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A Reader's Opinion

NOW THAT THE consequences of environmentally destructive human behavior are becoming clear, conservationism is becoming more popular. Recently, conservation organizations have been looking to embrace religious institutions and people of faith as potential allies. By emphasizing the common interests and philosophies of both groups and encouraging the discussion of religious precepts that acknowledge the duty to protect the Earth’s natural treasures, they hope to spread the conservation ethic to what they perceive as passionate, motivated, diverse and numerous people. This makes sense considering the long tradition that land stewardship has had in many religions, and how it has influenced social norms around the world. People should share with one another how their theological backgrounds have influenced their view of their place in the world; it can lead to new friendships and a better understanding of one another.

It is tempting to capitalize on this opportunity to build bridges. However, I feel that while nature can inspire faith and faith can be a tool for conservation, it's not an essential component and should not be overemphasized for practical reasons. “Faith” is generally associated with Judeo-Christian and Islamic theology, and environmental groups would be well advised to stay out of the proselytizing business, particularly after 9/11, even if the intention is well meaning. Environmentalism is already criticized for being a quasi-religion or cult, and that perception should not be bolstered.

On another point, for whatever reason, the bulk of religious leaders and practitioners from the Western faiths interpret their texts in ways that place humanity at the center of the universe and that declare Earth’s bounty as our spoils, obviously an outdated mode of thought that got us into this mess in the first place. This gives me pause, and I am not sure that overstating religion’s role as conservator of nature or deifying conservation is worth the risk of appearing self-serving, speciesist or myopic. Anthropocentric conservation, or at least a concept such as the “Golden Rule" (by definition self-centered), is undeniably an element in both my personal ethic and the overall mission of environmentalism, as it is in the religions' doctrines, but I attribute a cultivation of empathy for other life to be my moral compass.

While life can be painful for those sensitive to the suffering of others, empathy is also an impetus for activism that should be above reproach.
I too, as a non-believer, feel a one-ness with the Earth and the universe, and I know many people have reached their own personal eco-religion by no other stimulus but their own pedestrian experiences. Faith seems to be unnecessary as a motivating force towards a conservationist compulsion, and education seems to me to be a better way to recruit new defenders of the environment and to foster compassion for living beings and systems. I feel a great sense of camaraderie for the people I work with, and if their faith has given them a sense of purpose and has led to their dedication and professional activism, I celebrate that, but using faith as a hook is not my idea of outreach. Alliances are good, and really, however a person comes to appreciate the Earth, through religion or not, is a very good thing. Unfortunately, unpleasant encounters with vocal anti-environment or “wise use” folks typically involve the environmentalists getting an earful about how nature was made for humans to use as he pleases, or other such twisted biblical interpretation nonsense. I shudder at the visualization of the “environmental crusade” being clothed in the garments of traditional religious tyranny, oppression and ignorance. I am quite hesitant to reach out to people in this way, and so are many secular environmentalists; it just feels dirty, phony, and opportunistic.

I certainly had no religious basis for my evolution towards conservationism. A loosely formed concept of respect for the earth and animals was fostered in me by my parents but was devoid of doctrine, ritual, tradition or faith. I am a skeptic and therefore, an atheist. My spiritual life is not necessarily one without a "God", but one that does not adopt the common notion of a "creator" possessing intent, motive or consciousness. I do not subscribe to the belief that the glory of nature in all its complexity and beauty is evidence of an intelligent design.

Awesome vistas, astonishing animal behavior, unfathomable intricacy in nature’s organization, interactions with wildlife and other natural encounters have inspired my own dreams and are an integral part of my self identity, but I am not a person of faith. Religious belief is not a prerequisite for a love of life, deeply held moral convictions, or being a good conservationist, nor is it an automatic byproduct of an intense bond with nature. I personally hope that humanity will evolve a universal philosophy that has advanced beyond the mostly enlightened self-interest-based ethic of today, and environmentalists can play a role in that by doing what they do best and having people watch and learn.

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