by Aili Channer (she/her)
Religious communities are in a unique position to motivate and mobilize both on collective and individual levels, giving them the potential to be among the most powerful catalysts for climate action. The scriptures and traditions of all of the major world religions are rich in ecological imagery, meaning that they can equip believers with the conceptual reference-points needed to take cognizance of the scale of the environmental crisis.
However, in practice, religious communities also represent a significant obstacle to environmental action, due to the tendency of fundamentalist groups to circulate fatalistic narratives and encourage science denialism. As Dr Mary Evelyn Tucker put it, ‘We know that, throughout history, religions have had both their problems and their promise. This is not an easy answer to environmental problems.’
For this event, Oxford Climate Society was joined by Dr Mary Evelyn Tucker, Dr Anna M Gade, and Reverend Fletcher Harper. Dr Tucker, Senior Lecturer and Research Scholar at Yale University and specialist in Asian religions and ecology, explained that it is essential to engage religions within the environmental discussion, firstly because of the sheer scale of their global influence. Even more crucially, she pointed out that conceiving the environment as a moral and spiritual problem strengthens the call to action compared to presenting it in terms of science and policy alone.
Tucker highlighted the importance of retrieving and reevaluating the ecological precepts of religious scriptures and bringing them into conversation with the current circumstances. She gave examples of how religious values have successfully synergised with environmental justice movements in Asian traditions, referencing Sunderlal Bahuguna, who was inspired by Hindu values and Gandhian non-violence to lead the Chipko movement of the Himalayas, fighting for forest preservation. Tucker also cited Thich Nhat Hanh’s development of engaged Buddhism, which promotes peace and social justice activism, centred on the concept of interbeing which has its roots in Buddhist teachings.
Tucker then considered the potential of Confucianism to inspire environmentalism: being integral to China’s cultural DNA, as she put it, it has a claim to have influenced more people on earth than any other tradition. It has powerful resources for conceptualising ecological relationships, beginning with its holistic cosmology, where the universe, earth, and human beings belong to one radical process. ‘In this continuity of being,’ Tucker explained, ‘we are part of the whole unfolding process.’ In this way, there is an inherent compatibility with modern ecology and the modern scientific cosmology. Furthermore, Confucianism rejects hyper-individualism, instead being committed to community and reciprocal relationships. Tucker described how these ideas are operatives in China today: after being suppressed under Mao, they have now been revived in the education system and reintegrated into the constitution.
Gade, scholar of Islam and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, related her experiences of studying responses to environmental change in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia. She explained that there is a split between projects that attempt to employ religions to promote environmentalism and those that engage environmental practice for the sake of religious goals. The first mode includes NGOs that seek to use religious norms to support environmental initiatives, while the second centres on Islamic teachings on how to attain the mercy of Allah by practicing mercy on creation. The goal must be to bridge this gap while avoiding the instrumentalisation of religion.
At the heart of Islamic ethics is the notion of consequential relations, where all relationships must be built on mutual moral responsibility. To stand up for justice as a Qu’ranic imperative and in the Muslim tradition, law and ethics are conceived as being inseparable. For Gade, one of the most important lessons that we need to learn from religious traditions is that the environment is an intrinsically ethical category, and that this goes beyond a problem-solution paradigm.
Reverend Harper, executive director of the interfaith coalition for the environment GreenFaith, described the role of faith groups, and especially multifaith initiatives, in environmental activism and protest movements. He held that indigenous religious leaders speak about the perils of environmental destruction with the deepest moral and spiritual authority, because they have a deep-seated understanding of the meaning of human kinship with the natural world. Harper emphasised the fundamental importance of indigenous voices, saying that ‘the indigenous witness is the lived understanding of what is at stake.’
Harper argued that, ‘The environmental crisis is clearly moral and deeply spiritual in nature, and it is indigenous and secular activists who are finding the most compelling language to respond to the destruction.’ He observed that the placards of secular protestors are often filled with religious imagery: ‘sacred land’, ‘sacred water’. He observed that in his experience, on the other hand, major organised religions have tended to be late to the conversation.
Harper also outlined the obstacle that fundamentalist religion poses, delving into the influence of right-wing Christianity in the United States and its relationship to misinformation and science denialism, also citing evangelicalism in Brazil.
He argued that there are religious roots to all of these problems, but that religious communities are equipped to contribute to the solution if they would only step up before it is too late. As he put it, ‘We are facing a cataclysmic set of circumstances and a collective response to protect life from the religious communities of the world needs to get out on the front lines alongside secular activism.’
For Harper, it is imperative that the religious ecology movement engages in dialogue with fundamentalists and expresses with authority that it is absolutely against religious and moral principles to destroy the earth. Furthermore, religious groups will have to step up to pressure banks, investor groups, fossil fuel companies and the agricultural industry. Likewise, Harper concluded, as we adapt to irreversible environmental change, religious communities will have to support and advocate on behalf of climate refugees, displaced workers and vulnerable communities.