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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Caring for creation: Faith groups have a role in environmental causes

Published: Saturday, Feb. 18 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

But a U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life shows a difference in thinking between religious people and nonreligious people regarding environmental issues. An average of about 55 percent of those affiliated with a faith said stricter environmental laws are worth the cost, while an average of about 75 percent of those unaffiliated with a religion said tougher laws are worth the cost.

High percentages of religious people surveyed — between 73 percent and 89 percent — said they favor tougher environmental laws and regulations, but when it came to views on global warming, as few as 34 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they believe climate change is caused by human activity, compared with 58 percent of those unaffiliated with a religion who believed the same thing, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

That distinction is one indication of just how deeply religious concepts are ingrained in culture, says Mary Evelyn Tucker, director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University. The Forum extensively studies the role of faith in understanding complex environmental issues and provides public access to that research at www.yale.edu/religionandecology.

"Most people wouldn't immediately go to reflecting on their views of nature as formed by religious views, and yet all cultures are deeply informed by norms and values that are religiously based," Tucker said from her office in Connecticut. "People have spiritual experiences in nature … they seek it out for renewal and inspiration. It is that awe and wonder that every human being is exposed to that is one of the most profound religious experiences."

'Love thy neighbor'

The Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest who established the national, multidenominational organization Interfaith Power and Light in 1998 to facilitate religious involvement in addressing climate change, loves God.

Therefore, she loves nature, she says.

And she believes religion is key to shaping America's environmental future and views on climate change.

"If your faith guides your thinking, it has the potential of being very influential," Bingham said in an interview from her home in California. "If you love God and love your neighbor, then stewardship of creation is part of being a faithful person.

That wasn't always a common way of thinking, as the late Lynn White explained in his 1967 essay called "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis." In it, the professor of medieval history at the University of California, Los Angeles, pinned environmental problems to Christianity through a passage in Genesis 1:28, that refers to humans as having dominion over the Earth.

White's essay, in which he said, "We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man," struck a nerve that still resonates today. Bingham credits White for first spurring faith groups to get involved in environmental issues and make a change she hopes will have an equal and opposite impact of White's assertion.

But while more faith communities promote the idea that recycling is encouraged and pollution is frowned upon, gaps in the religious community's acceptance of climate change still exist because climate change is a much more politically charged and polarizing issue, says Darren Sherkat, a sociology professor at Southern Illinois University.

Religious conservatives have not been as amenable to the idea of limiting energy usage and carbon emissions, says Sherkat, who wrote an analysis on the influence of religion on environmental concern and activism in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in 2007.

"There is a wide gulf between where liberal Christianity is and where conservative Christianity is," Sherkat said in a recent interview. "In some parts of the country, the petroleum interests and the religious (perspectives) are the same thing … that God gives us the oil."

Still, back in the chapel in Utah, there's a small triumph for the crowd of activists who thrill over things like carbon footprint reduction. They are excited to see the evidence that the religious community may already be changing its thoughts about climate change and having an impact.

Through the church's environmentally conscious design, this particular building saved at least 63,000 pounds of coal; 65,000 pounds of carbon and $7,749 in less than a year.

"Wow," the group exclaimed to their tour guide when they heard the numbers. "How does that feel?"

"It feels wonderful," Alley replied.

EMAIL: achoate@desnews.com