Online College Courses for Credit

The Environment

The Environment


This lesson will discuss how various traditions view the environment.

See More
Fast, Free College Credit

Developing Effective Teams

Let's Ride
*No strings attached. This college course is 100% free and is worth 1 semester credit.

29 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

314 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 27 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.



Video Transcription

Download PDF

[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this tutorial on religion and the environment. In the past 30 or 40 years, there's been an increase in environmental awareness around the world. As activists have been pointing out the depredations of industrial capitalism and the many perils that face the planet. As human beings face climate change, the depletion of natural resources, pollution, and other massive environmental problems.

So the question is, can we view religion as somehow creating or beginning this emerging environmental consciousness? Or is it the other way around, and religions are kind of coming late to the party. And finally listening to the environmental movement and beginning to listen to the cries of activists.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we can see a tension between stewardship and dominion, which are two ideas of the relationship between human beings and nature found in the Book of Genesis. So on the one hand, Adam and Eve are to tend and keep the Garden of Eden. And on the other hand, they are to subdue and dominate the earth So the Judeo-Christian tradition comes with this built-in tension, this built-in conflict, between these two ideas. And theologians in these traditions are working out exactly what is the relationship between these two. And is it possible that we can simultaneously maintain both of these ideas?

Just a few brief environmental facts. Climate refugees now outnumber the number of refugees from war, if you can believe that. More people are displaced by environmental problems today than are displaced by warfare.

Most of the large fish in the oceans are gone. I think it's somewhere around 90% of the larger fish in the oceans are gone. So most fisheries are depleted and they don't really ever have a chance to recover. Coral reefs around the world are dying.

Over a billion people have no modern sanitation, which means that they don't actually have access to clean drinking water. Having access to enough clean drinking water is going to be one of the major issues of the coming century. I could go on all day just naming facts like these.

But the question is, how are religions going to respond to these problems? In Christianity, there's a growing environmental movement. There's the Green Evangelicals, who are trying to do something about climate change and other environmental problems.

But what about Buddhism? Perhaps the middle way can be a remedy. So the middle way was supposed to be neither practicing mortification and self-denial. And on the other hand, not engaging in self-indulgent, self-destructive behavior. So the middle way was supposed to do steer a path between these two extremes.

But there's reason for thinking that perhaps the middle way is not going to be a way out of these environmental problems. For example, what Americans think of as a moderate way of life is actually quite extravagant by world standards. Americans are about 5% of the world population, but they use about 20% of the resources. So telling an American to moderate their behavior is not likely to be very meaningful to the rest of the planet. Especially people living in the third world, who may not have ever made a phone call, who may not have electricity and so forth.

There is Buddhist environmentalism. But it's struggling to find some kind of anchor in the tradition.

Let's take a quick look at Hinduism. In Hinduism, there's a distinction made between purusha and prakriti-- between spirit and matter. And in Hinduism, suffering can happen when we try to get spiritual fulfillment from material things. When there is an undo attachment to prakriti, to nature. So we have to be able to see purusha and prakriti together as part of a single reality.

Also in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine advises balance, advises balancing different types of food, balancing our diet, balancing our relationship with the natural environment, eating a vegetarian diet, and so forth. And also recognizing the divine element in everything. So can this be enough to build an environmental consciousness? Well it remains to be seen, in many ways.

Hindu leaders are beginning to sound the alarm bells about what's happening to the environment. But is it enough? It's really an open question.

Let's take a look now at the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam. In the Qur'an, creation is regarded as a reflection of divine truth. So in looking out at the natural world, in some sense, human beings can glean something of the divine reality and the divine presence. And humans are regarded as God's vice-regents. That is, human beings stand in for God on the earth.

This is similar to the role in Christianity of stewardship-- that human beings are supposed to take care of the earth. So again, this is pretty similar to the other Abrahamic religions. But will this kind of thinking be enough to pull humanity and the world out of these major crises that the planet will face in the coming century?

Just to summarize what we've said so far, we're going to review as we go through these vocabulary terms. A creation story is a narrative about how the world came to be, how people came into being. And we said that in the biblical creation story, there are the somewhat conflicted ideas of stewardship of nature and dominion over nature.

We talked about the Buddhist middle way as perhaps a path forward for environmental ethics in Buddhism. The middle way is avoiding both harsh treatment of the body and over-indulgence of the body. Darmic ethics is a set of moral and ethical teachings found in both Hindu and Buddhism. And part of dharma is taking care of the earth.

We talked about the ideas of purusha and prakriti. And we also talked about Ayurveda as a way of finding balance with nature.

We didn't mention Gandhi. But Gandhi was a 20th century Hindu political leader who pioneered the ideas of satyagraha It literally means insisting on the truth or laying hold of the truth. And ahimsa, which is total non-violence. So Gandhi was able to take these Hindu ideas and put them into force, soul force, to overthrow British colonial rule. So perhaps the ideas of satyagraha and non-violence could be useful for environmental ethics.

And finally the Qur'an is the sacred text for Muslims which talks about the idea of people as God's vice-regents on the earth.

Terms to Know
Creation Story

Narratives taken to be true by a particular culture which explain various ideas on how the world came into being.

Dharmic Ethics

A set of ethical/moral teachings based upon cause and effect found in Hindu and Buddhist teachings.


A twentieth century Hindu political and religious leader who pioneered the ideas of satyagraha, or "soul force," and ahimsa, or "total nonviolence," in his struggle to liberate people in India from British colonial rule.


The sacred or holy text for Muslims.

Middle Way

The path recommended by Buddha to achieve peace and liberation, or Nirvana.