Faith in the Environment: The Religious Fight to Save Planet Earth
“The hubris of human beings—that this is all about me,” Imam Saffet Abid Catovic protested solemnly. “We are a miniscule part of the universe.”
On a sunny June Sunday on the National Mall, four individuals representing Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Native American faith teachings came together to probe the intersections of faith and environmentalism. This was “Ways of Knowing, Ways of Living: Exploring Faith and Conservation,” an interfaith panel at the 2022 Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Earth Optimism × Folklife program and a preview of the 2023 program Living Religion: Creative Encounters in the U.S.
I am not religious, but much of what they shared felt approachable to me, and before long I found myself audibly uh-huh-ing from the audience.
“It’s not about plowing virgin territory,” Catovic continued. “Sorry, Captain James T. Kirk. It’s not about going where no one has gone before and disrupting everything else. No, it’s about following the pathways of those who came before us, who walked softly and humbly upon the earth.”
An Islamic prayer leader, Catovic invoked a perspective that he does not think is unique to his religion’s teachings: “God grant me beneficial knowledge that I will be able to act upon and benefit others.” Who are these “others” our actions should benefit? To Catovic, who believes all of life is interconnected, humans are accountable to the fish in the seas and the birds in the trees. “We’re accountable to everything.”
He’s not alone in this conviction. People of faith are getting involved in the sustainability movement—within their houses of worship, in global interfaith movements like Greenfaith, and by advocating for policy changes. Finding solutions to environmental crises will require a new awareness of and concern for Earth, and the panelists believe that this can be evoked through sacred texts or wisdom teachings.
Let’s zoom out for a moment: roughly eighty-four percent of the global population identifies as religious, and, likely, this number includes many influential world leaders. Consider that, in the United States, we have never elected a non-religiously affiliated president. Religious communities clearly exist in networks that wield global influence, simply for their scale. If we are going to make necessary lifestyle changes in the hopes of preserving planet Earth as an inhabitable place, it makes sense that faith communities must carry this torch.
“We have to invest in the deeper spiritual paradigm shift that we need,” explained Jakir Manela, CEO of Hazon, the largest Jewish faith-based environmental organization in North America, and Pearlstone, which promotes a sustainable Jewish community. He spoke in a rousing and rhythmic cadence: “As we link arms and say, this isn’t a Jewish issue. This isn’t a Christian issue. This is a human issue that all of our traditions call upon us at this time to say, ‘Where are you?’ How do we step up to this moment in history to make the most of what our traditions give to us?”
Environmental wisdom is “already there, already present,” explained Catovic, who also heads the Office for Interfaith Alliances, Community Alliances, and Government Relations at the Islamic Society of North America. He believes that environmental teachings are baked into many religious teachings, but that interfaith dialogue is essential for articulating and connecting environmental stewardship to these ideals.
“We must remember that all of our faith traditions began in the pre-industrial period, so the issues that are so pressing now, of climate change, greenhouse gases as a result of the burning of fossil fuels that came with industrialization—our religious traditions all predate that.” Back when sacred texts were written, he explained, “environmental speak was not necessary,” but things have changed. He wants people of faith to return to old “traditions that provided us a way in which we lived in harmony with the earth” but also to update their understandings of those teachings in the context of the modern crisis.
In Judaism, there are many connections between religious teachings and earthly wisdom. According to Manela, “We have a teaching that if you didn’t have the written Torah, you could learn everything you needed from looking at the natural world.” He believes there is something sacred in giving over oneself to the natural rhythms of Earth. “The holiday celebrations in the Jewish tradition are fundamentally based on agricultural cycles,” he continued. “The daily prayer cycles are based on the sunset and sunrise.” Manela’s company Pearlstone runs nature-based spiritual retreats, which are meant to “really give people a sense of connection to creation.”
Michael Nephew, a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and of Seneca and Cayuga descent, representing the American Indian Society of Washington, DC, spoke softly and measuredly, reminding the audience that it is impossible to speak about Native American ways of being in general terms. There is no one faith tradition. There are 580 federally recognized tribes, each with their own customs, religion, and culture. Despite their differences, he has noticed some commonalities.
Native populations possess a willingness to “look forward toward the future generations when we make our decisions, as to how it’ll affect the world,” Nephew reflected. All people, not just those of Indigenous descent, must take to heart the Iroquois wisdom of thinking seven generations ahead.
He connected an awareness of the future to the tradition of land acknowledgments, often given at the beginning of speeches or panels. Nephew explained that the land where the National Mall was built was originally home to the Piscataway people and other tribes they collaborated with. But acknowledging what happened to land in the past is not enough, he explained. We must understand that relationships with land are ongoing. “A true land acknowledgment is acknowledging that the land is still here,” and that its value is much deeper than “the quick economic dollar.”
Catovic thanked Nephew for this point: “It’s not the next quarter’s profit margins. And that’s unfortunately how it’s being driven these days. It’s all about making as much as you can, as quick as you can, with the least interference as you can, through elimination—whatever unholy mechanisms—to destroy, to rape, to pillage the earth, which we all share. It’s not about the future. It’s always about the here and now.” He believes faith traditions can offer a moral voice to this crisis and a type of framing that provides the ability to look toward the future.
Representing Christian and Evangelical faiths on the panel, Dr. Rachel Lamb is the daughter of a Baptist minister and the board chair for A Rocha USA, a Christian conservation organization with partnerships in over twenty countries, as well as an advisor to Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. She connects her faith in our environment to a belief in restoration: “The Bible is often very realistic that things will get much worse. The thing is, that [destruction] never has the last word. [In the Bible], there’s deeply grounded hope that allows for persistent, faithful action, regardless of what the most immediate circumstances look like. The end of the story is beauty, restoration of relationship, and mutual flourishing for all of creation, including human and non-human creatures.” She has noticed young Evangelicals “beating that drum” and making more explicit the connection between the Christian belief in restoration and the work this mutual flourishing will require.
Each panelist shared childhood experiences awakening to these spiritual-environmental connections. At a young age, Lamb grew “to love this beautiful, creative world and spend time in it to learn more about God.” Still, she couldn’t quite make sense of how to integrate an earthly awareness into her spiritual practices until studying environmental conservation at a faith-based college. Ultimately, she realized her faith had “everything to do with it.”
Nephew’s awareness came from growing up on a farm. “I learned to drive a tractor long before I drove a car.” He was taught ways to care for the farm by being in touch with the land. He also learned that spirituality and honoring the creator is not just a one-day event. “Those that are truly following their faith, yeah, they may have a holy day, but they also respect and honor the Creator every day and live up to those standards.”
At five years old, Manela learned that many of his Jewish family members had been murdered in the Holocaust. This familial reality informed his understanding early on: “Trauma and existential collapse is possible. And we have a moral, existential obligation to face that and to go through it.” He now relates this awareness to the environmental crisis.
Catovic grew up in New Jersey with a Muslim father who immigrated from Bosnia and Herzegovina and brought old systems of knowledge from his homeland. He believes his father’s way of being in the world naturally lent itself to the “infusion of religious teachings and the practice of caring for and being at mercy to the earth.” For example, his father taught the family to maintain an organic, low-impact garden. As gardeners may know, it can be challenging to keep pests and critters away. Although the family needed to protect their crops from hungry squirrels and rabbits, Catovic’s father was adamant about not wanting to fence off the whole garden based on his interpretation of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings.
“Anything that you plant and a bird takes shelter in, or an animal eats it, or a person sits under its shade, or is able to benefit from it, all of that counts as Sadaqah--a voluntary, charitable giving. It is a tremendous blessing that you will get for all of that,” he explained. To his father, the lesson was clear: humans do not have the right to build fences between “our fellow creatures who share this area with us.”
The next day, Catovic and I talked more about his work as a faith leader. Anticipating rain, we sat under a Festival tent on pillows on the grass, where we decided we would be closer to the earth. Here, he told me about some of his efforts to intertwine environmental consciousness and ritual practices.
Before prayer, which takes place five times a day in Islam, people engage in a practice called wudu, which involves using water to physically and spiritually cleanse the body. “It can also be very wasteful,” he noted. If someone runs the water for one minute, they might waste up to two gallons. If a person does wudu for three minutes, that’s a lot of water needlessly down the drain.
In parts of the world like the United States where we turn on the tap and water flows like magic, we’ve become disconnected from the blessing of this finite resource. But as the population continues to grow, and the effects of climate change make dry areas drier and bring about other environmental issues, the United States will suffer increased water shortages across many regions, scientists warn. It is already happening around the country because of drought or seawater from our rising oceans leeching into fresh water supplies.
Catovic wants us to raise our awareness before it is too late. The Prophet Muhammad is the “exemplar of the Quran’s teachings,” he explained. The Prophet practiced his wudu so that he could accomplish it with less than two cups of water. During the holy month of Ramadan, when the “faithful and not so faithful” often gather under one roof, his mosque hung PSA posters to inspire more water-conscious wudu practices. This is just one of the many ecological education campaigns that Catovic is working on. His main focus is fossil-fuel divestment.
Religious leaders are crucial to environmental efforts, he told me. “They can play both roles. They are in church on Sundays, in the synagogue on Saturdays, the mosque on Fridays. They are there with the people during their lives. But they can be in Washington on Monday, or on Tuesday at the United Nations, and begin to advocate very strongly for policy changes that are necessary. We need both.”
Often, religious traditions are defined by their differences, Catovic mentioned. “I think Pope Francis hit it on the head: we need to realize that our common home is something we have to jointly protect. Then we can go back to fighting against our little fiefdoms.” Right now, regardless of religious beliefs, we have to “save the common home.”
Looking ahead, the 2023 Folklife Festival will further explore how faith presents itself in American life. Hopefully, this conversation is just beginning.
Devinne Melecki is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a master of public policy, pursuing a graduate certificate in public history. She is interested in utilizing historical stories to inform present-day solutions to environmental and social issues. She is also passionate about homemade hot sauce.