Religion and the Environment

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Religion and the environment

All of the world's major faiths have, as integral parts of their laws and traditions, teachings requiring protection of the environment , respect for nature and wildlife , and kindness to animals. While such tenets are well-known in such Eastern religions as Buddhism and Hinduism, there is also a largely-forgotten but strong tradition of such teachings in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. All of these faiths recognize a doctrine of their deity's love for creation and for all of the living creatures of the world. The obligation of humans to respect and protect the natural environment and other life forms appears throughout the sacred writings of the prophets and leaders of the world's great religions.

These tenets of "environmental theology" contained in the world's religions are infrequently observed or practiced, but many theologians feel that they are more relevant today than ever. At a time when the earth faces a potentially fatal ecological crisis, these leaders say, traditional religion shows us a way to preserve our planet and the interdependent life forms living on it. Efforts are under way by representatives of virtually all the major faiths to make people more aware of the strong conservation and humane teachings that are an integral part of the religions of most cultures around the globe. This movement holds tremendous potential to stimulate a spiritually-based ecological ethic throughout the world to improve and protect the natural environment and the welfare of humans who rely upon it.

The Bible's ecological message

The early founders and followers of monotheism were filled with a sense of wonder, delight, and awe of the greatness of God's creation. Indeed, nature and wildlife were sources of inspiration for many of the prophets of the Bible. The Bible contains a strong message of conservation, respect for nature, and kindness to animals. It promotes a reverence for life, for "God's Creation," over which humans were given stewardship responsibilities to care for and protect. The Bible clearly teaches that in despoiling nature, the Lord's handiwork is being destroyed and the sacred trust as caretakers of the land over which humans were given stewardship is violated.

Modern-day policies and programs that despoil the land, desecrate the environment, and destroy entire species of wildlife are not justified by the Bible. Such actions clearly violate biblical commands to humans to "replenish the earth," conserve natural resources , and treat animals with kindness, and to animals to "be fruitful and multiply" and fill the earth. For example, various laws requiring the protection of natural resources are found in the Mosaic law, including passages mandating the preservation of fruit trees (Deuteronomy 20:19, Genesis 19:2325); agricultural lands (Leviticus 25:24); and wildlife (Deuteronomy 22:67; Genesis 9). Numerous other biblical passages extol the wonders of nature (Psalms 19, 24, and 104) and teach kindness to animals, including the Ten Commandments, which require that farm animals be allowed to rest on the Sabbath.

Christianity: Jesus' nature teachings

The New Testament contains many references by Jesus and his disciples that teach people to protect nature and its life forms. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used nature and pastoral imagery to illustrate his points and uphold the creatures of nature as worthy of being emulated. In stressing the lack of importance of material possessions such as fancy clothes, Jesus observed that "God so clothes the grass of the field" and cited wildflowers as possessing more beauty than any human garments ever could: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" (Matthew 6:2830; Luke 12:27). In Luke 12:6 and Matthew 10:29, Jesus stresses that even the lowliest of creatures is loved by God: "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God."

Judaism: a tradition of reverence for nature

The teachings and laws of Judaism, going back thousands of years, strongly emphasize kindness to animals and respect for nature. Indeed, an entire code of laws relates to preventing "the suffering of living creatures." Also important are the concepts of protecting the elements of nature, and tikkun olam, or "repairing the world." Jewish prayers, traditions, and literature contain countless stories and admonitions stressing the importance of the natural world and animals as manifestations of God's greatness and love for His creation.

Many examples of practices based on Judaism's respect for nature can be cited. Early Jewish law prevented pollution of waterways by mandating that sewage be buried in the ground, not dumped into rivers. In ancient Jerusalem, dung heaps and garbage piles were banned, and refuse could not be disposed of near water systems. The Israelites wisely protected their drinking water supply and avoided creating hazardous and unhealthy waste dumps. The rabbis of old Jerusalem also dealt with the problem of air pollution from wheat chaff by requiring that threshing houses for grain be built no closer than 2 miles (3.2 km) from the city. In order to prevent foul odors, a similar ordinance existed for graves, carrion, and tanneries, with tanneries sometimes required to be constructed on the edge of the city downwind from prevailing air currents. Wood from certain types of rare trees could not be burned at all, and the Talmud cautioned that lamps should be set to burn slowly so as not to use up too much naphtha. The biblical injunction to allow land to lie fallow every seven years (Lev. 25:37) permitted the soil to replenish itself.

Islam and ecology

In the Qur'an (Koran), the holy book of the Islamic faith, scholars have estimated that as many as 750 out of the book's 6,000 verses (about one-eighth of the entire text) have to do with nature. In Islamic doctrine there are three central principles that relate to an environmental ethic, including tawhid (unity), khilafa (trusteeship), and akhirah (accountability). Nature is considered sacred because it is God's work, and a unity and interconnectedness of living things is implied in certain scriptures, such as: "There is no God but He, the Creator of all things" (Q.6: 102). The balance of the natural world is also described in some verses: "And the earth we have spread out like a carpet; set thereon mountains firm and immobile; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance" (Q.15:1 9). On the earth, humans are given the role of stewards (called "vicegerents"), when the Qur'anic scripture states, "Behold, the Lord said to the angels: 'I will create a vicegerent on earth...'" (Q.2: 30). In the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, humans are told to cultivate and care for the earth. ("Whoever brings dead land to life, that is, cultivates wasteland, for him is a reward therein"), and humans are cautioned in the Qur'an against abusing the creation: "Do no mischief on the earth after it hath been set in order, but call on Him with fear and longing in your hearts: for the Mercy of God is always near to those who do good" (Q.7: 56). Interestingly, the Qur'an also contains scriptures that caution humankind about the use of metals, perhaps foreshadowing the machine age of the future: "We bestowed on you from on high the ability to make use of iron, in which there is awesome power as well as a source of benefits for man" (Q.57.25).

Other faiths

The religions of the East have also recognized and stressed the importance of protecting natural resources and living creatures. Buddhism and Hinduism have doctrines of non-violence to living beings and have teachings that stress the unity and sacredness of all of life. Some Hindu gods and goddesses are embodiments of the natural processes of the world. Taoists, who practice a philosophy and worldview that originated in ancient China, strive not to attempt to dominate but to live in harmony with the tao, or the natural way of the universe. Many other religions, including the Baha'is and those of Native Americans, Amazon Indian tribes, and other indigenous and tribal peoples, stress the sanctity of nature and the need to conserve wildlife, forests, plants, water, fertile land, and other natural resources.

[Lewis G. Regenstein and Douglas Dupler ]



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Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions: Religions of the World and Ecology, 42 Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA USA 02138 (617) 495-4495, Fax: (617) 496-5411, Email: [email protected], <>

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Religion and the Environment