Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Religion and Nature by Margaret Atwood

In Anthill, the protagonist is almost murdered by a fanatical Christian religious group that also has an interest in turning the natural area he champions into an intensive housing development.

1.    Financial self-interest aside, is the role of religion vis a vis respect for the natural world always this negative?  (I’m thinking for instance of the Green Bible, and the many groups who view the natural world as a sacred trust or something in relation to which mankind is a “steward.”)

2.     To what can we attribute the extreme anti-nature stance taken by some religious groups?

3.     Are there not other religions for whom all life is sacred?

4.     Are we as a species hard-wired to always pick the low-hanging fruit, and thereby anti-conservationist by our very nature?


Sandra said...

Does the "low-hanging fruit" here mean the accessibility of a religious understanding as opposed to the science-based way of looking at the natural world?

Anonymous said...

I read it to ask are we programmed to take the easy route to 'survival' (translating in modern times to financial gain), even at the expense of others. Sure; to conserve energy. And I think the evolution of religion has one one basic level been to serve to counteract this urge, and reward altruism and the good of the many.

Sarah said...

Hello, Margaret - thank you very much for sharing your insights and thought-provoking questions with us this week! What a pleasure it has been to read your posts.

The question of whether we are hard wired to be anti-conservationist, to me is a question of scale and culture. I believe all animals - humans included - are hard wired for survival. And, I do think this wiring influences us when it comes to our potential to survive at the cost of others. I think you see this trait emerge especially in areas where our populations have outgrown the resource (this is the scale issue), as you described in your post regarding the super colony concept. I also think that our cultural mindset - including religion - has much to do with whether we choose sustainability or exploitation. Our culture here in the U.S., with its significant mental disconnect to the resource (e.g. most of us don't know where our food comes from and how it is grown, or what watershed we live in, where our drinking water comes from, etc.), in my view makes us very vulnerable to mindlessly adopting anti-conservation behaviors. As the previous poster mentioned, religion can serve to counteract this - in fact, the religions that have emerged out of Eastern thought are very much in tune with a positive relationship between humans and nature.

However, Judeo-Christian traditions also have an environmental ethic at their core. "Conserve" comes to us from its Latin/Middle English roots "com" + "servare" the latter of which means "to serve, to guard, or to keep." In the Christian tradition, God asks Adam in the book of Genesis to "keep" the garden of Eden, in effect making Adam the first conservationist.

Anonymous said...

I just watched the final episode of Planet Earth (The Future - Living Together), and the topic of the role of religion in conservation is part of the discussion. The Archbishop of Canterbury is featured and has very pertinent things to say. It is mentioned that the Dalai Lama convinced Tibetans to discontinue wearing animal skins, some of which were from at-risk or endangered. More than 10,000 Tibetans heeded his call and burned their animal skin adornments (some were actually used for warmth). This shows the power of religion to influence positive change for our environment.

An interesting point is made in the episode (resonating with what Sarah says above) that conservation is held as value to some religions. So, on one hand there are the religious groups that feel the decline of the earth's ecosystems are part of God's plan (like the characters in Anthill who try to kill Raff), and on the other hand you have those who feel humans are charged with stewardship of the environment.

What I like is the idea that all organizations who feel the environment is worth saving can be brought into the discussion: religious, scientific, economic, political, etc. Only once we join together can real change be affected.

PS - EO Wilson is a contributor to discussion in the final three episodes of Planet Earth as well.