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Environmentalism as Religious Quest – selected quotes

Faith in Nature (book cover)This page provides selected quotes from the book, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as Religious Quest, by Thomas Dunlap (2004).


“Environmentalists gave practical reasons for saving energy and resources, but they looked beyond dollars and BTUs for a new relationship between people and the earth, one that came from placing our conduct toward nature ‘in the realm of morals’ and in the context of our obligations to life on earth.”


“Environmentalists do not, generally, believe the movement constitutes a religion . . . and they are uncomfortable with religious terms, but they ask religious questions:
…..what purpose do humans have in the universe, and
…..what must they do to fulfill it?”


“In the early years environmentalism built its own still-incomplete myth . . .

The Word had come, and preservation of the earth’s ecological processes and the diversity of life became a sacred cause, saving the planet an ultimate Good, and the human destruction of nature’s processes Evil. . .

The possibility of a civilization where people could live fully human lives in a community serving and preserving the earth’s life served as heaven, the environmental collapse if we failed to act, hell. . .

[This description] showed people the world, their place in it, and their duties – and pointed to a spiritual search in nature. . .”


 “Environmentalism campaigns for new laws, but it also gives moral weight to the apparently trivial decisions of daily life.

It tells you what kind of grass to put in the front yard, how to get to work, even what kind of diapers to put on the baby.

It makes a brick in the toilet tank an expression of virtue.

It asks not just that we change policies or even our habits, but that we change our hearts, not just that we recycle papers, cans, and bottles, but that we form a new relationship with nature.

Finally, it invokes the sacred, holding some areas and species in awe and finding in wilderness the opening to ultimate reality.”


“By the 1980s environmentalists had incorporated the older nature literature as part of their own. . . The line began with Thoreau, whose life had been the canonical example of the search for truth in nature, his shack and Walden Pond a place of pilgrimage, and Walden a holy text . . . John Muir came next . . . The Sierra Club, which he founded, made him a local saint and the Sierra range an outdoor temple to his memory . . . These and other nature writings . . . made up environmentalism’s Old Testament, a heritage that opened an individual way to nature. For its New Testament, environmentalism required work that moved from the individual encounter . . . to consider our species’ responsibility for life on earth. . . Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac became the Gospel.”


“In addition to a literature, environmentalists adopted symbols of faith, ranging from icons to areas.

Environmentalists put up posters with Ansel Adams’s views of Yosemite Valley or Eliot Porter’s pictures of Glen Canyon in the same way that ethnic Catholics put statues of the Virgin on the front lawn – as declarations of faith and reminders of what was important.

They made the northern spotted owl a symbol of the complex of plants and animals that made the ancient forests a holy cause. . . . They “made the wolf a symbol of healthy land and its presence a wilderness benediction.”

“In that light, the wilderness journey’s mixing of outdoor recreation . . . and spiritual search [can include] making Yosemite and the canyonlands into icons, regional symbols parallels to the cults of local saints; and naturalist cruises to the Galapagos the modern equivalent of the medieval pilgrimage – part sacred journey, part vacation.”


“Environmentalism needed symbols, but also the patterns and habits that led toward right conduct. These qualities of character could be called ‘virtues,’ for they were habits of the heart that led to right living.

Environmentalists honored courage . . . but placed greatest emphasis on humility . . .

At the core of environmental sentiment lay the belief that humans, individually and as a species, must take their place as one species among many and not act as if they are the lords of the earth.”

“Besides humility, environmentalism stressed hope – that virtue by which we take responsibility for the future, not simply our future but the future of the world.”


“People . . . want some cause worth working for, even worth dedicating their lives to. Environmentalism offers that, and does it in science’s secular terms.”


“Environmentalism addresses the alienation of modern society in a modern context, finding the sacred in a material world and a way of personal knowledge and engagement with the world on the basis of objective knowledge. . . It speaks of giving to the world as well as taking . . .”


“Environmentalism’s future seems to lie in the possibilities offered by its situation as a secular faith, searching for a transcendent within this world, building a morality on our scientific understanding of our place in it, and using science, which refuses to ask about purpose, to search for ultimate meanings.”


“By its own logic, environmentalism must succeed or die, change American society or face the death of some essential part of the human spirit – and possibly the death of much of our species. That requires, in the long run, that people have a conscious relation to nature that is important to their lives, for they will not work to save what they do not love or love what they do not know and have made part of their lives.”


“Environmentalism has embarked on a great enterprise, the integration into nature (without abandoning human society) of body, mind, spirit, society, and economy. It seeks dreams large enough to inspire individuals and wise enough to guide humanity, dreams that speak to our lives and the wonderful world in which we live them.”