"Religious ethics are not the best approach to environmental issues". Discuss.

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Angela Sutton

“Religious ethics are not the best approach to environmental issues”. Discuss.

In recent years climate change has come to be recognised as perhaps the most important issue facing modern society. The Conservative Party’s adoption of the slogan “Vote blue, go green” is a measure of the changing attitude towards environmental issues and highlights the fact that climate change is now at the forefront of the political agenda. This may be due to the fact that the global community is now beginning to witness the effects of global warming in the form of extreme weather conditions resulting in floods, droughts and landslides. The devastating effects of these recent natural disasters, including the loss of thousands of human lives, makes climate change a more real and immediate threat than ever before. Whilst it is now widely acknowledged that human activity has made a significant contribution to global warming, there is still debate over whether or not humankind’s destruction of the environment is morally unsound. An important question to address is whether or not it is justifiable to continue our exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources in order to fuel extravagant lifestyles in the knowledge that this will cause further damage to the environment, and therefore threaten the existence of humanity. In order to evaluate the above statement effectively, this essay will examine the approach of Christian Ethics to environmental issues and also take into consideration other ethical theories such as Deep Ecology, Kantian Ethics and Utilitarianism.

        In Genesis 1 God grants human beings “ dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”.  Some Christians interpret this statement to mean that the human race has absolute domination over all the earth, including every animal that inhabits it. We can therefore treat the earth as we wish, without any consideration for the harm we may cause to plants or animals, as we are their masters. This view is supported by early Christian writers such as St Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, “all animals are naturally subject to man”. Singer writes that according to Aquinas “there is no possibility of sinning against non-human animals, or against the natural world.” This suggests that damaging the environment is in no way improper or sinful. If this rule is followed it grants human beings the right to continue with activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, the destruction of natural habitats and the exploitation of the oceans, all of which are damaging to the environment. Many people would argue that this approach to the environment is unsustainable and will ultimately lead to the extinction of the human race. However, there is an alternative way of interpreting Genesis 1:26, and many Christians feel that God has granted us stewardship over the world, rather than domination. This means that we are not simply ruler over nature but also have a duty to care for God’s creation. Geisler agrees with this view, writing, “humans are duty-bound to serve and preserve that earth.”  This interpretation of Genesis 1:26 results in a more responsible approach to environmental issues and instructs us to reconsider our exploitation of God’s creation. Geisler also allows for the possibility of sinning against animals, when he highlights the covenant that God made with all creatures. He argues for the preservation of all species because of the place they hold in God’s overall plan. Whether one believes in “God’s overall plan” or not, one should be aware of the need for biodiversity in fragile ecosystems. This interpretation of Christian ethics is more useful when approaching environmental issue as it recognises the need for a more responsible attitude.

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        It has been suggested that Christian Ethics is too anthropocentric and views the earth only in terms of how it can benefit human beings. Singer criticises this view of the earth and points to God’s drowning of “almost every animal on earth in order to punish human beings for their wickedness” as an example of the disregard for all non-human animals. However when viewed from an alternative perspective, the anthropocentric nature of the Christian faith appears to support a more environmentally friendly approach.  Jesus told us to love our neighbour and show compassion for the poor, which has certain implications ...

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