At the start of the first-ever “God and Smog Symposium” at Utah State University on Wednesday, the school’s director of religious studies, Ravi Gupta, asked participants to look out out the window of Huntsman Hall.
The huge windows facing Highway 89 provide sweeping views of trees with colorful autumn leaves and the Bear River Mountain range.
“Please do take a moment to marvel at this beautiful natural landscape that we are privileged to live in,” Gupta said. “This vision here is bittersweet: On the one hand, it’s glorious on a day like this. On the other hand, we all know, if we’re locals, that there are days in winter when we can stand here and not see all that much outside … because of the challenge of smog that we have here in Utah.”
That contrast, Gupta said, set the frame for the symposium, which brought together religious leaders and scholars to talk about the challenges facing the environment and how action can be balanced with various religious perspectives.
“Too often, when we speak of the environment, we forget there are human actors who are motivated by many different factors, and few of those factors are as powerful as religion,” Gupta said. “In this conference we hope to bring together these two things: God and the natural world … however we might think of religion … and however we might conceive of the natural world we live in.”
Bethany Nay, a freshman majoring in history with a minor in religious studies, told The Herald Journal she attended the symposium for academic credit but has a genuine interest in studying all religions.
“I think it’s interesting because I’ve never really heard of environmental stuff and religion being tied together,” she said. “When heard the name of the conference, ‘God and Smog,’ I was really intrigued.”
The conference looked at Episcopalianism, Buddism, Hinduism, Christianity (and a focus on Latter-day Saints) from academic and religious perspectives.
Before those groups spoke, Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, made a few remarks.
“I live in the world of environmental regulation … I use a different language,” he said. “Important as regulation is in protecting our environment, the faith community has much to contribute to this dialogue.”
Matheson said faith complements environmental policies with concepts like stewardship.
The morning session of the symposium was devoted to a panel discussion of academics from different universities, each of whom specialized in the religions the symposium focused on.
One of the panelists, Sue Darlington, professor of anthropology at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, spoke about Buddhism and how its teachings are being used in Thailand by monks who work with farmers and villagers in the area.
Darlington knew a monk who became concerned about the environmental changes to the rural Thailand landscape, such as trees being cut down.
“Farmers became participants in this because the government and large seed companies, in particular, were really encouraging the farms to grow large cash crops,” Darlington said.
If farmers didn’t grow good crops, companies would extend loans, leading people to cut down more trees to expand what they were growing, according to Darlington.
“How does that have anything to do with Buddhism? The explanation these monks come up with is that they look to Buddhist principles to both explain problems and to find ways out,” she said.
One of those principles is that there are “root evils” in society, including greed.
“These kinds of root evils in society would become the motivation for continuing to seek more and more money and take advantage of the natural world,” Darlington said.
Monks decided they would listen to the farmers to understand what they were trying to do, Darlington said.
Monks would use “ritual practices to get the farmers to understand how much they depend on nature and to help them realize they can have agency to get out of this cycle of debt and environmental damage,” she said.
After Darlington and other scholars presented in the morning, the afternoon session of the God and Smog symposium included four leaders in Episcopalianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, addressing ways their religious institutions have made contributions to the environment.
One of those panel participants was Steven E. Snow, church historian and recorder for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He told The Herald Journal that there could be more opportunities for his religion and others to work together on the environment.
“The church has a lot on its plate, but if they could find time for some of these issues, there could be solutions,” Snow said. “I think … we need to be responsible for our own actions and our own actions can make a difference in the environment. How we live and how we choose to lessen our carbon footprint in the world makes a difference. If we all make that part of our values, then it can make a big difference.”
Snow told The Herald Journal he felt the God & Smog symposium is important.
“I think we learn from each other, and we gain insights from one another that I think we can apply and help and find solutions,” Snow said.
Gupta referenced the Karl Marx quote, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” explaining that Marx believed religion was a distraction that kept people away from action.
“We have an opportunity here, and let me ask this question: Was Karl Marx right?” Gupta said. “Today, we have an opportunity to perhaps prove him wrong in some way — to show that religion can be not just a way to keep people quiet … which it certainly can, occasionally, but it’s also a force for action.”