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Religious Affiliation and Environmental Challenges in the 21st Century

In: Journal of Religion and Demography
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  • 1 Professor, Columbia Aging Center, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia UniversityNew York, NYUS
  • | 2 Senior Research Scientist and Associate Director of the Science Applications Division, Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), The Earth Institute, Columbia UniversityNew York, NYUS
  • | 3 Research Scientist, Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), The Earth Institute, Columbia UniversityNew York NYUS
  • | 4 Researcher, Mailman School of Health, Columbia UniversityNew York, NYUS
  • | 5 Senior Staff Associate, Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), The Earth Institute, Columbia UniversityNew York, NYUS
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Abstract

There is lack of studies of global variation in religious affiliation alongside environmental change worldwide. The aim of the current study is to help fill this gap by exploring variation in religious affiliation alongside environmental change worldwide. We study this relationship by analysing religious affiliation, a variety of environmental stressors and environmental outcomes.

Abstract

There is lack of studies of global variation in religious affiliation alongside environmental change worldwide. The aim of the current study is to help fill this gap by exploring variation in religious affiliation alongside environmental change worldwide. We study this relationship by analysing religious affiliation, a variety of environmental stressors and environmental outcomes.

As the impacts of climatic change increase, the share of the world population with a religious affiliation is expected to rise (from 84% in 2010 to 87% by 2050). Religion is important for climate change relevant behaviours, including fertility choices or whether one sees climatic change as due to human action or related to forces beyond human control. We conduct exploratory and descriptive statistical analyses to better understand the associations among religion, on the one hand, and economic development, greenhouse gas emissions, exposure to environmental stressors, and attitudes, beliefs and environmental performance, on the other. We show that countries with lower shares that are religious tend to have more emissions, to be better prepared for environmental challenges and have low or negative population growth. Countries with a greater proportion of religiously affiliated tend to have higher population growth, face more environmental risks and to be less prepared for those risks. Identifying groups that disproportionally cause or are exposed to environmental risks represents an issue of environmental justice. Understanding the religious composition of the world along with environmental changes can further help identify which environmental policies that could be more effective.

1 Motivation

There is a growing consensus that the challenge of tackling climate and environmental change cannot be met solely through technical solutions, and that human behavior, attitudes, and ultimately consumption patterns will play an important role in climate adaptation and mitigation (The Royal Society 2012). Appropriate responses can be either helped or hampered by societal and psychological barriers and constraints related to culture, values and beliefs (Stern 2007, Markowitz and Shariff 2012). A holistic approach to environmental challenges requires that social dimensions are given a vital role, not only in understanding human motivations, but also addressing normative issues, such as social justice and fairness between groups in response to global warming (Vinthagen 2013, Samson et al. 2011). For many, religion represents a key normative dimension in their lives, and may influence life goals, behavioral choices as well as demographic outcomes. Religious and demographic change coincide with global environmental challenges—and may determine which religious and demographic groups are contributing more to drivers of environmental change and which groups will experience disproportionate impacts of environmental change.

The nature of several of the challenges associated with environmental change (especially climate change mitigation and adaptation) requires a comprehensive understanding and description of the relationship between religion and environmental indicators encompassing countries across the planet. The changes in the global distribution of religious affiliation contribute to shape how environmental problems and risks are perceived, and influence which policy responses are plausible. For example, individuals who are more religious may be more likely to attribute environmental change to forces outside their own control (Kalamas, Cleveland, and Laroche 2014), which could have implications for which policies are effective both for mitigation and for adaptive capacity. Religion can be a factor associated with one’s susceptibility to natural disasters (Soares, Gagnon, and Doherty 2012, Morrow 1999). In the aftermath of natural disasters, people may become more religious and seek support and answers from faith to cope with tragedies (Gaillard and Texier 2010).

The aforementioned effects may be stronger in low income countries, where religion plays a stronger role in daily life, religious organizations have a greater role in the provision of social and health services, and where social vulnerability to environmental stressors are greater (Paldam and Gundlach 2013). In the poorest countries in the world, religion plays an important role in shaping society´s response to crises, and levels of belief and religiosity far exceed more developed nations (Figure 1). The 20 poorest countries also face the brunt of climate change´s negative effects (Eckstein et al. 2019). Countries in sub-Saharan Africa are seeing increases in absolute poverty (Cuaresma et al. 2018), and low preparedness to face the challenges posed by climate change. The World Bank has estimated that by 2050 there may be up to 143 million internal climate migrants or displaced people in only three regions of the developing world (Rigaud et al. 2018), implying significant disruptions to life in these regions. This suggests that a better understanding of the relationships among the global distribution of religious affiliation, environment and development is needed.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Unaffiliated and religious in the 10 poorest and 10 largest economies

Citation: Journal of Religion and Demography 7, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/2589742X-12347110

Source: Stonawski et al 2015 and own calculations

The aim of the current study is to help fill this gap by exploring variation in religious affiliation alongside environmental change worldwide. We study this relationship through an examination of the literature, and by presenting results of a statistical analysis and mapping exercise of religious affiliation and a variety of environmental stressors and outcomes. The statistical analysis benefits from a unique global data set on religious affiliations (Stonawski et al. 2015, Skirbekk et al. 2016). We employ data on self-reported religious affiliation, which is the religious measure that is available for the greatest share of the world population (measures of religiosity, such as religious activity or belief in specific religious phenomena tend to be more difficult to compare across religions—and there is less data available) (James 1985, Swatos and Christiano 1999, Hackett et al. 2015, Davie 2007).

Our data set is based on census and survey data on religious affiliation by age and sex covering 199 nations which contain more than 99% of the global population, and is therefore the most comprehensive of its kind. We consider eight broad affiliation groups: Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Folk religionists, Other religions and Religiously unaffiliated. We acknowledge that while religious affiliation relates to religious belief it may for others represents more of a cultural belonging. One the one hand, some may be religious without belonging to a religious community while others may belong to a religious community due to tradition, for family reasons, as it represents a part of a belonging to a societal group which does not necessarily imply that one shares beliefs with their co-religionists (Voas and Crockett 2005, Davie 2008, Marchisio and Pisati 1999). The data set also considers global gross migration flows, differences in age-specific fertility by religion, and intergenerational transmission of religious affiliation as well as conversions at younger ages. Since it contains demographic detail, one can observe the religious composition by age and sex. It is based on a large database of more the 2,500 nationally representative surveys, registers and censuses (Pew research center 2012, Skirbekk and Stonawski 2016, Skirbekk et al. 2016).

We acknowledge that there are important differences in religious views between individuals, groups and regions, where contextual and socioeconomic factors can play a role in affecting whether and how religions –and subgroups therein- influence outcomes. For example, the theology and practice of Christianity is different depending on whether one belongs to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Catholicism, or the many branches of Protestantism. Similarly, Islam is practiced differently in Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, India, or Iran, where different religious schools, traditions and interpretations prevail. Moreover, the role of religion in society varies across different religious communities, socioeconomic and legal contexts. The degree of practice or “religiosity” (including beliefs in the supernatural, religious practices) differ among those self-identifying as part of a specific religious group. Finally, as Wilk (2016, 2014) points out, material aspirations and growth of consumerism has strong effects on environmental outcomes, regardless of which countries, cultural belonging or religious groups and their underlying theologies concerning environmental stewardship. All of these factors combined may result in greater within-religion differences in environmental attitudes and behaviours than between religions. Yet, as discussed below, religious affiliation is an important marker that can shed light on the human-environment relationship.

Furthermore, several socioeconomic and health factors that are important for both behaviours and responses to climate change have shown partial convergence in recent years, and this could potentially make differences in religious affiliation relatively more important. For instance, mortality inequalities across countries have declined substantially in recent decades (Guillot and Canudas-Romo 2016, Currie and Schwandt 2016), while access to basic healthcare has risen (Hsiao, Li, and Zhang 2017, Ginsburg et al. 2016, Murray et al. 2013). Religious variation, however, does not show signs of disappearing, and the world may see an increasingly polarized development in the years to come, with some parts of the world remaining highly religious and other regions turning increasingly secular (McGrath 2003, Pew research center 2015).

2 Literature Review: Religion and the Human-Environment Nexus

2.1 Environmental Behavior

Religious groups may encourage pro-environmental behaviors for several reasons, including those based on theologies of stewardship of creation or dominion over the earth. Religious convictions may influence both perceptions and behaviour relating to environmental challenges (Newman and Fernandes 2016, Jiang et al. 2015, Dougherty et al. 2013). The 2010 US General Social Survey data suggest that among Christians, the degree of religiosity does not relate to environmental attitudes, but it relates positively to pro-environmental behaviours (Clements, McCright, and Xiao 2014). Another US survey, however, finds an inverse relationship between religious affiliation and environmental concern (Jones, Cox, and Navarro-Rivera 2014). It has been argued that individuals who ascribe environmental change to chance or fate tend to engage less in pro-environmental behaviours (Kalamas, Cleveland, and Laroche 2014). People who are guided by normative goals, which in turn can be influenced by religious affiliation, are more likely to acknowledge environmental problems and more inclined to assume responsibility in terms of environmentally-friendly behaviours (Liobikienė and Juknys 2016). On the other hand, Sherkat and Ellison (2007) report that in the U.S. conservative Protestant Christians tend to be less likely to be politically or privately involved in behaviors associated with environmental activism. Importantly, the existing literature on how religion affects environmental behavior is disproportionally focused on Christianity and Western countries (Berry 2013, Jones, Cox, and Navarro-Rivera 2014)—yet increasing amounts of studies are being conducted on a global scale (Taylor 2010, Lykes 2016).

One study using representative data from 91 countries collected from 1989 to 2014 through the World Values Survey indicate that religion is associated with a greater willingness to pay for environmental protection and fewer conflicts in doing so, and that those who are religious are more likely to donate to ecological causes or demonstrate for the environment. The self-assessed willingness to contribute for environmental protection tends to be more pronounced in the low-income country categories (Zemo and Nigus 2020).

Commonly religious groups, particularly when followers are given freedom, make faith-based arguments about the environment and climate change, including giving human-caused climate change arguments. Almost every faith tradition speaks about the importance of taking care of Creation as not only a fad, but a sacred duty. A collection of different religious groups views on environmental challegens and climate change is provided in (Grim 2019).

2.2 Religion and Environmental Protection

Willingness to make the institutional changes necessary to mitigate climate change can be influenced by religious views, such as convictions regarding whether humans have dominion over the Earth and how one sees the role of humanity on the planet (White 1967). Greeley (1993) found a correlation between belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible and low levels of environmental concern among Protestants,1 which is driven by specific convictions such as belief in a gracious God. Thus, it is not necessarily religious belief per se which causes individuals to be less likely to engage in environmentally-friendly behavior, but religious interpretation and a rigid mind set (exemplified by a literal biblical interpretation) characteristic among more conservative Christian traditions which drives these results. It has been argued that several of the more affluent Christian nations “export” their environmental problems by importing goods from more polluting (and unaffiliated) countries such as China (De Sherbinin and Mara 2018).

Consistent with game theory, research has revealed that individuals who adhered to a religion-based belief in doomsday or end-of-times scenarios (and implicit short time horizon) are less likely to support efforts to address climate change (Barker and Bearce 2013). In this respect, diverse discounting of the future among religious and denominational adherents may represent a potential religion-specific indicator of willingness to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

Perception of and responses to environmental risks may differ depending on systems—both in terms of consumption and production patterns, and in terms of a sense of agency related to the ability to anticipate and protect oneself from natural hazards. Attitudes could affect ones’ understanding of environmental behaviours and thereby influence consumption patterns (Sapci and Considine 2014, Kahle and Gurel-Atay 2013, Büttner and Grübler 1995, Husted et al. 2014). In terms of agency, the relation of religion to protecting nature can be problematic for some: the sacred aspect of nature could preclude environmental action or lead to the denial of climate change (Sachdeva 2016).

Religion can also determine adaption to address climate change. Acceptance of carbon capture storage (CCS) for Muslims can be problematic due to teachings on stewardship, harmony and the intrinsic value of nature, according to one British survey (Hope and Jones 2014). CCS was considered less problematic for Christian participants, who demonstrated anthropocentric values and evaluated environmental issues and technological solutions in relation to the extent to which they supported human welfare. Unaffiliated participants expressed anxiety in relation to environmental issues, especially climate change, where lack of belief in an afterlife or divine intervention led these participants to focus on human responsibility and the need for action, raising the perceived necessity of a range of technologies including CCS.

2.3 Polity and Willingness to Pay

Polity has been defined as a group of people who are collectively united by a self-reflected cohesive force such as identity, who have a capacity to mobilize resources, and are organized by some form of institutionalized hierarchy (Mansbach and Ferguson 1996). Differences in the religious affiliation of those who are exposed to adverse environmental changes versus the religious affiliation of those who contribute more to such changes may influence the ability to implement effective policies to reduce emissions and to adapt to the implications of climate change.

If there is more cultural similarity between the groups causing environmental degradation and the groups subject to its consequences, this may increase mitigation efforts (on the assumption that willingness to pay is affected by the degree of homogeneity between the contributor and the beneficiary). Furthermore, the capacity to impose necessary taxes, implement new production technologies and alter consumption patterns can depend on the degree of shared culture or religious conviction. Collaboration relies on both trust and willingness to pay for measures intended to counter challenges of a global nature.

2.4 Religion and Reproductive and Cultural Outcomes

Cultural and religious convictions can influence individuals’ lifestyles and consumption behaviours, and willingness to change these (Adger et al. 2007, Adger et al. 2013, O’Brien et al. 2007). Religion includes beliefs, worldviews, practices, and institutions that cross borders and time from the level of individuals to multinational movements, but the mechanisms through which religion work can differ across contexts (Haluza‐DeLay 2014). These mechanisms can work indirectly on environmental outcomes, such as through religion’s influence on education, income, reproductive behaviour and consumption patterns.

2.5 Interactions with Fertility and Population Growth

Fertility is the primary driver of population growth, and rapid population growth has been linked to a number of environmental concerns. Religion can be an important driver of family formation, marriage and childbearing patterns (Leyva et al. 2014, Schnall et al. 2010, McCullough et al. 2000). For instance, religion is found to substantially affect fertility (McQuillan 2004; Philipov and Berghammer 2007; Lehrer 1996), and more religious individuals tend to exhibit higher fertility (Berghammer 2012, Adserà 2005, Heaton 2011). Fertility significantly relates to religion, even when socioeconomic factors are accounted for (Heaton 2011, Westoff and Frejka 2007, Dilmaghani 2018). After co-existing for centuries in Europe, different religious groups living in Bulgaria have substantial fertility differences net of confounding influences (Stonawski, Potančoková, and Skirbekk 2015).

Although education is an important determinant of childbearing and schooling levels are rising globally, variation in childbearing behavior by affiliation exists within educational groups. For instance, even women with the highest educational attainment—doctoral degrees—exhibit large differences in fertility preferences and behaviours by their religious affiliation (Buber-Ennser and Skirbekk 2015). Further, religion can influence important determinants of childbearing, including education or employment activity, which in turn may affect fertility (Bonsang, Skirbekk, and Staudinger 2017, Lehrer 2004). Further, due to the high levels of intergenerational transmission of religion from parents to children, fertility differentials by religions are likely to significantly affect population growth as well as the composition of religious groups over time.

3 Statistical Analysis: Religious Affiliation, Environmental Stressors, and Environmental Outcomes

Here we present results of an exploratory statistical analysis and mapping exercise of religious affiliation and a variety of environmental stressors and outcomes. We conduct exploratory and descriptive statistical analyses to better understand the associations among religion, on the one hand, and economic development, greenhouse gas emissions, exposure to environmental stressors, and attitudes, beliefs and environmental performance, on the other. Due to data constraints, all the analyses are at the country level.

The purpose is to test the following two hypotheses:

H1: That there are statistically significant differences among countries by majority religious affiliation in terms of drivers of environmental change (greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and energy use).

H2: That there are statistically significant differences among countries by majority religious affiliation in terms of vulnerability to the effects of environmental change.

In each case, we test whether we obtain significant results by the majority percent affiliated (meaning the percentage of the population that affiliates with a religion) (see Table 1, Figures 2 and 3) and for countries in which Christian and Muslims constitute the largest share of the total population (even if not a majority). We explore the latter relationship because these two religions are in majority in most countries in the world—there are 159 majority Christian and 48 majority Muslim countries (Table 1) – and these nations are highly diverse.

Table 1
Table 1

Distribution of countries by largest religious group in 2010, and summary of population and land area of the countries where the religious groups are largest

Citation: Journal of Religion and Demography 7, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/2589742X-12347110

Source: Own estimates
Figure 2
Figure 2

Estimates of the global affiliation by religion (2010)

Citation: Journal of Religion and Demography 7, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/2589742X-12347110

Source: Stonawski et al. (2015)
Figure 3
Figure 3

World Population estimates and projections by Religion, 1970–2060

Citation: Journal of Religion and Demography 7, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/2589742X-12347110

Source: Stonawski et al. (2015)

The G10 countries: Brazil, China, Germany, France, United Kingdom, India, Italy, Japan, Russian Federation, USA. The 10 poorest countries are: Benin, Ethiopia, Haiti, Mozambique, Niger, Nepal, Senegal, Togo, Tanzania, Zimbabwe.

We recognize that a limitation of this analysis is the use of countries as units of analysis. The primary issue is that countries are composed of numerous religious groups, and that significant populations of Christians, Muslims and other religious groups may co-exist in the same country. Because we are unable to obtain data by religious group on different environmentally-relevant factors (drivers and impacts), we are limited to the use of majority religions to classify countries. Another issue with the use of countries as units of analysis are the widely varying population sizes and land areas. For example, the religious composition of Fiji, a majority Christian country with 892,000 inhabitants, counts for the same as India, a majority Hindu country with a population of 1.3 billion. Because this is an exploratory analysis we feel these weaknesses are offset by the potential for this analysis to illuminate religion-environment relationships.

3.1 Religious Affiliation Data

Data on religious affiliation was taken from a separate project that estimated global religious affiliation by age and sex globally. Religious affiliation information from more than 2,500 data sources, including censuses, demographic surveys, general population surveys, and other studies were analysed—the largest project of its kind to date.2 These data were used to have country specific estimates on religious affiliation by 5-year age groups separately for men and women.3 Census, surveys, and other demographic data collection methods were used to identify religious affiliation. Eighty-three percent of the world’s population self-identified as adhering to a religion in 2010 according to our estimates, and this proportion is projected to increase to 87% by 2050 (Hackett et al. 2015, Stonawski et al. 2015, Skirbekk et al. 2016). This unique global collection of data on religious affiliation allows us to describe variation in religion on a global scale. Figures 2 and 3 show current status of majority religious affiliation and trends and projections in religious affiliation globally, and Figure 4 shows the percentage of population that states an affiliation with a religion.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Percentage of population with religious affiliation (2010)

Citation: Journal of Religion and Demography 7, 2 (2020) ; 10.1163/2589742X-12347110

Source: Stonawski et al. (2015)

Table 1 gives additional statistics for the number of countries by largest religious group and descriptive statistics for the average percent share of the population across countries, including land areas and population size of countries where each religious group is dominant.

Table A.1
Table A.1
Table A.1
Table A.1