Apr 28, 2017
The island of Misali, part of the Zanzibar archipelago in the Indian Ocean, is a wonderful example of the remarkable role that religious values can play in confronting the crisis facing our natural world.1 The coral reef surrounding the largely uninhabited island is home to a rich variety of fish and turtles, providing direct livelihood to people in neighboring Pemba, which is over 95 percent Muslim. But rising population and depleting fish stocks led fishermen to adopt desperate and unsustainable fishing methods to maintain their catch, including dynamite fishing and the use of guns. Although such destructive methods damaged the corals and harmed local species, government bans had practically no impact. Local religious leaders helped restore sustainable fishing and a rich underwater life to the island, however, by highlighting Islamic teachings about conservation.
The fishermen clearly failed to understand and apply Qur’anic lessons about man’s stewardship of nature to their fishing methods, requiring remonstration from local religious leaders to correct their self-destructive practices. As faithful Muslims, their hearts and minds already contained a consciousness about nature rooted in spirituality that religious leaders could actualize through advice drawn from Qur’anic teachings. One local fisherman aptly summarized why the religious message succeeded, whereas government decrees had failed. “It is easy to ignore the government,” he said, “but no-one can break God’s law.”2
Religion, Science, and Nature
Analogous examples of the importance of religion in protecting nature are found in all the world’s major religious traditions.3 Indeed, most people in the world may only heed religious, as opposed to secular, ethics about nature, and scientists increasingly recognize the need for religion and science to join forces to address the crisis.4 In 1991, for example, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and other renowned scientists issued a joint statement entitled “Preserving and Cherishing the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion,” which declared:
[Our current environmental] problems of such magnitude, and solutions demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension. Mindful of our common responsibility, we scientists—many of us long engaged in combating the environmental crisis—urgently appeal to the world religious community to commit, in word and deed, and as boldly as is required, to preserve the environment of the Earth.5
Yet the agnosticism of many scientific thinkers raises the question of how such a call can coexist with a view that, in the words of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “claims for itself a monopoly of the knowledge of the order of nature,” or the knowledge that is accepted by society as “science.”6 It is one thing for religious leaders to protect nature by highlighting the sanctity of God’s creation, as the example of the fishermen in Misali illustrates, and quite another thing to defend the environment from exploitation relying on a secular worldview that arguably conflates values and tastes as “preferences” that have no moral import, thus compromising the ability to make morally meaningful statements.7 Nasr asserts, “In a world in which the very category of ‘sacredness’ as applied to nature is meaningless, to speak of the sacredness of life is little more than sentimental thinking or hypocrisy.”8
It is necessary here to highlight the radical difference between science as organized knowledge, which can refer to any level of reality, and scientism, which claims that modern science, defined as a strictly empirical or sensory means of knowing the material world, has a monopoly on knowledge—that is, that anything beyond the sensory world is unreal, impossible to prove, or purely fanciful. Accordingly, scientism is an ideological construct that effectively supplants a metaphysical view of the universe, eliminating any basis for religious ethics about the environment through its reductionism. It ignores any higher, divine or celestial, levels of reality, and qualities such as beauty, justice, and virtue, which are above sensory, empirically observable phenomena.
If there is to be lasting cooperation about nature between religion and science, scientism, which is inherently hostile to religion, cannot be allowed to usurp the role of science. In fact, scientism is “bad philosophy,” not “good science.” It is self-refuting—because it is impossible to prove that “The only way to know anything truly is by using your physical senses” by using your physical senses.9 Moreover, contemporary “hard science” itself has now brought to light a number of “limit theorems,” a phrase the Catholic philosopher-scientist Wolfgang Smith introduces to describe various ways science discloses its own boundaries.10
It is then a scientistic (not a scientific) worldview which, through confining itself to technological, political, economic, and other purely materialistic structures, does injustice to man and threatens nature by treating both as resources rather than as the sacred creations they are. Specific crisis events, such as the melting of the glaciers of Mount Everest, with its dire consequences for downstream farming and hydropower,11 the melting ice sheets of the Antarctic and Greenland, or the acidification of the oceans and destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, are merely the “tip of the iceberg,” to borrow an analogy from systems theory,12 because they are manifestations of unnoticed larger problems generated by an underlying dysfunction: our worldview.
Accordingly, addressing this root cause requires that we change how we look at the world, at ourselves—and ultimately, at Reality.13 Religion asserts that only a holistic approach to the sciences of man and nature can solve the crisis we face, by showing us how to change the way we live.
Modern economic thought runs counter to this solution. First emerging in an industrializing eighteenth century context marked by surging materialism, it separates economics from social life and from the possibility of an integrative, religiously informed worldview. Robert Foley describes this breach:
Modern society is made up of two spheres: an economic sphere of individual initiative and interaction, governed by impersonal laws that assure a beneficent outcome by pursuit of self-interest; and the rest of social life, including political, religious, and moral interactions that require the conscious balancing of self-interest with social considerations.14
This is sometimes called the “separate domain” argument; it posits that the motivations of “actors” in the economy, whether they are ethical or not, have nothing to do with whether a market economy generates “beneficent” outcomes, because economic exchange is compatible with a variety of motives, whether egoist or altruist, making the free market amoral (as opposed to immoral).
But if market prices fail to include environmental costs in the price of goods, then underpricing these goods leads to environmental degradation, called “market failure” by economists. And conventional economics cannot answer the question, “Why not leave it to future generations to bear the costs of current pollution, given the delay between cause and effect?” Conventional economic theory attempts to respond to market failures with technical solutions within the prevailing economic paradigm, ignoring the root causes of these crises in favor of short-term solutions that often cause worse outcomes in the long term. A purely scientistic worldview, moreover, arguably demands solutions based on the separate domain argument to the maximum extent possible.