Bottom line: The major religions without exception ask us to be mindful about our stewardship of the planet.
I am not religious—that is a major understatement!—but for billions of humans, including many I am close to, religious faith deeply informs the ways in which they live their lives. Religious beliefs play a part in behavior and decision-making—everything from the choices made in the workplace to those made in the grocery store.
But research shows that religious beliefs are also closely linked to attitudes toward the environment, making religion a critical environmental variable (and one that is far less talked or written about than it should be).
In this essay, I take a look at the four largest world religions to see what each says about climate and sustainability. This is a quick overview that is intended to provide a starting point for those who are interested. A further reading list is provided at the end.
As a 2,500-year-old religion with many different schools of thought, Buddhism is extremely diverse. Broadly, Buddhism defines life as a cycle of suffering (dukkha). Similar to Hinduism, Buddhists believe in the concept of repeated reincarnation, called saṃsāra, until release (moksha) allows believers to pass into nirvana.
The attainment of nirvana liberates Buddhists from the cycle of rebirth and extinguishes their "poisons" of greed (raga), aversion (dvesha), and ignorance (moha). Through Dharma—or the Buddha’s teachings—Buddhism endorses moderation: the concepts of ahimsa (do no harm), karuna (compassion), and metta (loving-kindness) are especially pertinent to the faith.
But what does suffering have to do with being environmentally conscious? According to a scholar of Buddhist ecology, “Dukkha (suffering) is the central theme in the Four Noble Truths discovered by the Buddha during his enlightenment. Samudaya, the second truth, recognizes that the ultimate cause of suffering is ignorance and desire. A correlate is that genuine happiness is achieved through restraining desire and pursuing voluntary simplicity.”
Therefore in order to minimize personal suffering, one must give up self-centeredness and longing. Overall, this sacrifice can also result in a much less carbon-intensive existence—and while it may seem jarring to juxtapose modern terminology (“carbon-intensive”) alongside ancient philosophies, in this context the two go together.
Now there are many interpretations put forth by eco-Buddhists seeking to prove Buddhism is an inherently environmentally sensible belief system. While Buddhist teachings against desire, greed, and self-centeredness are arguably environmentally-motivated commandments, Buddhist ecologist Les Sponsel writes: "Entering this debate, one can argue that rather than forcing Buddhism to fit into received categories and frameworks in environmental ethics (or Western philosophical ethics more broadly), eco-Buddhists might remain true to their tradition and still construct a viable environmental ethic by taking as their primary focus the alleviation of suffering of humans and other sentient beings, or in positive terms, the promotion of their sustained well-being, which is contingent upon certain types of ecosystems."
In other words, Buddhist tenets may not neatly 'fit' into Western conceptions of ethics, yet Buddhism is incontrovertibly a belief system that endorses a lifestyle of moderation. Buddhism is already inherently eco-friendly, and while there may be no official environmental ethic written into traditional Buddhism, its environmentally sensitive teachings are self-evident.
As far as the modern practice of Buddhism goes, the central concepts of ahimsa, karuna, and metta are still vital. An ongoing conservation project in Cambodia called the Monks Community Forest demonstrates how Buddhism and environmentalism can coexist. As a result of the belief that life involves suffering, Cambodian monks have undertaken a 20-year-long effort to protect over 18,000 hectares of forest. By nurturing the forest, the monks have managed to reduce the suffering of all living things—the communities relying on the forest for sustenance, the animals who live in the forest, and even the trees themselves.
While Buddhist scriptures may not directly instruct Buddhists to look after the environment, modern practitioners interpret conservation and sustainable living as key tenets of reducing human suffering.
The concept of stewardship is central to the first book of the Bible, Genesis. In its very first pages, believers are told that God has granted humans dominion over his land. Tasked with the duty of cultivating and maintaining the earth and its people, Christians are appointed as God's stewards.
"Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'"
However, humans' dominion over the world includes dominion over themselves. Given free will, mankind can opt to go against God's wishes. Modern-day Christians often point to the Parable of the Talents to explain the concept of stewardship, free will, and its relationship with consumption.
The parable focuses on a wealthy man who tasks three of his servants with protecting varying amounts of his money—measured in what were called "talents"—while he sets off on a voyage. To his first servant, he entrusts five talents, and to his second he entrusts two. Finally, to his third servant, he entrusts one talent. Upon his return, the wealthy man asks his servants to return his money. The first servant returns with ten talents, having gained five more, and the second servant returns with four, having gained two more. The wealthy man is pleased with them and invites them to share with him his happiness. The third servant, however, returns only with the single talent he was given, having buried it as soon as he received it. The wealthy man is furious with the third servant's laziness and inability to produce a return on the money he was given.
How does this relate to God's message about a moderate existence? The Parable of The Talents teaches Christians that God gave them a specific allotment of goods. From this gift of earthly resources, it is man's responsibility to sustain himself. Those who squander this gift, fail to sustainably cultivate it, or do not use it wisely will be looked upon unfavorably. In this parable, the wealthy man represents God, whereas the servants are mankind—as God's stewards, the parable instructs humans to invest in God’s creation (the earth) and improve it. Those who degrade it, squander it, or fail to appreciate the potential of God's gift, like the third servant, are greedy and self-serving.
Biblical exegeses aren't the only proof that Christianity supports improving the earth. In 2016 Pope Francis urged Catholics to consider damaging the environment as a sin. His message was that everyone should ask themselves whether they, as humans, had the right to bring about the mass extinction of God's other creatures, or whether those most impacted by climate change (the impoverished in developing countries) were responsible for their own suffering. He even added protection of the environment to Catholicism's pre-existing seven spiritual works of mercy. The Pope’s message was clear: the Catholic church demands action against climate change.
Catholicism isn't the only Christian sect that is pushing its followers to reduce their environmental impact. Washington D.C. pastor and professor, Joel Daniels, writes that followers of Pentecostalism must wake up to the destruction of the planet. "'Dominion over' must transition to 'care for,'" urges Daniels as he compels fellow Christians to consider how their overconsumption adversely affects those around them. He reiterates that the popular Christian principle, to love thy neighbor, is applicable to climate change, writing that we—in the West—must change our behavior, lest "our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors suffer the most."
Since as far back as 1971, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also been vocal about our changing climate. A.B. Morrison, a General Authority of the Mormon church, gave a sermon on Our Deteriorating Environment, where he claimed “In the name of ‘progress’ and ‘growth,’ we have plundered our planet and despoiled our environment.” At the end of his speech, Morrison suggested that excessive economic development was to blame for the planet’s ongoing destruction, quoting 1 Timothy 6:10 KJV:
“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
While the concept of stewardship is interpreted differently by each sect of Christianity, they appear to all connect with Biblical scripture in a way that reveals humans' duty to care for and protect the planet.
"Hinduism has a definite code of environmental ethics. According to it, humans may not consider themselves above nature, nor can they claim to rule over other forms of life," writes Nanditha Krishna in Hinduism and Nature. Hinduism supports a religious viewpoint that is less anthropocentric than the Abrahamic religions; rather, Hinduism is a biocentric religion, where the relationship between humans and nature is nonhierarchical. While in the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), mankind acts as viceroys of God over the earth, Hindu tradition dictates that no man can claim dominion over anyone or anything else, including themselves.
Hindu theology’s biocentrism informs many of the concepts that make it an environmentally conscious belief system. Most notably, karma—and the promise of reincarnation—forces Hindus to critically confront how they interact with the world. O.P. Dwivedi, Indian environmental policy scholar and author of Human Responsibility and the Environment: A Hindu Perspective, writes that because Hinduism instructs that “a person may come back as an animal or a bird,” in the next life, Hindus need to have respect for both the animals around them and the ecosystem in which they live. This “reverence” for other animals, as Dwivedi calls it, stems from not only the karmic belief that they could end up as animals in a next life but also the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence.
In Hindu scriptures, the concept of Ahimsa is frequently brought up as a way to please God and avoid the accumulation of bad Karma. For most, Ahimsa means avoiding meat consumption. In the Vishnu Purana (3,8,15), Hindus are reminded of their non-hierarchical stance among the animal kingdom:
"God, Kesava, is pleased with a person who does not harm or destroy other non-speaking creatures or animals."
While abstaining from meat consumption greatly benefits the environment, some Hindu scriptures, such as the Rigveda, specifically advocate for the protection and worship of all living things, including flora. Dwivedi writes "trees were often considered as being animate and feeling happiness and sorrow. It is still popularly believed that every tree has a Vriksa-devata, or 'tree deity', who is worshipped with prayers and offerings of water, flowers, sweets, and encircled by sacred threads. Also for Hindus, the planting of a tree is still a religious duty."
Non-violence as a method of protecting each living thing—or at least minimizing its harm—is also paired with the doctrine of dharma. Dharma is an overarching concept vital to Hindu theology. If the duty of Hindus is to achieve spiritual peace, then dharma is the duty to ensure that peace and harmony exist all around oneself as well as within oneself—in the stability of the heat, the frequency of the rain, and the preservation of the earth's resources.
Through the concepts of dharma, ahimsa, and karma, Hinduism instructs its followers about their duty to live harmoniously with the earth, leading true believers to an environmentally conscious lifestyle.
"Eat and drink: But waste not by excess, for Allah loveth not the wasters."
Islamic teachings in the Qur'an, the Hadith, and Sunnah contain numerous directives for living a sustainable life. The concept of trusteeship (khalifah) is particularly relevant. Assuming trusteeship, or being a Khalifa/guardian of the land, means ensuring that the land one works and owns is bequeathed to the next generation in the same condition that it was found.
In its purest form, the Islamic concept of trusteeship encourages sustainable development, harmony with nature, and a non-resource-intensive existence.
The concept of hima is also relevant to Islam's teachings on sustainability. Hima, or "a protected place," is the product of an ancient form of land management, whereby a community or group of people protects the parcel of land and surrounding ecosystem that provides them with life-sustaining resources. Hima is important to modern ideas of conservation because it discourages individualistic consumption. Instead, hima requires community cooperation such that individual hoarding of resources is not possible, and waste is less likely. Additionally, lands under hima protect the natural biodiversity within their confines and disincentivize over-exploitation of resources, species' habitat degradation, and soil erosion.
Both khalifah and hima are vital to the maintenance of mizan, which refers to harmony and balance in the world.
"And the sky, He raised; and He set up the balance (Mizan). So do not transgress in the balance (Mizan). But maintain the weights with justice, and do not violate the balance (Mizan)."
— Quran 55:7-9
In the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change, mizan represents the earth's "fine equilibrium." However, this equilibrium does not only reference the balance of temperate seasons or safe gases in the air but also the balance of power between humans and Allah's other animals. Because it is solely humans that are causing climate change, it is solely humans that must restore the concept of mizan.
The restoration of mizan coincides with another all-encompassing Islamic concept: that of maslahah, or public interest. According to Dr. William Avis, "It (Maslahah) pursues a 'sustainable achievement of good, welfare, advantages, and benefits of creatures' and prioritises the public welfare over individual, private interests." Therefore, trusteeship (khalifah), protecting land (hima), and restoring balance (mizan) all fall under the umbrella of maslahah, as they prioritize collective survival over individual profits. From an environmental perspective, maslahah calls for Muslims to do what it takes to ensure a better world for the next generation, irrespective of the sacrifices doing so may entail.
Many concepts in Islam promote a life of modest environmental impact, but author Odeh Al Jayyousi's book, Islam and Sustainable Development, shows how the Qur'an, the Hadith, and Sunnah are all highly relevant to contemporary environmentalism. In Jayyousi's view, "living lightly on the earth" by consuming only what sustains us and no more, is a key tenet of Islam.
Every major world religion tells its followers how important the environment is to human beings. We have many different beliefs concerning how we came to be in this world, but it appears that we can be vigorously united in wanting to save our environment and our planet. Let it be so!
Religion and the environment
- Book | Climate Church, Climate World: How People of Faith Must Work for Change
- Journal Article | The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis
- Book | Islam and Sustainable Development: New Worldviews
- Book | Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet
- Book | Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water
- Book | Purifying the Earthly Body of God
- Survey article | Hindu Traditions and Nature: Survey Article
- Document | The Assisi Declarations: Messages on Humanity and Nature from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam & Judaism
- Book recommendations | Religions of the World and Ecology
Philosophy and the environment