Getting Religion Right

Faith offers a powerful source of moral motivation for Earth care.

As we planned our Winter 2024 issue four months ago, we had the holiday season in mind. The year-end is, after all, as much a time for reflection as it is for celebration. For many millions across the world, it is also a time for reaffirming one’s faith. It seemed fitting, therefore, to offer, in this edition, a trio of articles at the intersection of religion and environmentalism. Eight out of 10 people worldwide identify with some sort of religion. So why is faith so often left out of conversations about environmental action? Surely religion offers a huge (if largely untapped) source of moral motivation for Earth care?

close-up of decor on a tree

Religions the world over have helped people grapple with challenges in their everyday lives – the climate is no exception. Photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe / Flickr.

On Nov. 14, just weeks before world leaders were set to gather in Dubai for the annual United Nations climate conference, COP28, the UN published yet another report showing there’s “no end in sight” to rising greenhouse gas emissions. “The chasm between need and action is more menacing than ever,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned. To close that chasm, we need every country, every institution, every community to lend a hand. And that includes communities of faith.

It can be done. There is quite a bit of research out there indicating that religion can have a significant influence on people’s behavior when it comes to the environment. In fact, as our cover story, “Green Gospel”, by Journal Associate Editor Brian Calvert, shows, appeals to faith-based worldviews can bypass political divides and cultural affiliations. This can happen even in spaces where the same influences have been used to spread disinformation and obstruct action on climate change.

There are roadblocks besides disinformation, of course. For instance, as Greg Harris points out in “The Forest Monks,” tradition can get in the way of environmentalism. Figuring out the right way to respond to our ongoing environmental crisis can pose a challenge to religions traditionally concerned with personal salvation, or those that advocate a distancing from worldly affairs. However, as that story, Nana Firman’s essay (“Act of Worship”), and my conversation with Michael Greenberg of Climate Defiance also show, a new ecological theology within several religions is emerging to meet the moment, one that views environmentalism in terms of justice, sacred duty, empathy, and compassion.

Sadly, as we have witnessed over and over again, when it comes to conflicts over land and resources, these teachings are not always followed. And as we grieve the horrifying loss of innocent lives in the Middle East — in Israel, and in much larger and still growing numbers in Gaza — it can be difficult to focus on faith, especially organized religion, as a source of good rather than conflict. But the stories in this issue demonstrate that many, many people across the globe are harnessing their faith to help heal our world. This gives me hope. May their numbers only grow.

AFTER THREE YEARS of engaging Journal readers in thoughtful conversations about race, our connection tp land, and how privilege shapes who gets to speak on environmental issues, our “The Long Game” columnist, Carolyn Finney, is moving on to other ventures. We wish her the very best. We will be welcoming a new columnist in the coming year.

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