God in the [environmental] machine?

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.


9 responses to this post.

  1. The Eastern Orthodox Christian religion is very concerned with the environment as well. We have organic farming projects at many of our monasteries. We’ve had ecology conferences, training seminars, and camps throughout the 1990s and continuing through to today. The Ecumenical Patriarch (a leader in the Church, very roughly equivalent to the Pope) has released statements about the importance of environmentalism. And our theology upholds the belief that we are called to protect God’s creation and that the planet is a beautiful temple given to us and we must strive to respect the temple and not soil it.

    So, yes, there is much hope in religion for environmentalism. While Orthodox Christianity is small in the United States (roughly the same percentage of the population as Judaism), world-wide it is one of the larger religions. I am not trying to proselytize at all (and totally respect your stance of relying on logic and reason instead of religion) but just wanted to let you know that it’s not just the Dalai Lama who cares about the environment from a spiritual perspective. There are a LOT of traditional Christians who have deep reverence for the holiness of nature as well.


    • Good to know. I don’t know much about what religion is actively doing for the environment (somehow, it doesn’t seem to come up much in the circles I hang out in). so thank you for this. Hope is good. 🙂


  2. Your thoughts totally resonate with me. I respond to reason much more so than emotion (I think I see it as rabble-rousing, an attempt to push my evolutionary buttons). And it was through logic and reason that I came to embrace environmentalism and sustainability.

    In my experience, you’re right: rationalism doesn’t work. I think the majority of people respond to emotional stimuli – inspiration, for example, is a really good motivator for people to start taking action.

    I do think religious leaders should take a stand on environmentalism – it should fit in with God’s created world. But that’s probably too much logic. In the circles of religious people I know, none of them are interested in the environment on a deeper level.

    I’ve considered attending the First Universal Unitarian Church in SF, and read on their website one of their ministers said, “Social change work must be rooted in our spiritual lives if it is to be effective and, ultimately, sustainable.”

    I’ve thought about that quote for some time. I think the reasons behind that is spirituality gives us something greater to live and work for. It’s incredibly daunting to try and go out on your own to do something. But when you have even a small community of spiritually connected people, you have more motivation, support, and resources to actually accomplish something.

    I think too that engaging in work to better humanity requires one to continually revisit his or her deep-seated motivations for this work. It’s easy to lose steam when you’re in the minority and most powerful agencies are working against you. So that’s why it’s important to have strong ties to a spiritual community.

    And when it comes to voluntary simplicity, it would be way easier for an individual to maintain that lifestyle when he/she is hanging out with others interested in the same.


  3. A.W. Tozer on Evangelical Rationalism…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…


  4. I think you are on to something. If the churches of the world embraced it, imagine what could happen! It is happening in pockets already. Check out this video of 350 bible verses supporting the environment:

    Looking at the positive side – most people don’t want to see the Earth ruined, even the climate change deniers can admit to that. We need to be led in a different direction. For many people, religion leadership could be the answer. So next question – how do we get the message out to religious leaders and church organizations?


    • That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? I think religious leaders would have to be sold on the idea that environmentalism would further their cause…and other than the hope that we all get to hang around on this planet a while longer, I’m not sure it does.


    • That really catpures the spirit of it. Thanks for posting.


  5. Posted by david on 01/12/2011 at 17:30

    The only way i can see a shift towards environmentalism among religious leaders is if there is a dollar to be made in it for them. Cherry picking scriptures to dupe the maleable into giving up their money as a “seed offering” because god wants them to be rich. Hmmmm… having actually read the bible i got a whole nother take on the “rich bandwagon”. Moths, dust & rust?


    • It’s tempting to agree with you, but the potential influence religion could have over behaving more sustainably is something I’m not willing to give up on yet. I don’t think I could be an environmentalist if I weren’t also a closet optimist!


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