Opinion: Could religion be used to address environmental issues?

Despite continued warnings from environmentalists and scientists around the world about air pollution and the depletion of natural resources, the destruction of the environment continues apace.

Whether the apathy regarding environmental issues is due to them being considered secondary to the problems of daily life, or because the message of impending disaster doesn’t translate effectively, is difficult to pinpoint on a global scale.

“When approached from a political or a scientific perspective, environmental issues often tend to get ignored as simply ‘science talk,’ or concepts that are just so far from people’s everyday lives that it is hard for many to see the relation,” says Sherif Baha al-Din, an environmental consultant and chairman of the board of Nature Conservation Egypt.

“Many people are not completely fluent in mathematics and statistics, so percentages and graphs don’t really register as effectively as many scientists hope they would,” he continued.

Religion and the environment may at first seem to be two mutually exclusive phenomena; but looking at the history of the religion, as well as the way people govern their lives, just might provide a much-needed solution.

“The Quran teaches that the environment is God’s creation, and disrespecting it is like disrespecting God,” says Sheikh Abdallah al-Khouly. “It also teaches of maintaining balance in life, and that what is taken must be replaced and that by spending time in nature, human awareness and our understanding of God can be developed.”

Jean Druel, a Dominican priest, furthers the argument. “The Bible says that God created the world, and that the world is good, and that it is important that we treat it like one of God’s creations.”

So why then, when so many turn to religion for guidance, do issues of closeness to the world and caring for the environment appear to be ignored?

“I believe that the way societies have been constructed since the birth of many religions has created a separation between people and their environment, which has altered people’s understanding of holy texts,” says Baha al-Din.

“In the times of Jesus and Muhammad, if you wanted a table you had to cut down a tree, chop it and make it yourself, so the effect on the environment would be obvious. Now you can just go to a store and buy thousands of machine made tables from another country – this creates a huge gap in our relation to nature,” he continued.

Dina Aly, a wildlife photographer who believes that environmental messages are embedded in the Quran, says that when a holy text such as the Quran is misinterpreted or adopted selectively, rather than looked at as a whole, the result can be quite dysfunctional.

“Many people are overly concerned with the daily rituals that suit them, and not enough on the bigger picture,” she says. “For example, people cling on to the ideas of hunting and halal meat, but they completely ignore the fact that the Quran says: ‘Every animal or plant damaged unnecessarily will come back for justice on judgment day.’”

Examining religion’s relationship with the environment also raises questions about how people who believe in an afterlife may shape their attitudes towards the environment, which only exists in the physical world.

“I am sure it must have a subconscious effect on people’s attitudes,” says Druel. “But then again, this idea of being overly focused on the afterlife, and ignoring this one, shows a poor understanding of the spirit of the scriptures themselves.”

Since religion speaks positively about man’s relationship to the environment, and much of the apathy about the environment stems from misinterpretation, could not religion be used to reinvigorate people’s relationship to the planet and address environmental issues?

“I think using religion to address environmental issues is an excellent idea, but the focus needs to be on the teachers and the sheikhs,” says Salah Arafa, an American University of Cairo professor of physics who was named Man of the Year by the university’s Society of Writers on Environment and Development in 2009.

“Many people do not read themselves and rely on the Friday prayers for guidance,” adds Arafa. “If the sheikhs spent a short amount of that time promoting man’s role in nature, and verses from the Quran which said to be at one with and care for the environment, I think it could have a great effect on, not just the environment, but on society as a whole.”

This idea was already effectively implemented during the 25 January revolution, when preachers called on people to take care of the environment and care for each other by cleaning the streets. As a result, people were inspired to act more responsibly.

This episode speaks to the impact that the words of preachers have on their communities, and how, perhaps, addressing environmental issues from a religious perspective may entrench them deeply in the minds of the people.

“It is every sheikh’s duty to urge people to protect the environment through Friday preaching and weekly lessons/meetings,” says Khouly. “The message in the mosques is meant to convey the essence of the Quran in a way that serves humanity with all its concerns, and the environment is no exception.”