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Ecology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

Ecology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

The word ecology has two meanings. It refers to a discipline within biology that studies ecosystems, and it refers to the ecosystems that biologists study. These ecosystems can include the local biotic communities with which, for example, indigenous peoples and farmers often have special bonds. But the concept of ecosystem can also apply to the whole of the Earth and the whole of the cosmos.

To call these larger wholes "ecosystems" is not to suggest that they are static or stable. Indeed, even local biotic communities are not static. Contemporary ecologists say that such communities are evolving and naturally subject to dramatic and sometimes chaotic changes, as is the larger whole, which scientists call the universe.

Religious people have different names for this larger and more inclusive whole. Jews, Christians, and Muslims often speak of the integrated whole as "the creation" and its ongoing development as "continuing creation." They say that creation includes the heavens as well as the Earth, that it has invisible as well as visible dimensions, and that humans are a part of, not apart from, this larger whole. Some Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that the future of this whole is already determined by God, quite apart from decisions made in the present. Others believe that the future, at least of the Earth, is not yet determined and depends on present decisions. Religion, like science, has its determinists and nondeterminists.

For many religious people, it is the smaller ecosystemsthe bioregions and their many forms of life on planet Earththat are of greatest immediate concern. Environmental crises have prompted their concerns. They have been forced to ask: In what ways does my religion encourage or discourage healthy ways of (1) behaving toward, (2) thinking about, and (3) apprehending landscapes, life-support systems, and other forms of life?

On this matter Buddhist environmentalism is especially instructive. It does not speak of the universe as creation; rather it presents the universe as a beginningless and endless series of cosmic epochs. But Buddhist environmentalism points out that a healthy religious approach to nature includes all three forms of response just named: (1) moral conduct toward other living beings, (2) intellectual understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, and (3) mindful awareness of other living beings, on their own terms and for their own sakes, without projection. It emphasizes that mindful awareness can be nurtured, not simply by reading books about ecology, but by meditation and direct exposure to the palpable presences of the Earth.

Can science help religion?

As religious people face environmental crises, they can simultaneously ask: How might insights and information from the ecological sciences, and from other forms of science as well, help my religion to become more responsible and sensitive than it might otherwise be? The response is twofold.

On the one hand, most religious people realize that science provides relevant information that can help people make wise decisions in terms of land use, population, and pollution control. Additionally, some appreciate ways in which science can help humans better understand human continuities with other forms of life, both genetically and evolutionarily; better understand the interconnected nature of the whole of reality, as is affirmed in many Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian points of view; and better understand that the Earth and cosmos are creative, containing potentialities for creative adaptation and renewal, even when things seem hopeless. Finally, some ecologically minded and religiously interested writers, Thomas Berry and Ursula Goodenough, for example, propose that science offers a common epicthe epic of evolutionthat can itself inspire a sense of purpose and adventure, leading people to realize that "the great work" of our time is to help create mutually enhancing bonds between humans and the rest of the Earth.

On the other hand, many ecologically minded religious people simultaneously reject certain forms of materialism and reductionism that are characteristic of some but not all science. Particularly problematic are those (1) that reduce galactic and biological evolution to an amoral and purposeless process devoid of intrinsic worth or any capacity for divine guidance; (2) that insist that scientific ways of knowingand those aloneprovide wisdom concerning nature; and (3) that reduce living wholesanimals who are subjects of their own lives, for exampleto mechanical wholes devoid of subjectivity and creativity. These rejections suggest that religious approaches to ecology, particularly at the level of worldview, will often differ from scientific approaches, even as they learn from science.

Ecotheologies and ecophilosophies

As religious people face the environmental crises, they are led to develop what are often called ecotheologies or ecophilosophies. Typically these theologies and philosophies explore the histories of religious traditions for usable insights and practices, criticize those aspects of the past that seem problematic rather than helpful, and develop new ideas that build upon, but also move beyond, inherited ways of acting, thinking, and feeling.

The development of these perspectives has been underway for several decades, but it has been catalyzed and brought into focus by work done at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in collaboration with the Center for Respect of Life and Environment in Washington, D.C., and Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. From May 1996 until July 1998, the Center for the Study of World Religions hosted a series of ten conferences, each involving scholars from the world's religions, all of which "explored particular intellectual and symbolic resources of a specific religious tradition regarding views of nature, ritual practices, and ethical constructs in relation to nature" (Tucker). The scholarly anthologies produced by these conferences offer a multivolume anthology on world religions and ecology.

Equally important is the work being done by creative scholars from the thousands of small scale, indigenous societies in the world, including Native American, African, Aboriginal, and South Asian. The religions of these peoples are indistinguishable from their cultures and there is much variation among them. Still, it is generally recognized, by scholars of classical religions and by representatives of indigenous traditions themselves, that the life-ways of indigenous peoples emphasize reciprocal relations between human beings and their local bioregions in ways that are more typically absent from classical traditions. The Harvard series included a conference on iIndigenous traditions, highlighting ways in which, even as these peoples offer no technological fixes for modern problems, they nevertheless offer examples of "a loving experience of place" from which many can learn.

Also important to religion and ecology is the work of philosophers around the world, some affiliated with religions and some not, who have simultaneously explored and criticized the past, and simultaneously developed new perspectives emphasizing human embeddedness in the larger web of life. Deep ecology and ecofeminist philosophies are prime examples. While some versions of these perspectives are philosophical rather than religious if the word religion implies allegiance to a classical religious tradition, all are religious in the sense that they are interested in helping guide humans toward sensitive ways of perceiving and responding to nature.

All of these ecotheologies and ecophilosophies have their distinctive features. Ecotheologies emerging out of the Abrahamic traditions often emphasize:

  1. that human beings are a part of, not apart from, a larger evolving whole;
  2. that they are kin to fellow creatures on Earth;
  3. that the whole of creation, including Earth, is embraced by a surrounding presence, namely God, who cares about the whole of creation and each living being within it;
  4. that God calls humans to embody alternatives to the more greed-driven lifestyles of consumer society;
  5. that God calls humans to be good stewards of the Earth and compassionate participants in the ongoing development of creation.

This compassionate participation involves commitment to four values advocated by "The Earth Charter": respect and care for the community of life; ecological integrity; social and economic justice; and nonviolence, democracy, and peace.

Among the Abrahamic ecotheologies that stress these five ways of thinking, process theology is especially important for people interested in the dialogue between religion and ecology; although it is environmentalist in orientation, it draws deeply from quantum theory, ecological biology, and evolutionary biology. It is an especially science-based form of contemporary ecotheology. It is also important because it wrestles with the reality of suffering in creation, proposing that the God who calls humans toward environmental responsibility is a counter-entropic and influential lure within creation, who is nevertheless not all-powerful in the classical sense of having unilateral power. From the perspective of process theology, the very God who calls toward compassion is a God who shares in the suffering of all creation and who is impoverished by a reduction in the Earth's biological diversity. The Earth and the whole of the universe is God's body.

Ecophilosophies emerging out of the various East Asian and South Asian traditions do not emphasize the role of God, but rather ground their commitments to a sustainable future in a deep sense of interconnectedness that is likewise consonant with many dimensions of science. To this emphasis on interconnectedness, they also add the importance of mindfulness in the present moment and the importance of having a nongrasping approach to life that allows other living beings simply "to be" without "being exploited." Here nonattachment does not mean nonappreciation, but rather nongrasping, precisely so that other living beings and the rest of nature can be appreciated on its own terms, without being a mere "commodity" for the consumer-driven mindset. With this emphasis they add to the critique of consumerism likewise offered by Abrahamic ecotheologians.

The deep ecology perspective and ecofeminist orientations add distinctive but complementary emphases to the Abrahamic and Asian perspectives just noted. Not unlike Buddhism, deep ecology emphasizes the notion of an ecological self whose inner horizons transcend the illusion of a skin-encapsulated ego and live from a deeper sense of kinship with the whole. Ecofeminism adds that the very illusion of a skin-encapsulated ego is often grounded in patriarchal habits of thought and feeling.

In short, the environmental crisis stimulates a great deal of work within religions and among those interested in religiously based alternatives to consumerist habits of thought and feeling. Some but not all of this work is enriched by insights from the sciences, even as some but not all is also critical of certain dimensions of science, especially its reductionistic and more determinist strands. The dialogue between religion and science involves a dialogue with the Earth, with which both religion and science are jointly and sometimes collaboratively engaged.

See also Animal Rights; Buddhism; Chinese Religions, Confucianism and Science in China; Chinese Religions, Daoism and Science in China; Deep Ecology; Ecofeminism; Ecology; Ecology, Ethics of; Ecology, Science of; Ecotheology; Gaia Hypothesis; Feminisms and Science; Feminist Cosmology; Feminist Theology; Process Thought; Womanist Theology


the earth charter initiative. "the earth charter." available from

tucker, mary evelyn. "culminating conferences on ecology." center for the study of world religions. available from

jay mcdaniel

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