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Religious eco-wars 

Can churchgoers and atheists alike care for the planet, or is religious dogma unsustainable?

Last week's "Can We Be Good Without god" debate, a response to Metro Transit's ban on atheist advertising, got me thinking big, post-modern questions such as: What does "good" mean? For "Sustainable City" purposes, let's assume being good means living sustainably, allowing life to continue for as long as possible on this planet. To what extent do secular versus religious worldviews shape how we treat the planet?

The first to publish this line of thinking was Lynn White who, in a 1967 Science article, called out religion, particularly Christianity, for its mindfuck of the earth. He wrote, "Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny---that is, by religion."

Dr. Anne Marie Dalton, professor of religious studies at St. Mary's University, elaborates on White's indictments. "He accused biblical tradition---its view that divinity was totally independent of the natural world, that humans have dominion over the earth, that there is a hierarchy of living things---of being responsible for how we treat the environment."

Katie Kish, vice president of the Freethought Association of Canada (the sceptics behind the kyboshed bus ads), agrees with White. "Some Christians believe that creation---earth, organisms, eco-systems---was planned explicitly for man to rule and use," she says.

So, for the crime of ecocide, hang the Christians. "It's actually not that simple," says Dalton. Oh. "There are other religions with totally different worldviews that also hurt the environment." Even western science, from which has sprung the modern environmental movement, owes its existence to monotheistic religion's tendency to compartmentalize, to separate the earth from the spirit. There is a greater similarity between those two worldviews than one might expect.

It can also be argued that with dominion comes the responsibility of stewardship. "Some [monotheists] would say the natural world reflects god," Dalton adds. So raping the earth is like, uh, raping god.

"There are instructions for stewardship in the Bible," Dalton adds. "Jewish law says to protect forests; there are practical things in Deuteronomy, giving the earth a rest with the Sabbath. The Bible says do not ravage all the trees after a war, that the land actually belongs to god, not humans."

Thus, true Christians are conservationists. "Religions are talking more and more about environment," Dalton says, "starting with [religious historian] Thomas Berry calling on the church for environmental responsibility in the '60s."

Two years ago the pope and cardinals declared their concern for "the risk of the destruction of creation," and called for "respect and protection" for the environment. Kairos Canada---a multi-denominational faith group---lobbies government to enforce better corporate responsibility on environment and has declared a carbon Sabbath.

Coupled with that "fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over every living thing that moves" thing, the church's message is a bit ambiguous.

How exactly are we supposed to behave? Help me out, Katie Kish. "How we should behave doesn't stem from a higher authority but rather with our natural instinct of empathy," Kish says. That empathy naturally guides humans in caring about and for non-human life. "Environmentalism is actually very important for secular people, because we focus on the lives we live on earth, as we think it is the only life we get."

Focusing on life on earth allows a scientific reverence for what is earthly, Kish says. "Biology and ecology show us how amazingly complex and interconnected everything is, from the smallest cell to the largest whale and the entire global ecosystem as a whole. Astronomy and physics bring us majestic images of galaxies billions of light years away and enormous forces of nature that are at the same time capable of creating and destroying life at a whim."

It is perhaps the presence or absence of that reverence, be it rooted in the earth or inspired by heaven, that determines the sustainability of a person's worldview.

Kish acknowledges that, while some worldviews are generally more sustainable than others, there are always exceptions. "There are atheists who are ruthless capitalists; there are Christians who are conservationists and vice versa," she says.

Dalton, while also acknowledging this complexity, points to certain worldviews that are particularly strong on reverence and sustainability. "Indigenous cultures' worldviews of how humans ought to live in the natural world are the most cohesive and most emphasize honouring the natural world," she says.

She adds that there is much to be learned from Buddhism, with its notion of peaceful living within the natural world. "Some Buddhist Thais recently ordained trees to protect them. They believe that the potential for enlightenment exists in all creatures, not just humans."

Send tithes and prayers to Chris Benjamin at

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