Conflicts Found in Christian Attitudes Toward Biodiversity

A Duke conservation biologist and his graduate student report that attitudes toward species preservation varied even within individual denominations

Christian attitudes toward preserving the diversity of plant and animal life can be ranked into four general "worldviews," ranging from great concern to complete indifference, conclude a Duke graduate student and a prominent Duke conservationist.

"Recently, it seems that more scientists agree that the loss of species is fundamentally an ethical issue," wrote graduate student Kyle Van Houtan and Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences in a study.

"This places scientists in the paradoxical position of expressing their deep ethical concerns to the Christian community, some of whom do not consider this an issue the Church should address," Van Houtan and Pimm added in their assessment, which was originally presented in an address and is destined to become a book chapter.

"Ecology is one of those societal issues that is very important, but it just seems to be one that the Christian community hasn't really addressed very energetically," said Van Houtan in an interview.

"You might think we all understand that it's really not the right thing to do to destroy the planet and deplete the variety of life for future generations," added Pimm. "Then you begin to look at the diversity of views expressed by different Christian groups. There's a massive split there."

Van Houtan did much of the research for the study, which he and Pimm first delivered as an address to a February, 2002 Notre Dame University conference called "Ecology, Theology in Judeo-Christian Environmental Ethics."

Van Houtan , a graduate student of Pimm's with strong interests in both ecology and theology, found that attitudes towards the preservation of species from extinction due to human activities were varied, even within individual Christian denominations.

After analyzing the literature, public statements and official policies of various Christian groups, he found he could separate those attitudes into four different "worldviews" , only the first of which is in agreement with the prevailing scientific consensus.

That first "Earthkeeping Worldview" "recognizes the biodiversity crisis and embraces it as an ethical issue of great concern," according to the study. It is exemplified by the public statements of the conservationist farmer and writer Wendell Berry, the statements of Orthodox Christian spiritual leader Patriarch Bartholomew I, and the official policies of the United Methodist Church (UMC), the study says.

"All creation is the Lord's, and we are responsible for the ways we use and abuse it," the UMC said in an official statement. "Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God's creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings."

Patriarch Bartholomew declared that "for humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation ... to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping (it) of its natural forests, or destroying its contaminate (its) waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances - those are sins."

It would be wrong to assume that there is unanimity even in an avowedly pro-conservation denomination, Van Houtan cautioned. For example, "you can't say that everyone in the Methodist Church espouses environmental convictions because the UMC says it in their bulletin," he said.

"A church in Nebraska is very different from a church in Florida, demographically and culturally. That's why you often have pastors thinking differently and going to different schools with different philosophies. It is not a monolithic response."

Such variance is apparent among Christians Van Houtan classified as holding a second position, which they dubbed the "Skeptical Worldview." That group "engages the issue of biodiversity, but disagrees with the scientific community that there is an extinction crisis," the study says.

That position is seen in the Cornwall Declaration of the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, which was co-signed by many Catholic priests and Protestant ministers and seems far right of the public statements of Pope John Paul II.

The declaration disagrees with the position that humans are "principally consumers and polluters rather than producers or stewards," according to the study. It also brands as "without foundation" fears "of destructive manmade global warming, overpopulation and rampant species loss."

Next is the "Non-priority Worldview," typified by the views of the Assembly of God, which "maintains that biodiversty conservation takes the focus away from more relevant issues" -- such as the affirmation that "humans are more important than all other species," the study says.

The Assembly "is particularly concerned with New-Age pantheism and other forms of biocentrism that devalue human life to the same level as the rest of creation," the study adds.

The final category distinguished by the Duke researchers is the "Indifferent Worldview," which "doers not address the issue of biodiversity, endangered species, or extinction whatsoever," the study continues. "Many of the groups in this worldview have a self-identified 'pro-family' agenda" affirming "the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system upon which it is built," it says.

Among the most notable of those groups is the Family Research Council, which the study says "focuses on issues such as abortion, pornography, and recently, stem cell research." It also addresses subjects "less directly related to families," such as "legislation on gambling, foreign affairs, even tattoos."

Pimm, an internationally known scientist who came to Duke last summer, said he has been long interested in this topic "because as a Christian and a conservation biologist it has always seemed to me to be self evident that one of the deepest and most important reasons why we should be concerned about conserving biological diversity is an ethical one. We ought to not be destroying a quarter of all the variety of life on Earth."

Both he and Van Houtan are consequently unsettled by what they say is a growing notion among scientists and environmentalists that the attitudes of some Christians are a major cause of environmental degradation.

"It's disturbing to me that the mainstream environmental community thinks that Christianity is largely to blame for our ecological crisis around the world," said Van Houtan. "It's also disturbing to me that the mainstream belief in the secular environmental community is that Christianity has no relevance to help us get out of the crisis."