Open access peer-reviewed chapter - ONLINE FIRST

Sustainability and Religion: Mutual Implications

Written By

Lluis Oviedo

Submitted: March 1st, 2022Reviewed: March 14th, 2022Published: April 8th, 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.104497

Sustainability, Ecology, and Religions of the WorldEdited by Levente Hufnagel

From the Edited Volume

Sustainability, Ecology, and Religions of the World [Working Title]

Dr. Levente Hufnagel

Chapter metrics overview

13 Chapter Downloads

View Full Metrics


Whether sustainability goals advance depends greatly on the human factor, or the set of beliefs, values, and attitudes held by entire populations, besides governments, authorities or boards. Recognizing the role that the human factor plays might ensure a better consideration of religious bodies or churches when trying to design more sustainable complex systems, a point frequently ignored in secular societies where the weight of religious beliefs seems to be dismissed as insignificant. Post-secular arrangements could open the door to a greater engagement from religious organizations and individuals. At the same time, it is important for churches and theological reflection to assume the sustainability aim at the centre of their interests and development. There are some exceptions, as the case of apocalyptic-driven religious forms, which are little interested in sustainability, and could expect a rather catastrophic end of times. However, most religious expressions should be more concerned about contributing to sustainable programs.


  • social systems
  • culture
  • beliefs
  • values
  • sustainable systems
  • human factor
  • transcendence

1. Introduction

The late German sociologist Niklas Luhmann asked in a book published in 1986 about what religion and theology could offer to address the ecologic crises, beyond sheer attitudes of protest and obvious statements about the need to engage for greater care of our natural environment [1]. His view was quite provoking, and it questioned which role religious institutions could play in relationship to great systems, like economy and politics. Indeed, what was at stake concerned the function of religion in advanced societies, and therefore, to what extent religious performance can involve such big issues. Many are convinced that its role is much more modest and restricted to managing uncertainties, or to reduce the excess of complexity. In fact, in Luhmann’s model, religion works somewhat to reduce uncertainty, not to increase it denouncing great dangers and scaring people: the message would be rather “Be quiet, things will adjust with the help of divine providence”.

Obviously, the described starting point is too reductive and ignores the great complexity affecting social system’s relationships, including religion, and other elements that clearly fall upon environmental issues, like values, cultural background, or general beliefs. If we want to tackle the question about the role that religion can play in addressing sustainability issues, then we need absolutely to broaden our vision to include more factors and to raise the complexity level, especially considering a post-secularization state in which religion does not compete with politics and other social spheres but collaborates and becomes better integrated into the social fabric.

Trying to better describe what is understood for sustainability, the present essay follows the broad model coined with the acronym ESG and amply assumed in international organisms: environmental issues; social and equality concern; and governance at organizational level. The idea is to assume a very comprehensive view that encompasses different dimensions involved in ensuring a balanced and better future for all.

In a nutshell, religion is clearly related to sustainability, and the connections are several. For instance, religious bodies are clearly affected by those trends: if our world is not sustainable, neither will be its religious institutions. This general rule finds an exception in those more inspired and motivated by apocalyptic expectations, whose interest is less to assist in sustaining our world, but rather the opposite. But the issue can be seen in a more specific way: in times of strong religious decline, what is at stake is the continuity or sheer survival of religious congregations, which appear for many – in the current conditions – as little sustainable; in fact, even if advanced societies could survive and thrive, churches would sharply decline and even disappear. However, the implication could be more constructive: some religious forms appear as ‘adaptive’ in the sense that they help a population to better adapt to their environmental conditions, something that has happened in the past and can be traced back, integrating well their own environment and building more resilient societies [2]. However, a look to the ample published literature offers a different view: how religious beliefs and values inform and influence attitudes toward the environment. This happens at more levels: theological or reflexive, ethical or practical, and ritual.

If sustainability needs to be seen as a broader concept, and hence not just focused on environmental issues, but as a normative idea embracing social justice or equality as well as good governance, then the application range of religion or its possible contacts and effects will increase, as the concept “integral ecology” might imply. In any case, we need to better determine how these interactions proceed, in both senses: how religion impacts in sustainable policies and at the sociocultural level; and how sustainability as a normative idea influences religious faith and practice in the current conditions and in more concerned cultures. The proposed topic can be studied at several levels. The first one is structural or systemic, since religion can be conceived and analysed as a social sub-system entertaining complex relationship with the whole system and the other sub-systems. The second is more cultural and can make good use of cultural evolution and adaptation theories as a framework, and other studies that highlight the important role that culture plays in social and personal dynamics. The third moves more to the area of personal beliefs and values, or to what can be designed as “the human factor” in sustainability, where religion surely is more salient, and as a factor that could weight strongly in the development of a more sustainable society.

The present article will review the suggested three scenarios where the mutual interactions between religion and sustainability can be better described. The ultimate aim of this short analysis is to better assess religions’ possibilities and limits regarding the high priority and urgency that we recognize to programs for enforcing a sustainable future. The inspiring motive is that sustainability models suggest integration and a holistic view, where every dimension contributes to general stability and wellbeing.


2. Exploring the systemic level

The systemic and structural level is probably the most abstract and hard to describe when trying to analyse how religion interacts with society in a whole and with other social systems to achieve goals related to the sustainability ideal, but it becomes a good guide into such dynamics.

Taking the social systems theory of Niklas Luhmann as a general framework [3] and trying to update and adapt it to new circumstances, we can develop a model that could reveal several hidden dynamics when religion is thought as part of a system aimed at becoming sustainable.

Luhmann never ignored religion as a relevant social sub-system, and he devoted several essays along his fruitful career to dissect the functions that religion could perform in highly differentiated societies [4]. From this broad view, to speak about social systems and sustainability would be a redundancy: indeed, per definition, a social system is an entity that subsists despite the odds and manages to articulate a network of meaningful communications in contrast with its noisy environment. The general idea is that a social system is a living case of social survival, and societies exist since a very early stage of human evolution, but they have evolved too, following a path that moved from more hierarchical to more meshed, differentiated and specialized structures, well ingrained and inter-dependent. It is apparent that that evolution has been positive and helped to better adapt to changing circumstances: a progress arrow can be described. In the developed stage, several sub-systems arise to better address their functional issues, like in the case of economy, politics, science, and others. Religion experiences its own evolution, from providing the description and meaning of the entire system, to be a part dealing with a specific issue: managing the residual contingency, or those problems other systems could not manage or fix. In this schema, religion becomes the ultimate resource for unsolvable or pending issues beyond the reach of economic, political, or scientific intervention [5].

Luhmann’s analysis moved later to still more abstract functions, like dealing with the paradoxes that unavoidably engenders a self-referential social system like ours. In principle, the sustainability of a society depends on some balance between the differentiation process, that leads to a high specialization of each sub-system, and the integration or coordination of such autonomous instances, with their own approach and communication codes. Furthermore, a society is sustainable when it is able to keep a balance with its own environment – not just natural – and its internal functions. Each sub-system needed to contribute in the right way, performing its own function. The schema reserves a place and a role to religion as an instance able to tackle the hardest or ultimate issues through a code that distinguishes between immanence and transcendence, and remits to a transcending dimension what cannot be adjusted in the immanent or immediate reality.

The emergency we try to address under the label of ‘sustainability’ forces us to observe our social systems from a different perspective, even if in continuity with what sociologists like Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann could observe from their systemic gaze. The point is not so much how stable societies are at the present, and how they manage to keep so, but rather, how they can preserve in the future a condition that is now perceived as deeply endangered by several disrupting factors. Even if we managed to survive as integrated societies until now, despite many disasters, plagues, and wars, we can no longer take for granted such resilience, when the current conditions appear as more threatening and climate change is setting a concerning trend, together with other contingencies we do not manage to address.

The new condition puts religion under a rising tension, since the growing uncertainties, or non-manageable risks, increase the pressure on the function that the social systems theory assigned to religion. However, providing hope or even to establish a sharp distinction between this-worldly and other-worldly expectations – the first one doomed and the second one open to be revealed – does help only in a relative way, and clearly reduces the range of religious function when the entire system is in question.

Religions have always played a ‘vicary role’ in many societies, trying to address sectors that were incompletely covered by secular means. In that sense, the idea of ‘residual management’ acquires a new meaning. In fact, Christian churches have engaged many times in supplying material and human resources to cover gaps in the education, health and welfare systems in many societies. It has been a constant provider of such services during the 19th and 20th centuries in many Westers areas, a model later transferred to other societies in worse conditions. Even today, and as the American anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann stated [6], many Churches in America provide assistance to people suffering psychological illnesses and difficulties, and in that way, they help to remedy a shortage in services that cannot be covered by other administrative or social resources of the Welfare State. The point is that religions show a very adaptive flexibility that clearly contributes to fill gaps and to render the entire social system more resilient and sustainable.

The question is: To what extent do evolved religions exhibit this adaptive capacity, and will become useful to address the far greater concerns linked to sustainability? My proposal has been to expand the basic idea of Luhmann’s social systems theory to assume that religion has been vicarious and has always addressed residual problems or has filled empty gaps in the social fabric no other systems were able to fill, or simply inadvertently opened. If this is the case, then, this other great emergency, threatening humanity’s future, will mobilize all the available resources to cope with this risk, not just providing hope, but encouraging practices and pressing to reach more reassuring conditions.

Obviously, it is not easy to compare churches interventions aimed at alleviating educational needs, physical or mental health demands, and other social deficits, and to remedy a state of things that could bring to a general collapse. In the first case, concrete actions are expected in schools, hospitals, and charities; in the present emergency it is less about assisting people in need, and more about changing minds and hearts and to interact with other social systems exerting some pressure or lobbying for sustainable management. Several churches and religions have already adopted such a strategy, at least at the level of their declarations and intentions. It is less clear to what extent these religious bodies could effectively interact with more powerful systems, like economy and politics, to achieve these goals.

A main difficulty can be devised in this context: even if religion can play a vicarious role at filling gaps left in the social fabric, it becomes harder to contrast the own dynamics presiding contemporary standard economy, based on increasing production and conspicuous consumption. In this case, religion does not just provide some remedies, without interfering with other system’s development, but might contrast and even disrupt those same systems which follow a divergent logic. From a systemic point of view, such interferences should lead to new configurations and adaptations in each system, but the problem could subsist and leave open wounds in the social body.

I have mentioned from the beginning that the interaction works as a two-way dynamic: it is not just about how religions contribute to ensure a sustainable future, but how the model of sustainability can influence and help these religious entities. The expectation is that such a model informs and inspires these institutions, and that they assume sustainability as their main goal, for them and for all the society in which they are inserted. That means a special emphasis and a style more sensitive towards the common shared future and a revision of everything from this priority. Religious organizations confront similar – or even worse – scenarios as every other social body, and they need to focus more on something that was quite neglected until recently, since the stability of those organizations was presumed. This shared sense of risk clearly invites to redefine priorities and to adapt the organization to whatever can ensure a viable future.

The suggested perspective should assist in redefining the mission of religious organizations according to the current emergency. The central question is whether withdrawing religion and churches from the equation, things could stay the same or even improve to reach better levels in sustainability rankings. This would be the ultimate test when trying to ascertain the function that religion still plays in societies struggling with several threats and a highly uncertain future. The expectation is that the religious sub-system can assume a greater commitment in this field, and that doing so, it focuses all its resources to contribute to assuring life and stability for next generations, beyond providing transcending hope. The point is that such development could work to reintegrate religion and its function into this new context that demands to all social systems to engage – each one in its own way – in improving the present conditions. Not just religion, but every social sub-system needs to review and update its priorities, functions and performance according to that broad goal: ensuring a sustainable future. That goal will redescribe the social system with its many components or sub-systems, now more encompassed according to the current emergencies. Religion will probably not play a leading role in this new configuration as in earlier times, but it could nevertheless make a difference in dealing with the described challenges. Religion is called to contribute to render a society more sustainable than other society without.

Until now, religion has been described in highly general and abstract terms, avoiding the reference to specific religious traditions. Probably each religion offers its own style and rules to better address the described challenge, and surely some religions will be better endowed than others to assume that task and to tackle those issues. We need to move further to practice this analysis in a more accurate and nuanced way. Some steps have been already done, and several studies have been published focusing on particular religious traditions [7, 8, 9], but more needs to be done in order to better specify the connections between each religious expression and the described agenda, however this work transcends the limits of the present essay.


3. Religion as a cultural expression, and what it means for sustainability

The second level to examine is the cultural one. Culture plays a central role in inspiring behaviours and it is very flexible and dynamic, changing in the last times at an accelerated pace. It is clear too that cultures are very complex sets of beliefs, values, and views, shared by a population when they reach some critical mass, and providing orientation and legitimation for individuals and groups. Cultural contents and preferences clearly bias not just personal views or judgements, but decisions and attitudes. Regarding sustainability, a sharp distinction can be traced between those cultural configurations that help to address such concerns, and cultures that become ‘counter-adaptive’ or that nourish living styles that become less sustainable. A good example is consumerism as experienced in Western societies [10]; we have in mind a cultural framework nourished by publicity encouraging living styles that threaten the future of the entire planet. Other cultural forms clearly support a more austere attitude or living standards which contribute to a more sustainable society.

The idea that culture plays a big role in motivating more sustainable behaviours by individuals and societies alike invites to explore what can render a culture more fitting and less counter-adaptive, and to discern whether religion can play a role in this area. To the first question, it is apparent that cultural expressions are the result of many elements contributing to create a broadly shared opinion, sensitivity, or to build ‘collective imaginaries’; among them the media take a first position; then perhaps politicians and authorities with some prestige; and – recently – the so-called ‘influencers’. The media continue to be powerful levers in this process, but in the last times, other social media are competing to nourish the cultural milieu and they often reach a critical mass, competing with traditional ones. Media contend with strongly held traditions, with education programs, and with other sources of what is called ‘high culture’. However, culture is not a unique container, but a plural one, and this is still more the case in our times and societies. Nevertheless, we can identify ‘dominant cultures’ and ‘minority cultures’, which often are linked to social minorities with their own codes, symbols, values, and references. A tension grows between different and sometimes competing cultural expressions. Indeed, a vectors field of forces and attractors, like in physics, could be a more proximate representation about how cultures influence and gain more or less sway in a social setting.

Regarding religion, it is broadly assumed that religious beliefs and values are often integrated into a general culture or appear as minority expressions in clear contrast with dominant forms. In the first case, they configure traditions and nourish a mentality that is learned and assumed in less secularized societies, or even leave a rest in local cultures, as an element hard to disentangle from those massive worldviews. But, in other cases, religious culture becomes just a minority expression that challenges several positions in the dominant culture. The described situation could lead even to ‘culture wars’ or big tensions between different and contrasting values and worldviews. The point is that religion usually plays an important role in the cultural field, but this role is obviously more or less powerful depending on the secularization levels in a given society: a very secular context is one in which religious culture plays a very limited role or is unable to define any value; a postsecular one offers new opportunities for religious cultural leverage.

Cultures evolve, as a growing specialized literature reveals [11]. This is just a starting point; it is harder to specify the ways and conditions leading cultural evolution. The easiest approach is to assume the same process that applies in the biological realm: cultures know variations, selection of the fittest, and replication. However, the experts have pointed to many specific traits in cultural evolution that discourage such a model as too simplistic. Indeed, cultural transmission is not just genetic, but it works at more levels, like learning. Useful information is the basic unit in that process, and it can be transmitted in a richer way as does the biological model. At the moment some consensus has been reached that recognizes an equal value to cultural and genetic dynamics in the general process that governs human evolutionary history.

It might seem that I am deviating from our main goal and taking a bypass when trying to highlight the importance of culture in social processes and to better describe the role that religion plays. In reality, this alternative focus is just complementary to the first one exposed above: religion can be observed as a cultural expression assuming all the characteristics we can attribute to such social phenomena. In other words, recognizing to religion the status of a culture means that it interacts in a complex way with other cultural configurations assuming similar functions or capacities.

Back to our main argument, the question is how religion might work as a cultural instance connecting with sustainability demands, or able to encourage sustainable styles and organizations. At least three possibilities arise: convergence between cultural expressions aimed at similar goals; resistance against negative cultural forms; and complementarity, providing inputs that other cultural forms neglect.

The first relevant model points to cultural convergence. In a social configuration where many cultural forms coexist, competition and clash between cultures emerges often, but in other case we can observe cultural cooperation and mutual enrichment. Christian culture could converge in the last couple of centuries in many areas with local and national cultures, and indeed a long historical season has witnessed this dangerous conflation between nationalism and Catholicism or other Christian confessions. Some experiences or attempts have been done trying to join Christian faith and some contemporary political movements, like fascism or communism. We can now judge such attempts as mostly misguided and flawed in their outcomes. In other cases, some Christian cultures – like Catholicism – have moved towards great hostility and concurrence with other expressions, giving place to ‘culture wars’; this was the case with liberalism during the XIX and a good part of 20th century; or socialism later. In many cases, the ideals, values, and expectations of a secular State were seen with suspicion by many Churches. Something similar can be perceived in some expressions of conflict between religious and scientifically inspired cultures in our days. Then some religious cultures could feel in clear contrast with popular cultures exalting narcissism, individualism, and hedonism.

We assist now to a different process, one in which more common ground can be found and explored. In this new development, the urgencies and dangers we foresee constrain us to rather unite forces and to build a more constructive approach able to summon different sensitivities or cultural backgrounds. Sustainability reflects not just a cultural form or a living style, but it represents a call to engage for the goodness and wellbeing of everybody, involving all possible sectors and cultural forms. Many cultural expressions, like living religions, ideologies, or sensitivities can get together under the same flag and contribute from one’s own specific cultural motives to the same cause.

Pope’s Francis last Encyclical Fratelli tuttioffers a good case for embracing a convergence stance, and not a concurrence or exclusivist model for engaging in the pursuit of a common good, as it is the case when what is at stake is our general survival as human species. This model entails a disposition to recognize every other cultural or religious instance that pursues a similar goal, and that contributes to the peace and unity of the human race.

Besides the convergence model, other models come to mind when considering religions as cultural forms. In fact, it is quite usual to advance a model of resistance and contrast. This is characteristic for expressions that have a cause to vindicate or to fight for, and it is associated to protest movements, but it can be expanded to many cultural forms that resist being assimilated to a majority or dominant culture that ignores or even dismisses other views and rights, calling for greater justice, equity and respect for the ‘others.’ Indeed, a part of the standard ESG model that rules in the world of sustainable assessments places emphasis not just on environmental issues, but on social ones, including equity and equality or social justice. The point is that religion as a cultural expression sometimes needs to assume a similar version of resistance and protest, to contrast cultural dominant forms that result in margination, injustice or justifying the powerful and the abuses against those worse off.

Religion as a culture plays both games: converging with cultural expressions engaging in a similar interest to ensure a more sustainable future; and the contrasting game, against cultures that endanger our planet’s equilibrium or that cover injustice and inequality. This ‘double game’ poses the question about the required discernment to find out when a religious body feels more called to engage in one or the other strategy, depending on circumstances and facts – not just ideas.

A third possibility – besides those described – can be added when we take religion as a cultural form: complementarity or implementation of neglected issues. This is a topic that requires further study. At first sight, several issues that appear important for most Christian traditions, like family stability, fecundity or intergenerational concern and engagement, could appear as absent in most agendas dealing with sustainable projects; indeed, they are usually missing in the criteria to value and rank ESG or sustainable levels in organizations and countries. However, the religious point of view, grounded in its own tradition and values, and then in common sense, suggests a set of issues that are very related to any sustainable social setting. Some of them are too obvious: a society without stable families will suffer in their present and future development. Furthermore, if families do not form and people do not want to have children, no sustainable future can be conceived. The point of intergenerational concern is perhaps less obvious, but it plays an important role: if elderly people are left alone or there is no concern for the wellbeing of our grandchildren in a long term, then sustainability becomes an empty program or an unsensitive technical issue, not something human and with a soul.

The described contributions in the last point remind us about a role that religions as cultures can still play, and to the idea, already advanced, which renders religions necessary when thinking on a complex program of sustainability. Possibly without the emphasis religions place on these family issues and others regarding human dignity and care for those in need, we would once more notice big gaps and neglects that other cultural systems are unable to address and fill. Religion as a cultural instance becomes then a fundamental factor, whose absence would result in many gaps and neglects.


4. The ‘human factor’: the role of beliefs and believing process

We move now to the third level in where the relevance of religion for sustainability programs can become more significant, but now the perspective changes from the structural and cultural level to the personal. For many scholars, religion works more at the individual level, or transferring to that level general or social issues, to deal with them better. In fact, religions are usually big organizations with their own structure, and they need to be integrated into the social fabric, through complex interactions, However, its focus is on the person, its beliefs, values and hopes. I will not discuss now about that thesis – if religion resorts mostly to the individual treatment of perceived problems – but we need to pay attention to how religion becomes relevant at that level when we try to better understand its role or function concerning a sustainable future.

A good approach to the question invites us to consider the important role that beliefs play in our societies and how they determine their future and even the legitimacy of democracy and other social entities. According to several recent studies, believing or holding the right or the wrong beliefs becomes the most sensitive factor in open societies affecting their stability [12, 13]. The impact of beliefs and believing on sustainable systems is more than apparent; many examples come to mind. For instance, when a population sector does not believe the scientific reports pointing to climate change, then we can expect that these people will resist demanding policies aimed at contrasting that dangerous trend. When people do not believe in vaccines, then their resulting attitude could jeopardise efforts at fixing a pandemic.

Beliefs are not just self-generated, but they arise from many inputs, perceptions and data, a process now better-known and studied [14, 15]. Recently the enormous expansion of new media, social networks, and the conspicuous diffusion of fake news using those channels prompt a wave of false beliefs, biases and delusions hard to tackle and to confront with the current means. A big issue in our time and social context is – after recognizing the central role that beliefs play – how to help in forming the right beliefs, those more useful or functional, and to avoid beliefs that become destructive and encourage irresponsibility and deceit.

A recent study has highlighted how the ‘human factor’ is missed in most instruments aimed at measuring and valuing levels of sustainability in organizations, or the most standardized ESG [environmental, social and governance] controls and rankings [16]. Possibly the problem lies in that it becomes much harder to assess such a factor, than measure other technical issues, like carbon emissions, or recycling and waste management, or analysing GINI rankings. This is harder, but not impossible when we count now with more sophisticated polling means, and we access much more data revealing beliefs, moods, and feelings towards issues like environment, equality, or social justice. The point is that any program aimed to establish a more sustainable future should avoid ignoring the sets of beliefs, values and hopes that encourage people to behave in a way or the other, or to support policies that could mean more sacrifices in the short run, but which could repay in the long term and correct disastrous trends.

Religion is about beliefs and believing, but it is not the only system that relies on beliefs. Most – if not all – social systems need for their right functioning that individuals commit to a set of shared beliefs and values: this is evident in politics, economy, and the judiciary system, but it reaches to sciences as well, grounded in a network of deeply shared beliefs and values [17]. Religion is not just a system that needs strong beliefs, sometimes quite counterintuitive and counterfactual, but it is for a long time a system to infuse and educate in the right way to believe, a system to watch over beliefs and tries to correct their most dangerous and negative expressions. Believing is indeed a complex cognitive system that clusters several mental functions, including perceptions, probability estimates, emotions and culture [18, 19]. The critical point is whether religions can assist in forming better, more balanced beliefs, and to encourage beliefs that are functional in order to improve our chances for a sustainable future.

The answer needs to be nuanced. Indeed, a set of lightly held beliefs could make little difference. Recent studies reveal the dynamics that render religious belief and practice effective in the long run, and incisive in practical life [20]. The idea is that religious beliefs per se, without the right training and implementation, could have a very limited effect, when it remains too fuzzy and inarticulate to one’s own living. Beliefs come in degrees and express different levels of strength, which then translate into greater or lesser commitment. If faith is not well supported in rituals and practices, it will eventually fade away, lose strength and fail to motivate sustainable living styles.

Religions may be polyvalent and ambiguous in that respect. We can identify apocalyptic versions that do not care for sustainability, but rather long for a world collapse that might give place to a radically different reality presided by a new divinely imposed order. The question is that many religious forms choose now to encourage beliefs and values that lead their faithful towards greater responsibility in that area. Several studies point to this effort and provide examples on how religious beliefs encourage values aimed at supporting sustainable programs [21, 22, 23, 24, 25]. Religious beliefs need to adjust to these new perceived needs, and in that sense, they evolve to make place to such new perspectives, surely absent in former stages of each religious tradition. In this sense too, the mutual model works in both senses: from and towards religions. Sustainability objectives re-entry in the set of religious held beliefs and values, and become integrated into their own symbolic configuration.


5. Concluding remarks

The present study tried to address an initial provocation by one of the greatest theoretical sociologists in the late 20th century: religion would have very little to provide when trying to address ecological challenges, and its sometimes very vocal declarations would add rather little to what other social systems can do without such a redundant voice. The radical question is posed in those terms: Can religious traditions improve things and offer a significant contribution to address these pressing issues? Can advanced secular societies do well without religion, which becomes even embarrassing when trying to tackle with its weak means what requires much more technical and harder intervention?

I have tried to show that religion offers an effective contribution at three levels, even if quite related: the systemic, the cultural, and the human or believing system. This quick review has showed that religion – as in other cases – can play a positive or a negative role with respect to sustainability. It happens too in the studies on religious coping: not every religious form becomes helpful when trying to cope with personal crises and distress; actually, some versions could even worsen the problem. In a similar vein, we can discriminate between religious forms that rather hope for a universal collapse and are happy with the self-destructive trends present in our societies and cultures; and other religious forms that engage in pursuing a sustainability agenda. This is clearly a recent trend that needs to be integrated into the body of very traditionally rooted systems of beliefs and values, and conforming cultural clusters; and it is related to an evolutionary process that requires time and changes to better adapt to current conditions. To some extent, we cannot take for granted the connection this article has tried to establish between religion and sustainability. Probably, the conditions that could favour such a link are in place, and each religion has to decide whether it will adapt to this new context integrating such beliefs and values and contributing to the general effort aimed at ensuring a better future for all; or whether it prefers to stand out and to follow its own way, unaffected by those risks and demands, just trying to be faithful to its old traditions.

In a sketch, religions can exert a positive influence on conforming a more sustainable future, if they engage at the systemic level, interacting in a critical way with other social systems; at a cultural level, nourishing the collectively shared views; and at a personal level, encouraging beliefs and values which become functional. However, this is not taken for granted and every religious tradition must make choices in that regard.

In any case, a last reflection invites to assume a more critical stance in dealing with that proposed link. I am aware of internal secularizing effects in many religious organizations when the attention is displaced from the traditional religious activities, aimed at keeping alive the communication on transcendence, towards ethical or even political issues and activities, which appear as more alluring or flattering in some cultural contexts, like embracing secular causes for peace, justice and the environment. My concern points to the necessity to keep a right balance: only when religion develops in a conscious and improved level its own and proper missions to provide transcendent meaning and hope, it can deliver a good assistance to address, together with many other social instances, the current challenges we go through and to heal what is wounded in our planet, our society and in each person.


Conflict of interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


  1. 1.Luhmann N. Ökologische Kommunikation. Opladen: Westdeutsche Verlag; 1986. pp. 183-192
  2. 2.Reynolds V, Tanner R. The Social Ecology of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1995
  3. 3.Luhmann N. Soziale Systeme: Grundriss einer allgemeinen Theorie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp; 1986
  4. 4.Luhmann N. Die Religion der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp; 2000
  5. 5.Luhmann N. Funktion der Religion. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp; 1977
  6. 6.Luhrmann T. When God is your therapist.The New York Times; 2013. Available from:
  7. 7.Gottlieb RS, editor. The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2006
  8. 8.Jenkins WJ, Tucker ME, Grim J, editors. Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology. London: Routledge; 2018
  9. 9.Rimmer Ch, Philip M, editors. Sustainability and religion. Consensus: 2020;41(1):1-5
  10. 10.Boyd R, Richerson PJ. The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2011;108:10918-10925
  11. 11.Laland KN. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2017
  12. 12.Sunstein C. This is Not Normal: The Politics of Everyday Expectations. Yale, N.H: Yale University Press; 2021
  13. 13.Spang RL. Medium and messenger: How money works and what it means. Times Literary Suplement (TLS). 2021;6171:23
  14. 14.Castillo RD, Kloos H, Richardson MJ, Waltzer T. Beliefs as self-sustaining networks: Drawing Parallels between networks of ecosystems and adults’ Predictions. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015;6:1723. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01723
  15. 15.Connors MH, Halligan PW. A cognitive account of belief: A tentative roadmap. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015;5:1588. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01588
  16. 16.Lumbreras S, Oviedo L, Angel H-F. The missing piece in sustainability Indices: Accounting for the human factor. Sustainability. 2021;13:11796. DOI: 10.3390/su132111796
  17. 17.Fuentes A. Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being. New Haven and London: Yale University Press; 2019
  18. 18.Angel HF, Ll O, Paloutzian RF, Runehov A, Seitz RJ. Processes of Believing: The Acquisition, Maintenance, and Change in Creditions. Dordrecht: Springer; 2017
  19. 19.Porot N, Mandelbaum E. The science of belief: A progress report. WIREs Cognitive Science. 2020;12(2):e1539. DOI: 10.1002/wcs.1539
  20. 20.Luhrmann T. How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others. Princeton, NJ, Oxford: Princeton University Press; 2020
  21. 21.Minton EA, Kahle LR, Kim CH. Religion and motives for sustainable behaviors: A cross-cultural comparison and contrast. Journal of Business Research. 2015;68(9):1937-1944
  22. 22.Swithinbank HJ, Gower R, Foxwood N. Sustained by faith? The role of Christian belief and practice in living sustainably. In: Leal FW, Consorte-McCrea A, editors. Sustainability and the Humanities. Cham: Springer; 2019. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-95336-6_21
  23. 23.Koehrsen J. Does religion promote environmental sustainability? - Exploring the role of religion in local energy transitions. Social Compass. 2015;62(3):296-310. DOI: 10.1177/0037768615587808
  24. 24.Ives CD, Kidwell J. Religion and social values for sustainability. Sustainability Science. 2019;14:1355-1362. DOI: 10.1007/s11625-019-00657-0
  25. 25.Johnston LF. Religion and Sustainability: Social Movements and the Politics of the Environment. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing; 2013

Written By

Lluis Oviedo

Submitted: March 1st, 2022Reviewed: March 14th, 2022Published: April 8th, 2022