Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

The Intersection of Religion and Environmentalism


On October 8, 2018, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), one of the most renowned bodies of climate scientists, released a report stating that under a business-as-usual scenario the earth will experience 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2030. With only 1.5 degree warming, which is the most ambitious goal of the Paris agreement, we can expect increased frequency of droughts, heat waves, and extreme weather events. If the 1.5-degree goal is not met, environmental impacts will become increasingly severe such as the complete loss of coral reefs, rapid decline of Arctic Sea ice, and losses of biodiversity. Keeping warming below the 1.5-degree threshold will require global emissions to be 0 by 2050.

Amidst such tall odds, it is increasingly important to understand the lenses through which individuals from around the world may understand and view environmental issues. Religion is one of the primary moral guides by which many in our communities frame policy issues, environmentalism among them. The question of how much current generations should sacrifice in order to protect the well-being of the future has inherent moral implications that religion most definitely influences. With environmental issues worsening and religious beliefs continuing to be a foundational guide for billions, understanding the intersection between religiosity and environmentalism is essential in seeking solutions to environmental ills. With differing points of emphasis and end goals, Islam, Catholicism, and Judaism each offer important insights.

Fairly extensive research has been conducted on the influence of religion on environmentalism, and the results are mixed, as Sherkat and Ellison show in their 2007 paper.  Research from the 1980s suggests an inherent antagonism of Western religions and environmental issues, due mainly to a perception of humans occupying a domineering position over the natural world. However, more recent research has suggested that religion may account for negligible influence on environmental beliefs or may potentially cause more environmentally-conscious behavior.

In addition to their influence on perception of the role of humans relative to the environment, religious beliefs are also strongly correlated to political viewpoints. Evangelical Christians in the United States are one of the most politically conservative cohorts with white evangelicals composing the core the Republican Party. On the whole, Jews are solidly Democratic with 71% voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Catholics are the most left leaning denomination within Christianity, with Clinton grabbing 45% of the Catholic vote share as opposed to 39% for Christians overall. An estimated 70% of Muslims in 2016 voted for the Democratic nominee.

In an attempt to gain a deeper understanding the intersection of religion and environmentalism, VPR spoke with leaders of the Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic faiths from around the Nashville community. At first all three of these individuals noted, there are important connections and synergies that exist between their belief system and environmentalism.

“The Catholic worldview undergirds true care for the environment,” noted Father Michael Fye of Vanderbilt’s Chaplains office. Fye notes that God called both humans and nature “good,” and thus, there is biblical precedence for man and the environment being mutually beneficial.

Rabbi Shlomo Rothstein of Vanderbilt’s Chabad house also remarked on the elements of environmentalism that appear in core Jewish teachings. “In order to be Jewish it has to boil back down to the Torah or an authentic Jewish document.” Rothstein highlights a teaching in Deuteronomy 20 on how Israelites should act during war. Verse 19 reads: “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?”

Similarly, Professor Awadh Binhazim former adjunct Islam chaplain at Vanderbilt noted that the Muslim is taught in the Quran to walk gently and not to be wasteful –“Do not walk proudly on the earth, your feet cannot tear apart the earth nor are you as tall as the mountains.”

Despite these similar teachings in the essential texts of these three faiths, important differences emerge at the environmentalism-religion intersection, particularly when looking at the leadership structure of these different groups. Perhaps the most well-known comments of a religious figure’s views on environmental issues are Pope Francis’ recent encyclicals. One such letter, entitled “Laudato Si,” laments the destruction of the environment and the financially driven actions by the wealthy that renders the world more uninhabitable for those less well off. Since this letter was the first encyclical wholly written by Francis, media personalities and environmentalists, Catholic and alike, saw a new hope from the spiritual leader of over one billion individuals around the world.

Father Fye encourages those interested in the Pope’s writings to approach the issue with some nuance. “The Church only has competency on faith and morals.” Additionally, Fye notes that the Vatican making statements on environmental issues is not something new, and there is no claim of infallibility. However,  “Catholics should know that [Francis] is speaking from a qualified position” and from an area of concern, Fye states. While the Vatican itself may have taken somewhat of a more pro-environmentalism stance in recent years, the extent to which Catholics adopt such beliefs varies greatly across regions of the world, levels of religiosity, and political beliefs.

The much more decentralized forms of leadership in the Jewish and Islamic faiths inherently create unique advantages and disadvantages in terms of raising environmental awareness among the faithful. Professor Binhazim notes that the primary spiritual leader who Muslims look to is the imam at their local congregations, and “it is being honest to say that [environmentalism] is a topic not many imams have capacity to talk about.” This, however, does not mean that Muslim leaders as a whole are turning their backs on environmental responsibility. Binhazim was asked to give a presentation on the Islamic response to climate change at the Islam Society of North America’s national conference. Presenters at this panel showed how more sustainable individual actions could help put the earth on a more sustainable path. Thus, leaders of the Islamic faith have indeed shown leadership on environmental issues. 

In the Jewish faith, the multitude of different approaches to the religion and the relatively small number of followers limits the ability to find a centralized figure responsible espousing teachings of faith. Local rabbis are looked to for moral guidance, and have historically been willing to offer policy advice on environmental issues. The 7th Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, one of the most noteworthy Jewish leaders in the 20th century, gave a speech in 1981 calling for more investment in solar energy. “There is one energy source which can be made available in a very short time. Solar energy is non-polluting, cheap, and inexhaustible…it can power individual homes as well as giant factories.” Schneerson viewed solar energy as a means for America to take its place in the world that God intended and absolve itself of dependence on other nations for energy.

In addition to their respective leadership structures, Judaism, Islam, and Catholicism each have their own worldviews that are essential to understanding how followers view the relationship between humans and the environment. Both Catholics and Muslims believe in the afterlife, but Jews do not. “The essential theme of Judaism, at least the Chabad approach, is that we’re here on Earth to build it for a house of God…If that’s the case, and we aren’t looking at the world as a means to an end, we should therefore treat this place as something that would be around forever,” says Rothstein. Despite the environmental destruction that is presently occurring, Rabbi Shlomo has faith that the earth will overcome given its importance in God’s plan.

Professor Binzahim emphasizes that the ultimate goal for Muslims around the world “is for everything that you do to please God.” Thus, the callings of the Quran to not be wasteful and to make the most use of natural resources are key to following the faith. This focus on individual action has lead to many outlets for Muslims to be more environmentally friendly. For example, there is a website where Muslims can make a commitment on what type of environmentally conscious action they will undertake. Binzahim notes that many mosques have banned plastic water bottles, and imams have begun to encourage their congregates to do the same.

In Catholicism, a hierarchy of spiritual importance exists, and thus informs followers as to go about their everyday lives. “We are at the top of the hierarchy of the natural world… yet the hierarchy should be looked at not as a thing of power but of love. We are meant to serve” [in the example Jesus has set for us,] says Father Fye. Though humans find themselves at the top of pyramid, the Catholic worldview tells practitioners that they should care for the natural world since it is also the product of the divine’s creation.

There are many important nuances in various religions that environmentalists should be aware of when seeking a common ground between diverse groups of individuals. As environmental issues become increasingly complex and international in scope, policy leaders that follow different creeds and say different prayers during the day will need to find agreement in order to mitigate these issues – such as climate change, plastic pollution, and biodiversity losses.

Religion offers “a faith and a charge” as Rabbi Shlomo said. There are few other institutions in the world that have endured as long as Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism. Thus, each of these three faiths offer unique insights as to how some of their followers may link their spiritual beliefs to present day problems. And like for any modern day problem, religion does not have all of the answers for environmental matters. It nevertheless can offer hope amongst daunting obstacles.

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The Intersection of Religion and Environmentalism