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Environment > Human Impact >

“What Would Jesus Drive?”: the Birth of Green Spirituality and Creation Care

Paper ID: 66 Last updated: 10/05/2011 15:21:25
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Regional When: 3-10yrs How Fast: Years
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Keywords: bullet Environment, religion, ethics, spirituality, sustainability, green

Summary bullet

There are growing signs that the environmental movement and major religious groups are putting aside their differences and creating a new coalition against climate change and environmental degradation. This is giving birth to a new form of “green spirituality” which could have implications for policymakers’ ability to act and communicate effectively on environmental issues.

Discussion bullet

After many years of mutual suspicion driven by different beliefs about the place of mankind in relation to the natural world, and the role of science in explaining natural phenomena, there are early signs that the environmental movement and major religious denominations are joining forces to foster a new sense of green spirituality.

This, its adherents hope, will add new impetus to campaigns for the sustainable use of resources, conservation and pollution mitigation.

A number of major religions have traditionally maintained a view in which the natural world (i.e. “Creation”) is essentially a resource placed by God into mankind’s care until the day of judgement.

This anthropocentric perspective explains why many faith movements have traditionally focussed on alleviating problems of human suffering such as poverty, illiteracy, poor sanitation and disease.

Green activists have realised that religious communities provide an organised, numerous, powerful and highly influential body of potential activists with a capacity to drive cultural and political change. [1]

Tapping into these communities has been identified as an important and necessary strategic move to strengthen and embolden the green movement. [1] , [2]

They have also recognised that bald environmental facts and scientific findings often carry little or no emotional resonance and therefore have little effectiveness as a call to action unless they are tied into a wider ethical, spiritual or moral framework, over which faith groups obviously hold great sway. Some leading figures in the green movement have been people of deep faith. [3]

This has not been a difficult connection to make. Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and other notable theologies contain powerful themes about the sanctity of God’s creation and the obligation placed upon mankind in this regard, as well as the sanctity of life in general [4],[5],[6],[7]. Another influential theme in explaining the emergence of green spirituality is the application of the so-called “Golden Rule” [3] : “Do as you would be done by”. This is being used, for example by US evangelical Christians, as an obligation to tackle climate change and pollution as their actions are linked to the often adverse effects of others, often much poorer than themselves, elsewhere in the world.

Green theologians are still somewhat struggling to square the differences between the two parties, and there are still notable dissenters from this rapprochement [8] but we are increasingly seeing ecclesiastical rulings emerging which place greater emphasis on the religious obligations towards environmental stewardship. These emanate from the Islamic world [6],[7], the Christian Catholic [9] and Evangelical Churches, as well as many other faiths around the world. [2]

Implications bullet

If this weak signal were to develop into a major trend, we might witness a wider mobilisation of public opinion and therefore action to achieve the environmental objectives of Governments, NGOs and scientists. This could aid policymakers’ efforts to instigate cultural change and support environmentally sound policy interventions.

In parallel, we may increasingly witness pressure being brought to bear on Governments, corporations or individuals not seen to be acting with due diligence in terms of conservation and sustainability measures. Appeals and criticisms from Church leaders on these grounds would carry wider and deeper resonance among their millions of followers than from green lobbyists.

This will be particularly interesting to watch in the US, where evangelical Christianity, political parties and powerful interests lobbying on particular environmental agendas are constantly negotiating new alliances.

In the UK, however, we might expect the influence of specifically religious environmentalism to be more muted, as religion traditionally holds less explicit political and social influence than in the US.

If this movement gathers pace however, we may also see greater faultlines exposed between scientifically minded, rationalist and eco-centric adherents of the green movement and the faith-based, anthropocentric followers of the religious traditions.

With their great wealth, power and influence, major Churches could take the green movement in directions it doesn’t want to go, leading to further schism and tension, which may be exploited by its opponents in the business and political world.

Early indicators bullet

Over recent years we have witnessed a number of indicators and evidence that this weak signal is indeed “one to watch” many of which have been collated by the strategy group Worldwatch. These include:
a) A series of religious initiatives, conferences and partnerships being formed around the Environment and Sustainability, convening experts, theologians and NGOs [2]
b) Major pronouncements by religious leaders declaring their position on the issue of climate change and environmental degradation [2]
c) A range of new coalitions and movements being formed, for example the Evangelical Climate Change Initiative and “What would Jesus Drive?” [see related links], a US evangelical group dedicated to sustainable transport and emissions reduction
d) A plethora of protests and particular mobilisations. For example:
e) Successful lobbying by Church groups against oil exploration and production in the Alaskan wilderness, causing the Government to lose a Senate vote on the issue
f) “Green Monks” in Thailand in the 1990s opposing dam and pipeline construction in threatened mangrove forests and bird colonies
g) The Pakistan Government enlisting mosques and madrassas in the poor North West tribal region to teach locals basic messages about conservation
h) New businesses such as Episcopal Power & Light which sells electricity from renewable sources and provides congregations with ways to “green” their Church

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet

Resurgence of religious faith and adherence in many parts of the world;
The harnessing of mass media by religious institutions (e.g. God TV) which are used very effectively to promote key messages to a widely dispersed audience;
The flexibility of religious texts to be interpreted to match with modern concerns;
Strategic use by the green movement of religious messages and themes in their communications (e.g. about the sanctity of life)

Ideological tensions between the two strands.
Greens for example reject an anthropocentric view of man as the image of God.
For them, we are only part of a wider ecological system (e.g. Gaia theory);
Scientific community vs Religious community on controversial issues stem cell research, souring relationship

Parallels & Precedents bullet

Jain monks and their strict belief in non-violence, causing them to avoid even killing insects in the air or under foot;
The affinity for nature championed by St Francis of Assisi;
Taoism and its emphasis on the interconnectedness of all natural things, and mankind’s subordination to the timeless Way of the natural world, in which our ideas of selfhood, purpose and agency are illusions.
Pagan and tribal traditions of earth worship.
The (unintentionally) religious connotations of the Gaia theory, and the centrality of the earth as a focus for quasi-religious reverence among those in the green movement.

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Sources bullet

1FuturesTaylor, B. (2004) 'A green future for religion', Futures, 36(9), 991-1008.Visit siteEnv
2OtherInvoking the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in the quest for a sustainable world. By Gary Gardner; Dec 2002, Worldwatch paper 164 Visit siteEnv
3OtherEvangelicals and environmentalists united, news service, R. Bruce Hull Env
4OtherBe a Christian Environmentalist by Mary Beth Bonacci of Trinity Communications, a member of The Catholic Resource NetworkVisit siteEnv
5OtherWhy I am an Environmentalist. Mennonite Christian Community. From “Christianity and the Environment: A Collection of Writings. September 20, 1990”Env
6Other“The environmental legacy of our children” By Hwaa Irfan, Published on: Monday, 21 Rabi´ul Awal 1423 (3 June 2002)Env
7OtherAbu-Sway, Mustafa Towards an Islamic Jurisprudence of the Environment:Fiqh al Bi’ah fil-Islam""Visit siteEnv
8OtherStrange bedfellows, Evangelical Christians, FORTUNE 500 execs and environmentalists band together to curb global warming. By Marc Gunther, FORTUNE senior writer, February 8, 2006: 2:46 PM ESTVisit siteEnv
9OtherThe Catholic Church of England and Wales 'Care for the Enviroment' Env
The contents of this paper were provided by the Outsights-Ipsos MORI Partnership. Any views expressed are independent of government and do not constitute government policy.