Religions can be understood in their largest sense as a means whereby humans, recognizing the limitations of phenomenal reality, undertake specific practices to effect self-transformation and community cohesion within cosmological and natural contexts. Religions refer to those cosmological stories, symbol systems, ritual practices, ethical norms, historical processes, and institutional structures that transmit a view of the human as embedded in a world of meaning and responsibility, transformation and celebration. Religions connect humans with a divine presence or numinous force. They bond human communities, and they assist in forging intimate relations with the broader Earth community. In summary, religions link humans to the larger cultural, biological, and material matrices of life.
Most definitions of religion are based on concepts from Western Abrahamic religions of God and salvation. These concepts are presented as universal, but generally do not take into account the varied kinds of religious sensibilities in the world religions, especially from Asian or indigenous traditions. Most Asian religions, for example, do not require belief in a Creator God or in redemption and salvation outside this world. Some, such as Buddhism, are considered to be atheistic, or not focused on God or supernatural beings. Religious sensibilities, thus, are not limited to monotheism or even theism. Nor does religion preclude those inner experiences associated with spirituality. The cultivation of a spiritual path has extensive roots in religious traditions and beyond. Spirituality involves a search for the sacred in which humans experience their authentic being in relation to a larger whole, for example, local bioregions, the Earth, and the cosmos itself.
As the environmental crisis has been well documented, it is increasingly clear that human attitudes and decisions, values and behavior are crucial for the survival and flourishing of ecosystems and life forms on Earth. Religion, ethics, and spirituality are contributing to the shaping of a sustainable future along with the natural and social sciences. In addition, a more comprehensive worldview of the interdependence of life is being articulated along with an ethical responsiveness to the need to care for life for future generations. One telling of this worldview has been formulated as an evolutionary story in Journey of the Universe, which is a narrative telling in film and book form by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Thomas Berry described this worldview shift as a new cosmological story.
Certain distinctions need to be made between the particularized expressions of religion identified with institutional or denominational forms of religion and those broader worldviews that animate such expressions. By “worldviews” we mean those ways of knowing, embedded in symbols and stories, that find lived expressions, consciously and unconsciously, in the lives of particular cultures. In this sense, worldviews arise from and are formed by human interactions with natural systems or ecologies. Consequently, one of the principal concerns of religions in many communities is to describe the emergence of local geography as a realm of the sacred. This is evident, for example, with mountains such as Wutai in China, rivers such as the Ganges in India, and cities such as Jerusalem, Rome, and Mecca. Worldviews generate rituals and ethics, ways of acting, that guide human behavior in personal, communal, and ecological exchanges. Religions have also helped people to celebrate the gifts of nature, such as air, water, and food, that sustain life.
The exploration of worldviews as they are both constructed and lived by religious communities is the work of religion and ecology scholars who attempt to discover formative and enduring attitudes regarding human-Earth relations. There are many examples of diverse ecological worldviews in religions. Buddhism sees change in nature and the cosmos as a potential source of suffering for the human while Confucianism and Daoism affirm nature’s changes as the source of the Dao, and the Western monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam view the seasonal cycle of nature as an inspiration for the challenges of human life. Among indigenous traditions, nature is the locus for encountering the power of the sacred, such as kami for Shinto practitioners in Japan, manitou among Great Lakes Native Americans, and mana among Polynesian peoples.
The creative tensions between humans seeking to transcend the anguish of the human condition and at the same time yearning to be embedded in this world are part of the dynamics of world religions. Christianity, for example, holds the promise of salvation in the next life as well as celebration of the incarnation of Christ as a human in the world. Similarly, Hinduism holds up a goal of moksha, of liberation from the world of samsara, while also highlighting the ideal of devotion to the god Krishna acting in the world. Indigenous traditions also manifest such creative tensions but do not move toward radical transcendence. For example, among the Navajo/Diné of the American Southwest, the Holy People come from beyond the human realm and yet reveal themselves in the inner forms of the natural world.
This realization of creative tensions leads to a more balanced understanding of the possibilities and limitations of religions regarding environmental concerns. Many religions retain orientations toward personal salvation outside this world; at the same time they can foster and have fostered commitments to social justice, peace, and ecological integrity in the world. Historically, religions have contributed to social change in areas such as the abolitionist and civil rights movements. There are new alliances emerging now that are joining social justice with environmental justice.
In alignment with these “eco-justice” concerns, religions are formulating broad environmental ethics that include humans, ecosystems, and other species. Scientists acknowledged this potential of religious communities for encouraging a broadened environmental ethics from their particular traditions. Two key documents were issued in the early 1990s. One is titled “Preserving the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion.” A second is called “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” and was signed by over two thousand scientists, including more than two hundred Nobel laureates. This document states, “A new ethic is required—a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth.” Moreover, the Earth Charter, inspired by the Earth Summit in 1992, brings ecology, justice, and peace together in a scientific evolutionary framework.
The response to these appeals was slow at first but is rapidly growing. It might be noted that there were some strong voices advocating a religious response to environmental issues over half a century ago. These included Walter Lowdermilk, who in 1940 called for an Eleventh Commandment of land stewardship, and Joseph Sittler, who in 1954 wrote an essay titled “A Theology for the Earth.” Likewise, the Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr has been calling since the late 1960s for a renewed sense of the sacred in nature that draws on perennial philosophy. Lynn White’s essay in 1967 on “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” sparked controversy over his assertion that the Judeo-Christian tradition has contributed to the environmental crisis by devaluing nature. In 1972, the theologian John Cobb published a book titled Is It Too Late? underscoring the urgency of environmental problems and calling Christians to respond.
Over the last several decades, key movements have taken place among religious communities that have shown growing levels of understanding of the environmental crisis and growing commitment to alleviating it. In particular, the religions have come together in innovative interreligious dialogues, witnessing to their common concern for endangered ecosystems and biodiversity. The Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1993 and in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1999 issued major statements on global ethics that embraced human rights and environmental issues. The Parliament in Melbourne in 2009 had more than twenty sessions on religion and ecology. Indigenous peoples gathered in Bolivia in 2010 to formulate the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth as an expression of their concern for the degradation of land, religion, and culture. Indigenous peoples continue to report on the evidence of climate change in various regions through the Indigenous Environmental Network (ienearth.org).
Several major international religious leaders have emerged as a result of a renewed appreciation of their tradition’s respect for the environment. The Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, and the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nat Hahn have spoken on the universal responsibility the human community has toward the environment and toward all sentient species. The Greek Orthodox patriarch Bartholomew has sponsored symposia on water that have brought together scientists, religious leaders, civil servants, and journalists to highlight the problems of marine pollution and fisheries depletion. Many of the world religions have issued statements on the need to care for the Earth and to take responsibility for future generations.
It is within this global context that the field of religion and ecology has emerged within academia over the last two decades, animated by several key questions. Theoretically, how has the interpretation and use of religious texts and traditions contributed to human attitudes regarding the environment? Ethically, how do humans value nature and thus create moral grounds for protecting the Earth for future generations? Historically, how have human relations with nature changed over time, and how has this change been shaped by religions? Culturally, how has nature been perceived and constructed by humans, and conversely, how has the natural world affected the formation of human culture? From a socially engaged perspective, in what ways do the values and practices of a particular religion activate mutually enhancing human-Earth relations? It is at this lively interdisciplinary intersection between theoretical, historical, and cultural research and engaged scholarship that the field of religion and ecology is still emerging.
The values embodied by religious perspectives on the environment provide viable alternative views of nature simply as resources or as services to humans. The shared values of the world religions include reverence for the Earth and its profound ecological processes, respect for Earth’s myriad species and an extension of ethics to include all life forms, reciprocity in relation to both humans and nature, restraint in the use of natural resources combined with support for effective alternative technologies, a more equitable redistribution of economic opportunities, the acknowledgment of human responsibility for the continuity of life, and restoration of both humans and ecosystems for the flourishing of life. These values are beginning to intersect with other approaches to environmental problems from the perspectives of science, economics, law, and policy.