Religious Perspective of Ecological and Environmental Issues
Environmental issues have become the talk of the town from the 1960s onwards, and scholarly interest is being shown by global scholars to show the relationship existing between various religions, environments and cultures. The subject has acquired the importance of not only religious scholars but also of the philosophers pioneering the field of environmental ethics. ‘Religion and Ecology’, as a field of study, has generated a large body of scholarship since the 1990s. Scholars have tried to conceptualise religion as a system of meaning that can provide answers to central questions about behaviours, social orders and human motivations. Different religions of the world are viewing the degradation of our natural environment as degradation in human ethics.
Prof. Thomas E. Lovejoy of George Mason University has aptly remarked; “The almost unimaginable environmental challenge humanity faces- a daunting Gordian knot of science, plus ethical and moral values –demands way forward. Those will be found at the intersection of science and religion …… ecology and religion light the path forward.”
Literally speaking, religion is a principle of unification and harmonisation (Latin: Religions: re= back; ligare = bind). Religion has been conceived as having faith in ultimate union of man and God, the finite and the infinite.
The Hegelian philosophers, defining the religion, emphasise the rational elements in the religion.
According to Mc- Taggart, “Religion is clearly as a state of mind… It may be described as an emotion resting on a conviction of harmony between ourselves and the universe at large.”
Moralists the Mathew Arnold defined religion as “nothing but morality touched with emotion.”
Hoffding defines religion as “the faith in the conservation of values.”
Sri Aurobindo refers to the religion as the formulation of will, imagination and intuition to generate the consciousness of life.
Robert Leet Patterson defines religion as, “The belief between what is judged to be the highest part of our nature and the total environment.”
The lesson which the religions of the world teach us is the realization of self-happiness, peace and prosperity of the world and human well-being. In our age of scientific and technological advancement, everything is measured in terms of pragmatic results and quick remedies; religion is hardly in possession of the art of self-enquiry.
Our contemporary society faces an alarming debasement of environmental balance and the degradation of the ecological niche. Climatic changes floods, droughts, irregular rains, crop failures, extinction of certain species, scarcity of resources, pollution, global warming, ozone depletion, etc. are to mention just a few issues to which religion cannot afford to remain indifferent.
Religion and Ethics
The relationship between religion and ethics has occupied a prominent place in the discourses of thinkers. Almost all the thinkers of the world are in consensus that religion and morality go side by side.
All the great religions; Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism, have made very original use of ethical objectivity.
Religion is an encounter with something in the high orders of existence and morality as a complete (personal, social and ecological) code of conduct are interconnected.
They constitute the spiritual endeavours of man.
Ole Preben Ruis in “Methodology in the sociology of Religion” (2011) says religion is, “a worldview, an ideology, an organisation, an attitude, a set of values, as moods and motivations, or as an ethical disposition.”
Ecology as defined by Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, “Is the scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of an organism, and the interaction between organisms and the transformation and flow of energy and matter.” Ecology includes the study of plant and animal populations, communities and ecosystems.
Environmental ethics engages itself with the human being’s ethical relationship with the natural environment. The job of environmental ethics is to outline our moral obligations in the face of rising environmental concerns. It broadly addresses two fundamental questions:
1 What duties do humans have concerning the environment?
2 Why do humans have any such obligation?
Concerning the latter question, if the answer is just that we, as human beings, will perish if we do not constrain our action towards nature, then that ethic is ‘anthropocentric’.
Anthropocentricism means literally ‘human-centred’ obligations in respect of the environment because we actually owe things to the creatures or entities within the environment themselves.
Greening of Religion
Government corporate interests and non-profits have failed to address the climate change crisis. But religion and its greening religious support to environmental conservation and preservation, has come out to be a hope in the eye of the storm. Increasingly, voices from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions are bringing in the link between religion and climate change to national and international notice.
In response to the resurgence of aggression, intolerant and even violent religious fundamentalism of recent decades, profound questions have been raised about the place of religion in public life. However, religious environmentalism once again shows that religion could be utilised as a saviour of the environment positively.
This movement shows itself in new forms of theology as theologian Larry Rasmussen puts it, “we think God form the standpoint of the earth community.”
There have been compelling statements by institutional leaders, e.g. Pope, Priests, Maulvis, Gurus, etc. There have been thousands of examples of self-consciously religious people participating in environmental activism for at least in part. We have seen interpretations of Quran that forbid the dynamite fishing in Tanzania and of the Torah that questions whether or not SUVs are kosher. The world council of churches has challenged the “prevailing economic paradigm” that shapes the global environmental crisis. Buddhist monks have organised against deforestation. Pope has called to return nature to be the “sister of humanity.”
Major World Religions and Environmentalism
The Pew Research Centre’s forum on religion and public life looked at data from churches, mosques, government census records and other sources from around the world to gain a picture of what religious life looks like for the 6.9 billion (Census 2010) of people who share this planet. According to the sources, “There are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children around the globe representing 84% of the 2010 world population.”
This includes 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus, and 500 million Buddhists. Also, an estimated 400 million people practice various folk or traditional religions.
Here is a brief sketch of how major faith systems view the human attitude towards the environment.
Islam is a monotheistic religion that stems from the Abrahamic tradition of spirituality. Muslims believe that the world was created by God (Allah) which warrants respect, obedience and gratitude towards him. This includes respecting the animals and the environment. In fact, environmental problems like Global Warming, Droughts, Rise in Temperature etc. are debatable topics in Islamic countries as well. Hence environmental ethics does play its part as well in these countries. Quran, God’s word revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), is the primary sources of guidance for Muslims in all areas. The Holy Quran contains about 650 references to ecology and conservation within its text. Quran says; “And the sky has he raised high, and has devised (for all things) a balance so that you might never transgress the balance: weigh, therefore with equity (your deeds), and do not upset the balance” (Surah 55: 7-9 verses).
We see the importance of keeping nature “in balance,” an action that in turn respects the will of Allah. In 2015, World Islamic leaders called on people of all faiths to address the global climate crisis, asking, “What will the future generations say of us, who will leave them a degraded planet as our legacy?”
Yet again in Surah No. 40, Verse No. 57, Quran says; “The creation of the heavens and earth is greater than the creation of mankind, but most of the people do not know.”
Here the creation of environment (heavens and earth) is being assigned “greater” importance than man.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself has enjoined upon the Muslims for the judicious use of all resources and for friendly attitude towards the members of the environment.
According to the Quran, man has ascribed the role of “viceregent” on the earth; entrusted with a unique responsibility to look after the world. His mission is to preserve and enhance the created world.
All living beings share their origin in the common substance (water) (Surah: 24 verse: 45). The earth is mentioned about 453 times in the Quran, whereas the sky and heavens are mentioned only about 320 times. There is a strong sense of goodness and purity of the earth. Clean dust may be used for ablutions (tayammum) before prayer in the absence of water. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “The earth has been created for me as a mosque and as a means of purification.” Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “When doomsday comes if someone has a palm shoot in his hand he should plant it.”
A well-known hadith in Al –Musnad says that Allah’s messenger (PBHU) prohibited his followers from wasting water, even when it is found in abundance and when it is used for a holy ritual like ablution (Wudhu). Muhammad (PBUH) frequently reprimanded his followers for neglecting or abusing their animals. He urged his followers to plant trees and provide food to birds and other animals.
Summarising the above discourse, it may be concluded that Islam and its teachings may prove to be the ray of hope in the ongoing environmental crisis.
Christianity and Environment
In the United States, the UK, Australia, Italy and other countries, Christianity has a significant place in everyday life of many citizens. This religion based on the ideas that an Almighty God sent his son Jesus Christ to save humanity from our sins.
Christians have a firm belief that this perishable world has been created by God, so those who respect his creation show respect to God. Bible, Christianity’s holy text, says,
“You shall not pollute the land in which you live…. You shall not divide the land in which you live,” (Numbers 35:33-34) God does not want to see the world polluted or the resources abused.
In fact, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has been nicknamed “the Green Pope” for his work in highlighting the importance of environmentalism for Christians in the world today. “Respect for the human being and respect for nature are one and the same,” the Pope said in 2015.
He also reminded church leaders of the importance of “La Curran Della Casa Commune” (the care of the common home) that is, humanity’s moral obligation to create a plant-strong future.
Hinduism and Environment
This spiritual religion is often associated with India and Nepal. It has millions of followers throughout the world. Most of the Hindus believe in the law of karma and reincarnation.
Each successive life depends upon the conduct of the soul in the previous life. By going through Hinduism, it becomes clear that the natural world and Hinduism are connected. Moreover, the teachings of Hinduism include the central idea that the people should use the earth wisely and unselfishly to maintain an equilibrium and in return to pay God for the gifts which he has given to us.
Bhagwat Gita, the most sacred scripture of Hinduism, says: “For, so sustained by sacrifices the Gods will give you the food of your desire. Whoso enjoys their gift, yet gives nothing, and is a thief, not more nor less.” Ahimsa (non-violence and respect for life) is another crucial concept within many versions of Hinduism, which prevents a Hindu from causing any harm to any creature, which becomes the central reason that many Hindus are Vegetarian.
It teaches a way of life through Dharma (literally meaning the nature of all things or underlying truth of existence) and provides a blueprint for others to reach enlightenment also. Dalai Lama, a prominent figure in Buddhism is regarded as a contemporary environmental leader because of his teachings and wisdom on the interrelationship between our planet and humanity. He is quoted to have said: “Because we all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in peace and harmony with each other and with nature. This is not just a dream, but a necessity.”
From above it becomes clear that all religions lay equal importance on preserving and enriching our environment. It is evident that religion has the strength to lead when it comes to the sustainability of the environment. Thus, there is a firm belief that all these religions will be able to work within their communities (and together) to highlight the importance of combating the environmental and ecological threats and offer a moral authority and ethical guidelines to sustain the ecological balance.
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