A Conflict in Christian Attitudes Toward Biodiversity

Attesting attitudes: Pimm, left, and Van Houtan


Christian attitudes toward preserving the diversity of plant and animal life can be ranked into four general "worldviews," ranging from great concern to complete indifference, conclude a Duke graduate student and a prominent Duke conservationist.

" Recently, it seems that more scientists agree that the loss of species is fundamentally an ethical issue," wrote graduate student Kyle Van Houtan and Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences in a study. "This places scientists in the paradoxical position of expressing their deep ethical concerns to the Christian community, some of whom do not consider this an issue the Church should address," Van Houtan and Pimm conclude in their assessment, which was originally presented in an address and is destined to become a book chapter.

" Ecology is one of those societal issues that is very important, but it just seems to be one that the Christian community hasn't really addressed very energetically," says Van Houtan. "You might think we all understand that it's really not the right thing to do to destroy the planet and deplete the variety of life for future generations," adds Pimm. "Then you begin to look at the diversity of views expressed by different Christian groups. There's a massive split there."

Van Houtan did much of the research for the study, which he and Pimm first delivered as an address to a February 2002 Notre Dame University conference, "Ecology, Theology in Judeo-Christian Environmental Ethics."

Van Houtan, a graduate student of Pimm's with strong interests in both ecology and theology, found that attitudes toward the preservation of species from extinction due to human activities varied, even within individual Christian denominations. After analyzing the literature, public statements, and official policies of various Christian groups, he found he could separate those attitudes into four different "worldviews":

  • Earthkeeping, which "recognizes the biodiversity crisis and embraces it as an ethical issue of great concern," exemplified by the public statements of the conservationist farmer and writer Wendell Berry, the statements of Orthodox Christian spiritual leader Patriarch Bartholomew I, and the official policies of the United Methodist Church;
  • Skeptical, which "engages the issue of biodiversity, but disagrees with the scientific community that there is an extinction crisis," seen in the Cornwall Declaration of the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, which was co-signed by many Catholic priests and Protestant ministers and seems far right of the public statements of Pope John Paul II.
  • Non-priority, typified by the views of the Assembly of God, which "maintains that biodiversty conservation takes the focus away from more relevant issues"--such as the affirmation that "humans are more important than all other species"; and
  • Indifferent, which "does not address the issue of biodiversity, endangered species, or extinction whatsoever." Many of the groups in this worldview have a self-identified "pro-family agenda" affirming "the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system upon which it is built," the report says.


Pimm, an internationally known scientist who came to Duke last summer, says he has been long interested in this topic "because as a Christian and a conservation biologist, it has always seemed to me to be self-evident that one of the deepest and most important reasons why we should be concerned about conserving biological diversity is an ethical one. We ought to not be destroying a quarter of all the variety of life on Earth."

Both he and Van Houtan are consequently unsettled by what they say is a growing notion among scientists and environmentalists that the attitudes of some Christians are a major cause of environmental degradation. "It's disturbing to me that the mainstream environmental community thinks that Christianity is largely to blame for our ecological crisis around the world," Van Houtan says. "It's also disturbing to me that the mainstream belief in the secular environmental community is that Christianity has no relevance to help us get out of the crisis."

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