Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fertile Common Ground: Conservation

The stated purpose of this blog is to promote positive interactions between science and religion. While several of my posts have focused on how to avoid conflict (by noticing how it has been generated), today I’d like to focus more directly on positive interactions that are already taking place. If evolution has been the most contentious topic between science and religion, then certainly the topic of greatest agreement and cooperation between them in recent years has been biological conservation.

Many of the world’s religions are recognizing that the teachings of their faith prompt them to care for our planet and the life upon it. Religious leaders around the globe have taken an increasingly active role in encouraging their fellow believers to act responsibly with respect to our environment. Numerous organizations have formed to promote cooperation between religions and conservation groups. Here are two of the most prominent organizations, whose websites contain a wealth of information about religions and the environment: Alliance of Religions and Conservation and the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale.

From 2008-2011, I was fortunate to have the opportunity of serving on the board of the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group, a sub-group of the Society for Conservation Biology. During part of this time (until the birth of my youngest child), I was chair of the curriculum committee, and we were charged with writing materials to serve as a starting point for cooperation-- a bridge-- between conservation professionals and religious groups. We wrote articles introducing religious groups to the views and goals of conservation professionals, and vice versa, as well as a series of Fact Sheets summarizing the positions of seven of the world’s major religions regarding the earth and the environment. (These are all available at the Religion and Conservation Biology resource page.) I remember writing the last of these summaries just a few days before my son was born-- whew!-- and I was grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this worthy effort.

As I complied my research for these summaries, I noticed a pattern: The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) centered their conservation ethic around the idea of stewardship-- that God, the Creator, has given us charge over his creations and holds us accountable for our use of them. Those religions whose beliefs include reincarnation (Hinduism and Buddhism, for example) centered their conservation ethic around the ideas of nonviolence and the interconnectedness of all life. And Eastern religions such as Confucianism and Daoism tended to focus on the balance of nature and our proper place and action within it. It is interesting to note that, while the core concepts leading to a conservation ethic may be different for each religion, every major world religion contains strong internal motivation for environmental responsibility. These are not values that have to be imposed from outside; they are already there and, interestingly, always have been. Often it is the most ancient of teachings that have lended themselves most effectively to a revitalized concern for nature. It is to the credit of these religions that many of their number have allowed themselves to be informed by modern environmental science and then have reached back into their own traditions to find a deeper motivation for improved action.

“And the reason I’m telling you this is because…” (Dr. Seuss) it demonstrates that when scientists and religious people have taken a step back to look respectfully and non judgmentally at each other’s beliefs and goals, they have found many common values and ways to work in cooperation. Hooray, hooray, that we don’t all have to hold the same worldview in order to work well together toward common goals! This fact gives me great hope for the future of mutual understanding and appreciation between science and religion.

To my fellow conservation scientists, I would say: Remember that Conservation Biology, as a discipline, is a marriage between a science (biology) and a value system (conservation). We are qualified to teach people the findings and tools of our science, but our moral authority to dictate value systems is no greater than anyone else’s. We must not expect religions to convert or adapt to a science-dictated worldview, and we must not present science as a moral authority on the environment. The wonderful news is that we need not (and should not) expect people to change their religious views in order to embrace conservation. Conservation is already proving to be a topic of agreement despite diverse worldviews, as long as we will work respectfully with religions to find common ground in our values. We can be more careful to avoid language that engenders strife and instead employ language with which religious groups can identify, such as “intrinsic value of nature,” “reverence for life,” and “stewardship.” We will meet with cooperation if we will remember what science is and have the intellectual honesty to report it accurately as a tool for understanding how things work, while respecting the diverse views of others regarding what people and societies should value.

To my fellow believers I would say: Let’s look to the best in our beliefs and traditions for motivation to care for this special planet, and then stand ready to listen to, learn from, and embrace the sound ideas and tools science can offer us for doing it more effectively. I, for one, am grateful that science can teach me biological principles that will help me be a better steward over my little corner of this beautiful earth. Trying to do so is part of my worship of the Creator.

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