Matter of Faith: Harnessing the Power of Religion to Drive Unity of Purpose to Protect the Planet
We Indians like to talk about our religious and cultural heritage of environmental protection. And we have a vast heritage to boast about. Our sacred texts are full of messages to protect and conserve the environment.
But are contemporary religious leaders and faith-based organizations (CBOs) promoting environmental protection? How do religious leaders and faith-based organizations respond to crises such as global warming and species extinction? How do they inform and engage their followers on these issues? Last year, my colleagues and I started investigating these questions along the Ganges basin. We wanted to know the involvement of faith-based organizations on issues such as the pollution of the Ganges, waste management and the climate crisis.
We interviewed leaders of all faiths and surveyed around 150 temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras and ashrams. We also interacted with nearly 40 religiously affiliated NGOs, trusts and associations. The survey was carried out in seven cities of the Ganges basin in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand: Rudraprayag, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Kanpur, Lucknow Prayagraj and Varanasi. But before discussing the results, a caveat is in order: this is not an all-India survey, and the results should not be interpreted as such. A similar study could yield significantly different results in other parts of the country. But, given that the Ganges is considered one of the most sacred rivers, religious leaders’ perception of the Ganges basin provides insight into the engagement of religious organizations on environmental issues.
So what did we find? First (and surprisingly), there is near unanimity in how religious leaders view the environment. Chefs of all faiths saw it primarily in terms of cleanliness and greenery. For them, protecting the environment essentially meant keeping the surroundings clean and planting trees. They could not be linked to issues such as air pollution, biodiversity loss or even river pollution. In fact, we found a distinct lack of awareness of most environmental issues. For example, many religious leaders did not consider throwing religious offerings into the Ganges as a polluting activity.
Second, the involvement of faith-based organizations in environmental protection is minimal. Less than 10% of respondents reported some level of engagement. These are usually large religious organizations with a solid institutional base and financial support. However, their focus is limited to tree planting, organic farming and composting and, in some cases, water management and waste minimization. Only 6% of the FBOs were doing work to protect the Ganges, most of them were engaged in cleaning the ghats.
One of the main reasons why these actors do not engage in environmental issues is that they do not see it as part of their mission. Instead, they think it’s the government’s job. They therefore could not imagine a meaningful role for themselves in environmental protection.
Third, and most worryingly, very few people were aware of the climate crisis and its causes. And the few who understood global warming defined it as “an act of God”, “the end of the world” and “human sin”. They were pessimistic about people’s ability to resolve this crisis.
However, what is encouraging is that when explained, they did not dismiss the need for religious leaders to engage in environmental issues. They also agreed that mass engagement is needed and that they can play a role in such mobilization. But they demanded support and resources for capacity building.
So, should we appeal to religious actors and leverage their influence to build mass engagement on environmental issues? If yes, then how? It is undeniable that we live in a religious world, and faith is a powerful force in shaping the behavior of a large majority of the world’s population. As the world becomes more uncertain due to the climate crisis, pandemics and resource conflicts, people will rely more on faith to rescue. Therefore, the influence of religious leaders and faith-based organizations will further increase in the future.
For this reason, faith-based organizations should be seen as strategic actors in propagating the value of environmental protection and conservation. They can influence a large number of people, which is amply demonstrated by people like Jaggi Vasudev. In recent years, he has reached out to far more people on environmental issues such as river rejuvenation, tree planting and soil health than all environmental organizations combined. While one might question Sadhguru’s approach and solutions (and some of his antics), his reach and appeal should not be ignored.
We must therefore deliberately engage with religious and spiritual leaders and organizations in designing a comprehensive program to increase their capacity on environmental issues. This could include interfaith interactions, demonstrations of environmentally friendly technologies at religious sites, and knowledge workshops. But more importantly, they must be supported and encouraged to embed environmentally friendly values and behaviors among worshippers.
While religion has shaped human history primarily by dividing people, the climate crisis now demands unprecedented collaboration between countries and communities. For that, we will have to harness the power of religion to drive a unity of purpose to protect the planet.
(The author is President and CEO, iFOREST. Twitter: @iForestGlobal, @Bh_Chandra)