As a rationalist, I have never had much patience with religion or the role it plays in human existence. And when it comes to the environment, I’ve been guilty of dismissing religion as a negative force that encourages overpopulation through limiting women’s access to contraception and abortion, promotes pointless sectarianism, focuses on the hereafter instead of the here-and-now, and requires that people put faith above thinking for themselves.
…all of which means that I am part of a tiny minority (2.5%, if Wikipedia is to be trusted) of the human population. Not a good position to be in if I want to see/create/be the change I seek. Although I’m reluctant to give up on promoting rationalism and consciousness, I’ve also realized that I need to be more open to the idea that religion can be both a way to connect to the natural world and an influential means to minimize the damage we inflict.
Sigh. I really didn’t want to say that. But we’ve tried using rationality to persuade people that climate change is real. It doesn’t work. We have more facts than we need about ocean acidification, rising levels of greenhouse gases, glacier meltdown, fresh water shortages, and scientific consensus that yes, we are indeed changing the planet. It’s not enough for most people to change, especially since we want so much to believe that everything’s fine, or at least that it’s not our fault. So, here we are in a situation in which:
- Rationalism isn’t effective.
- Economics doesn’t work as long as goods continue to be artificially cheap.
- Voluntary personal change is unlikely to happen on a meaningful scale.
- Corporations won’t shape up until governments or consumers force them to.
- Government intervention isn’t going to happen quickly or effectively.
That leaves us with social pressure and religion to effect change. Both powerful — and both exceptionally difficult for me (atheist, misanthrope) to wrap my head around. I know from snippets I’ve read that the Dalai Lama espouses mindfulness in all things (including the environment) in an accessible and often quite rational way, yet through his position as a spiritual and religious leader, has a much wider influence. It’s clear that world churches and religious leaders have tremendous sway over their followers, if they ever choose to make environmental responsibility holy (which they could, holy texts being marvelously accommodating), and that religion is about community and influence in a way that rationalism cannot be. And of course, religion and/or spirituality is already a substantial part of why many people care about the planet.
Could religion be a part of the environmental solution? I’m compelled to say yes. Mind you, I would still like humans to be rational creatures who make rational decisions, and I haven’t totally given up on the idea that thinking about our actions and their consequences is a necessary piece of the puzzle. But exclusivity and intolerance are two things that the environmental movement can’t afford. The more people who care — and act — the better. Full stop.
I care because I am deeply concerned about the measurable, scientifically verifiable hole we are digging ourselves into. I’m worried about the staggering loss of biodiversity and the stresses our lifestyles place on the rest of the planet and its inhabitants. Maybe you’re here because you feel the presence of the divine in the pulse of the ocean or the symphony of a living forest, or because you’re sorrowful that we’re treating God’s creations in such an irresponsible way. You tell me.
I don’t think it matters that we disagree on why we care as long as we do. And that might still not be enough.