In a post last month, I questioned why religion has remained largely absent from conservation ethics, and largely concluded that in Christianity, it could be due to the interpretation of a single word in the Bible – dominion. As I stated in the post, scholars have also interpreted “dominion” (sovereignty and control, a lord and master) as “stewardship” (manage or look after). Sadly for animals, the former prevails.
However, different religions have different interpretations of animal rights. A thoughtful article by O.P Dwivedi, a professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Guelph, Canada, had this to say about Hinduism:
• Until very recently, the role of our cultural and spiritual heritages in environmental protection and sustainable development was ignored by international bodies, national governments, policy planners, and even environmentalists. Many fear that bringing religion into the environmental movement will threaten objectivity, scientific investigation, professionalism, or democratic values. But none of these need be displaced in order to include the spiritual dimension in environmental protection. That dimension, if introduced in the process of environmental policy planning, administration, education, and law, could help create a self conscious moral society which would put conservation and respect for God’s creation first, and relegate individualism, materialism, and our modern desire to dominate nature in a subordinate place.
• Directly and indirectly, religion can be a powerful source for environmental conservation and protection. Thus, we need a strategy for conservation that does not ignore the powerful influence of religions, but instead draws from all religious foundations and cultures.
• While there are metaphysical, ethical, anthropological and social disagreements among world religions, a synthesis of the key concepts and precepts from each of them pertaining to conservation could become a foundation for a global environmental ethic. The world needs such an ethic.
• In 1967, the historian, Lynn White, Jr., wrote an article in Science on the historical roots of the ecological crisis. According to White, what people do to their environment depends upon how they see themselves in relation to nature. White asserted that the exploitative view that has generated much of the environmental crisis, particularly in Europe and North America, is a result of the teachings of late medieval Latin Christianity, which conceived of humankind as superior to the rest of God’s creation and everything else as created for human use and enjoyment. He suggested that the only way to address the ecological crisis was to reject the view that nature has no reason to exist except to serve humanity.
• The principle of the sanctity of life is clearly ingrained in the Hindu religion. Only God has absolute sovereignty over all creatures, thus, human beings have no dominion over their own lives or non-human life. Consequently, humanity cannot act as a viceroy of God over the planet, nor assign degrees of relative worth to other species.
• Mahatma Gandhi warned that “nature had enough for everybody’s need but not for everybody’s greed.” Gandhi was a great believer in drawing upon the rich variety of spiritual and cultural heritages of India. His satyagraha (insistence or persistence in search of truth) movements were the perfect example of how one could confront the unjust and uncaring through superior power. In Hindu culture, a human being is authorized to use natural resources, but has no divine power of control and dominion over nature and its elements. Hence, from the perspective of Hindu culture, abuse and exploitation of nature for selfish gain is unjust and sacrilegious.
I do not agree with all that Dr Dwivedi has to say in the full article (he seems to argue for the maintenance of the caste system in India, for example) but I have given you here some excepts that underpin his major points. The inescapable fact that India has not done well in terms of conservation of lions and tigers, as examples of but two species, Dr Dwivedi would blame on an erosion of Hindu cultural and religious values by western influences.
Overall, he argues the same point as I do; we should have long ago embraced stewardship rather than dominion, and taken that to heart as the most powerful message that religion can give us. We have instead drifted into treating wildlife as if it is there to serve rather than sustain. Perhaps we need an ecumenical council to pronounce on the need for conservation? But meanwhile let’s all embrace stewardship.