Religious Studies Can Help Save the Planet

Recently UC Riverside Religious Studies professor Ivan Strenski published a piece on the Religion Dispatches blog with a provocative question: can religion professors save the planet? He was responding to the American Academy of Religion’s (AAR) Annual Conference which took place last month in California, and in particular the much-discussed efforts of AAR President Laurie Zoloth to green the annual gathering of religious studies scholars. Strenski asserted that “Zoloth’s proposal, and moreover, the ethos from which it emerges, tells us everything we need to know about the malaise poisoning the study of religion in the university.” In short, he argued that attempts like Zoloth’s to get religious studies scholars to focus on environmental issues was not only misguided, but also absurd and wrong.

As someone writing and working at the intersection of religion and ecology, and an AAR presenter for the past several years, Strenski’s comments struck me as more than a bit odd, and strangely out of tune with the larger field of ecological concerns in religious studies. While the sub-field of “religion and ecology” is relatively new, it draws upon a rich and much older tradition of past and contemporary scholars interested in questions of religion and ethics in relation to the Earth and the natural world. The existence of a Religion and Ecology Group as one of the regular AAR bodies is one testament to this, as are various organizations supporting the growing community of practitioners interested in these sorts of questions, among them the Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE) at Yale, the Center for the Study of Science and Religion (CSSR) at Columbia, The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) at the Graduate Theological Union, and the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture (ISSRNC), based at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

While I think Strenski has raised some excellent questions, I also see several problems with his argument. Here I want to focus on one, the artificial division he makes between ecological issues and the study of religion. Some of the other problematic claims in his piece have been addressed in two excellent rebuttal pieces by Evan Berry and James Miller, so I won’t go into them here.

The central problem with the view advanced by Strenski is that it creates a false separation between religion scholars and the larger world in which they operate, and in which their texts and their communities of practice are embedded. In other words, it attempts to disconnect religious studies from reality, in all its messy manifestations, by suggesting that the study of religion has no real relevance to ecological issues. “Aside from volunteering religious studies students for enrollment in basic science courses, or organizing campus progressive political clubs to work harder to elect “green” candidates to public office, perhaps asking a religious studies professor to do something about climate change is absurd, or at the very least, peripheral.”

In one swift move, the entire field of religious studies appears to have been magically whisked off planet Earth and placed in a magical realm where ecological realities are irrelevant at best, or totally absent at worst.

There is an implicit assumption in this argument that unless bodies like the AAR generate empirical social science research which demonstrates religion’s relevance to environmental issues while simultaneously achieving measurable policy impacts to environmental issues such as climate change, then such efforts are basically a waste. To bolster this claim, Strenski offers several examples.

First, he argues the Society of the Scientific Study of Religion (SSRC) produces better research than the AAR, so the AAR should just bow out gracefully and leave the real religious studies work to empirical social scientists (who, in this story, apparently don’t attend AAR meetings). Secondly, he suggests theologians and humanities scholars can’t offer “the kind of significant results obtained by social scientists”, and therefore they would be better served sticking to whatever it is they do best (systematic theology and textual analysis?). Third, playing off the New York Times column by Mark Oppenheimer, he continues the trend of cherry picking seemingly obscure paper titles as “proof“ the AAR may be able to produce papers which are interesting “in their respective areas, but not likely to halt the shrinking of polar ice caps.”

By this standard, all religious studies scholars would need to become empirical social scientists with climate policy victories under their belt in order to qualify for entry into the scholarly circle imagined here. If we apply this same logic to the SSRC, one might equally wonder how many of their presenters have been able to “halt the shrinking of polar ice caps” with papers such as: “The Earth is the Lord’s: Religious Practice and the Environment” or “Saving the Creation Revisited: Three Decades of U.S. Religious Environmental Activism.” The standard seems just as arbitrary when applied in reverse. Why not see value in all of these, no matter their focus, since they help us better understand how people make sense of the natural world through everyday religious practices?

For the sake of the future relevance of religious studies, we should be wary of such claims, especially if the conclusion asks us to ignore climate change because it’s not a matter for theologians or humanities scholars, as if they were somehow exempt from worrying about such Earthly matters. If anything, I would suggest Strenski’s argument bolsters the case for why we need more religious studies scholars thinking about the state of the Earth, not less.

Can religion professors save the planet? The short answers is no, not alone. But as part of a larger community, yes.

Image: meditation vigil at the People’s Climate March in NYC. Sept. 21, 2014. (Image via Chris Crews | www.chriscrews.com)

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3 thoughts on “Religious Studies Can Help Save the Planet

  1. Your overall conclusion is undoubtedly correct. No one can fix something, especially an issue as large as environmental conservation, all by themselves. A larger community willing to initiate change is required. It sounds like Strenski is channeling the common “scientific” bias against scholars in the humanities. Publishing scientific data that points out problems doesn’t fix those problems. Whether someone addresses problems from a scientific or a religious/theological standpoint, it is the results that matter.

    1. Hi Jared,

      Thanks for your comments, and welcome aboard! Yes, he definitely appears to be channeling this bias, but what makes it a bit odd is that he is a religious studies person himself, rather than a scientist, so its an odd critique coming from him. I think at the end of the day, especially based on his other comments and responses, that he is arguing that religious studies should stay out of the climate change debate because it is too political, and worries about religious studies being dragged into it. But as I have argued, it is already always engaged, whether he wants to admit it or not!

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