Overview of World Religions and Ecology
How to utilize the insights of the world's religions is a task of formidable urgency. Indeed, the formulation of a new ecological theology and environmental ethics is already emerging from within several of the world's religions. Clearly each of the world's religious traditions has something to contribute to these discussions.
Broader Ethical Context for Sustainability.
The focus of ethics in the world's religions has been largely human centered. Humane treatment of humans is often seen not only as an end in itself but also as a means to eternal reward. While some have critiqued this anthropocentric perspective of world religions as rather narrow in light of environmental degradation and the loss of species, it is nonetheless important to recall that this perspective has also helped to promote major movements for social justice and human rights.
While social justice is an ongoing and unfinished effort of engagement, the challenge for the religions is also to enlarge their ethical concerns to include the more than human world. Social justice and environmental integrity are now being seen as part of a continuum. For some decades environmental philosophers have been developing the field of environmental ethics that can now provide enormous resources for the world's religions in considering how to expand their ethical focus.
Emerging biocentric, zoocentric, and ecocentric ethics are attentive to life forms, animal species, and ecosystems within a planetary context. A new "systems ethics" of part and whole, local and global, will assist the religions in articulating a more comprehensive form of environmental ethics from within their traditions. This is a major part of the development of religions into a dialogue with the sustainability movement. Humans are seeking an ethics to respond not only to suicide and homicide but also biocide and ecocide.
Thus religions are gradually moving from exclusively anthropocentric ethics to ecocentric ethics and even to anthropocosmic ethics. The latter is a term used by Tu Weiming (Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation, 1985) to describe the vibrant interaction of Heaven, Earth, and humans in a Confucian worldview. In this context, humans complete the natural and cosmic world and become participants in the dynamic transformative life processes. This idea can extend ethics to apply to the land-species-human-planet-universe continuum. This is a fruitful yet still emerging path toward a comprehensive ethics for sustainability. This path has various challenges, including within the religions themselves.
Problems and Promise.
It must be recognized that the world's religions, through intolerance and exclusive claims to truth, have often contributed to tensions between peoples, including wars or forced conversion. It is also the case that religions have often been at the forefront of reforms, such as in the labor movement, in immigration law, in justice for the poor and oppressed. The movements of non-violence for freedom in India and for integration in the United States were inspired by religious principles and lead by religious leaders.
In addition, the emerging dialogue on religion and ecology also acknowledges that in seeking long-term environmental sustainability, there is clearly a disjunction between contemporary problems regarding the environment and traditional religions as resources. The religious traditions are not equipped to supply specific guidance in dealing with complex issues such as climate change, desertification, or deforestation. At the same time one recognizes that certain orientations and values from the world's religions may not only be useful but even indispensable for a more comprehensive cosmological orientation and environmental ethics.