Feb. 19, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 10

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    New group seeks to merge ecological, religious values

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    Three years ago, environmentalist Ted Steck, Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and the College, had an epiphany. After years of encouraging environmentally sensitive behavior—reducing consumption, increasing efficiency, recycling—Steck concluded that to change human behavior, “we first need to change our values.”

    “And where do most of our values come from?” reasoned Steck. “Religion.” A major source of our values, how to do the right thing—whether it be socially, educationally or politically, comes from our religious backgrounds, said Steck, who also founded the Environmental Studies Program in the New Collegiate Division.

    Steck said he believes that if environmental change means a change in world-view and values, then understanding what religion has to say about the environment is critical. “The connection between environmental and religious values is underdeveloped, but potentially very powerful.”

    Steck soon found he was not the only person at Chicago who believed that spirituality and religiosity could have a profound influence on environmental practices, and in the Fall Quarter of 2003, Steck’s idea to form a partnership between University environmental and religious organizations came to fruition in the form of a new organization, the REI (Religion and Environment Initiative).

    Spearheaded by Steck, Dave Aftandilian, a doctoral student in Anthropology, who serves as a preceptor and program coordinator in Environmental Studies, and Alison Boden, Dean of Rockefeller Chapel, the group aims to appeal to people in both religious and environmental organizations while promoting the links between spiritual and environmental values.

    One of REI’s activities will be to re-examine key religious texts from an environmental perspective, Boden said. Bucknell University religion professor Mary Evelyn Tucker, a specialist in Eastern religions and ecology and author of books about the Buddhist, Confucian and Hindu views on the environment, gave the first environmental lecture for REI.

    All major faiths, including Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, treat the environment as an important issue, said Aftandilian, whose own doctoral research focuses on how pre-contact Illinois Native Americans’ perceptions of animals changed after they adopted full-scale farming about 1,000 years ago. “It’s all a matter of focus. Were we given the world to dominate it or care for it? Environmentalists focus on this stewardship. And we want to rediscover this lost environmental ethic in many faiths.”

    REI plans to hold a series of workshops, beginning with one scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, in Room 157B of the Cummings Life Science Center, 920 E. 58th St. Ron Engel, emeritus professor of social and environmental ethics at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School, will discuss the implications of the Earth Charter, a treatise on the ethics of environmental sustainability, at this workshop.

    The group’s outreach efforts will not be limited to campus; REI also aims to work closely with churches and faith-based not-for-profit organizations in Chicago. REI’s first major project is to develop a guidebook to resources on religion and the environment for scholars, members of religious organizations and others.

    Boden said she believes many religious people will respond to an environmental message if it is expressed as a matter of “justice.” Some charitable religious people, Boden said, still think of the environment as a luxury and believe people need to feed and clothe humans before worrying about the whales and forests. “We have to make them understand that poisoning the environment is a matter of justice, that it does hurt people,” she said.

    Aftandilian hopes the resource guide will inspire local churches to integrate an environmental ethic into their Sunday school programs and inspire their congregations to begin to think more environmentally by adding energy efficiency and recycling programs to their efforts. “So many churches have a social justice component,” said Aftandilian. “Why can’t they also teach environmental justice? It’s just a matter of getting people of faith to connect their religious and environmental values.”

    More information on REI and its upcoming workshop is available by contacting envstd@uchicago.edu or visiting http://environment.uchicago .edu/studies/seminars/workshop.html.