Chapter 3: Defining Our Terms and Direction

3.3 Defining Our Core Concepts

This section explores some further thoughts from Richard Baer about the underlying sources of environmental degradation. Baer says we won’t solve environmental problems until we understand what it is about us that led to our environmental situation in the first place. He claims that the healing of nature will only come about with the healing of persons, which is most likely to occur through each individual’s own spirituality, religion, or belief system. However, Baer cautions that our ways of thinking about these questions have been conditioned by Western views of knowledge, which have shifted significantly in the last 500 years towards the rationalistic, aggressive, and controlling modes of knowing characteristic of science, industry, and technology. To take a balanced look at these questions requires stepping back to examine the ways we think about thinking, question what we think we know about knowing, and attend to the historical and philosophical underpinnings of the paradigms that shape contemporary dialogue. Such an approach commends re-balancing our use of different modes of knowing to create a more complementary mix of intuition, reasoning, contemplation, action, wonder, dispassion, meditation, research, and aesthetic, ethical, and religious forms of understanding.

Before delving into such a range of topics, though, it’s high time that we defined the basic terms of our discussion, don’t you think?

Following the title of the book, the four terms I’ll focus on are “religion,” “environment,” “values” and “America.” These terms are best explored in conversation; I don’t want to short-circuit that discussion, so I will only briefly treat each of these here and will leave space for the reader’s own thinking. In any case, a clear conversation about matters of religion and the environment will need to be clear about what we might mean by these terms.

  • America

The easiest term to start with is “America,” because its importance in the title of this book is mostly a matter of location. To some extent, “North America” might be the larger area of interest, but the primary focus is simply the United States. A key reason for this is our problematically consumptive status – while it’s been said that much of the world aspires to live like Americans, it’s also been noted that the U.S. holds only 4-5% of the world’s people, yet consumes 25% of the world’s resources and produces 25% of the world’s waste. Thus shifting American culture away from such disproportionate consumption (which clearly can’t be sustainably duplicated by all nations) could be huge for global environmental prospects.

There are also a few elements of the American story that make us interesting. First is the unique creation-evolution clash in America. While this has mostly been a non-issue in other places, the unique history of the U.S. (and the Scopes trial, in particular) has turned questions about creation and evolution into a divisive cultural issue. Second is the fact that America is known for a sort of frontier mentality, classically described by Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, which described how access to relatively unlimited resources attended the establishment of our nation. Settlement and industry and natural resource exploitation developed for several hundred years with relatively few constraints because there was effectively always more open land, more room to dump waste, and thus free wealth to be had. The American unlimited development trajectory only started to hit obstacles as the frontier began to close at the start of the 20th century, and we began to encounter natural limits. It’s easy to see, then, how the American national ethos (young, as nations go) might include an expectation of unlimited growth, free from constraints. Finally, America is relatively religious. So, there are many aspects of the American values landscape that may occupy our attention.[1]

  • Values

Values are a more complex topic of interest for our purposes, and no doubt America has a multi-faceted moral history. I explore a number of related terms with my students including values, morals, and ethics. In general, “value” can mean “worth,” and commonly we think of a “value” as an ethical precept on which we base our behavior. Values are also understood as the social principles, goals, or standards held or accepted by an individual, class, group, or society. There are many common cultural values that are esteemed in America. Can you think of some of them?

As we think about what it means to be human, what humans are for, and what our purpose might be, keep in mind that Charles Darwin, in his Origin of Species, judged humans as compared to other species as “the moral species” – we are the species that wonders about, talks about, argues about what is right and what is wrong, and that is one of our distinctive traits. Just as Pollan says it’s natural for humans to garden and to make invidious distinctions, Darwin apparently thought it natural for humans to ponder right and wrong. Any notion that humans should do anything – like pollute the environment or not – is a question of morals, ethics, and values. “How should we live?” is, after all, the fundamental question of ethics.

One treatment of environmental values that is worth mention is Steve Kellert’s typology of basic values of nature, from his book The Value of Life. Kellert considered these values as biological in origin, signifying “basic structures of human relationship and adaptation to the natural world developed over the course of human evolution.” Kellert uses the typology descriptively to characterize the range of values that arise from human-nature relations, and thus he provides us a sort of functional definition of values by highlighting what he thinks is the function of each.


Table 1: A Typology of Basic Values





Practical and material exploitation of nature

Physical sustenance/security


Direct experience and exploration of nature

Curiosity, discovery, recreation



Systematic study of structure, function

Knowledge, understanding, observational skills


Physical appeal and beauty of nature

Inspiration, harmony, security


Use of nature for language and thought

Communication, mental development


Strong emotional attachment and “love”

Bonding, sharing, cooperation, companionship


Spiritual reverence and ethical concern for nature

Order, meaning, kinship, altruism


Mastery, physical control, dominance of nature

Mechanical skills, physical prowess, ability to subdue


Fear, aversion, alienation from nature

Security, protection, safety, awe

Kellert’s view of values highlights that beyond the ways that our values shape our environmental ethics, behaviors, and policy preferences, nature is valuable in providing for our development as human beings, and we may therefore also value nature because it benefits us.[2]

  • Environment-Nature and Religion

If we value nature because it benefits us in some way, what do we mean by nature or the environment? The terms “natural” and “nature” are some of the most complex in the English language, with multiple definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and other dictionaries. Religion, meanwhile, is the central concept of this course, and let’s be honest – three of the toughest terms to define for philosophers are God, humanity, and nature[3], so how we might define “environment” and “religion” is no small topic. I discuss additional nuances of these terms with my students, but I’ll add a few notes here.

Religion and Spirituality

We will discuss the term “religion” further, and eventually I will recommend a “functional definition of religion” as the best way to proceed with discussions of religion and the environment. “Religion” is a word with many connotations. For some it signifies something of great and sacred importance. For others it generates feelings of fear, abuse of authority, or irrationality. But in general, we tend to think of “religion” in terms of structured or organized expressions of spiritual identity and practice.

“Spirituality” tends to connote the general spiritual experiences or dimensions of human life. Below, in section 4.4, we’ll look at how Ian Barbour typified the range of spiritual phenomena that human cultures recognize, but for our purposes, the “spiritual” domain is that which points toward greater depth or transcendence of daily material existence. To have a spiritual experience is to experience something that seems to reach beyond us, or to encounter the mystery of that which is larger than ourselves. Spiritual experiences are often understood within religious systems –  you might say that any patterned or common-enough-to-become-tradition spiritual experience or practice becomes “religion.” Based on the history of spiritual experiences that helped form any particular religion and its traditions, one’s spiritual experiences can be contextualized and understood. “Theology” is the study of God or the divine (theos = God, ology = study of), and while this term tends to be associated with Christian cultures, such study of spiritual experiences and encounters with the divine provides reflection and understanding, and usually informs the traditions and practices and ethical understandings held by a religion.

For many Americans today, especially younger Americans, being “spiritual but not religious” is becoming more common. To some extent, as Americans become less familiar with the spiritual understandings held by different religions and denominations, or perhaps as some familiarity with a much wider range of religious traditions has become available, it seems harder or less appealing for some to place their spiritual experience in general into a particular religious context. Whatever the case may be, these days it is clear that “religion” can be a charged and challenging term. In terms of the ideas we discuss in this book, it is helpful to step back from the more charged connotations of religion (if your tendency is to see “religion” as something to fight about one way or another, this book may not be of much interest to you, or at least my lack of interest in engaging in fights about religion may bore you); instead, we commend a functional definition of religion.

For our purposes of discussing religion and the environment, a religion, functionally, is any system of understanding that answers one’s questions about life, particularly the “big questions” about human meaning and purpose. Whatever system of understanding and belief you appeal to to make sense of the world and what’s going on, and to guide your moral or ethical sense of how you should live is, functionally, your religion. And putting different functionally “religious” understandings in conversation with each other is the conversation this book is interested in. Thus, whether one is theistic, agnostic, atheistic, or otherwise, your own views and understandings are important to this conversation. As Pope Francis stated in his encyclical Laudato Si’ (2015), addressing the challenges of living sustainably on our planet will require a conversation that includes everyone, and considers all views offered in good faith.

Grace Cathedral. Photo credit: Bill Bradlee


There is also more to say about the meaning of “environment.” Loren Wilkinson outlines several “names for the Earth” in his book Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard, each of which has been popular at different times. Wilkinson describes “nature” as the first and oldest such word, which “is related to words referring to birth (like natal and nativity), and reflects the mysterious fertility of the earth, which seems to bring forth life of its own accord.” Wilkinson notes that nature religions worship the earth and/or fertility. Another name is “resources,” which Wilkinson says is a more modern way of thinking of the earth – seeing Earth as something to be used. “The trouble, though, within thinking of the earth as resources,” says Wilkinson, “is that it implies that its main purpose is for human use.” Wilkinson also comments on the word “environment,” which he does not favor. He says that largely as a reaction against damage done by regarding the earth as “resources,” we’ve moved to the term “environment,” which reflects a growing sense of interconnectedness. Multiple elements, living and non-living, make up our environment. “The problem with environment,” clarifies Wilkinson, “is that it says either too little or too much. It says too little when we mean by it our (human) environment. Then we are back to regarding all things simply as resources for us. But it means too much when it means “everything connected to everything else” in an equal and undifferentiated web.” This gives humans no real place to stand. “In this environmentalist view we are just one more part of the web, acting and acted upon. But one part of a web can hardly be steward of another.”[4]

As the title of Wilkinson’s book suggests, his preferred term is “creation” – a word also commended by no less than E.O. Wilson, whose book Creation: An Appeal to Save Life On Earth follows the logic of the study by Kempton and colleagues mentioned in chapter one. Wilson favors the respectful sense of seeing the Earth as a creation and recognizes that most humans – including a strong majority of Americans – hold a belief in a creator. Scientists and environmentalists, claims Wilson, will find better common ground to care for Earth by referring to “creation” than otherwise.

We can see an additional sense of the term “nature” with reference to an article by Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman, who distinguishes between nature as “wilderness”[5] and nature as “cosmos,” signifying the world, the universe, which is a construct to help us understand things, but not an empirical reality as such. Semantic slippage between these two senses of the word might matter in cases where experts in one realm (say, scientists on the one hand examining the physical universe, and philosophers or cosmologists on the other examining purposes and meanings) might mistake what they know in one realm as sufficient to answer questions in the other realm. Coming to clarity about these and other terms can help point us in a good direction right from the start.

[Editor’s Note: Readers may wish to skip ahead to chapter 9, the case study on climate change, if you would like to get a taste of the range of faith-based views on environmental issues before moving ahead to chapter 4.]

  1. One might also simply note, as many environmental thinkers do, that the contemporary American landscape I am emphasizing here is that of a very young nation, with only a few hundred years of history under its belt...and that this history involves a systematic and unjust displacement of indigenous Americans who had lived in North America for 10-20,000 years without generating the sort of environmental damages that plague us today (or that have plagued Eastern lands). Exploring the moral, ethical, spiritual, religious and other lessons to be learned from native American cultures and histories makes an excellent term paper for this course. Indeed, these themes merit entire courses such as those connected to Ohio State's American Indian Studies program (see:
  2. Much of this commentary on values (including Table 1) comes from:
  3. Note that these are also the three members of the Noahaic covenant that we discussed in earlier chapters.
  4. Wilkinson, pp. 14-15; Wilkinson’s view represents a Christian, theocentric framework.
  5. This is often seen as distinct from “culture” – this is the “nature” that we think of as forests and pristine landscapes (experienced “as God made them”).


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.