Honoring the Environment Through Religion
Honoring the Environment Through Religion
Thoughts from the Ecology SIG
That we are in the throes of environmental 'crisis should come as no surprise to anyone who reads or listens to the news. Species extinction, air and water pollution, and global climate change are but a few of the issues covered regularly in the media. With few exceptions, most experts agree that human' activity has played at least some role in the creation of our environmental problems.
Typically, there are nearly' as many proposed solutions to these problems as there are people pointing them out. Some maintain that science and technology provide the' best hope for dealing with issues like pollution and energy shortages (Ray 1990). Others have called for - a philosophical and cultural restructuring that lends more value to' the natural world, (Devall & Sessions 1985, Gore 1992). Still others have invoked religion as the source of their connection to the Earth.
Ultimately, I suspect, a combination of all of these approaches will be necessary, but for the purposes of this article, I wish to explore the relevance of religion in general, and Neopaganism in particular, to the resolution of our environmental crises. Religion, though lately unfashionable in some intellectual circles, has always fundamentally shaped human action, with respect to both other humans, and to the natural world. "What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny- that is, by religion" (White 1967.) Humans could not have created our current ecological problems without the collusion of religion, nor will we solve them without it.
In his classic 1967 article, Lynn White blames Judeo-Christian tradition for perpetuating the view that nature exists to be' exploited for human benefit. Whereas many paleo-pagan religions were hazy on the beginning of the universe and stressed the animism of living things and geologic features, Christian cosmology gave the world a distinct creation event, a linear view of time, and the concept that humans constituted a special act of creation, made in God's image, and distinct from and dominant over the rest of nature. "Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions (except, perhaps, Zoroastrianism), not only established a dualism of man and nature, but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends" (White 1967). The Bible also stresses the ideas of wilderness as cursed land, and of an otherworldly heaven as the ultimate goal of the pious (Nash 1989). None of these ideas is particularly conducive to the honoring and protection of nature. White suggests that ecologically minded Christians should look to the example of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century monk, who preached to birds and called ants his brothers, rather than that of the Christian missionaries who chopped down sacred groves.
In the intervening 30 years, there has been a shift toward Christian stewardship of the land, toward protecting God's creation. Pope John Paul n, for instance, has called the ecological crisis a "moral issue," stating that "The commitment of believers to a healthy environment for everyone stems directly from their belief in God the Creator, from their recognition of the effects of original and personal sin, and from the certainty of having been redeemed by Christ" (1989). Groups such as the Quakers and the Evangelical Environmental Network have responded positively to the ecological crisis, but probably still represent a minority view within Christianity.
"Re-greening" Christianity, while important due to the numerical majority of Christians in this country, is only one of many spiritual options for the nature oriented. Connie Barlow (1996) has organized these other paths into four categories. The "way of the ancients," with which most of us are familiar, reclaims the earth-based religions of the Native Americans and Indo-Europeans. The "way of transcendence," manifested in Buddhism and Taoism, uses meditation to connect to the divinity in all things. The "way of immersion" entails direct contact and contemplation of nature, and is exemplified by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Barry Lopez, and Annie Dillard. Finally, the "way of science" draws from our knowledge of ecology and evolutionary biology to express the connectedness of all the biosphere. E.O. Wilson is the foremost writer in this vein.
I think Barlow's categorization is excellent, expressing the varied (and, of course, not mutually exclusive) ways in which people recognize and celebrate the importance of the. natural world. When I survey the literature of ecospirituality, however, I find that Indo-European neo-Paganism has had relatively little showing compared to the other paths. Perhaps this lack is a function of our relatively small number of practitioners. Perhaps it is due to the other connotations that major religions sometimes ascribe to us. Perhaps it is because we have simply not been active enough in adding our voices to the chorus of those calling for ecological justice.
Neo-paganism has several distinct advantages over many of the world's religions: notably, it is heir to the paleo-pagan animism and even pantheism so ruthlessly opposed by early Christianity.
Additionally most Neo-pagan traditions profess a doctrinal flexibility (e.g. the doctrine of Archdruidic fallibility) that discourages some of the excesses of rampant fundamentalism. Third, Neo-pagan religions and many of their individual practitioners have grown up with environmental awareness - the Reformed Druids of North America) for instance) was started after the publication of Silent Spring (and ADF was born after the first Earth Day). According to a 1985 survey) "an interest in ecology) a feeling for nature" was among the top five reasons given when people were asked about their path to paganism (Adler 1986). Pagans should only have to "backpedal towards greenness" if we fail to address these issues in the first place.
ADF seems to me to be a perfect forum for dealing with the nature of environmental problems and their potential solutions. ADF fashions itself to be "dedicated to the preservation of our Holy Mother Earth," and "dedicated to the day when Neo-pagan religions will be part of the mainstream culture" it seems to follow that ecology and environmental issues should be among the (growing list of) topics with which members should be familiar and conversant. Environmentalism may well be the most important means for Neo-pagans to both live according to their beliefs) improve the state of the planet) and build a rapport with more mainstream religions.
Adler, Margot. 1986. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess - Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today. Boston: Beacon Press.
Barlow, Connie. 1996. "Because it is my religion." Wild Earth 6(3):5-11.
Devall, Bill & Sessions, George. 1985. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books.
Gore, Al. 1992. Earth in the Balance.
Nash, Roderick. 1989. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Pope John Paul. 1989. The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility. Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II For the Celebration of the World Day of Peace.
Ray, Dixy Lee. 1990. Trashing the Planet.
White, Lynn. 1967. "The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis." Science 155(3767):1203-1207.
Gottlieb, Roger (ed). 1996. This Sacred Earth: Religion. Nature, Environment. New York: Routledge.