As we have already hinted above, while religion certainly can be viewed as a fertile source of values that align with sustainability, simply equating religion with certain sets of values does not adequately capture the more complex interplay of religious belief, belonging, and environmental values. Any serious consideration of the intersection between religion and values for sustainability must not simply force religion into existing value frameworks, despite the empirical relationships described in the previous section.
One of the dominant discourses that has considered human values is within the field of social psychology. Although social psychology has amassed detailed knowledge of the structure and composition of values in societies around the world, few scholars of social values have explored why certain values emerge in different contexts. Recently, some social psychologists have emphasised the systems view of values, namely that values are not simply static constructs in people’s minds, but are deeply embedded in culture and ecology (Kitayama 2002; Manfredo et al. 2014). We also adopt this perspective, but suggest that values are in part an expression of dominant narratives within cultures, with held narratives providing a locally inflected mesh in which values carry their meaning. Taking the broad view of religion that we outlined above, even ‘secular’ narratives (e.g., the American dream, the quest for economic growth) can been seen to have some religious or quasi-religious dimensions. Moreover, in reality, there is a melding of myriad narratives within most societies. These narratives may be considered as forming part of a larger ‘worldview’ out of which individuals operate. According to research by Hedlund-de Witt (2012) and Hedlund-de Witt et al. (2014), worldviews are comprised of inter alia axiology (core values), as well as ontology (including a cosmogony), anthropology (the purpose of the human being) and societal vision (how society should be organised or function). Understanding values (axiology) apart from these other dimensions is, therefore, a superficial reading of society.
Another key factor which must be considered in seeking to understand the role of religious values in sustainability is the way that religious identity and belonging works at multiple scales, from individuals to groups to international bodies and values across these scales do not always align. Scale has been extensively studied within environment and sustainability fields. For example, Van Riper et al. (2017) described how external factors (e.g., institutions, social structures) and internal processes (e.g., attitudes, emotions) relate to one another to inform how people benefit from nature. Such relationships across scales were explored empirically by Van Riper et al. (2019) where significant associations were found between cultural and individual values among visitors to nature reserves in Alaska. In the same way, understanding religion’s relationship to values for sustainability requires assessment of relationships among different scales. For ease of explanation, we conceptualise religious values as present across three scales: the individual scale, the community scale, and the formal institutional scale. These three levels interact with one another and are permeable to the (often notionally secular) socio-cultural and ecological context within which they are embedded (see Fig. 1). The formal institutional scale includes public statements by major religions or denominations. For example, the Buddhism Faith Statement on Ecology (Fossey 2003), the World Council of Churches “Justice, Peace and Creation Concerns” (World Council of Churches 1983) or the Bristol Faith Commitments compiled by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (The Alliance of Religions and Conservation 2015). The community scale would represent the teachings and viewpoints of particular churches, temples or faith communities. The individual scale is the values held by individual members of these communities, which may be highly diverse and conflict at times with the values espoused at the other scales.
To demonstrate the complex dynamics across these scales, we take as one recent example the Roman Catholic encyclical by Pope Francis, Laudato Sí (which is examined in depth by Christie et al. 2019). The publication of encyclicals are major events, occurring infrequently, and carrying particular normative force as formal religious teaching by the leader of the Roman Catholic church. Laudato Sí (24 May 2015), the first encyclical on the environment, was widely hailed as precipitating a change towards (or intensification of) pro-environmental values among Roman Catholics, who number nearly a billion worldwide. Interviews conducted by Kidwell (unpublished data), indicated that there was indeed a boost perceived by elite actors (priests and denominational leaders). However, a study by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and researchers at Yale University indicated that in spite of public attention, only 40% of American Catholics “are aware of Pope Francis’s efforts to emphasize global warming as a priority issue for the Catholic Church” and attitudes towards climate change were shown to be virtually unchanged (The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research 2015). Again, our point here is not that values are uninfluenced, but that the dissemination and mobilisation of values is complex (Kidwell et al. 2018). Popular views often hold that the Roman Catholic church is hierarchical and top-down. However, in practice, this research suggests that within the American Roman Catholic context, values are often consolidated in free-standing ways at different scales: from individual, to parish, to diocese, to regional ecumenical partnerships, to global community. As Li et al. (2016) suggest, at each of these levels, actors may be subject to different cross-pressuring effects, whereby political and religious affiliations are in conflict around an issue like climate change. The point we want to make is that these scales are related in a complex way, with values being consolidated and then negotiated across scales. In another qualitative study of religious environmental organisations, Ellingson et al. (2012) ascertained that religious environmental movement organisations (REMOs) were more likely to collaborate and build alliances with other groups that shared their religious affiliation or theological frame. These researchers also concluded that a “REMOs’ religious culture shapes the structure of the movement field, which in turn may limit the scope and efficacy of religious environmentalism” (Ellingson et al. 2012 p. 269).
While we have noted ways that religion is pluriform and its relation to sustainability possibly ambiguous, it is important to appreciate the ways that the concept of “sustainability” may itself also be unstable (Johnston 2013). It is impossible to locate a universally agreed upon definition of sustainability and as such scholars and practitioners have developed definitions to fit specific purposes (White 2013). In this ambiguous context, we may appreciate a range of ways that religion doesn’t always sit comfortably with ‘sustainability’ as a concept. Not only may religious communities emphasise particular dimensions of sustainability—emphasising human health over ecological integrity for instance—religious perspectives may also challenge sustainability as a normative goal. The concept of the “common good” discussed by Christie et al. (2019) within Catholic teaching as an alternative (albeit not inconsistent) aspirational goal to sustainability is a good example. Appreciating narratives and worldviews of faith communities relevant to conservation activities has recently been emphasised as best-practice within the Society for Conservation Biology (Schaefer and Higgins 2017). The Christian worldview, for example, encompasses a future ‘hope’ and the possibility of the transformation of terrestrial life. This in turn may underwrite some level of indifference towards landscape transformation. But is a static ecosystem desirable? Under some definitions of “sustainability” environmental scientists might assume that preservation of ‘status quo’ is the objective, but as some restoration ecologists have argued more recently, disruption and novelty may be a necessary component of healthy environmental systems. Thus, effective practice for sustainability goes beyond aligning messaging and action with values.
While on one hand, reductive or distilled accounts of universal values within religion may be useful in schematising their relation to the environmental subset of universal values, there are other ways in which religion can challenge such attempts. Although values are shaped by culture and context at multiple scales, they can take on a diverse array of ultimately personal expressions. As described earlier, religion encompasses a wide array of components: traditions, beliefs, practices and institutions, and these components may be used in different ways. Many societies oppose the notion of ‘religion’ and hold instead that spiritual beliefs and practices are simply expressions of their worldview. Values can be embedded, shaped and reinforced through socialisation as faith communities of individuals participate in practices and form identities and relational bonds (e.g., Kidwell et al. 2018). Religious communities may, therefore, be prime examples of contexts where social practice based understandings of behaviour (Shove 2010) intersect with value-driven theory (e.g., Ajzen 1991; Stern 2000). The importance of practices in religious contexts must not be downplayed, for, as Reckwitz (2002) highlighted, practices ‘carry’ their subjects and subjects ‘carry’ their practices. Yet, there is likely to be a mutual reinforcing of behaviours and values (particularly when such behaviours include contemplation of scripture and teaching). In this way, religion is a powerful contextual and institutional influence on social values for sustainability.