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A Belief in 'Oneness' Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.
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(Photo: Andrei S/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Andrei S/Shutterstock)

We noted recently that the phenomenon of "green Christianity" is largely a myth, as Christians still lag behind members of other faiths in terms of eco-friendly behavior. But newly published research finds a different foundational spiritual belief is associated with environmentally friendly attitudes and actions: The notion of interconnectedness, or the essential "oneness" of creation.

This idea, usually associated with Buddhism but attractive to the growing number of Americans who consider themselves "spiritual but not religious," was linked to concern for the environment in a new study. What's more, this attitude drove behavior: In one survey, people attracted to the "oneness" idea were more likely to give money to a pro-environment cause.

"Spiritual oneness was a better predictor of pro-environmental attitudes than was religiousness," a research team led by psychologist Andrew Garfield of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's moral evaluation research lab writes in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

"Spiritual oneness had a small, positive association with each pro-environmental measure, above and beyond the effects of gender, political orientation, and traditionally religiousness."

Looking for a way to quantify this emerging school of spiritual thought, Garfield and his colleagues developed a working definition of spiritual oneness. They call it "a belief in the spiritual interconnectedness and essential oneness of all phenomena, both living and nonliving; and a belief that happiness depends on living in accord with this understanding."

Realizing that some people recognize a sense of universal connection but don't equate it with spirituality, they acknowledged a separate school of thought they call physical oneness. "This perspective may include the understanding that all phenomena in the universe are composed of the same materials, and subject to the same laws of nature," they write.

In the first of their studies, Garfield and his colleagues surveyed 1,311 introductory psychology students at a large Midwestern university. They were asked about their attitudes toward the environment, religious beliefs and practices, and political leanings.

In addition, the students responded to a series of statements designed to measure their acceptance of the idea of oneness, including "A vital thread of life joins all objects and beings in the universe" (spiritual oneness) and "The entire cosmos is linked together by complicated and intricate physical laws" (physical oneness).

The key result: "Spiritual oneness had a small, positive association with each pro-environmental measure, above and beyond the effects of gender, political orientation, and traditionally religiousness," the researchers report. "It was the strongest religious/spirituality predictor of pro-environmental attitudes."

Another study featured 180 hikers who were on, entering, or exiting a popular trail in a Midwestern state park. The participants, who ranged in age from 18 to 63, filled out a much shorter version of the questionnaire answered by the students. They were also given the opportunity to make a donation to a non-profit group that supports state parks and trails.

Once again, "spiritual oneness was associated positively with the pro-environmental attitude measures," the researchers report. What's more, hikers whose opinions reflected that belief were more likely to give money to the pro-environment cause, with those who expressed it strongly the most likely to donate.

"Spiritual oneness appears to be the first religious/spirituality construct shown to positively predict observable pro-environment behavior," the researchers write.

These findings are encouraging, the researchers conclude, in that they are "consistent with the idea that oneness beliefs, although currently considered to be primarily non-Western in origin, are applicable and accessible to Westerners as well."

Cultivating that mindset would seem to be a promising way to channel spiritual impulses into environmental preservation.