Spiritual Values and the Environment

shutterstock_62613079The University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) and its Program on International Policy Attitudes recently polled nearly 1,500 Americans in a study called “Faith and Global Policy Challenges: How Spiritual Values Shape Views on Poverty, Nuclear Risks, and Environmental Degradation”. This study polled a large amount of Catholics and Evangelicals, and documented their feelings on the environment, greenhouse gas emissions and nuclear war.

The poll was conducted using a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. First, participants were chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Then, an oversample of 330 Catholic individuals were chosen to participate as well. Results were weighted accordingly so there was not bias in the statistics, however since this study was one of the relationship between spiritual obligations and policy preferences, those who were identified as “believers” were the ones who were asked most of the questions.

In the study, “believers” were defined as those who answered ‘yes’ as to whether they believed in God or not. 85% of those interviewed answered that they did believe in God, while 14% said they did not. Additionally, “believers” were also considered those who do not believe in God, but feel spiritually obligated to act certain ways – a mere 4%. When respondents were asked whether they felt “there are spiritual obligations to act in certain ways,” or whether they did “not think in these terms,” 67% said they felt there are spiritual obligations; 32% said they did not think in these terms.

Specific findings from the study:

· Spiritual Obligations and Public Policy Issues: A large majority of believers said that they see a spiritual obligation to seek to reduce poverty and hunger. But when asked initially, only about 1 in 5 believers said they think in terms of a spiritual obligation to protect the environment or to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

· Responding to the Idea of Stewardship of the Environment: Though less than half of all believers and a bare majority of Evangelicals are familiar with the idea of a spiritual obligation to act as good stewards of the environment, when presented with this concept, 3 out of 4 believers embraced it. Most rejected the counter-argument that out of humility one should leave the environment in God’s hands. Among those who embraced the obligation to be good stewards, an overwhelming majority said that it applies to preserving the natural world as well as humans from the effect of environmental degradation. A majority of this group (4 in 10 of all believers) also said that the obligation to be a good steward of the environment includes the obligation to prevent nuclear war.

· Caring for God’s Creation: 4 out of 10 believers said that preventing environmental degradation is part of an obligation to protect God’s creation. However, an overwhelming majority said that it is an important goal. Further, when presented the affirmative argument that there is an obligation to care for God’s creation by supporting environmental laws and regulations, 2 out of 3 believers agreed.

shutterstock_64272775· Spiritual Obligations of Nations: When presented the argument that nations have spiritual obligations, large majorities found the argument convincing. When presented with the counter-argument that nations have only an obligation to protect their own citizens and national interests, views were generally divided, except that a modest majority of Evangelicals rejected it. If a nation fails to act on its spiritual obligations, only 4 in 10 said that this would be a sin, but among Evangelicals, 6 in 10 took this position.

· America’s Spiritual Obligations: When asked about America’s spiritual obligations a large majority endorsed the view that America has some such obligations, especially in regard to alleviating poverty. But less than half said it has such obligations related to protecting the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war.

· Golden Rule in International Relations: 2 out of 3 believers—and the same number of non-believers—said that America should abide by the Golden Rule in its relations with other countries, while only a third said that this would impose too many limits on America’s options.

· Binding International Agreements: Overwhelming majorities approved of the U.S. entering into binding international agreements aimed at protecting the environment (including by reducing greenhouse gases) and reducing the risk of nuclear war, with support being especially high among Catholics.

· Working to Prevent Nuclear War: As discussed above, overwhelming majorities of believers endorsed binding international agreements to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to generally reduce the risk of nuclear war.

· Working to Prevent Climate Change: Only a small minority of believers said preventing climate change is a spiritual obligation, and 1 in 3 said it is part of an obligation to protect God’s creation. Nonetheless 3 in 4 said it is an important goal to prevent climate change, and two thirds said there is at least a moderate risk that climate change could harm God’s creation. 8 in 10 said it is an important goal to reduce their own carbon footprint.


· Perceptions of Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: Only 4 in 10 (3 in 10 among Evangelicals) think that there is a consensus among scientists that urgent action on climate change is needed and that enough is known to take action. Not surprisingly, those who perceive such a consensus are more supportive of taking action on climate change. Interestingly, those who perceive such a consensus are also more likely to see it as a spiritual obligation.

“This research challenges common political stereotypes that pigeonhole religious Americans as liberal or conservative on environmental and nuclear proliferation issues,” says University of Maryland Public Policy Professor, CISSM director, and co-author of the study John Steinbruner.

The researchers pointed out that historically, Christian religious traditions addressed poverty issues, but have given less attention as to whether and how spiritual values apply to the environment and the issues related to nuclear war.

However one labels or determines their feelings of obligation towards environmental, nuclear, or poverty issues in my opinion, is not as important as the desired goal. As long as we are all working towards a common goal of global safety, reduced poverty, and a healthy environment, I think we are on the right track.

For the full study, see Faith and Global Policy Challenges.

Image Credist:

Shutterstock/Vitaly Titov & Maria Sidelnikova

by Sara Stefanski

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