Earth-based religions attract followers

Allison Kronberg

Alexandra Johnson spent four days alone on an island in Canada last year, unable to eat food, drink water or even kill the mosquitoes that landed on her.
 
Johnson was raised as a Christian, but during a Native American Ojibwe spiritual rite of passage called a vision quest, Johnson said she developed a spiritual connection with the Earth that changed her views on traditional religion and fueled an interest in environmentally friendly practices.
 
“The environment is basically our church, being native,” said Johnson, an American Indian studies junior and an Ojibwe.
 
Many young people are concerned about the environment, but surveys show they are becoming less likely to follow traditional religions. 
 
But more and more, religions that marry the two are beginning to form.
 
Earth-based religions are becoming more popular and could someday become a dominant worldview as climate change and overpopulation threaten the environment, said Bron Taylor, a University of Florida religion, nature, and environmental ethics professor.
 
Taylor gave a lecture about the trend in Northrop’s Best Buy Theatre Thursday, arguing that religion and environmentalism can be similar because both realms can incorporate a spiritual connection with other beings, everyday moral practices and transformative experiences.
 
“Under the umbrella of the environment and environmental science, many people who may be atheists or agnostics participate in religion-resembling practices and have emotions or understandings that cohere with what I’ve been calling the Dark Green Religion spirituality,” he said.
 
Taylor said among those classified under the Dark Green Religion followers are surfers, who sometimes develop an affinity for “Mother Ocean,” filmmakers of environmentally conscious movies, like Avatar, and environmental activists.
 
At the University of Minnesota, environmental activism is common. Almost 80 student groups on campus are categorized as dealing with environment or sustainability issues.
 
Louis Mielke, Students for Sustainability president and environmental science junior, said he believes all living things on the Earth are connected, and that’s what motivates him to be environmentally active.
 
But he said he wouldn’t classify his actions as religious.
 
Mielke, who isn’t currently following any religion, grew up as a Unitarian Universalist — a branch of Christianity — with his family. 
 
According to the Pew Research Center, of people who report they follow no particular religion, almost 90 percent aren’t interesting in looking for a new one to follow.
 
“Some people might have a template in their mind of what religion is that’s based on maybe the traditions they grew up with, so they may not understand what they’re doing as ‘religion,’” Taylor said. 
 
Others within his idea of Dark Green Religion do follow a nature-based faith but under a different name, he said.
 
Earth-based religion Rowan Tree Church founder Reverend Paul Beyerl openly follows and teaches a nature-based religion called Lothloriën.
 
Rev. Beyerl founded the Church in Minneapolis in 1977, and he now lives and practices in Washington.
 
Many members join the Church because they want to become more active in the community or because they want their actions to reflect their views on the environment, Beyerl said.
 
Members take part in sustainable practices, like gardening, he said.
 
“It’s just a lot of fun,” Beyerl said. “We’re very relaxed and open.”
 
Taylor said he thinks belief systems that emphasize environmentally friendly behaviors will become more popular as the Earth faces more sustainability challenges, especially because some religions can put up barriers to environmental awareness and action.
 
And defining the commonalities between the environmental behaviors of people in different disciplines could be beneficial to an environmental movement, said Stanford University interdisciplinary social scientist Rachelle Gould.
 
“Religion links people together and gives common humanity and common goals, and I think that’s empowering,” she said.
 
But Beyerl said even if Earth-based religions become more popular, he doesn’t think the set of beliefs alone have the power to address environmental challenges.
 
“It will take much more than Earth-based religions. It’s going to take Christians. It’s going to take all religions,” he said. “It’s about civilization at this point.”
 
Johnson said she hopes more people become passionate about protecting the environment she’s connected with but thinks calling that passion a religion would deter people.
 
Taylor said categories of inclusion and exclusion are one of the potential “dark” sides to Dark Green Religion.
 
“I think it would be difficult to put everything under one religious or spiritual category because we wouldn’t want to alienate people who don’t have the same spiritual views but are still fighting for the environment,” Johnson said. “It’s a touchy subject.”