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A Greener Faith

Is environmental activism a natural extension of religion?

By John HorganAugust 14, 2006 5:00 AM


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BOOK REVIEW:A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet's Future, by Roger S. Gottlieb

As I was reading A Greener Faith (Oxford University Press, $29.95) on a train, the woman beside me asked me what it was about. When I told her that the book describes the growing involvement of religious people in the environmental movement, she pulled a battered Bible out of her purse. The Bible, she said, holding up the book, tells us we have dominion over the earth, and that means we should not desecrate nature but should cherish and protect it. Before she was saved, the woman added, she used to litter, but no more.

This sort of "green faith" is springing up everywhere, according to the philosopher Roger S. Gottlieb. Until recently, he notes, religions "typically held favorable attitudes toward the rise of industrial civilization." But now religion is inspiring many people not only to stop littering but also to celebrate Earth Day, to protest logging in the Pacific Northwest, to lobby for more stringent anti-pollution laws, even to object to the march of industrial globalization—what some evangelical Christians call "creation care." This trend involves all the major religions and many minor ones, and it is taking place even in developing countries like Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

A religious environmentalist himself (although he never identifies his denomination), Gottlieb argues that environmental activism is a natural outgrowth of faith. After all, religions urge us to bear witness to what is happening around us and to acknowledge where we fall short, both individually and collectively. They encourage us to accept responsibility for the making the world a better place, and they give us the optimism and fortitude needed to take on such immense challenges. Finally, religious values offer an alternative to the gross consumerism that has fueled our despoliation of the planet. For all these reasons, Gottlieb believes that "religion has profound contributions to make to our collective response to the environmental crisis."

Gottlieb is at his best when he describes specific examples of green faith in action, such as a 2001 protest in Washington, D.C., by a diverse group of religious people opposed to the Bush administration's decision to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When the demonstrators disobeyed police orders to move away from the front gate of the Department of Energy, they were arrested. One of those detained, Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, an Episcopal priest, exulted later that her civil disobedience made her feel "as defiant as a maple seedling that pushes up through asphalt."

This woman's passion, and Gottlieb's, are appealing. But as Gottlieb acknowledges, religion leads some—notably the man currently occupying the White House—in a quite different direction. Indeed, many Christian fundamentalists welcome the environmental crisis as a harbinger of the apocalypse supposedly predicted in the Bible. For these reasons, I feel as ambivalent about religious environmentalism as I do about religious pacifism. As a green agnostic dove, I am glad that some of the faithful share my desire for conservation and peace. I just wish their beliefs were more rooted more in rationalism than in revelation.

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