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​What do the world's religions have to say about sustainability?

A massive study conducted in 2012 found that worldwide, more than eight in ten people identify with a religious group.

The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life looked at data from churches, mosques, government census records and other studies from around the world in order to gain a picture of what religious (or non-religious) life looks like for the 6.9 billion of us who share this planet.

"There are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children around the globe, representing 84 percent of the 2010 world population," researchers found. This includes 2.2 billion Christians (32 percent of the world's population), 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent), 1 billion Hindus (15 percent), and 500 million Buddhists (7 percent).

There are also an estimated 400 million people (6 percent) practicing various folk or traditional religions, including African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, American Indian religions and Australian aboriginal religions.

So what has this all got to do with climate change?

Well, with eight in ten of us subscribing to some sort of spiritual perspective, it's worthwhile considering how this might impact the way that we treat our planet. What do, for example, the major faith systems say about how humans should think about their natural environment?


Christianity

In the US, the UK, Australia, Italy and others, Christianity has a significant place within the everyday life of many citizens. This religion based on the idea that an almighty God sent his son Jesus Christ to save humanity from our sins is thousands of years old, and unsurprisingly has a lot to say about our natural world.

Put simply, Christians believe that God created the world, so by extension the respect of the world shows respect to God. Humans are also God's stewards of the Earth, as seen in Christianity's holy text, the Bible:

"You shall not pollute the land in which you live…You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people."
- Numbers 35:33-34

The message here seems clear: God does not want to see the world polluted or the world's resources abused.

In fact, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has been nicknamed "the Green Pope" for his work in highlighting the importance of environmentalism for Christians in the world today. "Respect for the human being and respect for nature are one and the same", he said in 2015, drawing on religious teachings to promote the low-carbon lifestyle. He also reminded Church leaders of the importance of "La cura della casa commune" (the care of the common home), that is, humanity's moral obligation to create a planet-strong future.

Learn more about Christianity and the environment


Islam

Islam, like Christianity, stems from the Abrahamic tradition of spirituality (ie. the historic origins that connect Islam, Christianity and Judaism).

Muslims believe that the world was created by God (Allah), which warrants respect, obedience and gratitude towards Him. This includes respect of animals, other people, and the environment.

n fact, Environmental Ethics is a big deal in Islam, and is a topic that's becoming increasingly talked about as a result of issues such as global warming, drought in Islamic countries, and the global struggle for resources.

The primary source for guidance for Muslims in all areas is the Qur'an, which Muslims believe is the direct Word of God. There are around 650 references to ecology and conservation within this text:

​"And the sky has He raised high, and has devised (for all things) a balance, so that you might never transgress the balance: weigh, therefore (your deeds) with equity, and do not upset the balance"
- 55:7-9

From this passage alone we see the importance of keeping nature "in balance", an action that in turn respects the will of God. Therefore, it can be seen that Muslims today (who have been described in the Qur'an as "stewards" of the planet) have a significant role to play in addressing issues such as pollution and global warming.

In fact, in 2015 world Islamic leaders called on people of all faiths to address the global climate crisis, asking, "What will future generations say of us, who leave them a degraded planet as our legacy?"


Learn more about Islam and the environment

Hinduism

This spirituality is often associated with India and Nepal (where the majority of adherents live), but it also has millions of followers living throughout the world.

Hinduism can be tricky to define as it has no single founder, no single holy book, and no universal teachings among those who practice the faith. Considering this, many scholars choose to describe Hinduism as "a way of life" or "a family of religions" rather than a single religion.

Despite the enormous diversity of beliefs and practices, most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of divine beings that come from him.

Most Hindus, too, believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma, and that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived.

With all this in mind, it becomes clear how closely the natural world and Hinduism are connected. Common teachings include the idea that people should use the world unselfishly in order to maintain the natural balance and to repay God for the gifts he has given:

"For, so sustained by sacrifice, the gods will give you the food of your desire. Whoso enjoys their gift, yet gives nothing, is a thief, no more nor less."
- Bhagavad Gita 3:12

Another key concept within many versions of Hinduism is (non-violence and respect for life), which prevents a Hindu from causing harm to any creature. This is the reason why many Hindus are vegetarian, an inherently low-carbon diet.


Learn more about Hinduism and environmental ethics


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Buddhism

The world's fourth-largest spirituality underscores the way of life for millions of people living in Asia, and is expressed through everyday practices such as meditation, mindfulness, offering food to monks, and avoiding damaging plants and animals where possible.

The historical figure known as the Buddha is not a god per se, rather he is a human who was able to reach the goal of Perfect Enlightenment. Buddhism teaches a way of life through Dhamma (literally meaning the nature of all things or the truth underlying existence), and provides a blueprint for others to reach enlightenment also.

Buddhists have a huge diversity of practices, partly due to the faith system's emphasis on individual journey to understanding rather than the blind following of traditions. At the same time, a few core principles can be seen across regional variations, such as the importance to let go of desire, greed and craving in order to separate oneself from suffering.

Related: What an afternoon with a Buddhist monk taught me about happiness

Deliberately causing the death of any living being is one of the ideas raised in the Eightfold Path teaching within Buddhism. By extension, it becomes apparent that a person following this way of teaching would do well to engage in conservation activities such as protecting animals, preventing pollution, cleaning up rubbish from nature, and choosing a low-carbon diet that is low in or free from meat.

Prominent figure within Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, is often cited as a contemporary environmental leader for his wisdom and teachings on the relationship between humanity and our planet:

"Because we all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. This is not just a dream, but a necessity."
- Dalai Lama

Learn more about Buddhism and the environment here

What role does religion have to play in addressing the environmental crisis?

Given that all the faith systems discussed above have plenty to say when it comes to caring for our planet, what is the way forward for religious leaders, and what role do individuals who practice a faith play in fighting climate change?

According to Gary Gardner, the Director of Publications at the Worldwatch Institute (an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C), religion has five main strengths and leadership qualities when it comes to sustainability:

1.Engaging members of faith-based groups to discuss and act on environmental issues

2.Using moral authority to offer ethical guidelines and religious leadership when it comes to sustainable living

3.Providing meaning by shaping worldviews, such as linking traditions and teachings to contemporary issues such as plastic pollution, overusing resources and deforestation

4.Sharing physical resources such as temple grounds, schools and crops. Wealthy institutions such as the Catholic Church, for example, have the money to invest in sustainable practices.

5.Building community to support sustainability practices


Here's hoping that the world's faiths will be able to work within their communities (and together!) to highlight the importance of combating climate change, and the necessity for all of us to live a low-carbon lifestyle.

What do you think? Be sure to leave us your thoughts and comments below!


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Images: Pixabay

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