September 21, 2007

The Economist: Faith Upon the Earth

In this week's (September 22nd) issue of The Economist, there's a one-page article about the hot-and-cold alliance between religious groups and environmental scientists. Personally, I favor such alliances.

In Islam, we believe that mankind, through the acceptance of the Khalifa by Adam (pbuh) on mankind's behalf (2:30), has a responsibility toward our natural environment. The word Khalifa has multiple meanings, including: successor, steward, trustee, viceroy, and guardian. While we have the use of all the natural resources on the earth, in the seas, and in the heavens (14:32-3, 31:20, 45:12-3), we must still use these resources wisely. They were created to facilitate humanity in fulfilling our own purpose for which we were created: to worship and serve Allah (swt).

As a result of this, there has been a trend among Muslims toward ecological stewardship. One of the bright lights in this field is the work of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who is currently a Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. (For an article that includes a brief interview with Dr. Seyyed, please click here.)

Some excerpts from The Economist:

In many other parts of the world, secular greens and religious people find themselves on the same side of public debates: sometimes hesitantly, sometimes tactically, and sometimes fired by a sense that they have deep things in common.

One more case from India: ornithologists who want to save three species of vulture (endangered because cattle carcasses are tainted by chemicals) see their best ally as the Parsees, who on religious grounds use vultures to dispose of human corpses.

In China, organized religion is much weaker and conservationists also feel more lonely. But Pan Yue, the best-known advocate of green concerns within the Chinese government, says ancient creeds, like Taoism, offer the best hope of making people treat the earth more kindly.

Other tie-ups between faith and ecology are less obvious. In Sweden, the national Lutheran Church, working with Japanese Shintos, recently held a multi-faith meeting on forestry. They agreed to set a new standard for the care of forests owned or managed by religious bodies—in other words, they said, 5% of the world's woods.


The terms of the transaction between faith and ecology vary a lot. In places like Scandinavia, where religion is weakish, a cleric who "goes green" may reach a wider audience; in countries like India, where faith is powerful, spiritual messages touch more hearts than secular ones do. That doesn't stop some environmental scientists from saying they are being hijacked by clerics in search of relevance. But Mary Evelyn Tucker, of America's Yale University, says secular greens badly need their spiritual allies: "Religions provide a cultural integrity, a spiritual depth and moral force which secular approaches lack."

Martin Palmer, of the British-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation, says faiths often have the clearest view of the social and economic aspects of an environmental problem. In Newfoundland, he notes, conservationists put curbs on cod fishing—and left the churches to care for families whose living was ruined.

Still, one selling point often used by the religious in their dialogue with science—the fact that faith encourages people to think long-term—may be a mixed blessing. The most pessimistic scientists say mankind has a decade at most to curb greenhouse gases and fend off disastrous global warming; that doesn't leave much time to settle the finer points of metaphysics.

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