Living in a liberal and religiously-free society, I’ve had the privilege to explore various religions and spiritual outlooks, whilst challenging some of the biggest ambiguities of the natural world. From questioning how life came to exist on Earth, to what will happen to life when the end is inevitably reached, religion has offered fascinating answers, solutions, and sometimes comforts in a constantly moving world. As a budding scientist today, my interest in religion has only expanded – the challenges between religious and science communities and whether they can co-exist fascinates me. Whilst a common belief among the western world is that religion is in decline and becoming less prominent in our lives, just 15.1% of the world’s population as a whole identify as being unaffiliated with any religious group, whilst Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam continue to dominate the world’s religious demography. With such a presence, religion is a huge aspect of many of our lives, affecting the way in which we respond to life and the many challenges of it. Today, everyone is being affected by climate change in some way: from rising sea levels, loss of land, and changes in agriculture, to extreme weather events, widespread diseases, and loss of species, climate change has never been so prominent in all of our lives. There has been a general belief throughout history that religion and science are contested, with one not being able to exist in the presence of the other. As we enter 2020, there have been huge changes and social shifts: could it be possible that today science and religion can exist non-exclusively? The importance of making links between religion and science has never been more important than presently as we face a climate emergency.
Christianity made up 31.2% of the world’s population in 2015, and is the dominant religion in the western world. Many aspects of the Bible can be interpreted in different ways, creating various views surrounding climate change. The story of Noah’s Ark in Genesis and the underpinning philosophy of it has sometimes been compared to the state of the planet today: God is punishing humanity for disrespecting the very Earth he created for us. In the Book of Revelation, there is a passage which some have interpreted to be a hint of the current climate emergency we face today: “And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory.” – Revelation 16:89. Whilst this suggests a general belief in climate change amongst Christian communities, this story has been suggested to be a very temporary, short but intense period of global warming as a judgement of God, rather than a product of man. However, like many aspects of the Bible, there are contradicting stories and interpretations to be taken into account. Many believe the Creation in Genesis illustrates the Bible proclaiming that the Earth was made as a perfect creation by God, to be cared for by man: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind… so that they may rule over the fish… and the birds… the livestock… and the wild animals…’ God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful, fill the Earth and subdue it’.” – Genesis 1:26-28. The principle philosophy underpinning Genesis is that humans are stewards of the Earth: the way in which we behave reflects our moral integrity. Whilst there will always be contradicting opinions, many Christian communities have now accepted that climate change is a very real thing as a result of our neglect to look after the planet, and measures must be taken. Last year, Pope Francis released a statement on climate change, recognising its presence and urging action.
Buddhism is a wide-spread religion and philosophy originating from Asia. Whilst Buddhism is a religion of its own, the western world has seen the introduction of many Buddhist practises such as meditation and mindfulness, and has even seen the rise in “Buddhist modernism”, a concept which explores the compatibility of Buddhism with modern science. There has been connections drawn between the theory of evolution and the basis of Buddhism that there are “consistent operations of causality”, and Buddhism has even been described as a “Religion of Science”. This monumental movement towards building a relationship between the scientific community and religion can only be viewed as a positive stride towards effective change. A prominent philosophy in Buddhism is sympathy to the natural world and an awareness that all life is connected and therefore sacred. This concept has grounded Buddhist concerns for the planet, and many Buddhist leaders around the world have come together to issue a declaration on the importance of taking action against climate change. Environmental responsibility is described as an outgrowth of the Buddhist principle of non-harm and non-violence, as well as recognising other life forms and future generations who do not have a voice: “We must listen to their silence.” Buddhism generally approaches climate change as an ethical issue, as oppose to economic or social, and identify love and compassion as motivators to drive effective, sustainable action.
Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and is often referred to by scholars as Sanātana Dharma, or “the eternal tradition”. Divinity is a recurring concept throughout Hinduism which refers to god. There is belief that Divine is present everywhere and in all things, giving reason for Hindus to strive not to harm. This is further supported by the belief that man and nature are not separate, but linked by spiritual, psychological and physical bonds. Many Hindus recite a short Sanskrit prayer every morning: “Samudra vasane Devi, Paryata stana mandale, Vishnupatni namastubhyam, Paada sparsham kshamasva me.”, which translates to, “O! Mother Earth, who has the ocean as clothes, and mountains and forests on her body, who is the wife of Lord Vishnu, I bow to you. Please forgive me for touching you with my feet.” In 2009, the Hindu Declaration on Climate Change was presented at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, stating: “We hold a deep reverence for life and an awareness that the great forces of nature – the Earth, the water, the fire, the air and space – as well as the various orders of life, including plants and trees, forests and animals, are bound to each other within life’s cosmic web… we cannot continue to destroy nature without also destroying ourselves.” However, Hinduism does also hold the belief that beyond a certain point you cannot save the planet: it exists in an endless cycle of creation and destruction, with dissolution being the preamble for the next creative impulse. There are links to be drawn to science here: on Earth, life remains in cycles of extinction and succession, with it repeatedly being lost and gained. There has been five mass extinctions in the past, and we are most likely currently in our sixth. However, we have to consider how human activity has fuelled this process, potentially to the point where it is irreversible if action is not taken soon.
The Quran is the central religious text of Islam, believed to be a revelation from God. Similarly to other religious texts, there are many different interpretations of the Quran and what it states about man’s potential to negatively impact the planet. In the Quran, Allah talks about the crafting of the plants and trees that have a crucial role in our environment and survival: “He it is Who sendeth down water from the sky, and therewith We bring forth buds of every kind; We bring forth the green blade from which We bring forth the thick-clustered grain; and from the date-palm, from the pollen thereof, spring pendant bunches; and (We bring forth) gardens of grapes, and the olive and the pomegranate, alike and unlike. Look upon the fruit thereof, when they bear fruit, and upon its ripening. Lo! herein verily are portents for a people who believe.” – Quran 6:100. This long verse of the holy book provides insight into the importance of water for plants, the production of fruit and vegetables which ensures the survival of all creatures of the Earth, and even addresses the importance of pollen, creating strong links between scientific knowledge and Islamic teachings. In terms of addressing climate change, it can be inferred that the Quran states everybody must accept responsibility for damage caused to the environment: “Corruption doth appear on land and sea because of (the evil) which men’s hands have done, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order that they may return.” – Quran, 30:41. Islamic values call to protect the planet and the diversity of all life forms found on it by transitioning to a sustainable society and economy. This requires a shift in norms and practises – a huge part of religion, making the role of religion in active change against the climate emergency an extremely powerful tool.
With all of this taken into account, can science and religion truly go hand-in-hand for the sake of the future of our planet? A few hundred years ago, scientific discoveries made by the likes of Mendel, Semmelweis, and even Einstein were rejected due to many of their theories contradicting religious teachings. Today science goes into almost everything we do, from how our food is produced to how we travel, and as we enter a climate emergency it will be science that helps us not only reduce the effects of global warming, but also helps us respond to irreversible changes that we must adapt to. It is unarguable that science has been key in our development. However, religion has been the backbone of many countries and cultures for as long as time, offering unconditional support to those in need, and underlying much of our history. Why must we lose our spirituality and disregard our belief systems to give our support to science? There is not one exclusive answer to climate change in a world of so many different beliefs – though we will never agree on how or why life came to form on this planet, we can all agree that the beauty and magic of the Earth and all the nature it homes is irreplaceable, and we must do what we can, working together as one, to save it.