International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection Suffering and Responsibility

by Lisa Sideris

Introductory Essay by Makarand Paranjape

A valuable addition to the Columbia Series in Science and Religion, Lisa H. Sideris’ monograph is an absorbing critique of conventional environmental ethicists, religious and secular. Sideris argues that the basic drawback of much of the discourse in environmental ethics is that, though it is well-intentioned and wishes to save our planet, it is modelled on pre-Darwinian, romantic notions of nature as intrinsically good, fair, and even compassionate. Darwin, on the other hand, showed us that the natural world is essentially competitive, often predatory, and sometimes cruel. Therefore, Sideris contends, a more realistic stance would be one that values process over product and is minimally interventionist.

A large part of this book focuses on a group of theologians of ecology including Sallie McFague, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Charles Birch, John Cobb, Jurgen Moltmann, Michael Northcott, Larry Rasmussen, and James Gustafson. What distinguishes this group is that they claim to take natural sciences seriously instead of relying solely on religious beliefs. Many of them are ecofeminists too. The book also discusses the work of two secular ethicists, Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Though theologians are more prone to overlook science, secular ecologists also suffer from a similar defect, especially those who champion animal rights and animal liberation. Paradoxically, many ecotheologians actually attempt a corrective to the more traditional Christian position which pays less attention to earthly concerns, especially to animal and non-human life. Such instrumental, anthropocentric attitudes are more characteristic of Protestant sects than Catholic; consequently, most of the theologians discussed here have Protestant leanings.

Natural selection and evolutionary imperatives present a view of nature that is not necessarily consonant with or convenient for religious eschatology or liberation theology. Physical suffering, death, extinction of species, competition, struggle for survival, and scarcity of resources are only some of the factors which create not just disequilibrium and immense suffering in the natural world but also, from the human point of view, moral ambiguity. The values that environmental ethicists champion are therefore at odds with those of evolution, which stresses survival and genetic continuity far more than community or interdependence. Likewise, “struggle, pain, and death” – and suffering – appear to be central to natural life processes; they cannot be attributed merely to human follies or intervention. Hence, to respond with a counter-ethic of love may not actually solve the problem, though it may suit humans’ own purposes to adopt it. To impose human values on nature, however well-intentioned and flattering to the religious-minded, is anthropocentric, even if in a way that is opposite to that of the instrumentalists.

While Sideris complains that theologians impose human values on natural processes, she appears to do the same at times when she locates “evil” and moral ambiguity in nature. She also considers the scientific view to show nature “as it is,” simplistically true and unmediated, rather than regarding it as one more (even if dominant) perspective.   

In addition to a well-written Introduction, the book has six substantive chapters and a short conclusion that, once again, reinforces the idea that much ecotheological discourse neglects scientific data, emphasizing interdependence, love, and continuity over conflict, struggle, and death. Sideris wants humans to accept our own finitude and thus adopt a more humble and noninterventionist approach to nature that is both discriminating and context sensitive.