Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Religions and Sustainability

Spiritual traditions—from large, centralized religions to local tribal spiritual authorities—in the future will devote energy to what some see as the defining challenge of our age: the need to build just and environmentally healthy societies. The major faiths will issue declarations, advocating for new national policies, and designing educational activities in support of a sustainable world—sometimes in partnership with secular environmental organizations, sometimes on their own. Responding to the global crisis, smaller traditions will revive ancient rituals and practices in the service of sustainability. A powerful new political alignment will thus emerge that greatly strengthens the effort to build a sustainable world.

A source of power for religions is the sheer number of followers they claim. It seems that some 80–90 percent of people on the planet belong to one of the world’s 10,000 or so religions, with 150 or so of these faith traditions having at least a million followers each. Adherents of the three largest—Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism—account for about two thirds of the global population today. Another 20 percent of the world subscribes to the remaining religions, and about 15 percent of people are nonreligious.

Influence stemming from having a large number of followers is further enhanced by the geographic concentration of many religions, which increases their ability to make mass appeals and to coordinate action. In 120 countries, for example, Christians form the majority of the population. Muslims are the majority in 45 countries, and Buddhists are in 9. When most people in a society have similar worldviews, leaders can make mass appeals using a single, values-laden language.

Religion is an orientation to the cosmos and to our role in it. It offers people a sense of ultimate meaning and the possibility for personal transformation and celebration of life. To this end it uses a range of resources, including worldviews, symbols, rituals, ethical norms, traditions, and (sometimes) institutional structures. Religion also offers a means of experiencing a sustaining creative force, whether as a creator deity, an awe-inspiring presence in nature, or simply the source of all life. Many of these characteristics give religion substantial influence over the environment.

At the same time, the environmental community has often alienated potential allies with what is perceived as scientific aloofness, even self-righteousness. Its “left-brain” approach to its work is partly to blame for its inability to connect with greater numbers of people, to inspire profound commitment on a large scale. Given the central place of culture in national development—and the central place of religion in most cultures—a sustainable world cannot effectively be built without full engagement of the human spirit.

Religious institutions and leaders can bring at least five strong assets to the effort to build a sustainable world: the capacity to shape cosmologies (worldviews), moral authority, a large base of adherents, significant material resources, and community-building capacity.

And most produce strong community ties by generating social resources such as trust and cooperation, which can be a powerful boost to community development. Many political movements would welcome any of these five assets. To be endowed with most or all of them, as many religions are, is to hold considerable political power.

In the three western monotheistic traditions—Islam, Christianity and Judaism—morality has traditionally been human-focused. Thus the natural world can be seen as a set of resources for human use.

Yet scholars in each of these traditions find substantial grounds for building a strong environmental ethics. The Islamic concept teaches that the natural world is not owned by humans but is given to them in trust—a trust that implies certain responsibilities to preserve the balance of creation. The Christian focus on sacrament and incarnation are seen as lenses through which the entire natural world can be viewed as sacred. The Judaic concept of a covenant or legal agreement between God and humanity, for example, can be extended to all of creation. And the
Hinduism and Buddhism contain teachings concerning the natural world those are arguably in conflict. The illusory nature of the material world and the desirability of escaping suffering by turning to a timeless world of spirit, in the case of Hinduism, or by seeking release in nirvana, in the case of some meditative schools of Buddhism. This otherworldly orientation minimizes the importance of environmental degradation. On the other hand, both religions place great emphasis on correct conduct and on fulfillment of duty, which often includes obligations to environmental preservation.

Thus Hindus regard rivers as sacred, and in the concept of lila, the creative play of the gods, Hindu theology engages the world as a creative manifestation of the divine. Meanwhile, Buddhist environmentalists often stress the importance of trees in the life of the Buddha, and “socially engaged” Buddhism active in environmental protection, especially of forests.

The East Asian traditions of Confucianism and Taoism seamlessly link the divine, human, and natural worlds. The divine is not seen as transcendent; instead, Earth’s fecundity is seen as continuously unfolding through nature’s movements across the seasons and through human workings in the cycles of agriculture.

This organic worldview is centered round the concept of ch’i, the dynamic, material force that infuses the natural and human worlds, unifying matter and spirit. Confucianists and Taoists seek to live in harmony with nature and with other human beings, while paying attention to the movements of the Tao, the Way. Despite the affinity of these traditions with an environmental ethic, however, deforestation, pollution, and other forms of environmental degradation have become widespread in contemporary East Asia due to many factors, including rapid industrialization and the decline of traditional values in the last 50 years.

Our civilization’s challenge is to reintegrate our societal heart and head, to reestablish spirituality as a partner in dialogue with science. While acknowledging its shortcomings, the religious community can rightly claim enormous capacity for self-reform. Asif J. Mir, Organizational Transformation