Is Christianity to blame?

1. Lynn White’s 1967 article

2. Reactions to White

3. Points for discussion

Key aims:

  • To introduce critical questions about Christianity's influence on attitudes to the environment
  • To provide a brief overview of Lynn White's influential critique
  • To indicate the importance of biblical texts in shaping Christian views of the environment

Does Christianity lead its members to care for the environment? Does the Bible teach that Christians should preserve the earth? Many would now answer 'yes' to these questions, but it is not quite as simple as that! There are critical questions to be explored, and these resources will help you to do so.

Watch an introduction by Professor David Horrell:

In 1967, medieval historian Lynn White Jr. published an article called 'The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis'. This provocative article has become the most cited piece of writing within theological debate about the environment.

White argued that the Western Christian worldview supports and encourages humanity’s aggressive project to dominate and exploit nature. Previously, people had believed that spirits lived in objects such as trees and so thought that nature was sacred. Christianity swept away these older views and replaced them with the idea that all things were made for humanity's 'benefit and rule'. Humanity came to be seen as uniquely made in the image of God and as having ‘dominion’ or control over all the creatures of the earth – ideas based in the biblical creation stories (Genesis 1.26-30).

He says:

...[Christianity] not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends… Man’s effective monopoly…was confirmed and the old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled… Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.1

White argued that '[Western] Christianity is the most anthropocentric [human-centred] religion the world has seen'.2 He concludes that the modern technological conquest of nature that has led to our environmental crisis has in large part been made possible by the dominance in the West of this Christian world-view. Christianity therefore 'bears a huge burden of guilt'.3

However, White does not think that secularism is the answer to our environmental problems. He does not want to reject Christianity but rather to radically change it:

What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them. Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny - that is, by religion…  More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.4

He also appeals to the figure of Francis of Assisi as a positive model - a potential 'patron saint for ecologists'.5 In this way, White points to the potential for a renewed kind of Franciscanism - a spirituality that focuses on humanity's kinship with all other creatures in a community of creation.

Some biblical scholars and historians have questioned whether the technological developments that led to nature’s exploitation were really encouraged by the Christian world view.

Others have asked whether the crucial texts in the Bible (especially in Genesis 1-2) really suggest the idea of human domination. You can read more about this in Origins of stewardship.

  • What are your reactions to White’s argument?
  • To what extent, if at all, do you think Christianity is to blame for our environmental crisis?
  • What particular Christian ideas may have contributed to such views of humanity’s domination of nature?
  • From which biblical texts might these ideas especially come?

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References

1Lynn White Jr., ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis’, Science 155 (1967) 1203-207 (p. 1205)

2White, 'Ecologic Crisis', p. 1205. Anthropocentric means 'human-centred', based on the Greek word for human or person, anthropos.

3White, 'Ecologic Crisis', p. 1206

4White, 'Ecologic Crisis', pp. 1205-206

5White, 'Ecologic Crisis', p. 1207

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