The Greening of the World's Religions

February 14, 2007


Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

As reported last year in the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, we humans are destroying the life-support systems of the planet at an alarming rate. The data keep pouring in that we are altering the climate and toxifying the air, water, and soil so that the health of humans and other species is at risk. The population explosion in the 20th century from two billion to more than six billion people and the consequent devouring of resources are on a collision course with global sustainability. Global warming is already evident in melting glaciers, thawing tundra, and flooding of coastal regions. Furthermore, scientists are documenting that we are living in the midst of a sixth extinction, with more than 20,000 species lost annually. This period represents the largest loss of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. In other words, we are shutting down life systems and causing the end of our geological era.

For many years, environmental issues were considered to be the concern of scientists, lawyers, and policy makers. Now the ethical dimensions of the environmental crisis are becoming more evident. What is our moral responsibility toward future generations? How can we ensure equitable development that does not destroy the environment? Can religious and cultural perspectives be considered in creating viable solutions to environmental challenges?

Until recently religious communities have been so absorbed in internal sectarian affairs that they were unaware of the magnitude of the environmental crisis at hand. Certainly the natural world figures prominently in the major religions: God's creation of material reality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; the manifestation of the divine in the karmic processes underlying the recycling of matter in Hinduism and Jainism; the interdependence of life in Buddhism; and the Tao (the Way) that courses through nature in Confucianism and Taoism. Despite those emphases on creation, many religions turned from the turbulent world in a redemptive flight to a serene, transcendent afterlife.

The questions arise, then: If religions are willing to stand by and witness the withering of the earth, has not something of their religious sensibilities become deadened, or at best severely reduced? Why have religions been so late in responding to environmental issues, and what are the obstacles to their full participation? Has concern for personal salvation or redemption become an obstacle to caring for creation? Why has apocalyptic thinking come to interpret ecological collapse as a manifestation of the end time?