American Religion and Environmentalism: Stewardship and Shortcomings

Religion and climate change intersect at a perhaps unlikely similarity: stewardship.

When it comes to environment-focused language and perspectives, there are valuable things we can learn from major world religions. In addressing the origins of the natural world and humans’ role in it, most religious teachings say something about how to interact with the environment. Abrahamic religions — notably Islam, Christianity, and Judaism — communicate similar lessons about being a steward of the environment: protecting land, looking after animals (and each other), avoiding wasteful consumption, carefully enjoying the fruits of the Earth, etc. Buddhist teachings contain messages about conservation and responsibility for the future. The sacred texts of Hinduism speak of divinity related to nature. According to a Pew Research Center study from April 2022, most religious adults see the Earth as sacred and value such teachings of environmental stewardship. The Center defines stewardship as the idea that “God gave humans a duty to protect and care for the Earth, including the plants and animals.”

For believers and non-believers alike, the writings of religious texts can be beautiful rhetorical explorations of environmentalism. We can establish powerful connections between ethics, spirituality and commitment to protecting the environment from the framework that religions offer. 

But a corollary between being religious and believing in the urgency of the climate crisis is not as strong as one might expect. Love and concern for the environment should imply a concern for climate change, right?

The 2022 study, which surveyed around 10,000 American adults, suggested otherwise. The research looked at the trends between practicing religion in America and the severity which one attributes to climate change, revealing that those more involved in religious practices are less likely to view climate change as a serious problem or to attribute global warming to human activity. The survey also found that the more “highly” religious a person is — one who prays often, regularly attends services, and generally considers religion to be very important — the less likely they are to view climate change as a critical issue. Religiously unaffiliated adults – including those who identify as atheists or agnostics — were found to express more concern over climate change than religiously affiliated Americans. When broken down by age, the Center found that younger evangelical Protestants, for example, were more likely to be concerned about climate change than older evangelicals, but the gap between the views of the religious compared to the non-religious still existed, with more non-religious youth expressing passionate regard for the climate than religious youth. The study largely looked at many sects of Christianity and found this trend to be consistent across most beliefs, but those who identified with the “other religion” group of the survey — religions outside the branches of Christianity — were more likely to see climate change as a serious problem than American Christians. Overall, the dichotomy between religious and non-religious views was striking. If the majority of religious Americans harbor a connection between their religion and the view that humans have an important role in protecting the Earth, why do their views when it comes to climate change skew the other way?

This paradox of believing in the sacredness of nature but not having much concern for a changing climate may lend itself to politics. With the rise of a particularly American breed of political polarization, it seems that religious affiliation in the United States has become increasingly tied to politics, and public opinion about climate change has become inextricably linked to political affiliation in our modern, hyper-polarized world. The religious right, if I may, is especially concerning. Right-leaning political views — especially right-wing populism — are more likely to dismiss climate change. When religion and right-wing dismissal of climate change intersect, I worry that American religiosity is being led astray from the stewardship-focused teachings of religious texts. Most often, this intersection is especially intense and concerning when it comes to American Christianity

By no means do I intend to bash religion. Coming from a religious background myself, concern over the environment has time and time again been a spiritual concern. I think there are lessons we can learn from the deep connections that a majority of religions form with the environment. I think the world’s scriptures and religious teachings have beautiful things to say about stewardship. I find it fascinating that ancient religious texts reveal, in various ways, a concern for the Earth’s well-being. Foundational religious texts are, of course, not in the context of 21st-century climate change. Nevertheless, the love one should have for nature as described by these texts is clear.

Spending time at Colgate studying environmental topics through a humanities perspective has also led me to be especially interested in the role of narrative and the conversations we’re having about the environment. With this lens in mind, I’m especially concerned about the lack of conversations in religious communities about climate change that the Pew Research Center study suggests. The study showed that the less one recalled hearing about climate issues in their place of worship, the less their concern for climate change. Within religious communities, the messages religious leaders preach can be critical in shaping their congregations’ attitudes about the environment. If religious leaders have messages to share about stewardship, it seems appropriate and necessary to wonder where we’re going wrong.