Friday, August 9, 2019

Compatibility Of Faith And Environmentalism

Do faith and environmentalism go together? I was raised in a conservative Christian church in the Bible Belt. After a brief crisis of faith in my early twenties, I had a conversion experience and adopted my childhood faith as my own. While I share many beliefs with my fellow Christians in the Bible Belt, there is one area that I frequently encounter resistance—environmental conservation. You see I am a passionate defender of conservation and preservation efforts of all forms. When I bring this topic up to other people of faith, I often encounter mild interest and then the subject changes. If I push the issue, it often becomes a one-sided conversation, I'm talking, and they are tuning me out.

So, am I the only person of faith who also has a strong conservation ethic? Can faith and a strong conservation ethic go together or are they fundamentally antithetical? This is a big question. I think the most correct answer is, it depends. Let's look at how some of the biggest religions in the world view the natural world and humanity’s responsibility towards it.

A fantastic article titled How Religions Are Involved In Environmental Protection by the United Nations Environment Programme provides a good summary of how many of the world’s major religion view the environment.1 Lets consider four of the biggest. Christianity - In the Holy Bible there are approximately 100 verses that talk about caring for the environment. The principle of stewardship is strong throughout highlighting that the God of the Bible is the ultimate owner of everything, and Christians are simply managers. "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein" Psalm 24:1, King James Version. The Holy Bible promises strong consequences for anyone who does not care for the earth. "...and your wrath came, as did the time for the dead to be judged, ...and to destroy those who destroy the earth” Revelation 11:18, World English Bible.

Judaism - This faith shares similarities with Christianity in its view of humans as God's stewards. “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me” Leviticus 25:23, Judaica Press Tanach. Jewish tradition has a strong legal and ethical obligation to care for the natural world. There are multiple laws and commands in Jewish scripture dealing with the proper use of land and resources. Notable is the law requiring a sabbatical for the land from farming every seven years (Leviticus 25:1-7).

Islam - The Quran, has quite a bit to say about care of the environment. It implies that followers of Allah are tenants or stewards, “Then We appointed you viceroys in the earth after them, that We might see how ye behave” Quran 10:14, Pickthall Translation. There are several prohibitions against taking advantage of the natural world such as this, “Do no mischief on the earth, after it hath been set in order” Quran 7:56, Yusuf Ali Translation. The Quran also stresses the interconnectedness of all lifeforms, “There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you” Quran 6:38, Yusuf Ali Translation. The Quran contains verses on the preservation of water and the benefits of gardening. It also focuses on helping the poor and less fortunate. Climate change and pollution affect the poor most harshly, so the Quran offers a good moral framework for living a green, eco-friendly life.

Hinduism - Of the four biggest religions in the world, Hinduism may have the greatest emphasis on protecting nature. Its holy texts are filled with many references of divinity related to nature, such as rivers, mountains, trees, animals, and the earth. To protect them, Hinduism encourages environmental protection. “Ether, air, fire, water, earth, planets, all creatures, directions, trees and plants, rivers and seas, they are all organs of God’s body. Remembering this a devotee respects all species” Srimad Bhagavatam (2.2.41). “What is the good way? It is the path that reflects on how it may avoid killing any living creature.” Kural (324). “There is an inseparable bond between man and nature. For man, there cannot be an existence removed from nature” Amma, 2011.

We must keep in mind that while many religions have sacred writings, not all sects within that religion interpret their writings in the same way. In my research, it seems that leaders from the four major religions I looked at do believe their sacred writings not only encourage conservation on some level but require it.1 Most agree that humans have some level of responsibility to their God to be proper stewards of the natural resources of the earth. To what extent this is prioritized varies widely.

An interesting case study for this topic is John Muir, the premier conservation saint and founder of the Sierra Club. He was raised by a conservative Christian father who was a minister. Daniel Muir portrayed a harsh and exacting God to his children. Additionally, he viewed nature as there simply to serve man's interests.2 It would be understandable if John had disposed of the entirety of his father's faith and religion as he most certainly did with his attitude toward nature. John came to have a passion for nature akin to that of a religion. But surprisingly, he did not forsake his childhood faith in God. John did not retain the fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible or religious traditions of his father. But any reader of John Muir's writings cannot miss the abundant religious language and references to God.

It has been proposed that this practice was simply to increase appeal to his 19th-century audience which was predominantly Christian. But the sheer amount of references to finding God in nature seem to dispel this idea. Muir's writings seem to convey a reverence for the Creator God whom he found in nature. Additionally, it seems his faith informed his approach to nature conservation. It was precisely because Muir found a connection to God in nature that he held it in such high esteem. One of the many biographers of John Muir, Cherry Good, makes this point well. "[Muir] preferred to worship outdoors, where he could see God's hand in the beauty of nature, rather than within the four walls of a church." She also points out that an acquaintance of John's recalled, "Though ardently devoted to science, as well as the study of nature, yet the agnostic tendencies that had their beginning about that time found no sympathy with him. With him there was no dark chilly reasoning that chance and the survival of the fittest accounted for all things."3 For Muir then, faith and conservation were not at odds. Instead, they fit together naturally.

What we can determine is that faith and environmental conservation are not only mutual but compatible. People of faith can look to their faith to find meaning and motivation for caring for the earth. Additionally, we can glean that the framework for a conservation ethic already exists in many religions. We do not have to start from scratch in order to build a case for living greener for people of faith. Instead, we simply must find the language and ethic that already exists within a faith and bring that to their attention. The Interfaith Alliance stresses the importance of conservation to people of all faiths, "This issue is extremely important to people of faith and is at the center of debate on what are the next steps to improve our planet for the future."4

Faith is not necessary to having and developing a conservation ethic. There are plenty of people who live very environmentally conscious lives and do not claim any faith. Nature is the domain of all people, and anyone can see the value of preserving and protecting it. Faith can enhance this value for some people. It can also reduce the value placed on conservation depending on the specific faith tradition. According to one study, conservative Protestant faiths tended to value conservation less than average whereas Catholics tended to place a higher value than average.6 I believe individual family values also play an important role. In my own case, although my faith tradition placed little emphasis on conservation, my parents instilled a strong conservation ethos in me. I still turn off the lights when I leave a room and avoid letting the water faucet run, more because my mom instilled this habit in me growing up than because I desire to reduce waste.

Evidently, and not too surprisingly, your faith tradition will strongly impact how you view environmental conservation efforts. A Christian faith will tend to focus on how conservation benefits the welfare of humans emphasizing an anthropocentric view.7 Whereas a Buddhist may tend to focus on the sanctity of all lifeforms emphasizing a biocentric view.5 Both value conservation efforts but for slightly different reasons. Faith background may also heavily impact how persons of varying faiths think conservation efforts are best carried out and which areas should receive the most attention. Another interesting trend is that those who are more devoted to their faith tend to take its stewardship requirements more seriously and thus have an increased concern for the environment.5 Faith and conservation do go together. How your faith tradition emphasizes and implements conservation depends on many factors. What is clear is that people of faith have a stake in conserving the earth as do all people groups.

If you are a person of faith, go back to your sacred writings, to your traditions and rediscover the conservation principles held there. Remind yourself of your duty to God, to your fellow living creatures. Share these with fellow believers as you discuss and encourage them to adopt greener practices and live more eco-conscious. If you are not a person of faith, but want to begin a discussion about environmental conservation with a person of faith, investigate what their faith teaches about this topic. Use this information in your approach. You may disagree on other points, but environmental conservation is likely a topic you can both come to have in common. Perhaps you already have this in common but do not realize it because you use different language and terms to describe it. Seek to understand one another. There is hope for the future. We can find hope in our faith, and in each other as we work together to care for the earth.


1 United Nations, "How religions are involved in environmental protection," United Nations Environment Programme (n.d.), accessed April 11, 2019 from

2. Stoll, Mark R. "God and John Muir: A Psychological Interpretation of John Muir's Life and Religion," Sierra Club online (1993), accessed April 11, 2019 from

3. Good, Cherry. On the Trail of John Muir, (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2001): 35. Print.

4. Interfaith Alliance. "Faith, Religion and the Environment," Interfaith Alliance online (MAY 28, 2006), accessed April 11, 2019 from

5 Rust, Niki. "Religion can make us more environmentally friendly - or not," BBC online (7 February 2017), accessed April 11, 2019 from

6. Greeley, Andrew. "Religion and Attitudes toward the Environment." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32, no. 1 (1993): 19-28. doi:10.2307/1386911.

7 Hope, Aimie L.B., and Christopher R. Jones. “The Impact of Religious Faith on Attitudes to Environmental Issues and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Technologies: A Mixed Methods Study.” Technology in Society 38 (2014): 48–59.

By David F. Garner Sierra Club member since 2008