Religion and conservation

EO Wilson, one of the world’s most influential ecologists, once wrote: “Religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today… If [they] could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem [of biodiversity loss] would soon be solved.”

Religion inherently iinforms morality and has for centuries guided people with respect to what is right and what is wrong. Could religion play a greater role in conserving the world’s declining biodiversity? A new study by ecologists in Sweden and Australia suggests that if the world’s religions wanted to make a big difference, they are ideally placed to do so.

The study, led by Grzegorz Mikusinski from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, examines the spatial distribution of different religions in the world and how they overlap with different areas important for biodiversity at a global scale. The analysis indicates that the majority of these focal areas are situated in countries dominated by Christianity, and particularly the Roman Catholic denomination (including most of the countries in Latin America). There is also a large overlap of areas important for biodiversity with Buddhism (Southeast Asia), Hinduism (Indian subcontinent) and Islam (Asia Minor, parts of North and Central Africa).

“These results indicate that Roman Catholics, per capita, have the greatest potential to save global biodiversity where they live,” says Hugh Possingham, a co-author on the study (and Director of the EDG). “The Roman Catholic Church has recently elected a new Pope, Pope Francis – the name linked to the ‘greenest’ saint of the Catholic Church, Saint Francis of Assisi, an official Patron of Ecology. Let’s hope that he and other religious leaders will seriously consider the opportunity to engage more actively in the conservation debate. Moreover, conservation researchers must actively encourage religious leaders to participate in such a debate.”

Conservation scientists need to refocus on strategies that reshape ethical attitudes to nature and encourage pro-environmental thinking and lifestyles, say the researchers. Religions are central to basic beliefs and ethics that influence people’s behaviour. They should be considered more seriously in the discourse on biodiversity.


Mikusinski G, HP Possingham & M Blicharska (2013). Biodiversity priority areas and religions—a global analysis of spatial overlap. Oryx

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