Faith & Climate

Can Faith Motivate Environmental Action?

Audubon staffers discuss how spiritual beliefs shape their work to fight climate change and protect birds.

This is one story in a three-part series on the intersection of faith and climate change. Read about an Illinois environmental group working with congregations of many faiths and about other religious groups taking action on climate.

The environmental movement includes many people who don’t subscribe to any particular faith, as well as many others who do. Caring for birds, beasts, and the natural world is a common thread running through all the world’s religions. For example, Pope Francis invoked Christian teachings of stewardship in his 2015 encyclical calling for action on climate change and other ecological threats. And from today through April 24, diverse religious groups across the country are participating in Faith Climate Action Week, organized by Interfaith Power & Light.

For some environmental advocates, their spiritual values drive their dedication to protecting the planet. Here, four Audubon staff members talk about how their environmentalism and personal beliefs intersect.

Haley Main

Program director, Audubon New York
Main is a minister in her non-denominational Christian church.

How did you first become involved with environmental issues?

I’ve always been drawn to the outdoors and spent much of my childhood outside. In college I studied botany, and at about the same time I attended a presentation on our meat industry and the outrageous cruelty inflicted on animals. I became vegetarian and began to learn more about environmental and conservation issues.

Do your spiritual beliefs contribute to your passion for protecting the environment?

Yes. Because my spiritual transition paralleled my study of conservation issues, it became apparent to me early on in my faith journey how integral earthly stewardship is to the Christian faith. The Bible is full of scriptures detailing the vital importance of the Earth and its care, as both worship to God and blessing to humankind.

Are you involved with green projects in your faith community?

I have led hikes with my local church’s ladies groups, incorporated Biblical tenets for stewardship into our worship, and organized a canoe trip for church leaders at one of our Audubon New York centers/sanctuaries. The congregation has been very supportive of these efforts.

Do you see climate change as a faith issue?

Absolutely! Climate change, at its core, is about ethics and values, which we derive from our belief systems. We have reached this place of constant consumption and wanton destruction because we have been led for too long by our belief that the Earth is here to serve humanity instead of co-flourish with us. This belief is in direct conflict with all major world religions, which all have some concept of the Earth as created by God, or sacred, and deserving of care.

Scientific reasons alone are insufficient for successful and lasting conservation action—religious and cultural values must be part of the equation. People of faith understand this and have begun to work with secular environmental groups, as well as form their own conservation organizations. There is great hope, even as there is still great work to be done.

Purbita Saha

Assistant editor, Audubon
Saha is Hindu.

How did you first become involved with environmental issues?

My parents didn’t want to pay for cable when I was younger, so I watched PBS every day and latched on to conservation messages that I got from the Kratt brothers and Nature. My elementary school librarian was always feeding me great nature authors, and being a Girl Scout also helped nurture my environmental spirit. By the time I got to high school, I was very gung ho about recycling batteries and printer cartridges, cleaning up streams, and planting native gardens. And soon that enthusiasm turned into something more fierce and scientific.

Do your spiritual beliefs contribute to your passion for protecting the environment?

Let’s get the elephant out of the room: Yes, reincarnation is a big deal in Hinduism. The notion of personal renewal helps me focus my energy on making the Earth more resilient. On some level it’s pure selfishness: If I’m going to return to this world, I want it to be just as vibrant and diverse as it is now. But conservation is also heavily tied to the Hindu commitment of karma—action without any reward. I need to preserve the environment, regardless of whether the consequences touch me or not.

Are you involved with green projects in your faith community?

So far I’ve kept my efforts separate from organized religion, even if they’re a product of my faith. I would love to do some conservation work in India and work with the religious community there. But Hindus who are interested in enlisting in environmental actions have plenty of options, such as The Bhumi Project and the Universal Society of Hinduism. Inspiring greener practices in your temple is a powerful first step.

Do you see climate change as a faith issue?

I think the fight against climate change is non-discriminatory, in terms of belief. As more religious leaders follow Pope Francis’s lead by speaking out, religion will have the potential to provide a powerful organizing principle and crucial political sway to the movement.

Chandra Taylor Smith

Vice president of Diversity and Inclusion, National Audubon Society
Taylor-Smith grew up in the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the United Church of Christ, holds a doctorate in ecological theology, and is an ordained minister.

How did you first become involved with environmental issues?

Camping trips with my family every summer for 12 years inspired my commitment to environmental issues. My sister, brother, and I played in forests, dunes, meadows, beaches, deserts, and marshes. Our play and exploration in nature was unstructured and unchecked, and I remember feeling free, confident, safe, and natural in my skin. My family began these excursions in 1968, when I was in third grade and the civil-rights movement was in a fierce struggle to make freedom, safety, confidence, and self-acceptance an authentic reality for all black people.

We integrated many campgrounds as we visited every state in the U.S. and Canada. When racism raised its ugly head, it usually occurred with adults. It was these early experiences of people wanting to forbid my family from nature because we were black that heightened my interest in environmental issues. My family always believed that we belonged in nature just as much as anyone.

Do your spiritual beliefs contribute to your passion for protecting the environment?

Both of my faith traditions, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the United Church of Christ, established the social-justice foundations of my faith and continue to inform my advocacy for environmental issues.

My father was a prominent civil-rights activist, artist, minster, and seminary professor and believed that nature was one place where every being was unquestionably equal. To counteract the impact of racism, sexism, and other negativities in society, my parents made sure that we could experience the goodness of nature and appreciate that its goodness was also in us.

Are you involved with environmental projects in your faith community?

I worship with several community churches engaged in environmental projects. For example, Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, has a Going Green Ministry to help church members and the community understand the importance of a sustainable environment.

I also worship at All Saints Church in Woodbridge, Virginia, which has wooded areas with a trail that church members use for prayer walks. The woods host a healthy habitat for birds of prey and many other wildlife. The church has a ministry called New Roots that promotes planting trees, shrubs, and flowers to provide a beautiful and welcoming church setting, protect wildlife and natural surroundings, and prevent erosion.

Do you see climate change as a faith issue?

I believe that in many ways climate change is the greatest test for how we live out our faith. All faith traditions have teachings about how to live in right balance with creation and the Earth. Our challenge is really living out what those traditions tell us about restraint, sharing our resources, loving all of God’s creation, and even loving our neighbors as ourselves.

One way that faith communities are galvanizing action is through the Green the Church movement, which engages African-American congregations in the fight against climate change and helps churches serve as centers of resilience.

Matt Anderson

Vice president for Climate, National Audubon Society
Anderson and his family attend Pilgrim Lutheran Church in St. Paul, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

How did you first become involved with environmental issues?

I’ve cared about nature since I was a kid growing up hiking, fishing, and camping. I’ve been lucky to find work that allows me to try to protect wildlife and nature and that benefits people.

Do your spiritual beliefs contribute to your passion for protecting the environment?

My religious beliefs are the basis for my passion for caring for creation, and they help me express that passion. I believe we were entrusted with God’s gracious gift of creation, in all its wonder, mystery, and splendor, and we are called to care for it and protect it as stewards. I strive to be mindful of that in my daily life and I feel blessed to have a job that allows me to work with people dedicated to protecting the planet and all who depend on it.

Are you involved with environmental projects in your faith community?

One of the things I love the most about Pilgrim Lutheran is how dedicated the congregation is to caring for creation. Many members are very involved in Creation Care projects, including hosting environmental film screenings and book discussions, choosing green remodeling materials such as recycled pews, and divesting from fossil fuels. We’re fortunate to have a wealth of community leadership.

Do you see climate change as a faith issue?

What we do about climate change is a matter of moral conscience. I see religious communities around the country and the world stepping forward on this issue. I’m proud to serve on the national board of Interfaith Power & Light, a campaign bringing religious groups together to fight global warming. I’ve been fortunate to work with Restoring Eden, the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life, the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and others.

Responses have been edited for space and clarity.

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