Faith-based responses to disruption and distress from global heating

Many people describe their awakening to the extent of the environmental predicament that faces humanity as a ‘dark night of the soul’ or even a ‘near death experience’ because of how it both troubles and changes them deeply. As a result, many people have reported a new sense of freedom from past concerns and compromises, with a shift towards living more truthfully, compassionately and courageously from now on. Something like that happened to me, so I even made a short film about it.

As the cause of this awakening is a collective one – the state of the planet – some have wondered whether it might trigger a mass awakening with huge potential for societal change. Conversely, some have wondered whether more people will try to suppress this awareness and their feelings about it, and instead double down on their worldview and identity. Others have just assumed it will all end in apathy and depression. My own work on this topic with psychologists and spiritual teachers led me to conclude the rather obvious answer – it depends! The way we support each other with ideas, techniques and community in the face of difficult emotions, or what some call ‘bigger-than-self anxiety’, is key. Being able to talk openly about our fears of death and wider mortality seemed to be important, and why I included a 4th R in the Deep Adaptation framework – reconciliation.  

In my own experience, I have discovered there is both a wonderful way of being to discover through allowing despair while finding guidance, and a not-so-easy way to live after that transformation – which can benefit from ongoing support. It is not-so-easy, because neither the world situation or personal situations are going to get any easier, while the delusional stories from the media and elites become louder and louder. Although relatively small numbers of us have been lucky to discover each other in circles of dialogue and support such as Deep Adaptation, we are minute and inconsequential in the wider world.

Which brings us to religion.

This year I learned that in many religious communities the idea that humanity is in ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘end’ times is becoming widespread. Although not unusual in the history of humanity, today that view relates to environmental change. Whether such a perspective leads to more or less ‘prosocial’ responses will influence how any future breakdowns occur. In particular, whether ‘worldview defence’ trumps active compassion as people become more anxious will be key to how societies respond. Even if you are not actively engaged in any particular religious community, their responses will definitely shape your future experience. That is because Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) remain influential across most of the world. Globally, they manage or own 8% of habitable land, 50% of schools and 10% of financial institutions. They influence how people understand their choices in life, participate in their community, support people in need, and interpret current affairs. Even people who’ve abandoned their faith still often find themselves praying when something awful happens to a loved one – it’s so deeply ingrained it’s seemingly inescapable. Thankfully, both indigenous wisdom and the teachings of many traditions remind us that, in even the most emotionally challenging times, kind and collaborative responses are possible.

I am not pre-determinist, and so I regard aspects of our future to be unwritten – including the way people of faith respond to the unfolding polycrisis and beyond. Therefore, I believe there is an opportunity to help faith leaders who might, or currently, engage in a ‘collapse agenda’ to reduce the potential for harm and to promote beneficial responses from faith communities (as well as other people who cite religious teachings). If you are interested in such questions, please join me this Friday (in USA and Saturday in Asia), as I discuss them with the Climate Action Coordinator of the United Religions Initiative (URI), Reverend Lauren Van Ham.

Then the following month I will be discussing these issues within a wider ecological theological context, with Reverend Michael Dowd. He is a prolific producer of video lectures and interviews about our environmental predicament, exploring how to make sense of it from both his Christian and ‘religious naturalist’ backgrounds. In that usage, “religious” is not about a belief in a deity or involvement with an organized religion. “It refers to personal attitudes, values, and ways of living that reflect a deep reverence for life, a sense of awe at the wonder of nature, and a desire to act in ways that reflect this.” You can also bring your questions.

If interested in these themes, I recommend the videos of religious leaders previously interviewed in the Deep Adaptation Q&A series: Sister Jayanti, Reverend Stephen Wright and the Buddhist monk Henk Barendregt.