Earth by email Religion Religion can make us more environmentally friendly – or not You might think that being religious would make you more likely to care about the natural world. But the truth is not so simple By Niki Rust 7 February 2017 Eight out of 10 people around the world consider themselves religious. That figure shows that, while in many countries religion is not as dominant as it once was, it still has a huge influence on us. What does that mean for the environmental movement? Does a belief in God or the supernatural make people more or less likely to take care of animals and the environment? It is easy to make up stories to answer this question. You might say that many religions push the idea that the world will soon come to an end, in which case surely they encourage a “let it burn” ethos: what does it matter if the rainforest gets cut down, if the Rapture is next week? But just as plausibly, you might point out that many religions are big on kindness, and some such as Jainism even forbid killing animals. This should nudge their followers towards caring for the natural world. But these are just stories. What does the science of human behaviour tell us? Christianity is one of the most popular religions (Credit: Jon Bower USA/Alamy) Let’s start with Christianity. Writing in the high-profile journal Science in 1967, historian Lynn White proposed that Christian religions undermine wildlife conservation by advocating a domination ethic over nature. Because the Bible talks about “dominion” over nature, White argued that Christianity teaches its followers that “it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends”. ” This was, to say the least, controversial. Other historians Christian fundamentalists were less willing, and the Bible, and that the text actually implies that we have a and theologians have argued that White was misreading duty of care towards nature. Perhaps more to the point, Catholics more willing, to financially support the environment White offered no evidence about the attitudes or behaviours of actual Christians. In 2013, researchers tackled that question by asking whether there was a relationship between a country’s main religion and the number of important biodiversity areas it contained. They found that Christian countries, particularly Catholic ones, tended to have more areas set aside for nature than other countries. However, this does not mean White was completely wrong. Other studies suggest that conservative Christians really are less environmentally friendly than other denominations. In a study published in 1993, priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley looked at how much Americans were willing to spend on conserving the environment. He found that Christian fundamentalists were less willing, and Catholics more willing, to financially support the environment. This suggests that it is not whether a person is Christian, but rather what type of Christian they are, that influences their behaviour towards nature. It also seems that people’s attitudes towards the environment can be affected by the way Christianity interacts with other religions. In Kenya, Christian converts regarded forests as evil (Credit: Anup Shah/naturepl.com) In her PhD thesis, undertaken whilst at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, Emma Shepheard-Walwyn looked at how Kenyans felt about sacred sites. These are places of biological and spiritual significance, created and maintained by communities who adhered to a traditional faith. ” Shepheard-Walwyn found that “some of the Christian A shift away from more traditional faiths could be bad for nature they are associated with the traditional faith, which they people interviewed felt the forests should be destroyed as believe to be evil.” One Christian interviewed said that “tradition is now witchcraft”. Others described the sacred sites as places associated with demons and superstition. This suggests that conflicts between opposing faiths could influence how people feel about protected areas. In particular, a shift away from more traditional faiths could be bad for nature. People’s attitudes to lions are changeable (Credit: Wim van den Heever/naturepl.com) In a study published in 2006, Leela Hazzah of Lion Guardians showed that Maasai who had converted from a traditional faith to become evangelical Christians had a higher intent to kill lions than those that kept their traditional faith. “These converted Protestants did not have very positive attitudes towards national parks or wildlife either,” says Hazzah. ” Because the Maasai are not exposed to much television or Christianity can play a part in how, and indeed whether, we think about nature the world. If a pastor does not include positive stories other media, they look to their pastors for information about about nature in their sermons, the churchgoers would not get any guidance on how to be environmentally friendly. The evangelical churches also ran religious events, sometimes a week long, which pastoralists were invited to attend. That meant no one was around back at the homestead to protect the livestock from predators. Two pastoralists lost 35 cows during one such event. When Hazzah asked them why they left their livestock unattended for so long, one man replied: “There is no need to return home when I am in the house of God. He will protect my livestock from danger”. All this suggests that Christianity can play a part in how, and indeed whether, we think about nature. So how do other religions compare? The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Ist
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