The nature-religion connection

Those of us working toward sustainable landscapes should be ready, in fact should actively seek out, to engage with religion.  For huge numbers of people, religion frames what life is about and for and what is important.  It guides how individuals, families, communities and institutions should act.  A critical task for the promotion and facilitation of sustainable landscapes is to motivate:  tapping, enabling, and nurturing people’s motivation to think and care about landscapes and ecosystems, motivation to sometimes constrain and manage one’s own actions that can affect ecosystems, and motivation to engage with others to seek solutions.  If you don’t engage with the religious component of the lives of the people you work with, you are missing out on what, for a large part of the world’s population, is at the heart of what motivates them.

For me, the religion-nature connection traces back to my time at a summer camp run by the church that I grew up in.  Canoeing, hiking, and sleeping under the stars became part of my psyche.  Camp also had a bit of environmentalist religious education thrown in.  For example, one Bible study leader pointed out, only semi-facetiously, that before Christ started his ministry, first he went camping for forty days to prepare himself.  It was also pointed out that this world is not some flawed thing that we must merely survive until it is time for us to go to the next world—instead, nature is something that God created and that is good.  In the first chapter of Genesis, God looks upon the sun, the moon and the stars, the land and the sea, the plants and beasts, and for each of these a declaration follows:  “it was good”.

Eventually, I switched religious persuasions, and I think that what I took from my experiences at camp was not really any particular doctrine or theology—however environmentally friendly those may have been.  What was more important was the mere fact of spending time in and with nature in a setting where we were encouraged to find connections between nature on the one hand and devotion, spirituality and God on the other.  If you do this for long enough, eventually the profound beauty of nature and a sense of wonder will seep into you, with or without instruction based on this or that belief system.Scriptural support for an ethic of stewardship and caring for nature outweighs any imagined justification for treating it as nothing more than a piggy bank. Click To Tweet

Pitfalls of engaging with religion

For a facilitator, policymaker, researcher, or community organizer trying to promote sustainable landscapes and wondering whether and how to engage with religion, there are a variety of concerns and misgivings that may arise.   One such concern is that working with religious leaders and religious institutions may empower them.  When it comes to embodying justice, religious leaders and religious institutions have a spotty track record to put it mildly.  Even in communities where they are benign, the mere fact of some external organization entering a community to work with and through them, may provide these leaders and institutions with additional credibility and status.  And since religion is often at the heart of what divides people, empowering religious institutions, even indirectly, runs the risk of strengthening sectarian, parochial and divisive approaches.  This raises the further question of what the implications of working through religious leaders and institutions will be for community members who by birth or by choice are not part of the community’s mainstream religious tradition.

Interestingly, this kind of objection could equally apply to working with politicians and political institutions, yet I think here the external change agent is much more likely to decide that she has no choice but to engage with imperfect leaders and imperfect institutions.  There are certainly times when one must draw the line—particular religious institutions and religious leaders for whom there is nothing to be gained in partnering with them—just as there are times to draw the line against working with certain political leaders.  I suggest, however, that this is something to be decided on a case by case basis rather than by general rule.

Another possible misgiving about engaging with religion in one’s efforts toward sustainable landscapes is that in many religious communities, attitudes toward nature and the environment go in exactly the wrong direction, with religious thought forming part of the justification for abusing the environment.  In some religious communities, environmentalism is seen as a leftist, secular agenda that opposes traditional values.  In the United States, Secretary of the Interior in the Reagan era, James Watt, who was often referred to as an “anti-environmentalist”, infamously told Congress that he didn’t “know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns”.   In other words, what’s the point of protecting the environment if Armageddon is just around the corner?[1]  And since the Reagan era, mobilization of religion against environmentalism has gained strength.

I encountered similar opposition to environmentalism in some rural communities when I lived in Ghana.  Some environmental NGOs liked to point to traditional culture and customary practices and institutions to justify sustainable management of natural resources.  Many Christian groups in Ghana, however, see traditionalists as pagans and enemies, and activities such as protecting traditional sacred groves have been tarnished with the same brush.  In some places, cutting trees became a source of Christian pride—an element of their group identity based on rejecting of the earlier “pagan ways”.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the more other-worldly a religion is, the less important nature in this world will seem.  I think the problem, however, relates not so much to inbuilt flaws in doctrine as it does to social and political identities to which religious justifications are afterward applied.  Both critics and defenders of Christianity’s role in conquering the natural world like to cite Genesis 1:28, in which God grants human beings “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” in support of their arguments.  Yet, the scriptural support for an ethic of stewardship and caring for nature far outweighs any imagined justification for treating it as nothing more than a piggy bank.  For instance, Leviticus 25:23 makes it clear that land is something much more than property: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.”

Positive engagement

The potential pitfalls should be taken seriously.  But I’m quite convinced that the possibilities inherent in linking stewardship and sustainability to religious conviction outweigh the pitfalls of engaging with flawed individuals and flawed institutions.  In situations where some people use religious justifications for abusing the environment, it is not difficult to find scriptural support, in any one of the world’s major religions, for caring for our natural environment.  An uplifting starting point for learning more about this can be found in the Faith for Earth Initiative of UN Environment:  Another is the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.  If approached with humility and in a spirit of dialogue, people of faith will often respond with gratitude at being shown how their own religious tradition calls on them to care for nature.

In situations where some people use religion to divide, one can, with their own actions, exemplify the truth that there is more in common across the world’s great religions than there is that separates them and that this includes attitudes toward the environment.  Unfortunately, at some point in history, people began to think of religions as opposing armies at war or as sports teams in competition with each other.  An alternative is to think of religion as a knowledge system – its teachings, practices and institutions are part of how people learn about themselves and the world.  Science—another of one of our great knowledge systems—provides a useful analogy.  You seldom hear physicists and chemists in conflict over which one of them is correct.  In fact, sometimes, a physicist will draw some useful insights from the work of the chemist, and vice versa.  And they can each do so without being asked to convert to a different discipline.  In the web sites I referred to above, look at some scriptural references from religious traditions other than your own.  I suspect you’ll find at least one quotation that makes you nod in appreciation.

As a change agent who sometimes works in places where religion is a source of conflict and division, your own willingness to engage with people of any religion or denomination, and to appreciate their tradition, can go a long way.  And if we want to get away from the mindset that compartmentalizes environment and economy and politics and science each in its own cocoon, and instead encourage a more holistic approach, for many people religion will be part of the equation.  As facilitators of sustainable landscapes, we can help to make caring for the natural world—our home—something that is motivated by religious conviction.

COVID-19 Postscript

This strange time in which most of us have had our routines interrupted, this is a perfect opportunity to slow down, unplug, and take some time to reflect.  When we emerge on the other side of the curve and life starts to “return to normal”, what do you want to be different about how you work and live?  Start making that change real right now.



[1] To be fair, here is the full quotation:  “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.”  He seemed to be saying that we should use resources sustainably and leave some for future generations just in case Christ isn’t returning quite yet.  On the other hand, his actions as a policymaker made it quite clear what his views on environmental sustainability were.