ENVIRONMENTAL ATTITUDES IN CONFLICT WITH RELIGION?
by Whit Gibbons
July 18, 2004
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?"
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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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