In 1967, historian Lynn White wrote an influential essay in which he argued religion — and Christianity in particular — bore fundamental responsibility for the sad state of the natural environment. Christianity, he wrote, "insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends" — a mission that humans have enthusiastically carried out over the centuries with ever-increasing technical sophistication.
"Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious," White concluded, "the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not."
Forty-two years later, many prominent spiritual leaders — including the current pope and his predecessor — have taken up White's challenge, forcefully declaring that protecting the environment is a moral issue. But in spite of their pronouncements, the state of the environment seems even more perilous, with ecologists warning of decreasing biodiversity and the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. Living green may now be part of official doctrine, but the message hasn't quite made it from the pulpit to the pew.
So are the world's religious traditions — which define and shape the fundamental mythologies humans live by — a help or a hindrance in the fight to save the Earth? Two prominent scholars, who have studied the subject in depth, have different views. John Grim, co-coordinator of Yale University's Forum on Religion and Ecology, is optimistic. Bron Taylor, editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Florida, is considerably less so.
"Individuals who have been working with environmental issues for decades — both scientists and those working at it from a policy angle — are asking why we haven't seen a transformation in the larger populace," Grim said. "Although people identify themselves as environmentally concerned, this often doesn't show up (in changed behavior such as) reduced consumption or energy use. Some deeper motivation is needed to make the turn. Religions can play a role in terms of this transformation of consciousness."
“There is reason to believe that religion is a significant and negative variable contributing to the degradation of ecosystems globally," said Taylor. "I'm as yet unconvinced that these traditions can be changed enough, and rapidly enough, to ameliorate the current rapid decline in the genetic and species variety of the planet."
The underlying issue was probably best defined by poet and essayist Robert Bly, who has been writing about man's ravenous relationship with the environment for decades. "We're still living a mythology of abundance," he said in a recent interview. "Now it turns out we have found out the limits of the world's resources, so we need a different mythology — a mythology of preservation."
That will require the major faith traditions to shift their focus, at least in part, from the hereafter to the here-and-now. The notion that man is uniquely made in God's image and thus set apart from nature will have to be abandoned. For all its disputes with Darwinism, religion will have to evolve.
Grim has devoted much of his life to facilitating that process. Along with his wife, fellow Yale scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker, he organized a series of 10 conferences on religion and ecology in the late 1990s, later publishing the resulting papers in a series of books. Last year, the couple traveled to China, where they laid the framework for doing similar work in that rapidly developing (and extremely polluted) nation.
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"We had conversations with Pan Yue, China's vice minister for the environment," Grim said. "He put it to us this way: 'We have the environmental laws on the books, but we're not able to enforce them because there is no environmental culture in China.' He sees that it's not going to be possible to bring in an ethics from the West. It needs to come out of the local soil. The seeds are there."
Taylor isn't so sure. "The greening of religion is much more pronounced in the Western world than in Asia, despite the stereotypes of some that Buddhism or Taoism are innately environmentally friendly," he said. "There is no evidence of that."
In contrast, Taylor notes there is a long-standing tradition in the Western faiths that man should be good stewards of the earth. (Think of St. Francis of Assisi.) "There are biblical passages that do express delight and wonder at nature," he said. "So the interesting question is why this has so seldom animated participants in these religions."
Part of Grim's mission has been to tease out those eco-friendly biblical verses — and similar passages from other sacred texts —and find ways to apply them to today's reality. He cites three examples of progress in aligning spiritual with ecological impulses:
• The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, of the Greek Orthodox Church has coined the term "ecological sin," referring to a deliberate act of despoiling the environment.
• Hindus in India consider certain heavily polluted rivers sacred, and this paradox — how do you perform sacred rituals using unclean water? — has generated environmental activism.
• In the U.K., and increasingly in the U.S., evangelical Christians "have begun to use language within their tradition" to address the issue of environmental creation care.
Taylor agreed that "green evangelicals" are beginning to have some impact lobbying like-minded legislators on environmental issues. He said some make the argument that the story of Noah's ark reflects God's belief in the importance of biodiversity. (Remember, he considered it essential to get every species on board, even if it meant killing off quite a few humans in the flood.)
Taylor cautions, however, that evangelical ecological awareness is a "fledgling" movement, and notes that "in one way or another," all the major religions "are about divine rescue from this world" and define the religious worldview as one in which "the most sacred place is otherworldly rather than earthly, which fundamentally devalues, if implicitly, the biosphere."
"The deeper question about remedies is not whether ancient religious forms can reform and thus provide these remedies, but whether new forms of nature-related spirituality might emerge that cohere with a modern evolutionary/ecological worldview, and could provide a basis for environmental concern and action," he said. "I believe there is strong evidence that such religion is emerging and gathering strength."
Taylor will explore this emerging movement in his book Dark Green Religion, which will be released by the University of California Press in the fall.
"I'm agreeing with Bly (on the need for a new mythology), but I'm more optimistic than he is about the emergence of mythic forms that cohere with modern, empirical understandings of the origin and diversity of life on the planet — one that would recognize our interdependence with one another and all of these different organisms," he said. "I see this happening outside the traditional religions, but I see this kind of thinking and feeling influencing some within those religions."
Taylor believes these "post-Darwinian religious forms" will look a lot like the traditional religions that flourished before the Judeo-Christian traditions, such as animism (which views the natural world as enspirited) and pantheism (which considers the biosphere "part of a divine intelligence"). "All over the world, people are articulating, developing and promoting such spirtualities, sometimes without even knowing it — just by doing the work they do," he said.
But can this shift in thinking occur quickly enough to move us off of our current, potentially tragic trajectory? Probably not, according to Taylor, who paints a dark picture of a 21st century marked by environmental catastrophes and resulting refugee crises.
"It may take this tragic scenario for people to conclude that these ancient wisdom traditions are not up to the task of helping us figure out how to live in a humane and prosperous way, and we need a new world view," he said. "But the intellectual work on this new world view is well under way."
Grim sees this transformation occurring within existing spiritual structures, as traditional religions reclaim a realm they abandoned long ago.
"Many of the traditions, in their ancient expressions, (focused on three) mediations: human to human, human to divine and human to earth," he said. "But in the Western traditions especially, the human-to-earth exchange was overwhelmed by the emergence of science and technology. The understanding of reality was subsumed by science, and religion retreated from that realm.
"I believe what we're seeing today is the re-entry of religion into the understanding of cosmology. Religions are beginning to re-engage that question of 'What is the nature of reality?'"
Taylor believes that question can be satisfyingly answered by a new spirituality that conforms with the truths revealed by science. As he sees it, this new or reformed religion would "consider nature sacred in some way; view all life forms as having intrinsic value, and being worthy of reverence and defense; and generally express a kinship ethic — a sense that all organisms are related.
"We should be careful not to assume that myth or religion will be the decisive variable that will change behavior," Taylor cautioned. "It may be the fundamental material conditions of life that will be the most decisive."
"Religions are necessary for many who are making the transition to a more sustainable lifestyle, but religions in themselves are not sufficient," Grim agreed. "They need to be in dialogue with environmental science and policy communities."
But Taylor added that, in the long run, a new or reformed sense of spirituality could have "an important and salutary influence" on the future of our species and our planet. St. Francis — who White praised as "the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history" — would surely agree.
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