Human and Nature in Eastern and Western Religions

Subject: Religion
Pages: 9
Words: 2231
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: School

Introduction

Since Western and Eastern cultures were formed separately from each other, they developed different worldviews expressed in their religions. Various concepts of God caused people to have dissimilar perceptions of humans’ position in the universe. It, in its turn, led to different attitudes of people toward nature within a particular culture. This paper will consider the conceptions of God in common Western and Eastern religions and the way they shape the role of individuals and their relationships with nature. Adherents of Asian religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, seem to be more at peace with the world around than followers of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

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Literature Review

Perhaps, people have been comparing different religions since they obtained an opportunity to communicate with adherents of other beliefs. Mugambi explored various faith existing on the territories of African countries, India, and the Near and Far East.1 His textbook provides an overview of the formation and development of such religions as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and some others. After describing the development of various beliefs, the book compares the core religious concepts, such as the creation, nature, fate, soul, and death. It is a valuable work for people willing to get unbiased information about different religions of Asia and Africa.

Researchers compare not only the main points of various beliefs but also their influence on people. For example, Randerson studied the association between religions and the way people perceive and treat nature.2 The findings of the research show that the attitude of adherents of Eastern beliefs toward nature is more favorable to the environment than that of Western cultures.3 The author seems to be extremely concerned about the future of the planet and sees the way out of the dangerous ecological situation in adopting an environmentally friendly worldview. The article does not look like the propaganda of the Eastern religions, but it suggests that people in the West have something to learn from their Asian counterparts.

While the previous research was theoretical, there are other studies involving more facts. Scholars decided to find out how different religions influenced individuals’ decisions to adhere to environmentally safe lifestyles.4 The results of the study confirm the conclusions of the research mentioned above. The findings show that highly religious Buddhists lead more ecologically friendly lives than Christians or atheists.5 However, it is true only for those people who have a strong belief; low-religious Buddhists care about nature as much as low-religious Christians.6 This study is valuable because it provides an insight into how the religion and the degree of devoutness influence humans’ attitude to nature and the willingness to preserve it. This information can be used for promoting environmentally friendly behaviors within the religious population.

Since adherents of religions have different ideas of a human’s position in nature, it affects their perception of other people and relationships with them. Researchers argue that Western religions promote individualism, while Eastern faiths encourage people to engage in a group; however, it can be reversed in some cases.7 This article helps to understand cultural differences between East and West, which stem from various beliefs.

The Concepts of God in Western and Eastern Religions

The image of God influences the entire set of beliefs within a particular religion. For example, in Judaism, God is considered the creator of the universe who still maintains its existence.8 Jewish God is not a man but a spirit without a physical form providing people with laws, which they should obey.9 Islamic Allah resembles the Jewish one in the role of the creator. However, he is neither man nor spirit: “No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision: He is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things.”10 In Christianity, again, God is the father of the world and, like Allah, requires complete obedience from people.11 The distinctive feature of Christianity is the existence of the Trinity, which is refuted by Muslims because they regard it as polytheism.12 Thus, Western religions separate God from the rest of the world. He is the creator, but he has distanced himself from people and nature after the creation to play the role of an overseer.

The position of God is different in Eastern faiths, which, as will be discussed later, influences humans’ perception of themselves and the environment. Some researchers doubt whether it is appropriate to consider such beliefs as Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism to be religions.13 Religion is commonly defined as “belief in supernatural agents,”14 but Buddhists do not believe God to be the creator of the universe. Although they worship Buddha, they do not consider him an unearthly creature that is superior to the entire world. Adherents of Jainism also refute the idea of God-creator; instead, they are convinced that the universe has always existed. Jain gods are not supernatural creatures but souls of perfect humans who managed to destroy their karma, a substance that attaches to the soul when a person commits any wrongdoing.15 Hindus believe that Brahman, an inexplicable divine absolute, caused the world to exist.16 It is not a god, but some divine power that maintains the order in the universe. Thus, in Eastern religions, the universe is perceived as a single entity, which is different from the Western model of the world with God-creator supervising all people.

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Relationships between Humans and Nature

The conception of God constitutes the basis of religion and influences people’s perception of the world, including nature and humans’ position in it. Therefore, it affects people’s behavior with regard to the environment. The study aimed at revealing the association between faith and sustainable behavior showed that highly religious Buddhists were more engaged in environmentally friendly activities than highly religious Christians.17 These activities included eco-friendly purchases, such as recyclable cans and efficient appliances, waste disposal, and consuming organic food. Since Buddhists are more thoughtful of nature, it is useful to learn, which principles of Eastern religions encourage people to treat the environment with respect and what prevents adherents of Western beliefs to behave likewise.

The Role of Humans in Nature

As it was mentioned above, Western religions place God at the origins of the universe and make people follow the rules that God established for them. Since in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, God is the creator of the world, he and humans are thought to be superior to nature.18 In Christianity, the superiority of people is explicitly stated in the Bible: “God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”19 Therefore, people in the West are accustomed to dominating and conquering nature and adjusting it to their needs.

Another reason for the conflict between the environment and Western religions is fear. Some scientists argue that people in the West are afraid of God’s wrath, which is expressed in weather and various natural disasters.20 The lack of understanding of humans’ relationships with the environment also contributes to the feeling of fear.21 Since nature is considered to constitute a threat, Western people try to protect themselves from its potential destructive power by controlling it. Such an attitude to the environment conveys the message that individuals should not defend nature because it is humans who should be protected.

The things are different in the Eastern world, where the universe is considered to have always existed. In such religions as Buddhism and Hinduism, God is not a distant supernatural agent but an entity that is part of everything in the world, including nature.22 Buddhists believe that all living creatures are equally important since Buddha-nature is in all objects, including inanimate ones.23 Therefore, doing harm to the environment would mean destroying a part of God and acting against the laws of nature. As for Jainism, its adherents restrain themselves from ruining life of any kind.24 Perhaps, Jains do it not due to the sanctity of nature but because they are concerned about destroying their karmas to liberate their souls. Anyway, Eastern religions do not claim the superiority of humans as Western faiths do. Instead, they teach that everything in the world is interconnected and has its value, which contributes to the respectful attitude of Asian people toward nature.

Influence of the Ideas of Afterlife

The view of what happens to a person after death also has an impact on people’s attitudes toward the environment. It is widely known that in Western religions, it is believed that humans begin their afterlife in another world after they die. The quality of this new life depends on how decently a person behaved while alive. It is commonly accepted that righteous individuals go to heaven after death, and villains find themselves in hell where they suffer from tortures. Such a religious position does not encourage people to make the earth a better place because they know that they will not return to it after they die.

Followers of Eastern religions have a different attitude toward life after death. For example, Zen Buddhists believe that humans are part of the universe, and after they die, they reappear on the earth in another physical form.25 In Hinduism and Jainism, there is a belief in reincarnation, which means that people are reborn after death, but their karma is preserved.26 The more decent life people lead, the better conditions will await them after they are reborn. Probably, the conviction that humans will return to this world after death encourages Eastern people to treat nature with more respect than their Western counterparts do.

Intelligence versus Intuition

Religion also influences the feelings toward nature and the intentions of its utilization. Since Western people consider themselves masters of the world, as stipulated by God, they tend to alter the environment and use nature for practical purposes. Humans obtain resources to make their lives as comfortable as possible. In Eastern religions, nature has a more spiritual significance. Adherents of Eastern beliefs tend to seek harmony and oneness with the world, as opposed to Western people who try to dominate nature.27 Zen Buddhists treat all objects, both living and inanimate, with compassion, which has a different meaning than that in Christianity.28 Being compassionate in Zen Buddhism means to be grateful and accept things just as they are.29 For this reason, people in the East may see spiritual meaning in natural objects. Certainly, it does not mean that Western humans cannot admire the environment; on the contrary, they build parks, go to the mountains, plant flowers. However, they do not put any religious meaning in these doings.

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The difference in attitudes to nature is also related to the fact that Western people rely on logic and intelligence, while Eastern individuals are guided by feelings and intuition. People from these opposing parts of the world even have divergent opinions on where a human soul is located. In Eastern religions, the soul is considered to reside in the abdomen.30 Moreover, in the Japanese language, the word kokoro means “mind,” “heart,” and “spirit,” which implies that feelings play an important role for people in Japan.31 In the Western world, the soul is thought to be located in the brain, which means that rationality is more significant for these people than emotions.32 Researchers argue that due to the reliance on logic and verbal communication, Western people are deprived of the ability to feel nature.33 Humans in the East, on the contrary, believe that true knowledge is non-verbal and cannot be conceived only by the mind.34 As a result, because of their religious beliefs, Eastern people can feel and understand nature and gain spiritual satisfaction from observing it, while Western believers see the environment only as a means of meeting their needs.

Finally, the focus on themselves prevents Western people from experiencing the same reverence toward nature as their counterparts from the East. Humans in the West are busy thinking of their problems, regretting the past, and worrying about the future. Such a self-focus leads them away from nature and does not allow them to enjoy life. Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, teach their followers to live in the present and concentrate on simply being.35 Therefore, while Western people make a fuss over their mundane troubles, those in the East may take time to speculate on eternal questions and feel the harmony with nature.

Conclusion

To sum up, followers of Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, are more respectful to the environment than Christians and Muslims. The conception of God and the formation of the universe, which are the core constituents of religion, influence people’s attitudes toward nature. Followers of beliefs, in which God is the creator and humans are superior to anything else on the earth, are prone to treat the environment in an exploitative manner. In Eastern religions, God is not a creator but a part of nature, which encourages people to respect both animate and inanimate objects. Different views of the afterlife also influence individuals’ attitudes toward the world. Finally, it has been discovered that worldview that involves intuition and emotions results in more respectful treatment of nature than a rational one. The presented information gives an understanding of what motivates Eastern believers to respect and preserve the environment. If Western people could adopt the core concepts of religions such as Buddhism, the world would become a more clear and peaceful place.

References

  1. Ali, Yusuf A., trans. “The Quran.” Perseus Digital Library. Web.
  2. Cohen, Adam B., Michael Shengtao Wu, and Jacob Miller. “Religion and Culture: Individualism and Collectivism in the East and West.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 47, no. 9 (2016): 1236-1249.
  3. Minton, Elizabeth A., Lynn R. Kahle, and Chung-Hyun Kim. “Religion and Motives for Sustainable Behaviors: A Cross-Cultural Comparison and Contrast.” Journal of Business Research 68, no. 9 (2015): 1937-1944.
  4. Mugambi, Jesse N.K. A Comparative Study of Religions. 2nd ed. Nairobi: University of Nairobi Press, 2015.
  5. Randerson, Anne K. “Human Sensitivity towards Nature: Eastern and Western Perspectives.” World Journal of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development 12, no. 3 (2015): 172-182.

Footnotes

  1. Jesse N.K. Mugambi, A Comparative Study of Religions, 2nd ed. (Nairobi: University of Nairobi Press, 2015), ix.
  2. Anne K. Randerson, “Human Sensitivity towards Nature: Eastern and Western Perspectives,” World Journal of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development 12, no. 3 (2015): 172.
  3. Randerson, “Human Sensitivity towards Nature,” 175.
  4. Elizabeth A. Minton, Lynn R. Kahle, and Chung-Hyun Kim, “Religion and Motives for Sustainable Behaviors: A Cross-Cultural Comparison and Contrast,” Journal of Business Research 68, no. 9 (2015): 1937.
  5. Minton, Kahle, and Kim, “Religion and Motives for Sustainable Behaviors,” 1942.
  6. See note 5 above.
  7. Adam B. Cohen, Michael Shengtao Wu, and Jacob Miller, “Religion and Culture: Individualism and Collectivism in the East and West,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 47, no. 9 (2016): 1243.
  8. Mugambi, A Comparative Study of Religions, 226.
  9.  See note 8 above.
  10. Quran 6:103.
  11. Mugambi, 307.
  12. Mugambi, 226.
  13. Cohen, Wu, and Miller, “Religion and Culture,” 1242.
  14. Cohen, Wu, and Miller, 1241.
  15. Mugambi, 102.
  16. Mugambi, 90.
  17. Minton, Kahle, and Kim, 1942.
  18. Minton, Kahle, and Kim, 1938.
  19. Genesis 1:28, King James Version, quoted in Anne K. Randerson, “Human Sensitivity towards Nature: Eastern and Western Perspectives,” World Journal of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development 12, no. 3 (2015): 176.
  20. Randerson, “Human Sensitivity towards Nature,” 176.
  21. See note 21 above.
  22. Minton, Kahle, and Kim, 1938.
  23. Randerson, 178.
  24. Mugambi, 97.
  25. Randerson, 179.
  26. Mugambi, 127.
  27. Randerson, 175.
  28. Randerson, 179.
  29. See note 29 above.
  30. Randerson, 180.
  31. Randerson, 180.
  32. See note 32 above.
  33. Randerson, 176.
  34. Randerson, 181.
  35. Randerson, 177.