Why Religion Matters

The relationship between man and his environment is as old as the first appearance of life on this planet, but a disharmony or imbalance in this relationship is clearly a recent occurrence. By a modest estimate  [1] , it may be said that the earth came into existence about 5 billion years ago; life on this world evolved around 3 billion years ago; human beings appeared nearly 0.5 million years ago and the modern species of a man appeared about 0.15 million years ago. The earliest human civilizations along the river valleys appeared about 4500 years ago. The expansion of the human population was highly slow in the distant past, but it registered important acceleration in the last three centuries, particularly just after the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.

This significant development occurring in the west impacted the whole world and initiated the environmental problems that threaten the future of the world, and the human race and has become one of the most significant issues on our agenda.  Actions towards solutions for these crises are unfortunately insufficient against the growing environmental problems. Ecological movements from the 1960s onwards have declared that man is primarily dependent on the environment and people have to live within the limits of the world's finite supply of resources. Conservation of the environment was made a common international cause in 1972 for the first time  [2]. The Montreal Agreement regarding the repair of the partially depleted ozone layer followed in 1987  [3]. The UN Conference on Environment and Development gathered at Rio-de-Janerio in 1992 to explore a collective international program for environmental conservation  [4] while in December 1997, the international assembly at Kyoto debated measures for decreasing emissions from industries and thermal power plants  [5] . At the turn of the present century, we are much more aware  [6] of the threat caused to the environment.

The work necessary to achieve or move toward sustainable development is multidisciplinary, as it encloses a wide spectrum of issues. Although the needs may be different from one society to another, certain types of human resources are usually needed. These types include:

•      Policymakers to set policies and develop strategies.
•      Legal experts to draft laws and prepare regulations.
•      Technical staff to plan projects and implement the specialized work.
•      Managers to administer the operations and coordinate various programs.
•      Educators to teach and disseminate the body of knowledge re­lated to sustainable development activities.
•      Opinion makers, including community leaders, journalists, writers, artists, and other members of the mass media, to raise awareness and motivate the public  [7] .

As the paragraph mentioned above can easily be understood, the most essential work to struggle against worldwide environmental problems is to make all human beings aware of this subject.

One question is to what extent does religion play a role in the above list of types of human resources?  In order to understand this issue, we have to deal with the social effects of religion. Durkheim locates religion as an important part of society by saying that “If religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion” [8] . Religion provided meaning for life, it provided authoritative figures, and most importantly for Durkheim, it strengthens the morals and social norms held collectively by all within a society. Far from dismissing religion as mere fantasy, despite its natural origin, Durkheim saw it as a crucial part of the social system. Religion provides cohesion, social control, and purpose for people, as well as another means of communication and gathering for individuals to interact and reconfirm social norms. According to him, religion acts to pull people together. By doing so, religion is able to reaffirm collective beliefs and morals in the minds of all members of society  [9] . While he based his conclusions on a limited set of samples, Max Weber, on the other hand, initiated a large-scale study of religions around the world. His primary interest was in large, global religions with millions of believers. He managed in-depth studies of Ancient Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Taoism. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , Weber tested the impact of Christianity on Western thinking and culture. The essential purpose of Weber's research was to find the impact of religion on social change. For instance, in Protestantism, especially the “Protestant Work Ethic,” Weber saw the roots of capitalism. In the Eastern religions, he saw barriers to capitalism  [10] . Furthermore, Weber uses the concept of prophetic charisma to explain social change. According to him, Prophetic charisma occurs in more complex societies and adheres to the prophet who proclaims a divine mission or radical political doctrine. This form of charisma leads to revolution and social change  [11] . By taking into account these social effects of religion, even if they prevent or stimulate social change  [12] , we can say that environmental problems which need global social efforts to overcome cannot be considered without such an important issue.

Development specialists agree today that most environ­mental problems cannot be solved without the active participation of local people [13]. If we consider that 84 percent of the world population has different kinds of religious attitudes   [14] . then it becomes clear that religion is an important issue to struggle against these worldwide problems.  Recently policy-makers are also beginning to appreciate the value of including religious and cultural values in public awareness and education strategies. Falkenmark (1998) noted recently that regardless of people's culture or religion, "spirituality and ethics are very important for influencing behaviour [15]. Aware of this responsibility, over 200 religious leaders around the world gathered on the Amazon River in 2006 to examine the environmental challenges and ethical issues relating to the protection of nature with scientists, environmentalists, and government officials. This was held under the auspices of the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, HAH Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan  [16] . Last year (2007), these spiritual leaders, scientists, and environmentalists came together in Greenland to address to the same problems with the leadership of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos who is seen by many as the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians [17]. Bartholomeus emphasizes through these meetings that climate change is much more than an issue of environmental preservation. Insofar as human-induced, it is a profoundly moral and spiritual problem. Moreover, climate change constitutes a matter of social and economic justice [18]. Without a doubt, these efforts by religious and spiritual leaders are essential in struggling against worldwide environmental problems. We can clearly arrive at the conclusion that the effects of religion which play an important role in social institutions are an indispensable tool for finding a solution to these problems.

Therefore it is important to deal with the environmental ethics of religions. One of the biggest religions in the world is Islam.  The influence of the Muslim faith constitutes about 21% of the world’s population [19] and covers a very large area where some of the greatest environmental problems exist. Muslims claim that the Quran and Sunnah (teachings of Prophet Muhammad) have great concern regarding environmental problems and contain a set of principles that encourage the philosophy of environmentalism. However, besides these assertions, the present situation seen in Muslim countries is not considerably different to that in the rest of the world. Despite the several studies which try to show an Islamic sensitive environmental ethic  [20] , there is not a single study that tries to find out the sociological basis of the current situation by comparing them with asserted ethics. It may be true that the Quran and Sunnah contain a set of principles that encourage the philosophy of environmentalism . However, if there is no social awareness of Islamic environmental ethics and the importance of environmental problems, these principles mean nothing to society. In other words, if a man is not aware of his illness then the medication which is suitable for his illness sold in a drugstore doesn’t make any sense. 


[1] Ahmad, Imtiaz (2003) Islam and Ecology, In Ecology and Religion: Ecological Concepts in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, ed. Rajdeva Narayan, Janardan Kumar, Institute for Socio-Legal Studies, Deep Publications, New Delhi, pp. 161-162,

[2]  International Conference on the Protection of the Environment from the Effects of Ionizing Radiation.


[3]  Montreal protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, Report of the Technology and Economic Assessment.


[4]  The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.


[5]  Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


[6]  To what extent we are aware of this problem is still a matter of discussion. It is true that there is growing awareness of this problem. However, this awareness is not yet enough to fight against global environmental problems.

[7] Foltz, Richard C., Azizan Baharuddin,  Frederick M. Denny (2003) Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust. Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, p. 408.

[8]  Bellah, Robert N. (1973) Emile Durkheim: On Morality and Society, Selected Writings. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 191

[9]  Ibid, p 166

[10] Haferkamp, Hans (1992) Social change and Modernity, University of California Press,

[11]  Oakes Len, (1997) Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, Syracuse University Press, p. 33.

[12]  Through this paragraph present study tries to show social effects of religion whether it prevents or stimulates social changes.

[13]  Kula, E. (2001) Islam and Environmental Conservation, Environmental Conservation 28 (1), p. 4.

[14]  For detailed distribution  believers of world religions look at website stating below;


[15] Water management in Islam p. 6


[16] Title of News; Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Opens Amazon Environmental Symposium.


[17]  Title of news; Environmental Prayer in Glaciers, Milliyet, (9. October. Sunday), 2007.

[18] Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Opens Amazon Environmental Symposium.

[19]   http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

[20]  For detailed literature, see Islam and Ecology Bibliography by Richard Foltz.