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Posted by on Mar 31, 2008

Religious Environmentalism – Gottlieb: A Greener Faith

Religious Environmentalism – Gottlieb: A Greener Faith

Mt. Fuji

Japan’s Mt. Fuji presents a beautiful backdrop for Tokyo, home to more than 32 million people. The last major eruption of this perfectly symmetrical stratovolcano came in 1707. Image from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission.

The coming of Spring and all things green, including Earth Day, is a good time to read Roger S. Gottlieb’s book, “A Greener Faith.” Megan Jones, of the Department of History at the University of Delaware, has published a very good review on H-Net Catholic Discussion Network on the history and culture of Catholicism.

Gottlieb’s vision of religion takes in all of the major world religions and all indigenous or native expressions. For someone like myself, who studied environmental biology and social ethics in the 1970’s, it’s deja vu all over again. What strikes me as a card carrying anthropologist, though, is the assumption that since religion reflects culture and society, thinkers and practitioners of religion, from the New Age suburban shaman to the Archbishop, should embrace environmentalism as a way to validate religious experience in the face of the current atheistic onslaught from Dawkins et al.

On the one hand, there is the Christian notion of watching the signs of the times and the injunction to witness to justice. As Gottlieb observes, religion can bring hope to what seems to be a hopeless situation. However, I cannot help but resist the notion of “using” religion, of whatever stripe. As a universal anthropological phenomenon, religion closely mirrors the current situation of its social context. Re-interpreting religious texts and folk traditions does occur at times of crisis – in ways that are in keeping with the group’s social construction of reality.

What gives me pause are the laws of unintended consequences which I have seen first hand as a public health planner. Encouraging people to explore the environmental challenge is a social imperative. However, adopting a public policy agenda draped in the folds of religion appears to play into the criticism that religion is at base a tool of social control, without any transnatural referent that is not delusional.

So… Lead us not into religious environmentalism and deliver us from the temptations of the moment.

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