be considered a form of deep ecology – a worldview described by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess that ‘combine[s] human-centred arguments with a practical environmental ethic based on either a deeper and more fundamental philosophic or religious perspective’ (242).

Why Religion?

There are two main reasons why religious environmentalism might be able to bring about greater change in society than summits such as Rio+20.

Religion has been and can be very influential and powerful on the global stage. Interpretations and applications of its doctrines have been at the root of many key historical events. This includes misguided ones such as the Crusades and the 9/11 terrorist attacks –tragic events with religious underpinnings. Religion can also be a force for good: many NGOs such as World Vision have evangelical roots. If religion has the power to shape the history of the world, surely this power, when directed at environmental causes, can bring about much-needed environmental action.

Religion is also persuasive; it reforms the hearts and minds of people, radically changing their worldview and the decisions that follow. Many people are driven to various actions whose reasons are unfathomable to those outside of their religion – such as risking one’s life and personal comfort to be a missionary, or even a martyr. If the world’s religions have tenets that suggest the importance of environmentalism to one’s faith, then environmentalists can appeal to these deeper, spiritual reasons and convince the religious to willingly sacrifice economic well-being as an ideal in order to live according to environmental creeds. And as many scholars have pointed out, environmentalist messages can be found in many of the world’s religions.

Christian Environmentalism

Christian theology has historically been accused of encouraging anthropocentric behaviour, making ‘it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.’ (White, Jr. 181) God’s command to ‘subdue’ and ‘have dominion’ over nature in Genesis 1:28 is often cited to as the doctrine that fuelled this ecologically unfriendly mindset[2].

But Christian environmentalists cite other Biblical passages that suggest that man should instead be a steward of nature, which God created for himself.[3] (Brown 44). Scattered throughout the Bible are instructions to good stewardship: Isaiah 5:8 is an indictment against wanton over-development[4], and sustainable farming practices are mentioned in Leviticus[5]. A theological implication then arises: taking care of creation is honouring God and obeying his laws; to do otherwise is sinful. Sin thus becomes the root of the environmental crisis; over-consumption and materialism become the deadly sins of greed and gluttony respectively. Also, because the burden caused by global warming is greater on developing countries, the Christian imperative to ‘love your neighbour (Matthew 22:39, NIV)’ becomes an environmental one.

The movement led by Christians who have understood the environmental nature of their faith, while nascent, is growing. The Christian environmental organization Care of Creation, Inc., founded in 2005, promotes tree-planting and sustainable agriculture in Kenya[6]. In 2006, 86 American evangelical leaders came together to sign the Evangelical Climate Initiative, an agreement to implement actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative). The influence of church leaders in a Christian-dominated country such as America, with coincidentally one of the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions, could lead to major reductions in emissions if American Christians, as well as Christian blocs elsewhere, reform to more environmental lifestyles and demand their political leaders to have the same concern for the environment.

Islamic Environmentalism

Creation care is not an unfamiliar concept to Islamic environmentalists; they recognise that ‘the environment is God’s creation and to protect it is to preserve its values as a sign of the Creator.’ (Deen 528) Surah 2:29[7] says that the environment is a ‘gift of God to all ages, past present, and future’, echoing the definition of sustainable development (Brundtland Commission). Wilderness preservation also finds its Islamic parallel in the tradition of hima, protected areas where development is prohibited and grazing is minimised (Deen 532). Brought into prominence by Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, himas provide a traditional model of conservation that corresponds to contemporary environmental policies. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon has re-established six himas since 2004 as a protected area for birds, banning hunting and encouraging eco-tourism (Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon). The environmental values inherent to Islam provide an ethical system that Muslims can apply to their daily lives, and influence governmental action for the environment in many Muslim countries where it is relevant, such as the economically powerful Middle East oil-producing countries, and Indonesia where haze from swiddening is a perennial regional problem.

Other Religions

Hinduism and Buddhism, despite being vastly different religions from Christianity and Islam, have surprisingly similar theological concepts about the environment.

Natural spaces are treasured by Buddhists for meditation, and their reverence of gigantic trees they call vanaspati can be traced to the heritage of the bodhi tree under which the first Buddha Siddharta Gautama gained enlightenment (Silva 537). Buddhists abhor selfishness, wastefulness, and wealth accumulation, in direct contrast to consumerist culture and the modern pursuit of economic growth at the expense of environmental sustainability (Silva 535). To a Buddhist, what should matter is the latter. A Buddhist would also be of the view that ‘pollution of the environment has been caused because there has been psychological pollution within himself’ (Silva 538), a resemblance of the Christian concept of sin as the root of the ecological crisis.

Hinduism, like other religions, also ascribes sacredness to the natural world. Mountains are residences of Hindu gods; Shiva is said to reside at Mount Kailash in the Himalayas (Sinha 133). Trees and animals, in their association with gods, also inherit divine attributes. For example, the tulsi (Holy Basil) is worshipped because it is an incarnation of Lakshmi (Hindu FAQ). Well-known is the sacredness of the cow, which has a celestial representation as Kamadhenu (Sinha 136). It appears that in Hinduism, the spiritual and the natural world are so intertwined that they can be considered one cosmological reality, instead of being separated into carnal and divine (Sinha 138). This perspective means that a Hindu should find an exploitation of nature utterly abhorrent, because it directly violates the sacred spaces and representations of the gods themselves.

In all the different religions cited so far, a reverent view of nature appears to be a common basis for a religious environmental ethic.

Working Together

In the fight against environmental degradation, religious leaders would not be the first to come to mind. In America, science and religion have a tenuous relationship; scientists often conflict with religious politicians who deny scientific evidence in favour of faith-based belief. However, the shared goals of science and religion to make the world a better place should convince both factions to put theological differences aside. E.O. Wilson extends the olive branch to religious leaders in his book The Creation:

“You and I and every other human being strive for the same imperatives of security, freedom of choice, personal dignity, and a cause to believe in that is larger than ourselves. Let us see, then if we can, and you are willing, to meet on the near side of metaphysics in order to deal with the real world we share.” (4)

If religious leaders accept the olive branch and are willing to work together against climate change and ecological damage, appealing to our spirit with environmental ideals that have a doctrinal basis, the human heart might be compelled to action and there is hope that society can work together to avert the ecological crises facing us.


Lynn White believed that because ‘the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious’ (184).  Historically speaking, there is no doubt that international agreements can effect great change for the environment – but only when there is agreement. Solely appealing to economic sustainability does not usually bring countries in economic competition to agree to take decisive action. But religious doctrines that incorporate environmentalism can provide the philosophical basis from which perhaps international agreements can succeed. But even if they do not agree at international summits, the power of religion to effect global environmental change of their own means that religion may just be able to provide the environmental salvation mankind needs.


[1] “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland Commission)

[2] “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.” (King James Version)

[3] “All things were created by him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16, New International Version)

[4] Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.” (Isaiah 5:8, NIV)

[5] “For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. “ (Leviticus 25:3-5, NIV)

[7] “He it is Who created for you all that is in the earth.” (Surah 2:29) Here, ‘you’ “refers to all persons with no limit as to time or place” (Deen)

Works Cited

Brown, Edward R. Our Father’s World: Mobilizing the Church to Care for Creation. Illinois: IVP Books, 2008. Print.

Brundtland Commission. “Our Common Future, Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development.” 1987.

Deen, Mawil Y. Izzi. “Islamic Environmental Ethics, Law, and Society.” Susan J. Armstrong, Richard G. Botzler. Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence. United States of America: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993. 527-533. Print.

Goodstein, Laurie. Evangelical Leaders Join Global Warming Initiative. 8 February 2006. Web. 29 October 2012. <;.

Greenpeace International. Greenpeace Press Statement: Rio+20 Earth Summit- a failure of epic proportions. 22 June 2012. Web. 30 Oct 2012. <;.

Hindu FAQs. Why do we consider Tulsi sacred? 15 Oct 2000. Web. 30 Oct 2012. <;.

Naess, Arne. “The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects.” Payne, Daniel G. and Richard S. Newman. The Palgrave Environmental Reader. New York: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2005. 239-257.

Silva, Lily de. “The Buddhist Attitude to Nature.” Susan J. Armstrong, Richard G. Botzler. Environmental Ethics: Divergence and Convergence. United States of America: McGraw Hill, Inc., 1993. 534-539. Print.

Sinha, Amita. “Nature in Hindu Mythology, Art, and Architecture.” Singh, P. B, Rana. Environmental Ethics: Discourses, & Cultural Tradtions. A Festschrift to Arne Naess. Varanasi: The National Geographical Society of India, 1993. 131-139. Print.

Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon. The Power of a Local Tradition: Hima. n.d. Web. 29 October 2012. <;.

White, Jr., Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Daniel G. Payne, Richard S. Newman. The Palgrave Environmental Reader. New York: PALGRAVE MCMILLAN, 2005. 175-184. Print.

Wilson, Edward O. The creation: An appeal to save life on earth. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.

2 thoughts on “An Argument for Religious Environmentalism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s