In recent years, environmentalism has received growing support from the leaders of major world religions. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has been a vocal advocate of climate action, even suggesting that caring for the environment should rank alongside feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless as an act of Christian mercy. In 2015, Hindu leaders from across India published the “Hindu Declaration on Climate Change,” in which they encouraged fellow believers to expand the concept of dharma, or duty, to include a duty to protect the natural world. In November 2020, the Dalai Lama insisted that “Buddha would be green” and urged his followers to reduce their environmental impact.
As an environmentalist, I welcome this support. I may not believe in Christian mercy, Hindu dharma, or tantric yoga, but I do believe that the more people there are acting to reverse climate change and environmental destruction, the better.
Religion’s relationship with environmentalism runs deeper than simple endorsement, however. Increasingly, the world’s major faiths are not only positioning themselves as champions of the environmental movement but as inherently environmentalist themselves. And this is where environmentalists ought to be concerned. Never mind that the historical and theological validity of these claims is highly suspect; efforts to define environmentalism as a religious endeavor put the very future of the movement at risk.
Religion and environmentalism weren’t always such bosom buddies. Indeed, when the environmental movement first achieved public prominence in the 1960s, many of its followers viewed religion—especially Christianity—with suspicion. This view was most forcefully expressed by the medieval historian Lynn White Jr., who in 1967 argued that much of the blame for environmental destruction lay at the feet of the Christian faith. In a short paper for the journal Science titled “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis,” White asserted that Christianity, “the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen,” had imbued European society with a “Christian arrogance toward nature.” This sense of mastery over the natural world had in turn informed the character of science and technology as they developed from the Christian scholarship of medieval and early modern Europe. The result was that humanity’s immense scientific and technological powers were unrestrained by any sense of sympathy or responsibility for the environment.
Perhaps surprisingly given his unflinching criticism of Christianity, White didn’t advocate for the separation of church and nature. Quite the opposite: “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious,” he wrote, “the remedy must also be essentially religious.” White believed the solution to the ecological crisis was to “find a new religion, or rethink our old one.”
For the environmentally conscious of 1967, the first of those two options was by far the more attractive. This, after all, was the summer of love: a time when opposing the establishment became a political creed for many in Europe and North America. And if anything represented the establishment, it was Christianity.
It was therefore unsurprising that so many environmentalists turned their gaze east in the late 1960s and 1970s in their search for ecological wisdom. Beatniks, hippies, and other self-styled counterculture rebels had already been looking to India and the Far East for answers for over a decade; if these places held spiritual enlightenment, might they not also hold environmental enlightenment?
The answer, it turned out, was a rather disappointing “no.” The truth is that Eastern religions and spiritual philosophies contain no clear, coherent environmentalist ethic—or indeed much evidence of having been formulated by people with any particular ecological insight. If that sounds surprising, it’s a testament to the subsequent greenwashing that has rebranded these and other religions as fonts of environmental wisdom.
Hinduism has been at the forefront of these efforts. Today it is commonplace to hear the world’s third-largest religion praised as an inherently environmentalist faith. “Ancient Hindu myth is founded on what we would now call a profoundly ecological vision,” writes the historian and scholar of Hinduism Harold Coward in his 2003 book chapter “Hindu Views of Nature and the Environment.” Such views, however, are a very recent development in the history of Hinduism. Beginning in the 1980s—and in response to the burgeoning interest in environmentalism in the West—several Hindu scholars began to deliberately reinterpret the sacred texts of Hinduism in an ecological light, combing through the vast body of ancient Hindu literature for passages in which the natural world or environmental themes figured prominently. The profusion of nature-based deities, it was argued, showed that Hindus had long revered the natural world as sacred. Similarly, the belief in the interconnectedness of the cosmos—from people to plants to rivers to raindrops—was evidence that ancient Hindus had understood the entire world to be one great “ecosystem,” thousands of years before Westerners established the science of ecology.
It’s certainly true that the natural world figures prominently in many Hindu texts. Indeed, some of them—especially the Rig Veda, a collection of hymns dating back to the second millennium BCE—contain an undeniable appreciation and reverence for the beauty and bounty of nature. By themselves, however, appreciation and reverence are not environmentalism. By that logic, the poetry of William Wordsworth or the landscapes of Li Cheng would also count as environmentalism. And when we look for less ambiguous examples of environmentalism in Hindu texts—direct calls to protect the environment informed by a clear understanding of natural processes and humanity’s impact upon them—we come away empty-handed. This shouldn’t surprise us: after all, if environmental concerns and ecological wisdom really were so intrinsic to the Hindu worldview, why did it require such deliberate and painstaking effort to uncover these messages from the sacred texts?
Perhaps in response to the lack of unambiguous environmental content, several Hindu scholars have resorted to less honest approaches to ecotheology. While researching this article, I was surprised to come across the following line from a Rig Veda hymn: “Do not cut down trees because they remove pollution.” Sound environmental advice, especially considering it was written over three thousand years ago. When I consulted a copy of the Rig Veda, however, that same line (book six, hymn forty-eight, line seventeen) was translated as follows: “Tear not up by the roots the Kakambira tree: destroy thou all malignity.” No mention of pollution; indeed, no indication that the Kakambira tree had anything other than spiritual significance in the mind of the hymn’s author. Elsewhere I found a line from the Arthava Veda given—in an academic paper, no less—as: “Plants and herbs destroy pollutants.” And yet when I checked that line (book eight, hymn seven, line ten) for myself, I found: “The plants which release, exempt from Varuna, are strong, and destroy poison.” When the line is read in context, it’s clear that the Arthava Veda is talking about medicinal herbs, not pollution. There are many other similar (mis)translations littering the internet and, it would seem, academia. Clearly, some environmentally minded Hindus are promoting anachronistically loose interpretations of their sacred texts to inflate Hinduism’s green credentials.
It would be unfair to focus solely on Hinduism, as other Eastern religions also claim to possess ancient environmental wisdom. In Japan, for example, followers of Shinto frequently assert that their faith has long embodied environmental teachings. The belief that kami, or spirits, reside in natural features, such as mountains and rivers, is commonly interpreted today as meaning that nature itself is sacred and must be protected. From this it’s argued that Shinto encourages its followers to appreciate their dependence on the natural world and live in harmony with it. As with Hinduism, however, these interpretations are recent developments. As the scholar of Japan Aike Rots explains in his 2017 book Shinto, Nature and Ideology in Contemporary Japan, it was only in the 1970s that environmentalist interpretations of Shinto such as these began to appear, and it was not until the 1990s that such interpretations became widely held among believers. As Rots writes: “Shinto has been redefined as an ancient tradition of nature worship … containing important physical, cultural and ethical resources for tackling today’s environmental crisis.”
Nor is it just Eastern religions that have been recast as beacons of ecological wisdom. During the New Age movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the belief systems of various Native American nations were frequently reinterpreted—or simply rewritten—as environmentalist manifestoes, in the patronizing belief that the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas were somehow more “ancient” and “authentic” than other Westerners. You may have come across the speech “This Earth Is Precious,” given by the Squamish chief Seattle in 1855. “How can you buy or sell the sky?” asks Seattle of the European settlers carving up his land. “If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?” It’s a powerful and poetic oration. It’s also fake. These words were never uttered by Seattle but instead were written by a Texan screenwriter for a 1972 documentary about pollution. The widespread acceptance of the misattribution speaks of the firm association between spirituality and environmentalism in the public consciousness.
Even Christianity has undergone something of an environmental conversion. The well-known passage in Genesis where Yahweh grants Adam “dominion” over all creatures—considered by Lynn White to be a source of the “Christian arrogance toward nature”—is now commonly interpreted as meaning “custodianship” or “stewardship” of the natural world. Pope Francis has elaborated on this idea, suggesting that the Christian god gave humanity permission to use natural resources only on the condition that we don’t abuse or destroy them. Much attention has also been focussed on the pope’s namesake, Francis of Assisi, who extolled an unusually sensitive and intimate connection to the natural world. Even White himself, despite his condemnation of Christianity’s environmental track record, believed that Francis’s “pan-psychism” could hold the seed of “an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it.”
We Must Look to Science, Not Religion
Today, many of the world’s religions are on the brink of completing one of the most successful public relations makeovers in recent history. Talk to the faithful—regardless of the faith—and they will likely affirm that their religion offers clear and coherent environmentalist teachings and has done so since its inception. Often this conviction is shared even by those of other or no religious affiliation. “In most major religions there is scripture encouraging the protection and care of nature,” insists the United Nations Environmental Programme; “from Buddhism to Christianity, Hinduism to Islam, faiths recognize the need for environmental stewardship and urge followers to be caretakers of the planet and its biodiversity.” With such praise now widespread, it’s easy to forget that no faith was commonly understood in environmental terms until recent decades.
It’s worth reiterating that I have no problem with religions and their adherents promoting environmentalism. The point being made here isn’t that religious texts and practices shouldn’t be reinterpreted and revised; that, after all, is as old as religion itself. Nor am I suggesting that it’s somehow hypocritical for religious believers to also be environmentalists. Personal faith and concern for the environment are not mutually exclusive.
But neither are they the same thing. Environmentalism is—or ought to be—action informed by science, not faith. Without science, we would have no way of measuring or understanding our planet and its ecosystems; consequently, we would have no way of helping them. Whenever environmentalism has made positive contributions to the world—the ongoing recovery of the ozone layer, for instance, or the growing adoption of renewable energy—it has been led by scientific inquiry and rigor. Conversely, whenever environmentalism has allowed itself to be guided by spirituality, it has become lost in the inconsequential backwaters of New Age mysticism and back-to-the-land communes.
Current efforts to define religions as inherently environmentalist—and thus environmentalism as inherently religious—ought therefore to trouble those concerned for our planet, regardless of their personal beliefs, for they are an attempt to replace the science of environmentalism with faith. The Vatican, for example, is explicit in its assertion that the climate crisis can’t be solved with science alone. “A Christian vision is not comparable to a secular vision of ecology,” it states; “technological revolution and individual commitment are not enough.”
If this were true, then why do religions have so little to show for their spiritual visions of ecology? If Hinduism is so environmentally enlightened, then why is India—home to 966 million Hindus—an ecological tragedy? If Christianity “has always shown a deep environmental awareness,” how do we explain the fact that nearly two-thirds of Europe’s waterways suffer from high levels of pollution?
When considered in historical context, religion’s complicity in environmental destruction is even clearer. Islam has been around for well over one thousand years; Christianity and Shinto for two thousand years; Hinduism and Buddhism, in some form, for close to three thousand years. During the past three millennia, the Earth has witnessed countless environmental disasters: entire ecosystems destroyed through deforestation; landscapes laid to waste by unsustainable farming; the extinctions of the dodo, moa, and elephant bird—all culminating in the ecological crisis unleashed by the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In all that time, not one religion developed a clear environmentalist ideology, let alone any intellectual or mechanical innovations that might have reduced humanity’s impact on the planet. Religion, in short, has had thousands of years to prove its environmental worth, and it has failed miserably.
In contrast, it took less than fifty years following the establishment of ecology in the late nineteenth century for scientists to not only raise concerns about the deteriorating state of the natural world but to lay the foundations of environmental science that have formed the basis of effective environmental action ever since. Only then, once scientific effort and ingenuity had brought the unfolding environmental crisis to public attention, did religions finally take notice. And now they have the temerity to claim environmentalism as their own?
If environmentalism is to continue as a successful movement—and, for all our sakes, it needs to—then it must continue to be driven by science. By all means, religious leaders should use their power and influence to raise awareness of the ecological crisis and urge action. But they have no grounds to treat environmentalism as their prerogative. Environmentalists of all beliefs must therefore resist these religious efforts to reshape environmentalism as a fundamentally spiritual endeavor. Were these efforts to succeed, it would sound the death knell for effective environmental action.
In recent years, environmentalism has received growing support from the leaders of major world religions. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has been a vocal advocate of climate action, even suggesting that caring for the environment should rank alongside feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless as an act of Christian mercy. In 2015, …