Open access peer-reviewed chapter - ONLINE FIRST

Religion and the Environmental Crisis

Written By

Michael York

Submitted: January 24th, 2022 Reviewed: February 28th, 2022 Published: April 29th, 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.104002

Sustainability, Ecology, and Religions of the World Edited by Levente Hufnagel

From the Edited Volume

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

Dr. Levente Hufnagel

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The years 2020 and 2021 have confirmed that planet Earth is facing an environmental crisis due to global warming but augmented through industrial decimation of natural and wildlife areas, the consequences of pollution and even the ongoing population explosion. This chapter will examine religion and spirituality through four ideal types, namely the abrahamic, the dharmic, the secular and the pagan. How do individual religiosities conform to a relevant type, how do they contrast with one another and what similarities do they exhibit with each other? Further, what are the causes of the environmental crisis that our host planet is facing, what roles have the world’s religions played in causing or furthering the terrestrial catastrophe and most importantly, what might be the various contributions that could emerge from the spiritual frameworks possibly to alleviate ecological problems and even restore the planet’s natural balance? Specifically, what are the detriments and advantages to be noted in the world’s major religions?


  • ecology
  • global warming
  • spirituality
  • religion
  • abrahamic
  • dharmic
  • secular
  • pagan

1. Introduction

While religion is among the most perplexing phenomena that we tend to encounter as we transgress through life, we all seem to know what it is and what it does. One understanding holds that, typically, religion—at least in the West—refers to an institution with a recognised body of communicants who accept a particular set of doctrines that pertain to relating us as individuals to some postulated ‘ultimate nature of reality’ and who gather together on some regular basis for worship. Another understanding considers differently that religion is an attitude of awe towards the gods, God, the supernatural or the mystery of life that relates to belief and affects the fundamental patterns of individual and group behaviour. The term ‘religion’ apparently derives from the Latin religaremeaning ‘to bind fast’. The idea seems to be that religion is something that draws us and connects us together. The classic original definition of religion is that of the anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) who, in his 1871 work on Primitive Religion: Religion in Primitive Culture, stated simply that religion is ‘belief in spiritual beings’.1 Tylor is seeking to understand primitive religion as the foundation of all religion, and he sees animism as the most basic stage in the evolution of religion. The trouble with his understanding, however, is that it excludes such an expression as Buddhism that most of us also accept as a form of religion. It also excludes other, perhaps more secular, expressions that could be viewed as religious or are at least of interest to the sociologist of religion.

In contrast to Tylor, the sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) demurs on defining religion:

To define religion, to say what itis, is not possible at the start of a presentation. Definition can only be attempted, if at all, only at the conclusion of the study. The essence of religion is not even our concern, as we make it our task to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social behaviour. The external courses of religious behaviour are so diverse that an understanding of this behaviour can only be achieved from the viewpoint of the subjective experience, idea, and purposes of the individuals concerned – in short, from the viewpoint of the religious behaviour’s meaning.2

The difficulty remains, however, that Weber never did get around to the conclusion of his study and therefore was unable to come to a useable understanding of religion. Nevertheless, the key notion is that religion is something that is shared between people. It takes a position on the roles, identities and interaction between ourselves as human beings, our physical/tangible as well as spiritual/emotional world and the supernatural, magical and/or miraculous. A religion need not accept the reality of the supernatural for the attitude and practice to constitute a religion, but in all cases, it takes a positionconcerning the supernatural—whether that position is affirmative, one of denial or one of ignoring. Rather than a theory of religion, my own understanding of religion is that of a definition—both ontological andfunctional, that is, attempting to convey what religion is andwhat it does. Consequently, any religion may be considered as a

shared positing of the identity of and relationship between humanity, the world and the supernatural in terms of meaning assignment, value allocation and validating enactment.3

Clearly, human beings are attracted to religion in one way or another because religion itself is fascinating. It deals with whatever is the most significant and valuable in life. It is for this reason alone that it occupies a central niche in all human endeavour. In being concerned with how anything becomes different from being just a machine, religion attempts to explain whatever there is that renders the world, the cosmos and ourselves into something other than the mechanical. In a word, it is primarily concerned with the miraculous, with the how and why something is—or can be—more than merely the sum of its parts.

This consideration in religion with the relationship between the parts allows that religion as a framework is a special form of culture. As such, it is a phenomenon that is nurtured and cultivated. The different religions of the world provide different frameworks for those who either adhere to them or have been seduced by them. They constitute configurations that allow us to see the world in certain ways, that condition us to see things as we see them, that provide us ways to differentiate what is significant from that which is not, to know the valuable from the non-valuable. To look at the world’s religions is to appreciate the various ways we pattern our lives in relation to each other, to our world and to the godhead.


2. The world’s religions

From a sociological perspective, the ideal type is a tool that is used to measure religious identity and practice. The ideal type is employed to gage how much any given religion conforms to one of four ideals and hence how and/or why it is distinct from the ideal itself as well as how and why a religion has both similarities and differences from another religion. The four ideal types are, essentially in order of their historical precedence, pagan, dharmic, abrahamic and secular. In short, paganism represents primarily the root of religious perception and practice for our planet.4 The dharmic religions grow out of it and do so largely organically and peacefully, but they are nonetheless fundamentally rejecting of the pagan position. The abrahamic also develops out of paganism but more iconoclastically and belligerently. In fact, the abrahamic faiths appear to be more violently opposed to all other religious traditions—a hostility that even extends among and between its own constituent factions. The irony for our world today, in effect, is that the planet’s future precariously hangs increasingly on the clash between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic world and/or potential caliphate centred on the Middle East. The secular traditions grow largely out of the abrahamic but have affinities nonetheless with both pagan and dharmic matrixes. The secular, however, often continues the antagonism of its abrahamic predecessor towards other ‘faith’ positions—such as the enmity against religion to be seen in much scientistic rationalism or the aggression of Marxist communism.5 Violence, however, is an unfortunate feature of all religion. The pagan empires of the past were certainly no less brutal and cruel than we have continued to see among human behaviour throughout successive chapters of human history. Hindu fundamentalism in the name of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vishna Janata Party (VJP), the Tamil Tigers, etc. has deflated the illusion of proverbial Hindu tolerance and gentleness. And the imperial expansions of Ashoka or the internecine conflicts of both medieval and modern Tibet suggest among other events that the same can appear within Buddhism. Consequently, one notion to keep in mind within the study of religions is to what degree is violent behaviour that leads to bloodshed and carnage an intrinsic or extrinsic feature of any particular religion or religious tradition.

The religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam come under the rubric of the abrahamic tradition, that is, those faiths that claim descent from the biblical patriarch Abraham. These are also known as the three ‘religions of the Book’. Judaism divides between the factions of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and, in Britain, Liberal. Christianity is likewise fissured between Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Mormon branches; and Islam is known through its Sunni, Shia and Sufi forms. Each of these sub-divides even further, whether officially or schismatically, and Protestant Christianity alone is one of the more complex in terms of proliferating a plethora of competing forms. Among the dharmic religions, we have the Hindu sects of Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism, and in Buddhism, there are both Theravada and Mahayana, or even Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, branches.

Indigenous animisms
Amerindian spiritualityBuddhismChristianityAgnosticism
Afro-Atlantic practicesJainismIslamHumanism
Contemporary Western paganismsSikhismBaha’iMarxism

Besides the religious ideals of abrahamic, dharmic, secular and pagan, there is an important spiritual divide that distinguishes religions from each other that may even be present within a specific religious type itself. This division conforms more to a classification rather than as an instrument for phenomenal investigation, namely gnostic understandings vis-à-vis telluric comprehensions. Consequently, a schema for presenting the four ideal-type world-religious traditions is the following:

Cosmically exclusiveDharmicSecular
Cosmically inclusiveAbrahamicPagan

The ‘cosmically exclusive’ signals the rejection of one of the possible components of existential being: the world, the supernatural, the human. By converse, ‘cosmically inclusive’ is the position in which all three components are accepted as existents. Most religion attempts to grapple with questions of cosmology and cosmogony. And how we understand religions, whether they are telluric or gnostic, is through how they picture the origins (and, hence, consequences) of the cosmos. Positions that start with the transcendent, some sort of being, entity or force that is outside space and time are gnostic. Those that are inherently immanent, that begin with the tangible, with the world rather than the supernatural, are telluric. Putting aside for now the philosophical question that arises if and when we wish to consider the human (rather than either the material or the supernatural) as originator, namely the implications of the anthropic principle, the telluric worldview/cosmos is one which emerges from the bodily rather than the transcendental. If there is one telluric characteristic that is representative and definitive over all others, I would designate it as corpo-spirituality6 or, to use a term I heard during the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religions by Florida State University’s Michael Pasquier speaking on ‘Our Lady of Tickfaw’, ‘corpo-centricity’. The very notion of physical spirituality is difficult to grasp for anyone of a transcendental or gnostic inclination or acculturation, but it is arguable that the tangible as inherently sacred, the world as divine immanence and the consequences of this-worldly emphasis that derives from it are prima inter paresqualities of pagan religiosity.

Moreover, both gnostic and telluric spirituality frequently entertain the concept of reincarnation. But the purposes behind rebirth are radically different. The gnostic will seek eventually to break the chain of rebirth. Life on earth is only a school and preparation for the ‘higher’ life to come. The earth-oriented position, by contrast, welcomes rebirth as providing the opportunity to celebrate yet again the pleasures and joys and growths of life.

Though the divide between gnostic and telluric considerations is strongest perhaps within pagan religiosities—Platonic, Neo-platonic, Cabbalistic and/or panentheistic for the former; immanent, numinously materialistic, animistic, pantheistic, secular and atheistic for the latter, we find similarities as well with the other ideal types of religion. For instance, while the secular position is usually this-worldly and materialistic, some secular religiosities are astral and deny the existence of the supernatural, that is, they have no consideration of a supernatural horizon. The entire cosmos is comprised by the space-time continuum. Deities are substituted by extraterrestrials. Technology replaces magic or any sort of extra-totumintervention. Suggested examples of secular spiritualities that find value more aligned with outer space than with our terrestrial world possibly include the Canadian-French UFO group known as the Raëlians, L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, some of the other flying saucer cults and the England-based Cometan’s Astronism. Typically, for the followers of Raël, the universe has no beginning and also no end. It just is. And it is also some kind of cosmic machine. There is no spirit or deity that animates it.

While dharmic religions are essentially gnostic in their aspiration to escape permanently from a perceived cycle of rebirth, the theological position of Theravada Buddhism and Kapila’s Sankhya school of Hinduism (as well as the Yoga school of Patañjali that derives from it) in which instead of the standard monism of Hinduism there is instead postulated to be twoabsolute realities: matter (prakriti) and self (purusha)—each eternal, independent and infinite. Moksha, accordingly, lies in recognising the utter separateness of the two. In addition, despite Plato’s nominal opposition to Gnosticism and Christianity’s similar stance, there is world rejection at the heart of Christian religion. Nevertheless, Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality (‘green’ theology) and Unitarian Universalism (including its Pagan and Earth-centred Spirituality organisation of CUUPS) exhibit a more telluric orientation. While Islam is focused primarily on attainment of Allah’s heaven, the consideration that the earth is the gift and creation of God allows a non-gnostic tenor to Islam itself. Perhaps of all the Abrahamic religions, despite its transcendental Creator, it is Judaism that retains this-worldly values the foremost.

Once again, while gnostic and telluric principles embody the chief distinction with the two different moral and behavioural standards of spirituality, a blurring of this fundamental divergence is nevertheless to be found across the religious spectrum. A further consideration in regard to the world’s religions is to be discerned from David Barrett’s Christian Encyclopediafor the following calculations. These are, of course, rough estimates at best—though they remain ones that give us some idea of the distribution of the world’s religions themselves. Moreover, despite the intention of Barrett to provide a manual for Christian missionary undertakings, his volume furnishes us perhaps the best and most accurate picture of the global religious situation.

If we look at the world as a whole, essentially one-third is to be identified as Christian—two-thirds of which are Roman Catholic; one-third being both Protestant and Eastern Orthodox. The next largest block had been the secularists representing something slightly over one-fifth of the planet’s population when calculating from William [8] figures. Although Barrett has released a 2001 update of his survey, the percentages of the world’s religions remain essentially the same, although the secular traditions may have declined to something closer to 16% according to the Pew Research Center statistics for 2020. These technically non-spiritual traditions comprise both the legacy of secular humanism in the West and, more significantly, the influence of Marxist communism throughout the world. About 12% of the world is Hindu (though Pew puts this now at 15.6%) and another 6% is Buddhist—bringing the dharmic position to something just under one-fifth of the planet. The aggregate Muslim community had been closer to the size of the secularists than it was to the dharmists, but it has grown the most of any religious tradition and now stands at approximately 24.9%. This means that roughly a full half of planet earth if not more adheres to an abrahamic position of one sort or another. Of the world’s major religious traditions, therefore, the pagan is by far the smallest—comprising essentially between 5 and 10% of planet Earth’s human population. The bulk of this number comes from the folk religious practices of the Chinese. Of the remaining religious persuasions for the planet, approximately 2% are to be classified as new religions—chiefly to be found in Asia and Africa. Many if not most of these would approximate the abrahamist position over any other. Consequently, all the remaining world religions, namely Judaism (an abrahamic faith), Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Baha’i, all togetherconstitute lessthan 1% of the world’s population.


3. The environmental crisis

There is no question that with the spiralling increase in human population and the consequences of industrial befouling of air, water and land; corporate farming and large-scale agriculture; planned obsolescence for marketing purposes; unsolved difficulties with waste disposal; mass starvation and uncontrolled migration; continuing loss and reduction of wildlife and biodiversity; and social collapse, over-policing, war and terrorism, human society itself is in peril—one that is accompanied by global warming, light pollution and the proliferation of space debris. The question before human society concerns whether the preservation or restoration of the natural environmental balance of our host planet is to be or even can be augmented by religion, or, instead, how much of a role does religion—or do the religions—play in fomenting the problem in the first place?

As Associate Professors (respectively, Indiana University and the National University of Singapore) Lisa Sideris and John Whalen-Bridge explain, the Anthropocene period and the ‘Great Acceleration’ refer to the intensification of human activity through ‘population growth, energy consumption, telecommunications, transportation, deforestation, pollution, and water use [that] began perceptively to shift the state and functioning of the Earth system. … Anthropocene discourse … taps into millenarian hopes and fears, and [it] draws from ancient reservoirs of prophecy, theodicy, and eschatology’.7 The consequences of the Great Acceleration are the deadly floods, wildfires, drought and rising sea levels that are being increasingly witnessed ubiquitously. The physicist Harold Schilling argues that the

pollution and destruction of [the] environment are religious and ethical problems that derive basically from irreverent and immoral attitudes toward nature, rather than from technological inadequacy alone.8

As Westminster College (Fulton, Missouri) Professor William Young asks, in considering that the fundamental ethical issue of the contemporary world is the well-being of the planet as a whole, ‘[does] the ecological crisis demonstrate a fundamental failure of the world’s religions to follow their own teachings?’9 Our specific interest here concerning the crisis is climate change.


4. Abrahamic religions

Probably no religion is completely conducive to ecological sustainability, and no religious position is completely antithetical. Due to the ‘Dominion Mandate’ suggested by Genesis 1:26-28, however, the Abrahamic religions are scripturally handicapped vis-à-vis a non-anthropocentric understanding. In his 1967 article, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis’, historian Lynn White, Jr. blamed Western Christianity in particular for causing the worldwide ecological crises. His hypothesis is that ‘What people do about their ecology depends on what they think of themselves in relation to the things around them’.10

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. […] Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity […] not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.11

In consideration of humanity’s alleged hegemony, Islam shares a similar concept of human domination, namely Quran2:30 states Allah as saying, ‘I am setting on the earth a vicegerent [khalijah.]’ The Abrahamic concept is summed up as the teaching that humans are distinct from nature and have therefore a divinely sanctioned right to exploit nature.

With the understanding that the Abrahamic God has given humanity dominion over nature, the control of the natural world through technology has become an essential given for the West. There are, of course, strenuous denials of White’s thesis that appears to endorse unlimited transhumanist transformation due to man having been created in the image of God (Imago Dei). The Vatican in particular has condemned the Promethean notion that humans have complete rights over their biological forms. However, the lines between the human and the machine, between the human and the environment and between technology and the environment have become operationally blurred by what White considers to be the predominant interpretation of the Genesis mandate.

Abrahamic Christianity at its strongest anti-ecotheological stance is most likely to be witnessed in much of modern-day evangelical and televangelical forums. What has become known as the ‘religious right’, especially in America, refutes climate change and considers that a free-market approach is sufficient for environmental care.12 The Cornwall Alliance, founded in 2005, claims to be committed to a balanced Biblical view of stewardship but argues that the environmentalist movement is a threat to society. The ‘Green Dragon’ is regarded as evil and must die: accordingly, God does not consider natural wilderness areas as either good or hospitable to man.13 Many church leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, have judged ‘eco-theology’ to be undermining Christianity’s central teachings.14 While the eco-theologian Larry Rasmussen has located other possibilities, the environmental debate appears to be reduced primarily to the dominion versus stewardship binary. Nevertheless, Rasmussen contends that

Both the Jews and early Christians understood ‘image of God’ and ‘dominion’ as a message of cosmic dignity that affirmed human agency and responsibility.15

A growing Christian theologian response is that appropriate dominion requires caring for creation. In this more positive response, the favoured model has become one of stewardship, although many prefer to speak of humans as Earth trustees. Echoed here is perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr.’s declaration concerning Christ’s urging his followers to love their enemies and explaining that ‘Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilisation’.16

And turning for a moment towards Sikhism which is frequently understood as a dharmic faith that seeks release from the cycle of transmigration, in essentials it may be seen as an amalgamation of both Hinduism and Islam. Its belief in a monotheistic Waheguru or God places it in many respects under the umbrella of Abrahamic spirituality. Nevertheless, and much like Islam which honours creation as the gift of Allah, Sikhism is openly concerned with the preservation, restoration and enrichment of the environment that God has created. Consequently, with such conservationist concerns as well as such phenomena as the Evangelical Environmental Network (originally founded in 1993) that counters the Cornwall Alliance, there is within Abrahamic religiosity serious misgivings about the human dominion (the Dominion Mandate) of classical and enlightenment Judaism and Christianity. In short, Christianity, along with Judaism and Islam, is being called to respect the world because it is God’s creation, and this idea of responsibility carries with it a task that is specifically human—not a task that is incumbent on any other earthly creature, but is specific to human beings—that of caring for the earth. Additionally, as the Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx puts it: ‘On the basis of a proper belief in creation we cannot foist off onto God what is our task in the world’.17 Heythrop College Lecturer in Theology Martin Poulsom signals the issue most accurately:

If, or perhaps, given the current state of affairs, when men and women neglect their responsibilities, bringing the ecosystem close to the point of disastrous collapse, they cannot expect God to solve all their problems for them.18

Poulsom concludes that in sum ‘faith in creation could make all the difference to the participation of Christians, Jews and Muslims in the current debates about the world and its future’. Consequently, despite Genesis 1:28 and Christian and Islamic eschatological stress on an afterlife, there is a potential with the Abrahamic traditions to address the current environmental threats to the planetary natural balance that may be interpreted to be in conformity to its spiritual understandings.


5. Secular religions

The increasingly contemporary desire for transformation through pharmacological enhancement, genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, cybernetics and computer simulation is perhaps equally one that is shared by the secular positions that discard belief in God, the gods and notions of enchantment.19 Perhaps one of the earliest statements proclaiming humanity’s unlimited and unrestricted potential is Protagoras’ ‘Man is the measure of things’. Secular religiosities along with those of the Abrahamic and Christian traditions share the notions that have been built into the Western concept of human rights: a right to self-development and to self-realisation. A key notion in the Western tradition of mainstream Christianity for at least its first eighteen centuries is to be traced through Thomas Aquinas back to Aristotle, namely the Christian belief that the human being is the only important member of this world and the secular supposition that the natural world has no intrinsic value.20

Overall, the secular or ‘non-religious’ religiosities include atheism, scientism, existentialism, perhaps agnosticism, various interpretations of deism as well as both naturalism and humanism. Additionally, we could also consider those major intellectual movements that the anthropologist Clifford Geertz considers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, namely ‘Marxism, Darwinism, Utilitarianism, Idealism, Freudianism, Behaviourism, Positivism, [and] Operationalism’.21 Admittedly, these last are not religions as such, but the secular outlook does not consider itself to be religious in the first place. Nevertheless, like all religions, all of these ‘non-religious’ religiosities still take a shared position concerning the relationship between and identity of humanity, the world and the supernatural. Whereas the dharmic religions in general dismiss the reality of the world, the secular orientation by contrast rejects the actuality of the magical extramundane. And there definitely remains at least a latent if not direct concern with ecology. Whether atheists, agnostics or secular humanists, people with these identities accept that this planet is fundamentally all we have got and that expectation of magical solutions is itself inimical to solving the imminent problems associated with climate change.

A standard argument by traditional religious believers and especially Christian and/or abrahamic is that morality depends on the existence of God. Divine Command Theory equates ethical behaviour to the prescriptive commands contained in a holy book. The moral life is considered to be absolutely dependent on the dictates from an authoritative and transcendent lawgiver. By contrast, the emerging secular thought is that while religion might be dependent on ethics, ethics themselves are independent and separate from religion.

In this light, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, discerns that ‘secular ethics’

embrace the principles we share as human beings: compassion, tolerance, consideration of others, the responsible use of knowledge and power. These principles transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers; they belong not to one faith, but to all faiths.22

Moreover, but as a secular rejection of the Dominion Thesis, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, in the 1970s, coined the term ‘deep ecology’ (1972) to promote consideration of the inherent worth of all living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs. For Naess, human beings are not different from the nonhuman world but instead fully a part of it.23 Likewise, by beginning moral reflection with the secular perspective itself, the ‘focus on moral questions [becomes] freed from the [otherwise] ongoing and perpetual debate over religious claims’.24 And as the 14th Principle of The Humanist Manifesto II states:

The cultivation and conservation of nature is a moral value; we should perceive ourselves as integral to the sources of our being in nature. We must free our world from needless pollution and waste, responsibly guarding and creating wealth, both natural and human. Exploitation of natural resources, uncurbed by social conscience, must end.25

The humanist position accepts humanity as a part of nature, not as an intrinsically separate entity, and human emergence has accordingly resulted from a continuously natural process rather than as the result of the work of a transcendent Creator.


6. Dharmic religions

In general, Buddhism is frequently considered to be among the most environmentally friendly of all religions because of its belief in the fundamental equality of all sentient beings through the processes of birth, aging and death. Among the Dharmic religions, however, both Buddhism and Jainism are secular to the extent that they do not accept the reality of a Supreme Creator. But while there are exceptions (Theravada Buddhism, Patañjali’s Sankhya-Yoga, Ramanuja’s Qualified Non-Dualist and Madhva’s Dualist expressions of Hinduism), the predominant theme for Dharmic religion is the non-reality or māyāof phenomenal existence. A supreme personal god as Ishvara or Vishnu is accepted by some Hindu branches of belief, but the concept of an absolute Brahman as the impersonal and sole reality beneath the illusion of the physical (pre-eminently articulated by Shankara’s advaitaschool of Vedānta) becomes the gnostic goal of moksha, release or escape from separate/individual existence and the cycle of reincarnation. Buddhist theology is a variation of this with nirvanacomprising essentially the same thing. The implicit consequences for maintaining the well-being and ecology of the planet become at best then a secondary and temporary consideration. Detachment from the world allows and even might encourage a disregard for the environmental future of the earth. As with Abrahamic spirituality, there persists with the Hindu manifestations of dharmic understanding a hierarchical evaluation. Typically, in contrast to the ‘simply mundane human concerns or ordinary religious aspirations …”

[the] spiritual tradition of India, not only Vedic but also non-Vedic, have [sic.] a strong basis in mantra, and use it to help us decondition the mind and move beyond limiting concepts, as well as to eachhighertruths.

Hindutva-proponent David Frawley also speaks of the modern Western mindset as being obsessed with the lowerenergy centres in the human being.26 Here again, the physical dimensions of reality are considered to be inferior to the transcendental.

Nevertheless, Hindu vegetarianism, its veneration of the cow and its practice of ahimsa(‘non-injury to others’) are derivatives of its inherent pantheist belief that stresses the unifying sacredness of all things. This respect and avoidance of violence would appear to counter the value relativity that otherwise results when ‘right and wrong are decided according to the categories of social rank, kinship, and stages of life’.27 Consequently, within Hinduism as with most religious persuasions there exist unresolved paradoxes and contradictions that ultimately tend to leave moral behaviour and ecological effort to individual decision rather than to any clear mandate that concerns protecting and restoring the priorities of the ecological and the possibility of transforming the Holocene or more specifically the Anthropocene when considered as beginning in the mid-twentieth century into a Symbiocene in which ‘almost every element of culture, agriculture, economy, habitat and technology will be seamlessly re-integrated back into earthly symbiotic life’.28

It is, however, with the Jain tradition from which Hinduism appears to have inherited the notion and practice of ahimsathat the claim is made that ‘the Jain approach to ecological responsibility offers the best hope for resolution’.29

Many Jains are now working to extend the principle of non-violence … not just for the liberation of the individual soul, but for the very survival of life on the planet.30

With its emphasis on respect and compassion for allforms of life, Jainism presents a doctrine that, despite its materialistic atheism, is fully open to an aesthetic sociality that remains commensurate with modern scientific thought. Jaina logic itself is understood as related to modern science and scientific thinking.31


7. Pagan religions

In many respects, the underlying response to nature within most pagan religions is similar to that felt and undertaken by those of a secular persuasion. The chief difference between the religiosities of those practices that conform to these two ideal types, the pagan and the secular, is the entertainment of belief in and pursuit of enchantment by the former and the avoidance of the thaumaturgical by the latter. If there is a supreme being in paganism, it is the earth itself, the Goddess, the immediate manifestation or embodiment of the entire matter-energy continuum, nature herself/itself. Consequently, despite the claims for both Buddhism and Jainism, the pagan religions emerge as among the foremost if not theforemost orientation/s championing the natural ecological balance of our planet. This does not eliminate harm to nature that has occurred by pagan peoples such as the severe deforestation of North America by Native Americans before the arrival of European colonialists. And imperial expansion and destruction have occurred by pre-Christian pagan cultures as well (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Alexander the Great, Rome, the Nahuatl and Quechua civilisations of the New World, etc.)

Much paganism incorporates the notion of the otherworld (whether Summerland, the Elysian Fields, the Western Isles, the land of fairy, the domain of the gods), but its otherworld is never posited as a denial of this world but instead as one that is intimately infused with or within it. Pagan religions rival Christianity in their wide range of diversity. Overall, it is a difficult religiosity to describe both simply and yet in an encompassing manner. Nevertheless, the ideal towards which these orientations point may be presented as in the following:

Paganism is an affirmation of interactive and polymorphic sacred relationship by individual or community with the tangible, sentient and nonempirical.32

If the conjunction ‘and’ in this definition is replaced by that of ‘and/or’, this allows such more gnostic Platonic and Neo-Platonic forms also to be recognised as pagan. But paganisms in their more telluric, as distinct from gnostic, expressions are understood as an endorsement of relationship between physical and supernatural realities as well as human (and possibly other forms of) consciousness. Some paganisms may accept the supernatural as only approachable through metaphor (religious icons and symbols), or some may also entertain that the supernatural appears and is accessible through the miraculous. But along with their supernaturalism or proclivity for the non-empirical, humanism and naturism are equally weighted. In other words, even if paganism or particular pagan identities may exalt the special or the numinously distinguishable over the whole, or the theistic or even polytheistic over the pantheistic, the divine or sacred is found ubiquitously. Paganism, therefore, allows the divine to manifest in and as the material, whatever else it may also be. Importantly, however, paganism eschews any true hierarchy between the temporal and permanent, between the physical and spiritual or between this-world and the otherworld. In paganism, all realms of being and possibly non-being are understood to partake in a partnership or colloquium that is to be recognised as functioning between potential equals. Moreover, through the consideration that all is related and interrelated, animals and other human beings are deemed to be worthy of respect and reverence.

Today’s renaissance of contemporary paganism would virtually appear to be a reflex of the growing awareness of global imbalance and climate change. Urban lifestyles and consumeristic insulation from the natural world both depend on an uncontrolled corporate capitalism that has been judged as mindless in relation to industrial waste and toxic pollution. For the pleasure-and-comfort seeking pagan, pursuit of the sanctity of nature becomes central to his/her non-world-rejecting spirituality.

The cultivation of an eco-awareness and geo-sensitivity are paramount to any viable pagan ethos. … In a word, caring for Mother Nature and maintaining a symbiotic bond with her that is healthy and mindful of all that may violate her unique and precious balance constitute a pagan ethical imperative that is central to all further endeavor.33

This is not to say that paganism has all the answers but only that its mindfulness of the fragility of natural ecosystems and of the need to preserve biodiversity is central to its religious understanding—an awareness that pagan spirituality aspires to promote among human consciousness globally.


8. Religions and modernisation

In his 1981 Geary Lecture, Sociology Professor Peter Berger (1929–2017) defined modernisation as a revolution in the human experience of time. Convincingly, he claims that the two institutional processes that factor modernisation are technology and bureaucracy [31]. As already mentioned, the increasingly complicated rules and regulations of administrative procedure were argued by Max Weber as the correlate if not the cause of the modern sense of disenchantment. This raises the question of the possibility of a divide between the modernisation associated with the development of modernity and the supernatural understandings of traditional religions. An irony appears in that our word if not the concept itself for technology is formed from the Greek technesignifying ‘magic; magical art’.34 According to Berger, the application of rational measures to the world when considered as functioning exclusively by rational means is the operating assumption of modernity. As a consequence, religion becomes a private matter for the individual as it is driven out of the public sphere. For the sociologist, the process by which religious institutions and religious symbols lose their former importance is known as secularisation. As Berger explains, ‘Generally speaking, modernisation means that options are multiplied in human life’. In the resultant pluralisms of modern-day societies, choice has come to predominate over traditional resignations to the idea of fate. But for someone like the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the Enlightenment concept, ‘which put individuals in charge of deciding for themselves what was right and wrong, rendered moral language meaningless’. As a result, ‘Western civilization [has] lost its ability to think coherently about moral life’.35

The secular response to traditional religion in such spiritual, non-spiritual or quasi-spiritual developments as humanism, communism, naturalism, positivism, etc. have adapted perhaps the most to the conditions of modern secularity in rejecting the assumptions of orthodox and conventional religions. They may be seen as direct legacies of modernisation and may also be seen as inimical to the counter-measures necessary for curtailing climate change inasmuch as nature becomes assessed as without having intrinsic value. Instead, the rights of self- and technological-development become paramount. When modern secularism is wedded foremost either to capitalism as an economy or to communism as politics, its contribution to the amelioration of climate change becomes at best secondary when and if it exists at all. When religiosity is pushed into being something private rather than public, individual secularists themselves can be unimpeded in their concern with and efforts for land conservation, habitat restoration and political advocacy. Certainly with the growing obviousness of fundamental alterations in global and regional climate patterns, secularists are at least capable of recognising the extrinsic value of nature and humanity’s, if not also universal life’s, dependence on maintaining or restoring natural balance despite the processes of modernisation. American cosmologist Carl Sagan (1934–1996) referred to the distant image of the earth as a tiny point of light captured by Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990. For him,

it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. … In our obscurity, in all this vastness [of the great, enveloping cosmic dark], there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.36

Nevertheless, while ‘our contemporary faith in progress [is] a Christian inheritance’,37 the very notion of humanity’s continual advance through technology, civil ministries, moral development, the promotion of universal values and the assertion of human exceptionalism is integrally at home with the present-day belief in modernisation.38 Karl Marx (1818–1883), along with the anthropologist James George Frazer (1854–1941), ‘theorized human evolution as a gradual disentangling from nature’.39 In contrast to such modernist and secular convictions, secular faith itself ‘recognises the finitude and fragility of our lives’ and counters the Christian belief that ‘nothing we do on Earth today can matter except as preparation for salvation’.40 The very notion of eternity vis-à-vis a sanctity for the here and now has emerged as ‘an irreducible conflict between orthodox Christianity and political liberalism’,41 but the emergence of secular environmentalism, ‘in which concerns about human responsibility for degraded planetary conditions are highlighted, [is generating] renewed moral purpose for addressing the global ecological crisis’.42 Consequently, despite ‘the nihilism of secular capitalism [and] the spiritual impoverishment of modernity’,43 the various secularisms may be judged as at least potentially capable of handling modernisation in consideration of the environment. In short, the institutions of spirituality or non-spirituality associated with the effects of secularisation are those that adapt as far as possible to the conditions of modern secularity.

The abrahamic positions are equally as complex if not even more so. Regarding planetary well-being, evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and theologically conservative Muslims are among the most who are both counter-modernisation and least involved with inter-religious missions promoting ecological awareness.44 Overall, if religion articulates meaning and value concerning the possibilities of the world, humanity and the supernatural, when the world is considered an illusion (Hinduism), valueless (Buddhism) or secondary (Abrahamic), then modernisation has little impact either for or against towards promoting climate change. This stance is perhaps strongest with Protestant evangelical and/or fundamentalist conviction operating under the edict of the Genesis mandate—one in which environmental activism is argued to be contrary to the will of God. The anti-modern reality of the Islamic State is expressed by Sadiq Khan, London’s Muslim mayor, who claims that the philosophy of Isis insists ‘that it is incompatible to have western liberal values and to practice the faith of Islam’.45 But, likewise, in a counter-modern position, Adi Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta, the predominant form of Hinduism, also regressively separates humanity from nature and consequently renders any contemporary effort for the protection and improvement of the environment to be a distraction from the true goal of life.

While the secular traditions have little alternative to placing significance in humanity and worldly/physical realities alone, it appears that the pagan religiosities are the most centred on ‘Gaia spirituality’, the sacredness of nature and the integral interconnection of the human and the natural. With contemporary paganisms in particular, there appears to be no intrinsic opposition to modernisation but rather its acceptance as a positive that within the all-embracing framework of reality offers pragmatic and protective environmental change. Nevertheless, one can witness within some secular orientations a resistance to modernisation as being inimical, dangerous and/or unhealthy (e.g., pesticides, plastics, vaccinations, nuclear energy, 4G/Fourth Generation Cellular Networks, etc.), and likewise within pagan religiosity there is the possibility of a luddite opposition to technical progress. For the secularist, a reversion to the traditional may emerge as a desire to avoid the contaminations and pollutions of modern advance.

However, with paganism, the traditional is often recognised as the core of indigenous culture and awareness—but here there is also the recognition of indigenous people’s own recognition of the importance and necessity for working with and within the natural environment rather than against it. Indigenous activism, according to Anishinaabe scholar-activist Winona LaDuke, is rooted in a deep connection to the land.

As the Earth has become increasingly threatened by population pressures, extractive capitalism, and a global political order hostile to ecological and social justice, a parallel rise in social movement resistance has taken place on a local, regional, and global scale.46

Contemporary and indigenous paganisms are increasingly part of this social movement of resistance to ecological hostility. Besides LaDuke [42], other scholarly presentations of eco-spiritual dynamics include those of Margot Adler [43], Starhawk [44], Frédérique Apffel-Marglin [45], David Pellow [46] and Sarah Pike (2017).47 Among some of the other major discussions of the intersections between religion and ecology, there are the works of Bron Taylor [47] and, especially (2010), Roger Gottlieb [48], Whitney Bauman [49] and Willis Jenkins et al. [50]48.

Consequently, with regard to climate change, there is to be seen pros and cons across the full spectrum of the world’s religions with both the traditional and the modern and no easily discernible or unifying course of choice between them [51]. As Bron Taylor summarises, ‘Where there is cultural traction is in the ‘dark green’ spiritualities, some indigenous traditions (more than ‘world religions’) and possibly some pagan traditions (although there are problems there too)’.49

SWOT analysis of the relationships between religions, nature and modernisation

  1. Compatible and flexible adaptability to modernisation (secularism, paganism, Jainism, Sikhism)

  2. Acceptance of human responsibility (most religions)

  3. Diminishment of belief in a Supreme Creator/Being (secularism, paganism, dharmic)

  4. Ubiquity of the sacred/pantheism (paganism, dharmic)

  5. No hierarchical evaluation based on transcendence (secular, pagan)

  6. Recognition of life’s dependence on the natural balance (paganism, secularism, Jainism, Sikhism)

  7. Rejection of orthodox and conventional religiosity and concepts of eternal salvation (secular, pagan)

  8. Deep connection to the land (pagan)

  1. Unresolved paradoxes and contradictions (all religions)

  2. Extreme sectarian discord (all religions)

  3. Chauvinism, racism, and/or extreme focus on the (ethnic) locality (to some extent most religions and secularism)

  4. Anthropocentrism (abrahamic, secularism)

  5. Hierarchical evaluation based on transcendence (abrahamic, dharmic)

  6. Primary goal of heaven or moksha/nirvana(Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism)

  7. Belief that environmental reform is contrary to the will of God (conservative abrahamic)

  1. Understanding creation as a gift (potentially all religions)

  2. Acceptance of modernisation as providing means by which to protect/enhance ecological sustainability (secularism, paganism, some dharmic and abrahamic faiths)

  3. Ahimsaas contributing to the survival of planetary life (dharmic, pagan)

  4. Sense of enchantment as an asset (pagan, dharmic, abrahamic)

  5. Developing concept of stewardship (potentially all religions)

  6. Non-expectation of deus ex machineintervention (developing in all religions to varying extents)

  1. Lack of unity (all religions)

  2. Perception of nature as illusionary or secondary (dharmic, abrahamic, Marxist)

  3. Luddite tendencies (paganism, secularism)

  4. The Dominion Mandate/concept of khalijah(abrahamic—especially evangelism, fundamentalism, Islamic State)

  5. Incompatibility with liberal values (Islamic State, Christian fundamentalism, Orthodox Jewish conservatism)

  6. Gnostic anti-worldly sentiment/detachment from the world (dharmic, abrahamic, some paganism)

  7. Belief in human exceptionalism (abrahamic, secularism)

  8. Separation of humanity from nature/evolution understood as a separation from nature (abrahamic, dharmic, secular)

  9. Sense of enchantment as an obstacle (secularism)


9. Conclusion

Nature does not need mankind, but humanity needs nature and the liveability it has provided for life on earth—an equilibrium with us as part of the equation. The term ‘sanctity’ used in the previous sections may well have a religious origin, but it has become more broadly part of the secular ethic.50 While all religions appear to retain the notion of ultimate importance as sacred, it is this secular adoption that extends the concept into the trans-religious and as something valuable and applicable to everyone despite different individual persuasions. The dynamic of holiness in this context becomes a universal around which virtually all religions might hopefully agree to work together in maintaining the earth’s natural ecosystems. There becomes a need to balance or negotiate between big picture systems theory as well as other animistic Gaian ways of thinking that favour management of the larger environment, on the one side, and allowing or encouraging the spontaneous building of the macro by the micro, on the other.

Concerning modern culture’s obsession with hyper-autonomy and consumerism, it is clear that ‘[climate change] has obvious practical implications. It will kill millions of people, wipe out thousands of species, and so on’.51 This last observation relates ultimately to astronomy professor Brian Cox’s contention that the advancing rate of science and engineering in any civilisation might eclipse the development of political institutions capable of managing them.

It may be that the growth of science and engineering inevitably outstrips the development of political expertise, leading to disaster. We could be approaching that position.52

Whether religion could play a role towards mitigating intelligent life destroying itself remains an open question. However, for the negativity of religious thinking itself that leads to the exploitation of nature rather than its reverence as integral to our very being, the blame has been placed on the Genesis Mandate and the Zoroastrian tradition, with its similar dualism between humanity and nature.53 Dharmic religiosity presents a comparable dichotomy by which the human is separate from either nature or physicality, but nevertheless Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism reveal the potential of spirituality to counter any established framework that has not been conducive to ecological sustainability. To the degree that the full range of the world’s religions might collectively address the future well-being of the global environment and ‘the promise of a more viable human coexistence with the Earth’,54 the issue becomes in part theological and calls for a penetrating re-examination of divine-human relations without the suffocation of hierarchical restrictions. On the other front, there is the need for praxis and an agreed-upon way of living that is commensurate with the collective good and the planet as intrinsically sacred. In the dharmic contributions mentioned above, along with paganism, we already have some established examples. The task now is to recognise the potential that all religions have for the protection and extension of earthly symbiotic life and to advance the positive spiritual models that do exist in ways that become universally acceptable and commensurate to the endeavour that confronts humanity.


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  • Tylor ([1], 1.383).
  • Max Weber [2] The Sociology of Religion (translated by E. Fischoff from the three-volume edition in German originally published in 1920–23), Boston: Beacon, 1990).
  • “A Report on the Citizen Ambassador Program’s Religion and Philosophy Delegation to the People’s Republic of China”, Journal of Contemporary Religion 10.2, 1995:197).
  • York [3].
  • E.g., Dawkins [4], Marx [5], Greenfeld & Chirot [6].
  • York [3] & York [7].
  • Sideris & Whalen-Bridge [9].
  • Barbour [10]
  • Young [11]
  • White [12], p. 1205).
  • Ibid.
  • Vide Landrum et al. [13].
  • See also, Hickman [14].
  • Nash [15].
  • Rasmussen ([16], p. 233).
  • Cited in Holland [17].
  • Schillebeeckx [18].
  • Poulsom [19].
  • Hook [20].
  • Singer [21].
  • Geertz [22].
  • Gyatso [23].
  • Naess [24]; cf. Taylor ([25], p. 189n14).
  • York [7].
  • (accessed 18.01.2022).
  • Frawley [26] [my italics].
  • Miller [27].
  • Albrecht [28].
  • Young ([11], p. 171).
  • Oxtoby and Segal [29].
  • Mardia [30].
  • York [3].
  • York [7].
  • Davis [32].
  • ([33], p. 50).
  • Sagan [34].
  • Beha [35].
  • Ibid.
  • Joerstad [36].
  • Thomson [37].
  • Rothman [33].
  • Vivanco [38].
  • Rothman [33].
  • Baugh [39].
  • Cited in Rifkind [40].
  • Crews ([41], p. 339).
  • Ibid. p. 363.
  • Ibid. p. 345.
  • Personal communication on 13 February 2022.
  • Singer [21].
  • Mulgan apud Perry [52].
  • Cited in Leake ([53], p. 15).
  • Clough apud Perry [52].
  • Ivakhiv [54].

Written By

Michael York

Submitted: January 24th, 2022 Reviewed: February 28th, 2022 Published: April 29th, 2022