Errors at Religious Tolerance: Christianity and the environment

January 27, 2011

The website ‘Religious Tolerance‘ makes the following claims.

No matter how you describe yourself, you should find your beliefs and practices accurately represented in this website. Almost all other religious websites explain only the beliefs of the webmaster or sponsoring faith group. We are different: we try to explain accurately the full diversity of religious beliefs, worldviews, and systems of morality, ethics, and values. We hope that you will find our essays helpful and of interest.

They explain that ‘None of us has any formal education in theology‘, and ‘We know only a tiny bit about a wide range of religions and religious topics‘. Accordingly, they provide this disclaimer.

We will attempt to overcome our biases on each topic that we describe, by explaining each point of view carefully, respectfully and objectively. To this end, we have many of our essays reviewed by persons familiar with the issues who represent all sides of each topic. We encourage readers to Email us about any errors that they find. We do not regard any essay as fixed or complete.

The following email was sent to ‘Religious Tolerance’ on 22 September, 2010, in response to their articles on Christianity and the environment, which start here. To date no reply has been received and the articles have not been corrected.

Familiar with your site as I am, I was not surprised to read the articles on religion and the environment confined almost exclusively to the late twentieth century, omitting around 3,000 years of discussion of environmental ethics among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources. Passing references to White and Passmore (where is the reference to the twenty years of comprehensive criticism of White in the relevant literature?), and repeated quotes from a very slender selection of sources (three main works?), constituted virtually the entire discussion of the impact of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition on the environment and the formation of environmental ethics.

In your bibliography I found none of the standard current works on environmental ethics and praxis in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This article instead opens with a completely unsubstantiated claim dismissing the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, without a single original source quotation and without a single scholarly reference. This is unfortunate, given that the oldest stratum of the Pentateuch (the ‘Yahwist’, c. 950 BCE), is recognized as containing an explicit environmental ethic restricting anthropological interference with the ecology,[1] and later developments of the ethic in the Primary History, Wisdom Literature, and the Major and Minor Prophets sought to balance anthropocentric and ecocentric concerns.[2] The article demonstrates no knowledge of the relevant primary or secondary literature.

Not only are these passages recognized in the relevant scholarly literature as having explicit ecological motivation,[3] but they were already recognized as such in Jewish commentary of the Second Temple Era. The later Tannaic commentary in the Mishnah (compiled during the third century CE), as well as the rabbinical commentary in Talmud Jerusalem and Talmud Babylon (complied between the third and fifth centuries CE), not only contain detailed ecological exegesis of the environmental ethic in the Torah, but also proscribe additional laws aimed at environmental protection, and articulate the tension between anthropocentric and ecocentric concerns.[4]

The Early Church Fathers are not to be dismissed either, containing some clearly ecocentric Biblical exposition, though occasionally combined with classical Hellenistic views less favourable to nature.[5] Extensive medieval rabbinical commentary on environmental ethics (which is treated very sparsely in the article to which I linked), is found in Rashi (1040-1105),[6] Maimonides (1135-1204),[7] Ibn Ezra (1089-1164),[8] Nachmanides (1194-1270),[9] and Abravanel (1437-1508),[10] among others. Again we find a balance of anthropocentric and ecocentric views, with an emphasis on balancing the two principles for the optimal benefit of both humans and their environment.

Within the later Christian tradition we find such historical examples as Francis of Assisi, the historic Peace Churches advocating harmonious partnership with the environment,[11] and ecological concern models expressed through various monastic orders and individuals,[12] such as Jonathan Swift, James Eliot, William Bartram, John Ruskin, and George Perkins Marsh (whose ‘Man and nature: or, Physical geography as modified by human action’ makes specific reference to deforestation as ‘war upon the garden of God’, 1865:279). The treatment of twentieth century Christian responses to environmental concerns is of course desperately inadequate, suffering from a lack of familiarity with the relevant scholarly literature and from crude quote mining of a tiny selection of works. Entire paragraphs appear without any substantiating references to the relevant scholarly literature at all, and the article is written in a tone, style, and depth of argumentation which does not even reach undergraduate level.

Whilst I appreciate your articles were very likely limited in scope and detail by the limitations on your personal resources, I believe they would benefit from a more balanced historical perspective if they used some of the sources I have referred to here.

[1] ‘the Yahwist subordinates human behavior to the larger ecosystem upon which human survival depends.’, Hibert (2000:150-151), cited by Conradie, ‘Christianity and Ecological Theology’, 2006:78.

[2] Fields to be left unfarmed one year of every seven (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:3-7), young birds may be taken from their mother, but their mother must be left alone (Deuteronomy 22:6-7), an ox or sheep not to be slaughtered on the same day as their young (Leviticus 22:8), food bearing trees not to be harmed in war time, even if their destruction would be useful to the war effort (Deuteronomy 20:19), animals used commercially are not to be overburdened or exploited (Exodus 23:5, Deuteronomy 25:4), a righteous man takes care of his animals (Proverbs 12:10), et al.

[3] Sarna, ‘Exodus’, 1991:143; Tigay, ‘Deuteronomy’, 1996:201; Isaacs, ‘Exploring Jewish Ethics and Values’, 1999; Yaff, ‘Judaism and environmental ethics: a reader’, 2001; Hutterman, ‘Ecology in Ancient Judaism’, in Neusner, ‘Encyclopedia of Judaism’, 2000; Katz, ‘Judaism and Deep Ecology’, in Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred grounds’, 2001; et al.

[4] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13; Mishna Bava Bathra 2:9, 24b; Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 12:12; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17b, et al.

[5] Santmire, ‘The travail of nature: the ambiguous ecological promise of Christian theology’, 1985; Boersema, ‘The Torah and the stoics on humankind and nature:’, 2001:222-227.

[6] Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, 2006:261.

[7] Katz, ‘Judaism and Deep Ecology’, in Deep ecology and world religions: new essays on sacred grounds’, 2001; Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The environment in Jewish law: essays and responsa’, 2003:62-63l Bentley, ‘Urban Planning in Jewish Environmentalism’, in ibid., 45-55.

[8] Rayner, ‘Judaism and Animal Welfare: Overview and Some Questions’, in Jacob & Zemer, ‘The environment in Jewish law: essays and responsa’, 2003:60, 62; Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, 2006:261.

[9] Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, 2006:263-4.

[10] Vogel, ‘How Green Is Judaism?’, in O’Brien & Paeth, ‘Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics: An Anthology’, 2006:263.

[11] ‘For Mennonites (one of the historic peace churches) the theme of “peace with the creation” had powerful resonance (see Redekop 2000).’, Haluza-DeLay, ‘Churches Engaging the Environment: An Autoethnography of Obstacles and Opportunities’, Human Ecology Review (15.1.75), 2008.

[12] ‘Many authors (including Lynn White) have pointed to St. Francis of Assisi as an example for ecologically sensitive practice. Dubos (1974) and others have highlighted the Benedictine monks, characterizing them as conservationists to the Franciscan preservationists (stewardship compared to partnership in Rasmussen’s (1991) terms). There are numerous additional exemplars (Attfield 1983; Oelschlaeger 1994).’, ibid., 78.



  1. You might be interested in this Christian perspective:

    Takes a bit of a twist in the idea we should care for the environment because poor people are most affected by environmental problems. An environmentalist path to helping the poor. I’d love to see this take off in contemporary Christianity.

    • Thanks, I like your site and the article to which you linked. It’s good to see Christians raising these concerns.

      • Thanks for looking at my site 🙂 I just started it and I am learning a lot. (Like everything comes wrapped in plastic, for example)

        I was at temple tonight listening to a Rabbi explain a moniker for Israel is “Land of the Dear” or “People of the Deer”. Do you know anything about this? To me this “deer” identity is suggesting a hunter/gatherer culture. Am I offtrack? Also, the preferred skin for a sefer torah is deer skin. Sounds a little wilder than our holidays about wheat and barley harvests would suggest.

        I’m also so interested in the agricultural references in the beginning of Genesis. Like the punishment of man (to have to fight the earth to get food from it) and Cain’s vegi offering getting rejected. And they continual reference meat being a “pleasing odor unto the Lord”. We have all these agricultural holidays, but the beginning of Genesis doesn’t seem to hot on the whole concept. I have heard the early Hebrews were pastoralists, not farmers, and the reference to “honey” in “land of milk and honey” is date honey, not bee honey at all. And the milk is sheep milk(?).

        Not sure if you are familiar of Daniel Quinn’s analysis of the anti-agriculture bent in Genesis.

        Just curious about your thoughts. Please refer me to a previous post if you’ve already discussed this some of this elsewhere.

  2. Thanks, I find Quinn’s analysis of the negative results of agriculture to be valid (Jared Diamond has written on this), but I’m less confident about the validity of his exposition of the Genesis text.

    I’m not familiar with the reference to ‘land of the deer’ or ‘deer people’, but I do know that the Encyclopaedia of Judaism understands the ‘land of milk and honey’ as a reference to a land which is difficult to cultivate, rather than easy (the traditional interpretation).

    • Thanks for your take on this. I’ll check out Jared Diamond.

      • This is the article of Diamond’s to which I referred.

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