Question of faith : Leverage power of religion to drive a unity of purpose to protect the planet

This article originally appeared in Financial Express

Faith-based organisations can be strategic actors in supporting environmental action. The climate crisis demands collaboration between countries and communities

We Indians love to speak about our religious and cultural heritage of protecting the environment. And, we do have a vast heritage to boast about. Our sacred texts are full of messages for protecting and conserving the environment.

But are contemporary religious leaders and faith-based organisations (FBOs) promoting environmental protection? How are religious leaders and FBOs responding to crises like global warming and species extinction? How are they informing and engaging their followers on these issues? Last year, my colleagues and I started investigating these questions along the Ganga basin. We wanted to know about the involvement of FBOs on issues such as pollution of the Ganga, waste management, and climate crisis.

We interviewed leaders from all faiths and surveyed about 150 temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras, and ashrams. We also interacted with close to 40 NGOs, trusts, and associations with religious affiliations. The survey was done in seven cities of the Ganga basin in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand—Rudraprayag, Rishikesh, Haridwar, Kanpur, Lucknow Prayagraj, and Varanasi. But before I discuss the findings, a disclaimer is warranted: This is not an all-India survey, and the findings should not be interpreted as such. A similar study might throw significantly different results in other parts of the country. But, considering that the Ganga is regarded as one of the most sacred rivers, the perception of religious leaders of the Ganga basin provides insights into engaging religious organisations on environmental issues.

So, what did we find? Firstly (and surprisingly), there is near unanimity in how religious leaders view the environment. Leaders of all faiths viewed it mainly in terms of cleanliness and greenery. For them, protecting the environment essentially meant keeping the surroundings clean and planting trees. They could not relate to issues such as air pollution, biodiversity loss, or even river pollution. In fact, we found a glaring lack of awareness on most environmental issues. For example, many religious leaders did not view the throwing of religious offerings into Ganga as a polluting activity.

Second, there is minimal involvement of FBOs in environmental protection. Less than 10% of the respondents reported some level of engagement. These are typically the big religious organisations with a strong institutional base and funding support. However, their focus is limited to tree plantation, organic farming and composting, and, in some cases, water management and minimisation of waste. Only 6% of FBOs were doing some work to protect the Ganga, with most of them being engaged in cleaning the ghats.

One of the key reasons these actors are not engaging in environmental issues is that they do not view it as part of their mission. Instead, they think it is the government’s job. They, therefore, couldn’t visualise any significant role for themselves in environmental protection.

Third, and most worryingly, very few were aware of the climate crisis and its causes. And the few who understood global warming defined it as “an act of God”, “end of the world”, and “human sin”. They were pessimistic about the ability of people to solve this crisis.

However, what is encouraging is that when explained, they were not dismissive of the need of the religious leaders to engage in environmental issues. They also agreed that a mass engagement is necessary, and they can play a role in such mobilisation. But they demanded capacity-building support and resources.

So, should we rope in religious actors and leverage their influence to build engagement of the masses on environmental issues? If yes, then how? It is undeniable that we live in a religious world, and faith is a powerful driver in shaping the behaviour of a large majority of the world’s population. As the world becomes more uncertain due to climate crisis, pandemics, and resource conflict, people will lean more on faith for succour. Therefore, the influence of religious leaders and FBOs will further increase in the future.

For this reason, FBOs should be viewed as strategic actors to propagate the value of environmental protection and conservation. They can influence vast numbers of people, which is amply demonstrated by the likes of Jaggi Vasudev. In the last few years, he reached out to a far greater number of people on environmental issues such as river rejuvenation, tree plantation and soil health than all environmental organisations put together. While one can question Sadhguru’s approach and solutions (and some of his antics), one should not ignore his reach and appeal.

We must, therefore, deliberately engage with religious and spiritual leaders and organisations by devising a comprehensive programme to increase their capacity on environmental issues. This could include inter-faith interactions, demonstration of eco-friendly technologies at religious sites, and knowledge workshops. But most importantly, they must be supported and encouraged to mainstream environmentally-responsible values and behaviour in the devotees.

While religion has shaped human history primarily by dividing people, the climate crisis now demands unprecedented collaboration between countries and communities. For this, we will have to leverage the power of religion to drive a unity of purpose to protect the planet.

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