Nature, Science, and Religion: Intersections Shaping Society and the Environment

Advanced Seminar

August 17–21, 2009

Advanced Seminar: Nature, Science, and ReligionAdvanced Seminar: Nature, Science, and ReligionAdvanced Seminar: Nature, Science, and Religion

“Does religion shape or affect environmental practice, and if so, how?” Lynn White’s intriguing question, posed initially in a 1967 Science article, sparked an advanced seminar that addressed a broader question: “What are the implications for society and the natural environment as traditional Western oppositions—such as science/religion, culture/nature, secular/spiritual—are bypassed, challenged, or transformed?”

“Western approaches to solving environmental problems have been dominated by those who claim to have empirical, verifiable scientific knowledge about the natural environment, contained in such disciplines as forestry, conservation biology, and hydrology,” said chair Catherine Tucker. These approaches have identified science as a form of knowledge distinct from religious beliefs and traditional resource management practices. As people in different parts of the world have wrestled with ways to understand and mitigate environmental problems, these distinctions have been brought into question. In recent years religious communities, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples have drawn from scientific, spiritual, and traditional forms of knowledge to address social-environmental challenges, often in unorthodox ways.

“Throughout the seminar our conversations endeavored to move beyond terms and concepts that inherently separate humans from the natural environment. The recognition that humans are intimately connected to the ecosystems in which we live, and on which we depend, renders inchoate many common terms, such as nature, and even natural environment,” Tucker said. The group also debated the meanings of terms such as science and religion, observing that “even within Western contexts, the sharp division between science and religion appears to be illusory.”

The ten participants offered contrasting theoretical orientations and disciplinary backgrounds, “which made for particularly dynamic and fruitful interactions,” said Tucker. Their ethnographic research sites included places in Brazil, Costa Rica, Europe, Guatemala, Honduras, Japan, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, the United States, and Zimbabwe.

A number of the participants looked at how groups around the world have harnessed competing belief systems to create new practices and sometimes challenge power relations. Their studies reveal that such efforts carry the potential to transform humans’ relationships with the environment, but not necessarily toward conservation or sustainability. For example, Colleen Scanlon Lyons examined the way opposition to an open pit mine in Brazil mobilized environmentalists and members of diverse faith communities, who built alliances on foundations of shared suffering, servant leadership, and aspirations to social and environmental justice. Despite empowering collective action, they have been unable to stop the mine. Tucker, working in Honduras, discussed how indigenous groups have merged Western and traditional ideas about humanity’s place in the natural order to protect an endangered cloud forest, even as they have cut down trees to plant coffee in surrounding forests.

Other participants explored experiences of faith informing action. Marthinus L. Daneel shared his involvement in an ecumenical movement that dissolved long-standing distrust among religious groups in Zimbabwe by linking innovative tree-planting rituals with scientifically based practices. “He witnessed millions of trees planted and a greening countryside, and then faced tragedy as leadership failures and Mugabe’s policies destroyed the movement’s work,” said Tucker. “Even so, he noted that the experiences of successful collaboration, however fleeting, have not been forgotten by the hundreds of people who participated.”

From work in the Japanese Alps, Scott Schnell pointed out that certain situations call into question the adequacy of science alone to interpret human experience and motivate changes in behavior. Even when science provides coherent explanations, it can fail to engage the psychological and emotional perceptions that inform behavior. Andrea Ballestero introduced a notion of faith as a generative power, drawing on lengthy observations of indeterminate negotiations over water use and water policy in Brazil and Costa Rica. Instead of breaking off the process, people representing entrenched oppositions returned again and again to the negotiation table. She wrote, “Faith, as a practical disposition, allows for incompleteness to be a condition and not a problem to be solved. Faith works as a practical and affective orientation to maintain one’s interconnections across difference at moments in which difference seems irreconcilable.”

Tucker summarized the seminar’s findings this way: “Our case studies indicate that there is no easy answer to White’s question; in a sense it framed the issue within a false dichotomy. Religion, as a Western-conceived realm of belief, may influence how people act toward each other and natural resources; the same may be said of science. … In many of our cases, concepts of sacred spaces, human rights, and environmental and social justice unite to create a moral ecology that informs action.” Adrian Ivakhiv, the seminar’s discussant, said that “the future of environmentalism may lie in a willingness to enter into spaces of uncertainty in which novel articulations, making possible novel alliances, can arise.”

This Seminar was supported by the Dobkin Family Foundation’s initiative in Social Change.

Catherine M. Tucker, Chair Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University Forest Management, Coffee Production and Indigenous Beliefs in a Honduran Lenca Community
Andrea Ballestero Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine The Generative Powers of Faith: Openness, Politics and Water in Latin America
Marthinus L. Daneel Professor, School of Theology, Boston University Religious Motivation and Earth-Care in Africa
Anne Motley Hallum Professor, Political Science Department, Stetson University Do You Understand? Discovering the Power of Religion for Conservation in Guatemalan Maya Communities
Adrian Ivakhiv Associate Professor, School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont Discussant
Colleen Scanlon Lyons Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado, Boulder What’s God Got to Do with It? Matters of Faith and How Faith Matters in Science, Social Movements, and Activist Solidarity
Andrew Mathews Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Cruz Believing in Forestry and Knowing Rituals: Encounters Between State Science, Nature Spirits, and Indigenous People in Mexico 1926–2008
Kristen Norget Associate Professor, Departments of Anthropology, McGill University, Montreal Conservation, La Madre Tierra, and the Indigenous Moral Ecology; Some Lessons from Oaxaca, Mexico
Joel Robbins Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego On Enchanting Science and Disenchanting Nature: Spiritual Warfare in North America and Papua New Guinea
Scott Schnell Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Iowa Believing is Seeing: A Religious Perspective on Mountaineering in the Japanese Alps