Environmentalism and World Religions

By Alex Paris, A/G Summer 2018 Intern

Being an intern at Argento/Graham I have a slightly different field of study than previous people in my position. I am a religious studies major at Gettysburg College. So, taking this position has provided me a very different but interesting lens for viewing how the world and religion interact. In this blog post I attempt to provide an analysis that explores the relationship that three major world religions have with the environment.

Environmental sustainability has become an issue of ever-growing importance in the United States in the past fifty years. As companies and laws spring up across the nation to assist with the staving off of a global environmental disaster it is intriguing to observe what various religions present in the United States say on the matter of environmental stewardship. The Christian’s Bible may differ from the tradition of Islam, and both of those may differ from the practice of Buddhists. Therefore, an analysis of these various religious traditions and how their followers practice their teachings of environmental stewardship provides an insight into the care an adherent of a particular faith may pay to their natural surroundings.

Christianity’s basis for environmental sustainability and stewardship is based upon many of the commands of God that have to do with humanity’s dominion over earth and God’s commands for the correct way of life. God’s first action and direction for man was that he had them placed in the Garden of Eden to care for it (Genesis 2:15). Man’s purpose is not only to make use of Eden and the earth after humanity is cast out of the garden but also to take care of it and make sure that it is inhabitable and prosperous. In Leviticus, Moses receives instructions from God on how he and the Israelites should live. Again, the land God promised to the Israelites comes with the caveat that the land is redeemed to a state suitable for them (Leviticus 25:23-24). God provides here the responsibility to conserve the land and to care for it. Not only does God expect the adherent to take careful custody of the land but also that you should be thankful for the blessing being given to you (Dueteronomy 8:7-9). This relationship between God and Mankind is a prescriptive one. Humanity is charged to take care of the land and to be thankful for the blessings they have been given.

Fast forward from the Old Testament to present day and the warnings of environmental disaster are now coming from Pope Francis who warns of imminent destruction because of our lack of care for Creation. The Pope reminds us of our “Sister Earth” and that she “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods which which God has endowed her” (Pope Francis, 2). This environmental stewardship for the earth is impressed upon humanity by Pope Francis who charges each of us with that “we [may] come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast. … May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope” (Pope Francis, 244). Pope Francis’ closing comments reminds us of a Christian’s responsibility to the stewardship of the earth and to remember the joy of doing the act at the same time.

The religion of Islam is much the same as Christianity in that its view of environmentalism is prescribed by Allah to serve the adherent as a correct way of life and treating Allah’s creation. The Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying “Preserve the earth because it is your mother.” The Prophet is Allah’s direct messenger on earth so his word is indescribably important to a Muslim. The Prophet Muhammad was considered the perfect Muslim and because of this his acts and interpretations of the Qur’an are used by Muslims as a guide for their own lives.

Muhammad’s life was informed by his communications and revelations from Allah and from his interpretations he began to receive information that applied to responsibility for the environment. Allah informs Muhammad of the world and to “eat of [earth’s] fruits when it yields and gives its due on the day of its harvest. And be not excessive. Indeed, He does not like those who commit excess” (Qur’an 6:141). While Allah wants humanity to make use of the fruits of the earth and he does not want the use to be excessive. Again, Allah tells to Muslims that there should be no change in creation (Qu’ran 30:30).. These two previous points in the Qur’an provide evidence of a religious responsibility to the earth and its well-being. When Allah sees that his creation is violated he describes that “corruption has appreared throughout the land and sea by what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness]” (Qur’an 30:41). This punishment is meant to correct intolerable behavior by Muslims who have gone astray from the correct path. Once the astray adherents have been returned, Allah again commands to not corrupt the earth again (Qur’an 5:57). This earthly restructuring is purposed by Allah to reaffirm the importance of following His commands not only as as they relate to Him but also to creation and keeping it pristine for future generations.

Buddhism differs from the two previous religions drastically in the manner of motivation for environmentalism and how it is approached. Buddhism is focused not through a god or other entity who commands a proper way of living but is instead channeled through a collection of teachers who build upon previous lectures to create the Buddhism that we know today. This Buddhism is focused upon thought and the mind. Therefore, the Buddhist is not focused on the physical manifestation of pollution or waste but is instead removing those impure thoughts that lead to the result of the pollution and waste.

The Dalai Lama comments thoroughly on the importance of relying on outside forces to fix the environment. The Spiritual Leader of Tibet comments that “the environment does not need fixing. It is our behaviour in relation to it that needs to change” (The Natural World). Another famous Buddhist, Thich Naht Hanh also writes on people and their relationship to the environment. He says that “the situation the earth is in today has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We consume to forget our worries and our anxieties. Tranquilising ourselves with overconsumption is not the way” (Confino). These two spiritual leaders import the importance of the environment. Buddhism’s teachings of the Middle Path and the Five Mindfulness trainings do not specifically teach about the environment but instead lead to a way of living in harmony with the environment. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the five mindfulness trainings are the path we should follow in this era of global crisis because they are a major part of the practice of protecting ourselves, and protecting the planet. Buddhism’s understanding of protecting the environment is formed from an internal sense of duty and personal responsibility for the self.

These three religions provide two different ways that the environmental protection is delivered to the individual adherent. Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists all have parts of their population that care about the environment but might not know their theological evidence that supports environmentalism. Giving this knowledge to the believer who already cares about the environment would doubly strengthen their commitment to sustainability. The greater effect of spreading this theological knowledge to those who do not care about the environment but are strong adherents to their faith. This new section of people would greatly increase the population in support of a sustainable way of life and bring a religious fervor that would inspire numerous others to the cause of environmentalism.