The Yamuna River: India’s Dying Goddess

This is the sort of thing that once led the late historian Lynn White Jr. to describe Christianity as “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” In an influential 1967 paper, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” he wrotethat “by destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”


© Sanjay Kumar
A father initiates his son into
the ritual of drinking water
from the holy river.

But White also acknowledged that any religious faith is complex, with multiple traditions and interpretations. He regarded St. Francis of Assisi, in particular, as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history” and as the patron saint of ecologists for his attempt “to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation.”

Though White did not say so, Christianity also inadvertently produced the West’s greatest scientific revolutionary. The natural theology movement of the early 19th century popularized the idea that nature revealed the divine hand of the Creator and that naturalists came closer to God by providing detailed scientific descriptions of how species were perfectly adapted to their habitats. One young reader would later rank Natural Theology by Rev. William Paley together with the works of Euclid above all others “in the education of my mind.” The student who thus learned the critical importance of studying minute variations in nature was Charles Darwin.

But these instances of religiously instigated environmentalism in the past were clearly exceptional. Is there any reason to rethink scientific attitudes toward religion now? That is, does religion have anything to add to the search for environmental solutions, whether in India or the United States? “Religions have been late to this,” says Tucker. “We often say religions have problems and promise. Everybody realizes there’s a problematic side, the fundamentalist side, the narrow-minded side.” But religions have also been a powerful force behind some of the great reform movements of the past—for instance, the drive by Quakers and other religious groups to abolish slavery, Mahatma Gandhi’s long struggle to win India’s freedom from British colonial rule and the campaign by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other religious leaders during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. From a purely practical view, Tucker adds, religions “are the largest NGOs in the world, and people have to understand that you can’t just ignore them.”

Moreover, neither scientists nor religious believers are as simple, or as mutually antagonistic, as sometimes supposed. Commonplace notions about fundamentalist and other religious attitudes can border on caricature (or perhaps a hijacking of the religious identity by one end of the political spectrum). So it can be tempting, for instance, to just ignore the Evangelical Environmental Network’s Creation Care Blog, which is rooted firmly in the Bible. And yet writers there can sound as alarmed as any Greenpeace activist about climate change and other issues. One recent entry: “I’m not so prescient as to suggest that there will be environmental martyrdom, mass civil disobedience or game-changing arrests. But laying down our lives has got to mean something. Doesn’t it?” Among white evangelicals in the United States overall, 73 percent actually favor tougher environmental laws and regulations, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Among scientists, meanwhile, Pew reported in 2009 that just over half say they believe in God or some form of higher power. 

Even so, it takes a certain daring to bridge the chasm that has opened up between religion and science in America—and even more so for institutions on “opposite” sides to collaborate, as Yale’s Divinity School and F&ES have done for the past five years. The two schools now jointly host the Forum on Religion and Ecology and also offer a combined master’s degree program.

“I live in the state of Indiana,” says Haberman, “and I can assure you that Purdue University’s Department of Forestry & Natural Resources would never, ever do that: ‘How could religion have anything useful to say in environmental studies?’” (The Purdue department confirms that no such collaboration exists: “We’re very traditional.”) And yet, Haberman continues, “Yale has said, ‘Hmm, not only is the pairing of religion and environmental studies interesting, but let’s turn it into a joint-degree program.’ I can’t think of another school that has taken it that seriously.”

For Yale, the collaboration has roots in a long-standing search to address “one of the great failings of environmentalism in our country,” says Gus Speth, the former F&ES dean who brought the Forum on Religion and Ecology to the university in 2006. The green movement “never really developed the ethical and spiritual dimension of environmental concern,” he says. “We had run on the political capital that catalyzed action in the late 1960s, but that had been largely exhausted by the 1980s. Unless there were huge moral and ethical sentiments that could be mobilized, we were unlikely to achieve the long-term transformation that was needed.” So when the opportunity arose to bring Tucker and Grim to Yale, Speth grabbed it, “motivated by the fact that they have been leaders in explaining the links between environment and ecology and the world’s great religions.” Funding came from the V. Kann Rasmussen and Germeshausen foundations and the Kendeda Sustainability Fund. The V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation has also supported annual student exchanges between TERI University and Yale.

Tucker and Grim, who hold faculty appointments at both F&ES and the Divinity School, walk a fine line in describing their work. They are not “eco-theologians,” and words like “activist” can raise eyebrows in an academic context, says Grim. “At the same time, Mary Evelyn and I are not keen to just stand on the edge and watch these problems carry us away.” What they do, he says, is “engaged scholarship,” based largely in the traditional academic field of religious studies. (Tucker specializes in Asian cultures, Grim in American Indians.) They work with all shades of religious belief, looking to find room for agreement among skeptical scientists, politically minded environmentalists, New Age spiritualists and traditional religious groups pushing back against any hint of pantheism or nature worship.

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