Environmentalism and Religion — Similarities and Differences

It seems rather common these days for anti-environmentalists to claim that environmentalists treat environmentalism (or, in many cases, climate change activism) like a religion. Environmentalism can infiltrate many aspects of a person’s life and may affect many of their thoughts, feelings and actions. However, calling it a religion is a little off the mark. There are clear differences between environmentalism, or climate change action, and religion.

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Where Are the Similarities?

Similarities people might have identified between environmentalism and religion are that:

1) people deeply involved in environmentalism, like religion, might be very zealous about it, (but people deeply involved in anything get very zealous about it — sports, food, their work, making money, etc.);

2) environmentalists, like followers of a certain religion, might believe very firmly in one perspective or one argument and not give the slightest concession to an argument that goes against that, (but with a firm scientific consensus and a clear understanding of how things work in this world, what is the difference between firm environmentalist beliefs of certain subject matters and the firm beliefs of most of the world that the world is round, gravity pulls objects down, and the sun is larger than the Earth?);

3) environmentalists have formed a strong community, similar, perhaps, to various religious communities, (but, again, anyone who spends a lot of time in one field often ends up entrenched in a community focused around that issue — active members of nearly any professional association or community, social media enthusiasts, sports fans, etc.);

4) environmentalism and religion both concern ideas of what is morally right, (but there are numerous topics — probably every major sector of life and society — that touch on the broad topic of morality in one way or another).

Where Are the Differences?

I think the key difference between environmentalism and religion is much more striking, I think. No matter what the religion is, it is connected to the idea that the “soul” — something that is at one’s essence and is related to the source of all life (i.e. God, Tao, the Source, Allah, Nam) — can merge back into that source again and thus achieve a greater, heightened consciousness or life.

Environmentalism doesn’t contain this critical aspect of religion. That is why environmentalists can come from all religions — Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, and so on — and why, I think, they do not connect to environmentalism as something opposed to religion, in general. You might argue that environmentalists believe we all come from the environment and we will all go back to the environment, but this does not entail achieving a “greater, heightened consciousness or life”. This is basically about a physical matter, not a spiritual matter.

A Similar Opportunity for Environmentalists and Religious Followers

An opportunity that environmentalists and religious followers do both share, that might supply a unique bond between them, however, is that they both can develop much greater care for others through these otherwise rather different interests. Believing that we need to care for the environment facilitates greater care for all life and others (or it can do so, at least). Similarly, belief that all life comes from the same source, and honoring that source, religion should make us more likely to honor all other life and beings. It can, at the least, encourage us to care more for others.

This is one unique similarity between environmentalism and religion, but it does not make environmentalism a religion. It just connects the two through this bridge of potentially greater care for others. Whether we take advantage of this opportunity is another story altogether, of course.

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Related Stories:
1) Christianity and the Environment
Environmentalism as a Step in Individual Evolution
Personal Happiness and Equity: A Sustainability Link

Image Credit: Toni Blay via flickr under a CC license


~ by Zachary Shahan on February 15, 2010.

One Response to “Environmentalism and Religion — Similarities and Differences”

  1. Very interesting, and something I’ve thought a lot about! I feel like there is a sort of spirituality to be found in environmentalism. I think that connection with the Earth that drives folks to try to protect it can be a really deep, spiritual thing.

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