by Whit Gibbons

July 18, 2004

Religion. The environment. Either topic can kindle controversy. What happens when you put them together? I recently attended a panel discussion called "Environmental Stewardship and Religion: Conflict or Partnership?"

The seven panelists provided a proper mix of science and religion. A medical doctor, three research ecologists, two ministers, and a rabbi represented the following denominations: Bahai, Baptist, Jewish, Methodist, Mormon, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic. The panelists were sophisticated individuals ready to discuss-as opposed to debate-the issues.

People write books on religion and books on the environment. Clearly, a thorough discussion of the interactions and connections between these two complex subjects would be of book length or longer. Hence, one evening's discussion cannot cover, or even touch on, all the issues. But some points were made that bear repeating.

One controversial topic came as no surprise. Should humans be considered simply one of the millions of species that inhabit the earth? Or are we the premier species, exalted above all others? Both positions were taken among the panelists and in the audience. One individual took a position that is widespread in many parts of this country and the world. As he put it, "God's greatest creation is people."

On the other hand, the medical doctor argued that humans were "created . . . from the same dust" as other life forms and have no right to do harm to them. Using a medical analogy she stated that "the vital signs of our planet are unstable." She pointed out that, like infectious bacteria and viruses, many environmental concerns are invisible. Toxic chemicals in the environment, habitat degradation, gradual losses in biodiversity-none is conspicuous on a day-to-day basis, but each day the illness gets worse. She claimed that we have a responsibility to be environmental stewards, to keep our environment and all its living parts healthy.

This idea-that we should be environmental stewards-was also supported by a clergyman on the panel. "People who have been placed in power have taken charge of spheres they have no right to take charge of." He indicated that some individuals, primarily for personal gain, have taken an arrogant position. They have presumed, improperly, that humans have a right ("a God-given right" it was called at this seminar) to destroy whatever part of the environment suits their purposes. I think people, whether religiously inclined or not, need to do a lot of soul-searching before trying to justify environmental destruction-particularly for pecuniary gain.

One panelist, the rabbi I believe it was, suggested the possibility of common ground, an area of consensus: "Disputing whether we are the premier species or just one out of many is immaterial as far as environmental stewardship goes. Wouldn't we all agree that the human species is the only creature capable of destroying or saving the world's environments?" Agreement was indeed unanimous on that point.

Someone added that we are also the only creature on earth capable of making a conscious decision about what the condition of our natural environments will be. To my way of thinking that ability carries a lot of responsibility.
On the issue of responsible stewardship, the moderator asked a pertinent question. "Who has the authority to say someone else is not being a good steward of the environment?" An ecologist answered: "Anyone who notices."

Religion in its myriad forms is here to stay. Assuming, that is, we don't destroy ourselves and our planet. Without a healthy environment we will not be here to participate in any religion. Some of our religious leaders need to recognize this fundamental truth. Environmental stewardship and religion will continue to be debatable topics. But conflict between the two is unnecessary. Indeed if we and the planet are to survive, where conflict exists it had better be replaced with consonance.

Obviously, many questions were raised during the evening, and not all of them were answered. But the central question-conflict or partnership?-has only one answer if we are to survive as a successful species on this planet: partnerships between religious and environmental attitudes must be created where they do not exist and be strengthened where they do.

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