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The Ecological Crisis and Religion - Lesson Summary

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The World Commission on Environment and Development acknowledged that to reconcile human affairs with natural laws, our cultural and spiritual heritages can reinforce our economic interest and survival imperatives. But until very recently, the role of our cultural and spiritual heritages in environmental protection and sustainable development was ignored by international bodies, national governments, and even environmentalist.

Historically, religions have taught us to perceive and to act on nonhuman nature in terms of particular human interest, beliefs, and social structures.

From the perspective of many world religions, the abuse and exploitation of nature for immediate gain is unjust, immoral, and unethical. For example, in the ancient past, Hindus and Buddhist were careful to observe moral teachings regarding the treatment of nature. But now, the materialistic orientation of the West has equally affected the cultures of the East.

Emergence in widespread practice of The Baconian Creed, or the idea that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature, can scarcely be dated before about 1850.

The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.

Especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. Not only does it establish a dualism of man and nature, it also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for man’s gain.

Modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian Theology. According to Lynn White, “Both present science and technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.


BUDDHISM
• Buddhism vies humanity as an integral part of nature, so that when nature is defiles, people ultimately suffer.
• Negative consequences arise when cultures alienate themselves from nature, when people feel separate from and become aggressive towards natural systems.
• When we abuse nature, we abuse ourselves.
• The first precept in Buddhism is “Do not kill”. This precept is not merely a legalistic prohibition, but a realization of our affinity with all who share the gift of life. A compassionate heart provides a firm ground for this precept.
• The community of monks are forbidden by the Vinaya, the ancient rules of conduct, from eating ten different kinds of meat, mostly animals of the forest.
• Buddha set down rules forbidding his disciples to contaminate water resources. For example, monks were dissuaded from throwing their waste or leftover food into rivers and lakes, and they were urged to guard the lives of all living beings abiding there.
• In the Vinaya Pitaka there are detailed descriptions of how to build toilets and water wells.

HINDUISM
• According to the Atharvaveda, the Earth is not for human beings alone, but for other creatures as well.
• God as the efficient cause, and nature, Prakriti, as the material cause of the universe, are unconditionally accepted, as is their harmonious relationship. For ancient Hindus, both God (Lord Krishna) and nature (Prakriti) was to be one in the same.
• The Hindu belief in the cycle of birth and rebirth, where a person may come back as an animal or a bird, gives these species not only respect, but also reverence. This provides a solid foundation for the doctrine of ashima, non-violence against animals and humans alike.
• As early as in the time of Rigveda, tree worship was quite popular and universal. The Rigveda regarded plants as having divine powers, with one entire hymn devoted to their praise, chiefly with reference to their healing properties.
• The cutting of trees and destruction of flora were considered a sinful act.
• Manu advised: “One should not cause urine, stool, caught in water. Anything which is mixed with these unpious objects, blood and poison, should not be thrown into water. (Manusmriti IV:56)