Can religion save the world?

caravan.jpgI mean the natural world here. Yes, the suggestion might at first seem counterintuitive (perhaps even obscene) given the fierce opposition to any restraint on rapacious commerce and “development” that became, rightly or wrongly, intertwined with fundamentalist religion in the conservative coalition in America we have known for most of the last decade.  But of course the situation is more nuanced than that. Even among American Christians, a greener outlook has been taking hold in recent years, and it appears that this sentiment transcends particular religious sects (see, for example, the arcworld website linked below). For most religious people, obviously, there are more important concerns than the environment. But that is equally true of non-religious people.

I was led down this thread of rumination by an interesting letter to Nature this past week, which is reproduced verbatim below. The potential value of appealing to people’s religious views in environmental conservation also resonates strongly with the message from Randy Olson’s new book “Don’t be such a scientist“, which is basically that you can get a lot more mileage for your message by aiming for the heart, gut, and libido than by making clever academic arguments and citing tables of facts. The argument below seems pretty persuasive to me.

Conservation: the world’s religions can help

Shonil Bhagwat & Martin Palmer

The world’s religions are emerging as a surprising driver of support for conservation of biological diversity.

The International Interfaith Investment Group, for example, which is collectively worth more than US$7 trillion, is encouraging religious organizations to change their current investment policies in favour of those that support conservation.

In addition, lands owned by these organizations can contribute to the conservation of biodiversity because of their protected status. More than 7% of Earth’s land surface is owned by religious institutions, and a further 8% has sacred links ( Given that most countries will never be able to designate more than 15% of their land as protected areas (S. Chape et al. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 360, 443–455; 2005), territory with religious and sacred affiliations contributes substantially to maintaining biodiversity.

It should also be possible to raise funding for conservation by appealing to donors who have religious faith. For example, the wealthy countries of the G20 group that have large religious populations might step in and help.

The focus of initiatives in the past has been on paying for ecosystem services, which are considered ‘natural capital’ (R. Costanza et al. Nature 387, 253–260; 1997), but an appeal to support native communities on religious grounds might prove more persuasive in a difficult economic climate.

Of the 125 countries that are represented in the Conservation International list of biodiversity hotspots, most have a low per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) and a strong religious base ( Collectively, these countries are home to more than 4 billion people affiliated with one of 11 mainstream faiths; more than half of them have a total population of 3 billion and a per-capita GDP of less than US$5,000.

Religious sympathy has the potential to make a major contribution towards biodiversity conservation. This contribution could be extremely valuable in the approach to the 2010 target of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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7 Responses to Can religion save the world?

  1. Hmm… I think it’s important to: 1) get more people thinking environmentally, and 2) get more people thinking rationally.

    But if we can make rapid progress with #1 by separating it from #2, (i.e. by freely mixing environmentalism and religious mumbo jumbo) I reckon that would be ok. Just so long as we don’t give up on #2 entirely.

  2. Paul says:

    Desperate times bring out strange bedfellows… I’m not a super religious person, but I’m not an atheist either. I think that keeping an open mind despite one’s beliefs keeps open dialog that can lead to good things like faith based green policy. Besides, the 10 commandments is good stuff! Thanks for the encouraging post!

  3. Emmett Duffy says:

    I’m with you both. Promoting rationality and promoting appreciation — yes, love — for the natural world is what the Natural Patriot is all about. One doesn’t have to be a religious person to appreciate that there is a common bond of love for the mysteries of nature among people of various backgrounds and beliefs, and that communion with Nature is one of the most effective and time-honored ways of making contact with something larger than ourselves, whether you want to call it God or a cosmic mystery or the wonder of nature or even just feeling at peace. And if joining forces with like-minded people advances the cause of saving some of that Nature, well all the better.

  4. Don says:

    Emmett: Religion is an important human value and can contribute substantially to conservation. Gearing up for 700 freshmen in intro bio this year, we will begin with a couple of lectures on biodiversity (What is it?). Then, the third lecture-discussion concerns “conservation.” The approach this year begins with a classification of values of biodiversity: 1. Intrinsic (pertinent to humans: patriotic, religious, ethical); 2. Functional (pertinent to all species, not just humans; species interactions, biotic-abiotic interactions); 3. utilitarian (pertinent to humans (monetary, ecosystem services…conflict between these); 4. Prospective (future value). The interactions among these values are extremely interesting to the students. regards, Don

  5. Emmett Duffy says:

    Don,thanks for the comments. Wow, that sounds like a very cool class – I’d love to be part of that conversation (though I guess it could be a bit hectic with 700 students)!

  6. Hunter Fan says:

    Can religion save the world? seeing the world now and the extent of religious exploits, I beg to differ!

  7. Jake says:

    Thank you for the compelling information listed here. As someone who is currently involved in a Web project to raise consciousness specifically in relation to different spiritual traditions, I confess that I am biased–I do believe that the evolutionary impulse expressed in religions around the world and the daily practice of their adherents is not only symbolic but represents a real opportunity for mobilization. I would certainly welcome your perusal of our project, as it attempts to provide a platform for this important question, giving people a choice of “clans” to join in relation to their expression of how to save the world.