In one of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf where he taught, Ovamir Anjum delivered a public speech expressing his ideas on how there is no reason to believe in being special in the eyes of God, and no person has a right to overconsume or have a larger carbon footprint than others because they have attained God’s favor.
He received his termination letter a week later.
Anjum, the Imam Khattab Endowed Chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Toledo’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, shared this story on Saturday at the Wood County Library during the Muslim Student Association’s event, Religion and Climate Change: Conflict or Collaboration?
With two other speakers, the panelists discussed various ways religion both contributes to and combats climate change.
In his speech that got him terminated from his teaching job, Anjum was critiquing prosperity gospel, the religious belief that material wealth and physical well-being stems from blessings and a favorability from God.
“Prosperity gospel, which is among both Christians and Muslims, is the number one culprit,” Anjum said. “If you go to Gulf countries you’ll see they have among the worst carbon footprints because they have this notion that because God is happy with them he gave them oil.”
“Faiths and religious systems can be easily hired for worldly, greedy projects.”
The Protestant Reformation’s conviction that God’s thoughts are unfathomable, in addition to the belief in prosperity gospel, is what Reverend Deborah Conklin, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church, cited as a contribution to materialism and climate change.
“It was the reform movement, the reform theology, that no one could know God’s mind,” Conklin said. “And that God dictated who was going to be among the elite, the saved and who wasn’t. Therefore, you almost act saved so wouldn’t be indicated as someone who was unsaved. And how do you look saved? You look prosperous.”
“It’s not very hard to put together an argument that religion, Christianity and maybe other faiths have certainly sowed some of the seeds that later sprouted into this extreme industrial revolution, consumerism, materialism that we see today that are causing the climate crisis,” Bob Clark-Phelps, doctor of physics, Citizens Climate Lobby member and of the Catholic faith said.
Excessive consumerism, capitalism, colonialism, pollution, waste—the panelists emphasized who these climate change causing behaviors were either cultivated from or exacerbated by religion.
Phelps acknowledged the benefits of the industrial revolution, capitalism and wealth gains, citing increased human longevity, higher standards of living and advances in technology and medicine. But this wealth came at a cost. Rampant wealth inequality and the oppression that follows imbalance of power are some of the problems affiliated with capitalism.
Grand children, beaches, islands, cities — Conklin also highlighted how future generations and entire societies could be at risk if climate change isn’t slowed and rising sea-levels consume populated areas.
“It will lead to war,” Conklin said.
Excessive waste was another key variable contributing to environmental decay emphasized by the panelists.
Anjum said when he first moved to the United States from Pakistan, he was floored by the disposable napkins, cups and water bottles. To him it didn’t make sense because where he was from it was a sin to waste food and his family produced minimal waste.
Phelps emphasized how just a few generations ago nearly nothing was wasted, and now cultures have completely changed.
“How far have we come from that kind of lifestyle where nothing is wasted to a society where people stuff things into their refrigerators, leave them there for weeks, decide they're not good anymore and throw them in the garbage,” Phelps said. “That happens in my family all the time!”
Religion isn’t the only element to blame, however. The panelists highlighted how big corporations have fed materialistic lifestyles, and capitalism’s inherent goal of growth has led to excessive demand for resources.
Anjum cited the degradation of community and family as another large contributor into exorbitant resource use.
“Family and community have been destroyed or reduced to a subservient status precisely because they stood in the way of progress,” Anjum said. “Because people could not be as mobile and as loyal to national bodies such as militaries and democracies when they were attached to particular communities and families. What has happened as a result of the breakdown of community and family is that the sheer number of calories that is needed to sustain a single individual outside of a natural family and community environment has shot up.”
In places like the US where millions of people live alone, an incalculable amount of resources is needed to sustain each individual’s housing, energy, entertainment and food consumption.
Despite divergences in faiths and a general agreement that religion has been a contributor to environmental destruction, the panelists discussed how, while humans are still responsible for resolving the issue, faith is the ultimate solution to climate change.
“I am trusting that this is God’s world, I am trusting that God loves it and that there will be an in-breaking,” Conklin said. “I am not abandoning my participation in it. So my trust is in God.”
A lack of service and living for the well-being of others is a large concern for Anjum.
“Human beings have never lived without faith, and faith simply means you believe in a narrative bigger than you,” Anjum said. “And you try to put things in your life in that narrative. Having faith of a particular kind, like secular faith in progress, I believe faith in progress has blinded us from wisdom of the past. That faith indefinitely improving material life has led to crazy frontiers.”
Phelps cited an excerpt from Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’ — On Care for our Common Home,” a message Francis directed to all people, not just Catholics:
“The external desserts in the world are growing because the internal desserts have become so vast. For this reason the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and fearful Christians with the excuse of realism and pragmatism tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive they chose to not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ecological conversion, where by the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident their relationship with their world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue. It is not an optional or secondary aspect of a Christian experience.”
Key religious texts also address support of the environment.
“Do not strut arrogantly on the earth. You will never split the earth apart nor will you ever rival the mountains stature,” as stated in the Qur’an 17.37.
“‘Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it.Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the Lord, dwell among the Israelites,’” as stated in the New International Version Biblein the book of Numbers 35:33-34.
Phelps also brought attention to Citizen Climate Lobby’s efforts to push forth the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act in the House. It’s a “bipartisan, revenue neutral free-market based solution to the problem of America’s Carbon Pollution.”
Those interested can learn more at energyinnovationact.org.