Scientific and Religious Leaders Collaborate to Address Disciplinary and Ideological Gaps in Ecological Sustainability

  • Mark L. Axelrod, Ph.D., J.D.
  • Associate Professor
  • James Madison College
United Planet Faith and Science Initiative Logo

Even before Al Gore sent up his hue and cry with An Inconvenient Truth, climate change and the effect of human activity on the environment have been the subject of much media attention. In crafting a cable news–worthy narrative, scientists and religious leaders are often cast in opposing roles, each denying the others' legitimacy. The actual story is much more nuanced, and the lived experience of many scientists and religious leaders illustrates that religious belief and scientific conviction are not mutually exclusive.

The United Planet Faith and Science Initiative (UPFSI) was created in 2013 to bring representatives from these communities together to work toward a common goal. Launched as a joint project between the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and the Interfaith Declaration on Climate Change, the purpose of the UPFSI is to unite "prominent religious figures and leading scientists to speak out together and mobilize action for ecological sustainability." To that end, the organization's membership includes leaders from the world's major faiths—Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism—and noted scientists who study, among other things, the environment, climate, and human behavior.

Mark Axelrod joined the UPFSI in 2014 and has been helping the organization think through strategies for stimulating change. "As a political scientist, I think a lot about stakeholder interests," said Axelrod, "so I am well positioned to think through strategies pursued by the organization to make sure they consider people's and governments' interests when encouraging policy and behavioral change."

Compatibility of Religious and Cultural Backgrounds with Natural Scientific Evidence

Mark L. Axelrod

Axelrod's academic research has focused on international law and international environmental agreements. He has studied, for example, how fishermen respond to global market shifts. "This informs my understanding of how and when individuals interact with markets, and how local natural resource knowledge plays a role in responding to changing contexts," he said. "This latter aspect of considering local knowledge has been particularly important in thinking about how religious and cultural backgrounds and natural scientific evidence are often compatible, rather than always being at odds with each other as some commentators would have us believe. I think this is a particularly important point for the UPFSI initiative on including some environmental science in the curriculum for faith leaders' education."

The form his participation has taken so far has been digital. In keeping with its mission to promote ecological responsibility, the UPFSI takes advantage of digital communications and hosts events where ideas can be discussed and disseminated without the carbon footprint left by annual conferences or other like gatherings. For example, Axelrod participated in a video conference call on Google Hangouts in July 2014. Archived as a UPFSI live conference, a video of the event was recorded and then posted on the site as a resource for others who are thinking through these ideas.

"My participation has hopefully diversified the disciplinary voices that are present in phone meetings and media content (including online videos and the NYC roundtable last year)," Axelrod said. "The organization continues to expand its media content, showing how people bridge disciplinary and ideological gaps, and I hope to continue playing a role in that effort."

The organization values contributions like this. Rabbi Yonatan Neril is the cofounder and executive director of the United Planet Faith and Science Initiative. He noted that the UPFSI benefits from a diverse collection of voices. "Many voices calling for stewardship of our one, common home helps to amplify the message," Neril said. "Dr. Axelrod's unique perspective, drawn from his extensive background in international environmental law, offers a significant contribution to the work of UPFSI."

The United Planet Faith and Science Initiative's organizers continue to move the group forward with the vision of helping society recognize and solve the world's ecological problems through awareness, education, and collaborative action. The benefit of Axelrod's participation flows both ways.

"The experience working with faith leaders has been very important in teaching my environmental courses," Axelrod said. "I have always included a section about cultural and religious influences on environmental policy. UPFSI colleagues have provided anecdotes and material from a range of different faiths – as well as active consideration of what drives such faith-based environmentalist approaches – that I have been able to incorporate into that part of each course. More importantly, these examples have helped me constantly keep in mind how policy makers and resource managers must consider cultural-religious contexts as part of stakeholder interests, and that notion has also become more consistent throughout each course."

  • Written by Matthew Forster, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Image courtesy of United Planet Faith and Science Initiative
  • Photograph courtesy of James Madison College, Michigan State University

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