The Relationship Between Nature and Religion Essay Example

Typically we do not think about how our religions affect our environment. However one cannot deny the impact they do have. Just look at how nature transformed with the settling of colonizers in North America. Before the Europeans arrived, forests were tended by Native Americans whose religion caused them to have a respect for nature. They were wide open with lots of grasses and nut-bearing trees to provide food for both the wildlife and themselves.

After Europeans arrived and pushed back the Native Americans, the forests once again became dense with underbrush, which made it harder to properly maintain the balance of the ecosystem. The Europeans practiced monotheistic religion that had no laws about interaction with nature and the environment (Ryan). Whether for better or for worse, the change in dominant religion affected how the environment would function for the next hundreds of years. Religions can have a negative or a positive effect on the environment around it.

However, the way that nature and religion are believed to interact varies from person to person. Setia, on a paper about Islam, reports that “environmental degradation is less a resource-problem than an attitude-problem” (Setia). She blames not the resources we are using to change the environment, but the mentality we take when we do. For others, they disregard nature in favor of their own interests. 

Anthropocentrism is the belief that humans are superior to the rest of nature and that human interests take priority over the state of well being of the environment. They believe that "distinctive characteristics of humans, such as having a soul, rationality, or language, … set[s] them apart from the rest of nature and make ethics an exclusively human matter” (Hayward). This is the mentality that Setia was talking about that destroys the environment. Nonetheless, there are religions and beliefs that revere and respect nature and help to preserve it.

Animism is believed to be a form of belief that all religions evolved from. The typical characteristics of animism are: “a deep respect for animal, plant, and tree spirits, … a strong sense of connection to and reverence for the spirits of ancestors,” and the belief that everything has a soul (“animism”). Nature religion is the term used today to describe some of these religions that evolved from animism but remained close to nature. Practitioners of nature religions typically have an anti-authoritarian mentality and criticize the mindset of monotheistic religions.

Nature religion maintains its relationship with the environment by “promoting a metaphysics of interrelatedness and a sense of connection” (Taylor). Various religions that fall under this category include: Norse, Celtic, and Germanic myths and folkways; polytheistic, pantheistic, and animistic religions; fertility-oriented and goddess-worshipping traditions; Native American and other indigenous religions; and environmental spiritualities such as deep ecology (Taylor). While many religions think of nature as sacred, the way they treat their environment varies.

Some specific examples of nature religions include Islam, Wicca, Transcendentalism, neopaganism, and Native American religions. Islam has many rules/laws regulating how their disciples interact with nature, but if there is anyone to be blamed for the declining health of the earth it is the failure of humans to regulate the evil inside themselves (ego). Muslims who want to reduce their ecological footprint integrate “the qualities of gentleness to nature, peacefulness to people, moderation in consumption and devotion to the Lord of all things [into their] personality as a single harmonious whole” (Setia).

These concepts are also closely related to the beliefs of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalists believe that they can find the truth inside themselves as part of their conscience and become one with the truths of nature. They also believe in “a kind of god or a divine principle inherent in humans that binds them to the natural world” (Barney). Both of these groups believe that their diety binds them to the natural world and to become closer to their deity, they must become one with nature and treat it with respect.

Another example of natural religion is (neo)paganism, and a sect within the umbrella term, Wicca. Neopaganism is a religious movement to reconnect with the sacred, also known as nature. They believe that the universe is sacred and interrelated, which allows them to access magic, as they thought it was natural (Taylor and Edwards). Wicca is a pantheistic religion that has its roots in shamanism, another ancient parent religion that many others were thought to evolve from.

Wicca is a solitary religion where the practitioner typically decides what is best for them on a personal level because of the close relationship that it encourages with its deities. Wiccans believe in dual deities, the God and the Goddess, who represented everything in nature. The way of the Wicca is to live with the God and the Goddess in harmony, and since they represent nature, it includes living in harmony with nature too (Cunningham). The last, and perhaps most general, of the nature religions depicted here are the Native American religions.

This is used as an umbrella term over all of their vastly diverse religions, however, most of them share the same core aspects. Tribal tradition is the term used to refer to the original Native American religions before they were influenced by European colonizers. In order to survive, the Native Americans believed that they needed to curry favor from nature and the spirits that reside within it. They balance their own needs with the demands from their religion by performing rituals such as honoring an animal one has slain by using all of it and treating it with respect. These tribal traditions did not “separate activities into religious and nonreligious,” religion was a part of their culture and everyday life (Ryan).

While some mentalities, like anthropocentrism, are harmful to our environment and future, there are also religions, like Islam, that proffer a mentality that respects nature and strives to keep a peaceful healthy relationship with it. There is also a very large population of people who practice religions that do concern themselves with nature. Their effect on the environment shows up clear as day, yet they do not warrant it any thought. The relationship between religion and nature is complex, but is being unraveled by scholars who are looking for reasons as to why our relationship with nature has soured to the brink of possible extinction.

Works Cited

"animism." Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained, edited by Una McGovern, Chambers Harrap, 1st edition, 2007. Credo Reference, Accessed 13 Sep. 2019.

Barney, Brett, and Lisa Paddock. "transcendentalism." Encyclopedia of American Literature, Inc. Manly, Facts On File, 3rd edition, 2013. Credo Reference, Accessed 13 Sep. 2019.

Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: a Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Llewellyn Publications, 2017.

Hayward, Tim, and TIM HAYWARD. "anthropocentrism." International Encyclopedia of Environmental Politics, edited by John Barry, and E. Gene Frankland, Routledge, 1st edition, 2002. Credo Reference, Accessed 12 Sep. 2019.

Ryan, John Barry. "Native American Religions." Encyclopedia of American Studies, edited by Simon Bronner, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1st edition, 2018. Credo Reference, Accessed 13 Sep. 2019.

Setia, Adi. "The inner dimension of going green: articulating an Islamic deep-ecology." Islam & Science, vol. 5, no. 2, 2007, p. 117+. Gale In Context: High School, Accessed 11 Sept. 2019.

Taylor, Bron R. "nature religion." Encyclopedia of American Religious History, edited by Edward L. Queen, et al., Facts On File, 4th edition, 2018. Credo Reference, Accessed 12 Sep. 2019.

Taylor, Bron R., and Edward L. Queen, II. "neopaganism." Encyclopedia of American Religious History, edited by Prothero II, et al., Facts On File, 4th edition, 2018. Credo Reference, Accessed 12 Sep. 2019.