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God, Humanity, and Nature:
Comparative Religious Views of the Environment

(Released December 2005)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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Review Article

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

—My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir

Environmentalists have recently been accused of being overly scientific, management minded, and cut off from their spiritual roots. Most prominently, an influential 2005 essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," decried a bureaucratic, management-oriented approach, calling for a deeper commitment to vision and values.1 Yet historically environmentalism has had a strong spiritual aspect, glorifying nature and respect for the earth.

John Muir hiking in Yosemite
John Muir as he appears
on the California quarter

John Muir (1838-1914), often considered the progenitor of environmentalism and instrumental in the genesis of America's national park system, exemplifies a religious awe regarding nature; he saw the wilderness as a place of spiritual retreat from daily cares. Muir owes much of his philosophy to the American Transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson; indeed he was a close friend of the latter. As Emerson puts it in his seminal essay, "Nature," "The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them."2 This spiritual dimension is, in some ways, closer to pantheism than to Christianity and the great monotheistic religions. A common belief is that of the wilderness quest, a retreat from the city, from daily human preoccupation, to discover one's relationship to the universe. Muir, for instance, sees the universe as part of an intricate, divine web: "Surely all God's people, however serious or savage, great or small, like to play. Whales and elephants, dancing, humming gnats, and invisibly small mischievous microbes - all are warm with divine radium."3

So is religion compatible with environmentalism, and to what extent? What stances do the different religions take? Is a multifaith environmentalism possible? Or a coalition organized around core values? With global environmental problems taking center stage, this question is assuming increasing importance. Every religion has, somewhere in its holy text, passages supporting environmentalism. The question is where one looks and how relevant passages are interpreted. While there is great disagreement within each religion, each can be loosely fitted along a continuum. One extreme views humans as created to dominate the earth and use it at our pleasure (anthropocentrism); a middle ground considers humans as wise stewards of the earth; and the other extreme believes that humans are one of many species of which we are in no way better or dominant (ecocentrism).

The religions reviewed here have been chosen largely on the number of adherents; according to one estimate, there are some 2.1 billion Christians, 1.3 billion Muslims, 900 million Hindus, and 370 million Buddhists.4 This review begins with Monotheism, leading into Christianity, which has been a focal point for debates over environmentalism.

Monotheism: Three Great Faiths

O Lord, how manifold are thy works!
In wisdom has thou made them all;
The earth is full of thy creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
Which teems with things innumerable,
Living things both small and great.

—(Ps. 104:24f.)

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three great faiths for which Abraham is an originary figure, are noted for separating humans from the surrounding ecosystems, for considering humans separate and special, created in the image of God. In one interpretation, humans are here partially to provide wise stewardship of nature; at the other extreme nature is placed here for the pleasure of humans, to be used and discarded as needed.

This interpretation led Lynn White to write his often-cited 1967 essay, "Historical roots of our ecological crisis," which links Christianity to environmental degradation. White claims that "Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen," that it "not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature."5 The most important source cited to support this is Genesis 128, which calls on man to "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth." White does qualify his argument, stating that "Christianity is a complex faith, and its consequences differ in differing contexts." He criticizes the Western European version of Christianity from the Renaissance onward, with its rationalistic view of science and technology, in combination with the Bible: "It was ceasing to be the decoding of the physical symbols of God's communication with man and was becoming the effort to understand God's mind by discovering how his creation operates."6 Decoupled from nature by the Bible, given the power of scientific domination, humanity has, in White's analysis, unleashed an increasing devastation upon the earth.

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve in the Garden. Albrecht Durer.

Many Christian thinkers have reacted with horror to White, believing that he—or at least his followers—has misinterpreted a specific historical moment as a manifestation of Christianity's essence. They argue that a broader reading of Genesis calls for stewardship of God's creation, and that environmentalism is best considered an extension of Christian humility and the search for social justice. They also argue that it is unfair to take a single interpretation of one passage, that proclaiming man's dominion, as so central to Christianity's environmental message. One theologian argues against the idea of a split between human and nature, and calls for "rejection of the body-soul dualism of classical Christian thought and a return to the biblical view of man as a unitary being."7 Raymond Grizzle and Christopher Barrett further develop the idea of unity, calling for a humble anthropocentricism that conjoins economic, social justice, and environmental needs. They echo earlier calls to treat these as part of one body, metaphorically the body of Christ and of the church: "For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body…. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another" (1 Corinthians 12:14-26).8

Passages cited by various theologians as supporting environmentalism include:

  • God's love for all living, growing, creeping, crawling aspects of creation.
  • Adam and Eve's role as stewards, in harmony with nature, tending to the Garden of Eden
  • The story of Noah's Ark, which some Christians interpret as showing a need to maintain biodiversity

The Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark. Jan Brueghel the Elder.

A more recent Christian icon of environmentalism is Francis of Assissi, patron saint of animals. Born in 12th century Italy, Francis had a pleasure-loving youth before doing penance and choosing a life of poverty. Said to preach to birds, Francis is also believed to have freed many captive animals and to have tamed a wolf that had been menacing a town. Although Francis is a Catholic Saint, non-Catholics have shown great interest in his life and story. Qualifying his attack on Christianity, White argued that Christians could learn to live in harmony with the environment, if only they would emulate Saint Francis, who "proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man's relation to it; he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man's limitless rule of creation."9 Many Catholic thinkers disagree with White, however, believing that Francis' story is essentially one of human redemption in which animals play a secondary role.

Whatever White may have us believe, currents of Christianity have supported the modern environmental movement since the beginning. Writing in 1970, one analyst describes Christian camps where "young and old, clergy and laity, have come together to read the Bible and to commune with God in nature."10 Current Christian thought remains firmly anchored on both sides of the environmental movement. For some, the Environmental Justice movement is wed closely to Christian faith. In 2002 The Evangelical Environmental Movement began "What Would Jesus Drive," urging smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles in an extreme example of a campaign that believes Christian humility should pervade all aspects of human life.

At the other extreme is a fundamentalist millenarianism—exemplified by the popular Left Behind series—which believes that, since the end of the world is near we have no need to look after the environment. Explains one writer hostile to this viewpoint, "Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the Apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the Rapture?"11 Millenarianism derives much of its power from Jesus' words in Luke, expanded in the Book of Revelation: " And there shall be signs in the sun, in the moon and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring" (Luke 21:25-26).

last judgment
The Last Judgment. Michelangelo.

Yet a notable group of evangelicals uses such prophecies to support environmentalism, for instance citing the verse from Revelations: "The time has come for judging the dead ... and for destroying those who destroy the Earth."12 Such environmentalist Christians believe in a powerful Biblical call for stewardship of the earth.


Judaism, as the first monotheistic faith, has been accused of originating the split between human and environment, of repudiating older, animistic, religions, which grant divinity to various aspects of nature. Defenders of a Jewish environmental ethic strongly deny this, pointing to a connectedness to the land of Israel, to its physical presence and rhythms. According to one writer, "Three main areas are commonly cited as evidence of the ecological usefulness of the Bible and rabbinic literature: protection of vegetation, especially fruit-bearing trees; awareness of the distress of animals; and predicating social justice on the well-being of the earth itself."13 Although the Torah calls for human dominion, interpreters argue over whether or not this implies stewardship. Jewish tradition forbids unnecessary pain to animals, and the Torah also includes a vegetarian diet for Adam and Eve, although after the flood, "permission was later given for people to eat meat as a concession to human weakness (Genesis 9:2-5)."14 This legend is used as justification for Jewish vegetarians, who argue that vegetarianism is consistent with keeping kosher.

monastery and mountain
Saint Catherine's Monastery, Jebel Musa, Egypt. Thought to be the Mount Sinai
of the Bible and the Koran, visited by Moses and Mohammed.


Lo! We offered the trust
Unto the heavens and the
Earth and the hills,
But they shrank from bearing it
And were afraid of it
And man assumed it
Lo! He is a tyrant and a fool

—The Koran 33:72 (quoted in Dien 110)

With over a billion followers, Islam is a faith with great potential to have an impact on the environmental movement. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam regards humans as standing at the top of a hierarchy, with animals and plants below, albeit with a mandate from Allah to protect the natural environment. Explains one source, "According to the Quran, the creation of the cosmos is a greater reality than the creation of humankind (Sura 40:57), but human beings have been privileged to occupy a position even higher than the angels as vicegerents of God."15 Yet humans are given power over earth only as part of a complex of rules emanating from Allah, part of the unity of God (tahwid). Like the Bible, the Koran celebrates the grandeur of a creation springing from God: "And it is He who spread out the earth, and set thereon mountains standing firm and (flowing) rivers; and fruit of every kind He made in pairs, two and two; He draweth the night as a veil over the Day (13:3)."

The Koran, along with the Ahadith, gives specific rules about various environmental practices. Richard Foltz discusses how the early Muslims, as desert people, were acutely aware of environmental limitations: "The Qur'an is replete with references to the precious resources of air, water, and land, and proscribes wastefulness."16 Mohammed is said to have "encouraged the planting of trees, banned destroying vegetation even during war, loved animals and displayed great kindness to them, and encouraged other Muslims to do likewise"17 The practice of halal, like the Jewish concept of kosher, inscribes a ritual between human and animal prior to eating; according to one commentator this keeps "cruel and arrogant tendencies from developing."18

As with Christianity, some Muslim thinkers have seen the injunction to help the poor as applying also to the environment: "The Quran also describes the believing men and women as those who 'walk on the Earth in humility' (25:63) Scholars have interpreted this verse, and others like it, to mean that Muslims are to protect nature's many bounties."19

With a history of great empires and a belief in science and reason, juxtaposed against a current fundamentalism, Islam is currently undergoing internal struggles as to its future. Foltz believes that Islam may have a special role to play in Environmental Justice issues; "It is a tragic reality that the poor suffer far more directly from environmental degradation than do the rich, who are better able to insulate themselves from its effects. And on a global scale, a disproportionate percentage of the world's poor happen to be Muslim."20

cloaked woman and goats
Muslim woman herding goats
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a central Muslim thinker regarding environmentalism, argues that Islam, with its believe in unity, lacks the split between man and nature found in Christianity. To Nasr, traditional Islam supports a harmonious balance between human and nature, while both modern and fundamentalist versions distort Koranic verses, allowing technology to run amok: "today one speaks of the 'limits to growth' … But the concepts and factors according to which the crisis is analyzed, the solutions sought after and even the colours with which the image of an impending doom are depicted are usually all in terms of the very elements that have brought the crisis of modern man into being."21

Nasr believes in an Islamic version of science. For him Western science relies on amassing data rather than seeking coherence: "Modern man, having rebelled against Heaven, has created a science based not on the light of the Intellect-as we see in the traditional Islamic sciences-but on the powers of human reason to sift the data of the senses."22 Islam, by contrast, believes in a harmony between the study of science and the Koran. As Mawil Izzi Dien explains, during the golden age of Islam "all researches and discoveries were revolving around the profoundly dominating concept of tawhid, which states that the only god is Allah."23 Following this line of thinking, Nasr believes that stability, rather than change and uncertainty, will allow the environment to return to its nurturing state. For him a true Islamic state would be inherently environmentalist; "today the West dominates the world economy, so Islam reacts to the West both economically and politically. The West sets the agenda."24

The dominance of the West has led to tumult, doubt, and calls for retrenchment throughout the Muslim world. Kabir Helminski, for instance, believes that, influenced by the West, Islam has lost its way. He argues that it needs to return to a path of developing human reason and spirit while avoiding the "Globalization of consumer culture and commercial values" that "is rapidly displacing traditional spiritual values." Helminski suggests an accord between Islam and those in the West who "are turning away from consumerism and materialism toward voluntary simplicity and humane values."25

It is possible, then, that Islam, supported by teachings from the Koran, could present a leading voice in environmental thinking. Still, the belief that environmentalism is a concern only of elites with the money and leisure to worry about nature is common among Muslims. One research team has found a widespread attitude among Muslims that, "when we catch up with the technological superiority of the West, then we can begin to focus on this issue."26 Muslim society, then, simultaneously rebels against the West and seeks to surpass it, a philosophical stumbling block hindering a strong contribution to environmentalism.

Other Faiths

We should understand well that all things are the works of the Great Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four-legged animals, and the winged peoples

—Black Elk27

Some environmentalists consider non-Western religion, such as European paganism, Native American shamanism, and various Eastern religions, to provide a strong model of human harmony with nature. "If an indigenous society survives for centuries or millennia, then it has been sustainable, and that must be based on acute sensitivity to and intimate knowledge of the local environment," explains one scholar.28 Indigenous, largely animistic, religions are often considered to avoid the split between human and other living creatures, to grant divinity to the grass, the trees, to individual animals. For the ancient Greeks, "each tree, spring, grove, and hillock had its own genius loci [sic], its guardian spirit."29 Similarly, Native Americans have been intimately connected to geographic location through nature, which defines one's world. Explains Leslie Marmon Silko, "location, or 'place,' nearly always plays a central role in the Pueblo oral narratives," and hence in identity as a people.30

Place and the nurture it brings are closely related in many indigenous tales, creating an intimate relationship between natural resources and the people who use them. For Native Americans, the relationship between hunter and prey was not just a processing of material resources; "many native hunters apologized to the animals they killed. After killing a bear, one chief, Wawatam, conducted a ceremony wherein he lamented the necessity of killing a 'friend'."31

One must beware, however, of simplifying and romanticizing these traditions. Pre-Columbian America, for instance, was vast and complex with numerous traditions. While some practices were far less wasteful than today's, such as using every part of an animal, others prefigured the coming of European colonists in considering nature's bounty essentially endless. Noel Perrin shows how before nature could be romanticized it had to be tamed, that it was an enormous, dangerous landscape full of beasts far more powerful than humans, a place in which "not only was nature huge, but man was weak."32 And recent scholarship shows that Native American societies greatly altered nature, often in wasteful ways. Some Native American tribes, for instance, drove buffalo off of cliffs in unnecessary numbers.33


Although there are numerous non-Abrahamic religions, many small, many in the distant past, one that currently rivals the Christian and Muslim faiths in size is Hinduism, with close to a billion followers. Furthermore a majority of the world's Hindus live in India, a nation with a tremendous growth rate, one facing difficult environmental questions.

Hinduism is characterized by open-endedness and heterogeneity, with numerous manifestations and multiple divinities. Christopher Key Chapple explains that, "Within Hinduism can be found many gods and goddesses; many competing belief systems, from atheistic materialism to profoundly emotional deistic devotion; various systems of prayer and meditation; and countless groupings and subgroupings of deities and people."34 These groups may appear as a cacophony, but, like a forest ecosystem, all are part of a greater ecological cosmology. According to the Bhagavadgita, "ether, air, fire, water, earth, planets, all creatures, directions, trees and plants, rivers, and seas, they all are organs of God's body; remembering this, a devotee respects all species."35

Vishnu, the preserver, appears as a boar, one of several
incarnations in which he saved earth.

From its multiplicity, then, Hinduism also believes in a central truth, or Brahman, to be sought via dharma, or righteous path. Through reincarnation, souls pass into various forms, existing as numerous creatures, although only humans are situated to interpret an environmentalist connection that pervades all of life. This leads to a tradition to hurt no sentient creatures, often exemplified in vegetarianism.

Hinduism-and the related Jainism-value such natural items as trees and rivers. Indeed a giant tree is often used as a metaphor for the earth, with interconnected roots and branches, a great ecological cosmology. According to one source, Mother Earth, "sustains and supports all her children. Whatever befalls earth also befalls the children of the earth. There is a mutuality of interests."36 Rivers, too, are often seen as holy entities existing in a blessed totality with humans. Much in Hinduism supports environmental sustainability.

Hinduism also supports a sustainable non-materialistic lifestyle. Mahatma Gandhi, founding figure of the modern Indian nation, used Hinduism as a basis for his believe in humility, nonviolence (ahimsa), and the search for truth (satyagraha). Walking the length and breadth of India with virtually no possessions, expounding vegetarianism and natural cures, Gandhi may appear to be an exemplar of environmentalism. Still nature and ecology were not an explicit concern of Gandhi's; his writings say virtually nothing on the subject.

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi crosses the swamps of East Bengal

Not all aspects of Hinduism support environmentalism. Critics point to a separation from the physical world that may be seen as dismissing nature's value, a philosophy that "is articulated for the most part out of concern for the private karmic well-being of the actor."37 The concerns of this world may thus be considered unimportant. The maltreatment of the untouchables, a caste charged with cleaning the excrement of others, may also indicate a lack of concern for both human and environmental justice.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Indians live a rural existence in concert with environmentalism. They adhere to traditional ways using relatively few material and manufactured goods (and most of these locally produced) and therefore leaving a very small ecological footprint. For many, however, this lifestyle is being forgotten in the current economic explosion, accompanied by a burgeoning professional class with new money to spend amid the siren of consumerism. Gandhi's humble example is often forgotten. India's population explosion, from under 360 million in 1950 to a billion in 2000,38 also poses huge environmental problems, including deforestation, land degradation, and water pollution and shortages.

How can Hinduism work as a practical philosophy of environmentalism in a highly stressed land? One form of Hinduism, the Chipko movement, is "known for its strategy of literally hugging or embracing trees to stand in the way of the ax that is intended to cut them down."39 The example of pollution of the Ganges River is also revealing. Whereas Western-style sewage treatment was poorly conceived, many Hindus perceive the river as a holy place, an organic whole: "Many Hindu priests see Ganges pollution not as the product of a faulty sewage policy but as a consequence of moral decay." Whether this leads to an indifference to human action, or to considering "cleanup as a way of respecting and honoring Mother Ganga" remains contested.40 Any accord between modern science, religion, and local knowledge and custom is a work-in-progress.


With respect to the environment Buddhism has some elements similar to Hinduism, with its belief in reincarnation and the interrelatedness of all creatures, and some that parallel the Western view of individual development. According to Donald K. Swearer, in Buddhism, "not unlike the biological sciences, rebirth links human and animal species."41 One website explains the Buddhist view of interconnectedness: "The health of the whole is inseparably linked to the health of the parts, and the health of the parts is inseparably linked to the health of the whole."42 Furthermore, for at least some versions of Buddhism found in China, "rocks, trees, lotuses, streams, mountains-all have Buddha-nature;"43 all are part of a great continuous cosmic ecosystem.

Buddha shrine
The Buddha gazes over a lotus pond in Thailand

Because the Buddha spent six years practicing penance and meditation in the forest, the power of natural surroundings is at the religion's foundation; indeed followers are often enjoined to make their own retreats to nature. Because the Buddha enjoins his followers to live simply and alleviate the suffering of all creatures, Buddhism has a strong ethical foundation for supporting healthy ecosystems and green lifestyles.

Yet Buddhism's origin in an urban setting, along with intermittent harsh portrayals of the wilderness, suggests a less positive view of nature. Furthermore, Buddhism privileges the development of the individual soul at the highest level, ultimately separating it from the physical world. Explains one scholar, "For the Dalai Lama, the concept of 'nature' elicits an image of Emptiness and suggests a practice of purification in which the illusions of 'nature' are left behind."44 Such otherworldliness may support the anti-consumption side of sustainability, but does not necessarily lead to proactive environmental protection.

There are, of course, many versions of Buddhism, depending upon time, place, and practice. Japanese Buddhism has been connected with a tamed version of nature, a semi-nature, a kind of symbiosis between human and natural. One study of Japanese attitudes found an aesthetic, "in which natural elements were refined and abstracted in such a way that they could serve as symbols of harmony, order, and balance."45 This suggests an alternative view of environmentalism, one that manages nature rather than seeking to preserve an original state, combining Buddhism with the Japanese experience of sustaining a large population on a relatively small group of islands.

In America, Buddhism is often decontextualized, perhaps used in combination with Native American traditions in a kind of New Age environmentalist stew. Buddhism may combine with other traditions, often animistic. One serious American Buddhist is the poet Gary Snyder, who believes in a Sangha—a religious community—that extends to the ecosphere. For Snyder, the food web, in which one creature eats another, is merely the flip side of a sacred community of life.46

Environmental efforts based on Buddhism include ordaining selected trees and groves as symbolic members of a Buddhist order.47 With its strong ethical basis, Buddhism has been connected to the Deep Ecology movement, as has Hinduism to a lesser extent.

Religion and the Environment: Unity or Disarray?

The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens. What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? This zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year?

—Ralph Waldo Emerson48

A modern, secular environmentalism has often seemed divided from religions, themselves often exclusive and divided from each other. Gary Gardner is one of several thinkers calling for a rapprochement, a healing of "the centuries-old rift in the West between religion and the sciences."49 He believes that environmentalism cannot succeed unless it mobilizes religion, "that a sustainable world cannot be built without full engagement of the human spirit."50

The first photographs from space of the earth's great sphere, in the 1960s, were called upon to unify science and religion: "The amazing beauty of the Earth with its swirling white cloud cover and the sparkling azure of her oceans is breathtaking."51 These photos provide a pictorial representation of the Gaia Hypothesis that the earth is a single, living organism, a concept with considerable breadth, from New Age to ecological manifestations. The metaphor of spaceship earth as nurturing and sustaining us was employed by Kenneth Boulding, a Quaker who looked to Eastern religions for inspiration: "The East has never had any illusions about being able to conquer nature, and has always regarded man as living in a somewhat precarious position, as a guest of doubtful welcome, shall we say, in the great household of the natural world."52 For a moment, at least, the unity of nature could be glimpsed.

small blue Earth
Earth as viewed from the moon

If environmentalists study a unity of ecosystems (albeit often broken down and examined in isolated chunks), if numerous religions call for a unity of knowledge and spirit, what occurs in daily life is often a cacophony, a division of claims. Facing unprecedented environmental threats to the planet's well-being, perhaps a diversity of religions and philosophies will find ways to work together to uphold the Earth's future.

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