Guest Blog – Saving Nature with Faith Communities by Simon Marsh

Simon MarshSimon Marsh’s day job is Head of Planning Policy at the RSPB, leading a small team which seeks to ensure the planning system in England is good for nature. Wearing another hat, he is also an advisor to the Christian conservation charity, A Rocha UK.

Working for an organisation like the RSPB, you sometimes have to reply to letters that members write to the Chief Executive. I recently helped a colleague reply to one such letter which asked The Pope Question. The Pope Question also surfaced on Mark’s blog a few months ago following the inauguration of Pope Francis I in March when the new Pope said:

I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”

There’s also The Archbishop Question, especially as the new Archbishop Justin Welby said something similar when he was enthroned only a week later.

The gist of The Pope Question is, “Why can’t you get the Pope to tell Catholics to look after the planet? Then we’d all be sorted.” Or insert religious leader/faith group of your choice into this question.

The Pope Question was first described to me by my friend Peter Harris, founder of A Rocha International, as the inevitable question in any talk on faith and the environment. From my limited experience, it’s quite true.

Well, the Pope’s said it, and in fact his predecessors have said it going back at least twenty years. So are we sorted?

Over the last year and more I’ve been working on a sabbatical project at the RSPB, entitled ‘Saving Nature with Faith Communities’. The RSPB strategy Saving Nature recognises that we have to work increasingly in partnership with others to achieve our goals. That includes faith communities in the UK and around the world. The purpose of the project was to review the contribution made by faith communities to nature conservation, and to make recommendations on how the RSPB can work best with them.

My report is published here. It includes a number of case studies from the UK and around the world.

So, what do house sparrows in London, vultures in Mumbai, white-headed ducks in Turkey and yellow-eared parrots in Colombia have in common? Apart from the obvious – that they are all birds in trouble which the RSPB or its partners in BirdLife International are trying to help – the answer is that they are all cases where conservationists have worked alongside faith communities to save nature.

Here are the report’s key findings:

·         All major world faiths have some concept either of the earth as created by God or sacred and therefore deserving of care.

·         Declarations may not translate into practical action. Like any secular body, faith organisations can be inconsistent in their policy.

·         The RSPB’s beginnings were closely linked to Christianity. Although the conservation movement has multiple roots, Christian values are deeply embedded in its origins.

·         Utilitarian and scientific reasons for saving nature are insufficient in themselves. Conservation groups should be prepared to work with religious and cultural values and to have their own philosophy challenged.

·         More than half (59%) of the UK population consider themselves to be Christian, but minority faith groups are growing in size and significance, especially in major metropolitan areas.

·         Around 7 million adults in the UK are formal church members, mostly in the Catholic Church and Church of England. Churchgoing is highest in Northern Ireland and London, and lowest in Wales.

·         Between 15 and 20% of RSPB supporters are regular worshippers or church goers.

·         There are a significant number of faith-based environmental initiatives in the UK, but at the national level A Rocha UK is effectively the only one with a focus on nature [you can visit their stand at the Birdfair].

·         Globally, 82% of people agree that religion is an important part of people’s daily lives.

·         The Catholic Church accounts for almost half (46%) of the worldwide Christian community, but the Christian church is diverse and dynamic, with rapid growth in countries such as China and India.

·         There is a significant number of international faith-based environment initiatives. The work of A Rocha International and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation is noteworthy.

So in answer to The Pope Question – yes there are lots of Catholics (more than one billion globally), yes the Pope is very influential if you’re a Catholic, and yes he has asked people to look after the planet. But as one of my interviewees remarked, ‘Of the making of declarations there is no end.’ (see bullet 2). The green views of religious leaders and institutions are very welcome, but they don’t necessarily translate into either the views of individuals within faith communities or to practical action on the ground. There are many exceptions, of course, and my report highlights some of them. It’s vital to work with faith communities to encourage the exceptions to become the rule.

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22 Replies to “Guest Blog – Saving Nature with Faith Communities by Simon Marsh”

  1. Clearly, religious people manage to reconcile a very wide variety of attitudes and behaviours with their beliefs and this applies to attitudes to the environment as much as anything else. On the religious right anti-evolutionary views are often associated with anti-environmentalist views (particularly opposition to ideas about climate change and how/if we should seek to manage it), taking the line that mankind was given dominion over nature and we should jolly well dominate it.
    Given the diversity of different ways in which believers reconcile their beliefs with the way they live their lives it is hardly surprising that the Pope's exhortations have not translated into a marvelous upturn for nature despite the large number of his followers. It is certainly welcome that the Pope stresses the need to look after the environment but we would be foolish to expect some kind of miraculous change in the state of nature to follow just like that.
    That said, the Pope's words certainly provide an opportunity and it is welcome that groups such as A Rocha are in a position to harness that opportunity and hopefully make a difference.

  2. What a thoroughly depressing picture of humankind.

    The thought that we have to rely on people like the leader of the world's biggest paedophile ring who also tells people there is a make believe bearded man in the sky to help save our planet is a truely sad thought.

  3. Before I comment I ought to declare my atheist beliefs.

    Simon you say "All major world faiths have some concept either of the earth as created by God or sacred and therefore deserving of care" and I am sure you are right. I would have thought non christian faiths more so.

    So my comments are not about the Pope Question but about the Believer Question. Why don't we have more ethnic minorities or members of faith groups joining organisations such as the rspb. Walk around any reserve or the Bird Fair and you will see what I mean. We need that support but it isn't there. I have raised this before so am very pleased to see your work taking place.

    In my area we have the second largest Mela in the country but there is no major conservation body represented (despite requests from me in the past). I have an Asian friend who was a local councillor, very switched on about social issues and very interested in nature. I asked her why she wasn't a member of any organisation and her answer was 'I don't find them inviting'.

    Perhaps you may have inadvertently provide an insight with the comment that with the rspb "Christian values are deeply embedded in its origins". Despite being an atheist I have no problem with values arising from society's interaction with various faiths but do have a problem with faith led values. So I would prefer christian values (without the Capital C).

    1. Bob, that's a good point about ethnic minorities/faiths not joining groups like the RSPB. In terms of numbers, non-Christian religious groups are only about 6% of the UK population. Half of those are Muslim. They also tend to be very urban. So on one level it's not surprising there aren't many in conservation groups (there are some, though). There are some case studies in the report (A Rocha UK in Southall and RSPB London) where there has been positive engagement, but there are often cultural barriers to overcome in connecting ethnic minority groups to nature, which is new territory for many NGOs.

    2. “Christian values are deeply embedded in its origins”

      Apparently so - ‘On Sundays they would go to church and record the names of women who wore plumed hats; hectoring letters would follow on the Monday'

      Nothing like them good ol' fashioned Christian values of stalking and harassment to start the week

  4. Simon, the following stood out from your key findings:

    "Utilitarian and scientific reasons for saving nature are insufficient in themselves. Conservation groups should be prepared to work with religious and cultural values and to have their own philosophy challenged."

    As a Christian involved in conservation work I strongly agree with this statement. Without the supracosmic vision of faith, the presence of humanity is a mere accident of physics. Conservation then becomes meaningless as the extinction of humanity (and whatever other species we take with us) is simply the end result of certain biochemical processes.

    Conservation is often seen as outside the scope of, or at best, at the fringe of, faith. We in faith communities need to wrestle with the question whether care for the environment needs to take a greater role as part of our central calling, namely the establishment of a new and just world order.

    1. "Without the supracosmic vision of faith, the presence of humanity is a mere accident of physics."

      Agree. And what a beautiful, incredible accident.

      "Conservation then becomes meaningless... [in that case]....".

      Not sure how you came to that conclusion, apart from the very religious way of leaning against logical inconsistencies.

      1. Logical incosistencies continued...

        Conservation is meaningless if you believe in a creator.
        After all, he can rustle up another earth and all its animals in a handful of days can't he?
        You know.
        If it all goes pear-shaped.
        Bit of a relief.

        1. Hmmm… you’re leaving aside what that “a creator” feels about his creation. Here’s a simile:

          Marriage is meaningless if you believe in women.
          After all, I can rustle up another marriage and all associated trappings in a handful of months can’t I?
          You know.
          If this one goes pear-shaped.

          —except I have invested in this marriage, I want to see it through. Plus, I love my wife, I want the best for us even if I have to put up with ____ (insert long-standing issue(s) here).

          So, call me stubborn… a chip off the old God-block, who through the Bible affirms his love for the universe he’s created, ties environmental destruction with human wrongdoing, and even promises revenge for the earth (reach to your bookshelf for Revelation 11:18, or Google it).

          Why care about conservation? Well, your mileage may vary but I myself began by caring about God. Then (many years later, I confess!) I understood that he cares about the earth. So, I started liking what he likes, in practice—making the huge shift from sitting on my couch watching David Attenborough and the savannah lions, to actually going outdoors (gasp!), enjoying nature, recording it, doing practical conservation, inviting others to come with me.

          Before I came to this understanding of service to the earth as a duty to God, I did absolutely nothing. My environmentalism consisted of being a couch potato and having vague feelings of unease about pollution. Zero involvement.

          Now, lest you think that Christians have it all figured out (ha ha): for several years I have been actively looking around my town for anyone with similar ideas, and trying to influence a few. I sadly report that out of the few hundred Christians I know, I haven't turned up a single person (outside my household) that wants to do something about conservation. I'll keep looking for them, but I'm prioritizing research and conservation.

  5. "namely the establishment of a new and just world order"

    You forgot to insert "our version of" between "establishment of" and "a". There are many versions, and many of them won't be popular. There's your problem.

  6. I too have a vested interest in the faith arguments, on the catholic church I rather agree with Sam ( comment 2). Francis your logic fails me witthout God its all pointless, sorry its the complete opposite because there is no supra cosmic being to save the day and we each get one go at getting it right or wrong. The real problem for conservation and lots of other earthly things is there are just too damned too many of us humans consuming too many resources and too many of us think that is OK. Yet most organised orthodox religions are against birth control, hence they have no real practical answer to human over population THE major problem for all other species. Many of the religious do not accept many of the basic tenets of science. So yes we do need ALL to think conservation is important but has religion a part to play? For me a resounding NO, unless it is the sort faith as used to be followed by people like Native Americans who valued the earth around them and saw themselves as not at the centre of it. "Religions of the Book" written by men for men ( not women)and is little more than organised superstition, which is over interested in our individual sexual habits, the sooner it is all totally consigned to history the better. But people who currently believe getting involved in conservation thats fine, indeed its great, but no better or worst than those of us without faith doing so, faith is just well, irrelevant------ as usual.

    1. Let's not get distracted by the old saw of population growth and birth control. Improve the health and literacy rates of women and watch the birth rate fall.

      I'm with Monbiot on this one - its not how many people, its what they consume, and its Rich B**tards in the rich part of the world like us that are the problem!

      So if religion really could make a difference, then reducing our consumption and improving health and literacy in the 'developing' world (not clear quite what it is developing into tho') would be a good place to start, wouldn't it?

      1. I may be very very cynical on this one but if you keep the people poor and ignorant they will continue to believe and the best way to do that is ------- too many children and illiterate mothers, they go hand in hand anyway. I also said that there are too many of us consuming too many resources and too many think that is OK ( conventional economists and politicians hung up on growth) so we agree on that one its not just numbers.Development ( again I may be a cynic) is largely using the first world model so they will be better at exploiting what we need and we will pay them for it, a sort of economic colonialism. If they do not comply they get no aid or money from the world bank.

      2. bimbling - thank you. I am with you and Monbiot that it isn't JUST how many people there are but also how much they consume. Our resource use is clearly the product of the two. But that does mean that if there were half as many high-consumers and half as many low-consumers then the survivors would have twice as much space and twice as much resource left to play with each! It would be much easier to have a more equitable world with many fewer people on it.

        1. 25% of deaths on the road are caused by alcohol consumption. Therefore 75% are caused by sobriety. If sober drivers were banned from the roads the drunks could drive around in relative safety

  7. Like many of the respondents here I am not religious myself but I am not convinced that in the context of Simon's blog post it is particularly helpful to dismiss it on the basis of either the existence/non-existence of God or the past failings of the Catholic Church (of which there are certainly many). The point is that vast numbers of people belong to the Catholic Church and at least notionally take guidance from its teachings. Added to these are equally vast numbers of adherents to other religions.
    If the new Pope has expressed the view that conserving Nature is important and exhorted his followers to act accordingly that is welcome and something that conservationists can potentially exploit (albeit, as I said in my earlier post, without setting expectations too high as to the result).
    If we are to make a difference to the fortunes of nature in the UK and internationally we will have to work with and influence a whole variety of constituencies with whom we do not necessarily share the same values or beliefs - whether it be big business, the ~ party (insert the name of your own bête noire here), governments of dubious moral character or the major faiths of the world. Whether we share their beliefs or not we have to recognise that around the world a majority of people are religious and their religious beliefs play a significant role is shaping their understanding of the World and the way it should be run. If conservationists can exert some influence over religious leaders it would be foolish not to.

  8. With respect Jonathan, I think Sam Brown's response was, if not "helpful", it was pertinent and succint.

    Myself and Paul irving weren't so much dismissing Simon's blog post (although perhaps I did that silently in my head - can you read my mind?!) but instead pointing out that Francis' comment was at best illogical.

    You say:
    "...we have to recognise that around the world a majority of people are religious and their religious beliefs play a significant role is shaping their understanding of the World and the way it should be run".

    You are quite right of course, although (when I've finished sighing) I would add that I (and many many others) desperately hope the trend to a less religious world (or UK at least) continues apace.
    We can perhaps even then start to dream about states without state religions! Wouldn' that be fantastic - Parliament without the unelected church there?

    Your last sentence:
    "If conservationists can exert some influence over religious leaders it would be foolish not to."

    I agree again.
    But I'd also say that whilst it might be foolish not to try (as long as we don't throw too much money and time at it), I'd perhaps suggest there's little to no real chance of conservationists exerting any influence over religious leaders.

    You know what?

    Roll on a modern, religion-free*, progressive, intelligent, fair UK (and world?!) where we are brave enough to take accountability and responsibility for our own actions - conservation related or not.

    *The key to all the above.

  9. Perhaps discussing the question of whether one has or has not a form of religious belief is missing the point of "The Pope Question"?

    The issue is really whether those who profess to be Christian (or any other religion) should act in a way towards the natural world that reflects the fundamental beliefs of Christianity (or their religion).

    For too many years, Genesis 1:26 (that states that let man "have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”) was used to justify any excess of mankind. Fortunately, a far more enlightened understanding of the actual meaning of dominion has now become accepted.

    As a practising Christian, I often wonder how we managed to progress from 13 men (and possibly the odd woman) sitting round a table, in very humble surroundings, sharing bread and wine to the pomp and circumstance of the modern Christian churches. Where in the Bible does it provide for the Papal helicopter? The Church of England I belong to is no better.

    Being a practising Christian is never going to be easy and in today's world it is getting harder. Personally, I fail every day in more ways than one. However, a fundamental part of my belief is that as a Christian I have a responsibility to do what little I can to protect and enhance the natural world. This responsibility arises irrespective of whether the corporeal leader of my church decrees it or not.

  10. "Fortunately, a far more enlightened understanding of the actual meaning of dominion has now become accepted" [ANDREW MASON]


    Evidence of this (your?) "actual meaning" (your words) of the (pretty clearly defined for most) word "dominion".... as opposed to one of many vague guesses or interpretations of an ancient piece of writing, edited and added to over the centuries is where please Andrew?

    "Being a practising Christian is never going to be easy and in today’s world it is getting harder." [ANDREW MASON]

    I'm intrigued.
    Why isnt being a practising Christian easy Andrew? Why (how?) is it getting harder?
    And how is your statement relevant to the "pope question"?
    More to the point - What do you wish to obtain from your audience by stating this?
    Sympathy? Empathy? Congratulations? Respect?


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