Visiting professors bridge religion, environmentalism

November 15, 2012
By Ella Cheng
The Daily Princetonian

The offices of visiting religion professors Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim lie next to exhibits of dinosaur skeletons and Darwin's finches in Guyot Hall, the home of the ecology and evolutionary biology department.

In the national global warming debate, religion is often associated with the side of skeptics, who argue that human activity cannot change the climate. But Tucker and Grim — who are married and co-teaching ENV 337: Religion, Ecology and Cosmology — said they think religion can provide reasons to value the environment and take action against global warming.

Tucker and Grim, members of Yale’s faculty, are pioneers in the nascent field of "Religion and Ecology," which was established around 15 years ago through a series of conferences they organized at Harvard. The field strives to establish a dialogue between religion and science to find effective solutions to the world's environmental problems.

"This becomes very important when you think about the recent climate science and issues involved with the larger public not clearly understanding the climate science and resisting it," Grim said.

Tucker was not available to comment because she spent the week in Toronto receiving an honorary degree from the University of Toronto, according to Grim.

Grim noted that scientists have had trouble communicating the accuracy and seriousness of environmental problems to skeptics and that he thinks religion can help spread the message effectively.

“There's this new opening and effort to try to understand what's the scientific narrative, what does it mean to talk about our world,” Grim said.

The idea of bridging religion and ecology first came to Grim and Tucker when they were traveling throughout Asia in the 1970s and witnessed the environmental deterioration of urban areas. Tucker studied the relationship between Asian religions and environmental crises in Asia, while Grim has focused on ties between indigenous religious rituals and concern for the natural world.

Their initial work on the subject prompted them to organize 10 conferences on world religions and ecology at Harvard between 1995 and 1998. In 1998, they co-founded the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale together.

Because the field bridges both the sciences and the humanities, it has created controversy and attracted criticism.

"Sometimes it's very helpful, and sometimes it's misunderstanding what our project is about," Grim said of the criticism. "But the questions of subjectivity and what's the appropriate role of emotional intelligence in scientific investigation ... are open questions, and they're good questions."

At the Princeton Environmental Institute, Grim said they have received only a warm welcome, despite working alongside a largely science-based faculty.

They are on campus this fall semester as PEI’s Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professors in the Environment and the HumanitiesThe fellowship is an effort to sponsor professors in the humanities to bring a new perspective to PEI.

"The effort here is to join our science faculty here at PEI and to help bridge to humanities faculty here at Princeton," said Grim.

This spring, Grim said, Tucker and Grim will return to Yale, where they are senior lecturers and research scholars in Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Divinity School.

In March 2012, they released a film, "Journey of the Universe," that they had been working on for 10 years. The film, which links scientific discoveries with humanistic and religious reflections on the nature of the universe, won the Emmy Award for Best Documentary from the Northern California Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and was shown on PBS. PEI hosted a screening and presentation of the film on Oct 3., and the department has also held more general talks on the emerging field and their work.

Eighteen students from a variety of disciplines are enrolled in ENV 337. The first part of the course focuses on three religions — Confucianism, Christianity and indigenous religions — and their interactions with ecosystems. The second part focuses on environmental ethics, including a study of bioethics professor Peter Singer's book "One World." The final part of the course focuses on Tucker and Grim's documentary.

Christina Healy ’14, an EEB major pursuing an ENV certificate, initially chose the course because it counted for the certificate and fulfilled the ethics and morality requirement.

"I was very confused as to how the two subjects were going to go together because the normal thought is that religion and science are at odds with each other," Healy said. "Now I think it's a really, really smart way to go about trying to build an environmental ethic in people because, obviously, telling people that global warming is happening and this is science and it's true is not really working."