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|Participants at a May 18 webinar on how journalists can link environment, climate and religion. Clockwise from top right: moderator Meera Subramanian, Sigal Samuel of Vox, Amanda Baugh of Cal State and Sumanth Prabhaker of Orion magazine. Image: Click to enlarge.|
SEJ News: Reconciling the Divide — How To Report Environment and Religion Together
By Meera Subramanian
Here’s a kitchen-table story for you. I’m a science journalist who has been thinking about how humans relate to their environment for decades. I’m also an atheist … who fell in love with a religious studies professor.
While I’d be off on reporting trips from West Virginia to India, Stephen Prothero would be teaching religious literacy to students at Boston University. Over the years, our kitchen-table conversations revealed how much our two arenas rarely overlap and how much is lost because of the divide.
We wanted to try to reconcile the split between these siloed beats of religion and the environment so, with funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and a base at Boston University, we launched the Religion & Environment Story Project, or RESP.
Our goal is to bridge the divide between religion and science reporting, and to promote new thinking and new narratives that will inform and educate the public, especially on the climate crisis.
RESP partnered up with the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Religion News Association for a May 18 webinar entitled “Missing Stories: Uncovering Environment-Climate-Religion Connections.”
Journalists on many other beats
all realize that climate stories
are their stories too. But religion,
too often, remains on the sidelines.
We brought together an editor, a journalist and an academic to discuss how journalists can mine this rich yet neglected terrain. Just in the past few years environmental journalists have watched as other journalists on the political, lifestyle, business, arts and sports beats all realize that climate stories are their stories too. But religion, too often, remains on the sidelines.
Why? Perhaps religion journalists are unsure or intimidated by the science. Perhaps science journalists are dismissive of religion or intimidated about how to cover it. Here are some highlights of the discussion that reveal all that can be gained by pushing past these hesitations.
Connecting the dots
To find out how editors are thinking about these ideas, I turned to panelist Sumanth Prabhaker, Orion magazine editor and RESP advisory board member.
“I was really excited about this project [RESP] because it brings this ethereal abstract thinking into something actionable,” Prabhaker said. “Here’s a dot. And here’s another dot, and let’s find ways to connect them. Some of the most delightful stories that I’ve come across in the past few months have been navigating that funny dotted line” (like a recent piece on the sensationalist topic of man-eating crocodiles, which went far beyond the obvious clickbait to explore how crocodiles function as religious figures in many Pacific island religions).
“The role of a magazine or a broader profile newspaper is to reward re-reading, to be there beyond the first click,” Prabhaker said. “Publications are obligated to produce content that brings in multiple sectors and demonstrates a dissatisfaction with the surface level knowledge you might gain from a cursory glance.”
Editors need to help make that happen. “The work of the editor is to tease out more and more intersectionality, find a richer texture to any approach and to unflatten the narrative,” he said.
Turning to academia
When it comes to exploring religion, spirituality and the environment, academics are out in front of most journalists. Scholars have been looking at religious texts since the 1990s to understand how they shape (pro or con) how people think about the environment.
In the 2000s there was a second wave of scholarship, where academics started looking at what people in religious communities are actually doing with those texts. Now they’re moving further into lived religion and environmentalism in American culture.
This is the work of panelist Amanda Baugh, associate professor at Cal State Northridge and author of “God and the Green Divide: Religious Environmentalism in Black and White.” She’s investigating these questions in relation to race, ethnicity and class.
You “can’t separate religion and culture; they’re the same thing,” said Baugh.
“We have these very Euro-centric notions of what environmentalism is, and they’re grounded in White Protestant thinking,” she said. And because of religious illiteracy, it’s easy to fall into traps, labelling all evangelicals climate deniers, or reducing religious activism to classic texts such as the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.”
It’s important to remember, she stressed, that “religions are always embedded in cultures, they don't speak in a unified voice, and — news flash — people don’t always do what their religious texts and their religious leaders tell them to do. It’s much more complicated.”
Here we see two preoccupations of RESP — “subtle religion” and “subtle environmentalism” — which steer us away from traditional (and stereotypical) ideas of institutional religion and the environmental movements.
Many of those who are not using
the language so often bandied
about in sustainability circles are
deeply environmentally conscious.
Baugh’s work with Latinx- churchgoing Catholics reveals that many of those who are not using the language so often bandied about in sustainability circles are deeply environmentally conscious. (In fact, Climate Change in the American Mind surveys reveal that Latinx communities are the demographic most concerned about climate change in the US.)
Journalists can find a wealth of stories by looking to organizations such as Interfaith Power & Light or GreenFaith, a multi-faith global network addressing climate change and other environmental issues. They can also turn to scholarly sources such as the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture or the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
“One of my big pet peeves is the lack of religious literacy in the journalism world,” said another panelist, Sigal Samuel, a staff writer at Vox who repeatedly stumbles upon religious, ethical and moral dimensions to many of her stories, including a recent one about animal intelligence.
“We have inherited a bias that there is religion and there is science and never the twain shall meet,” she said. “But we really do a disservice in both camps if we don’t bring them together.” Take the National Day of Unplugging. “Do you mean the Sabbath?” she said, laughing. “A lot of reinventing the wheel happens when you don’t have a sense of history.”
Likewise, the connections between religion and the environment overlap with Indigenous rights. “The intersection of western religious traditions and the environment is so steeped in the concept of dominion, and dominion is a euphemism for white supremacy,” said Prabhaker.
It’s important that journalists cultivate
trusted relationships with people in
diverse fields and backgrounds.
For this reason it’s important that journalists cultivate trusted relationships with people in diverse fields and backgrounds, finding sensitivity readers and trusted experts who can point out our blind spots and help us find missing angles on old stories.
“Every climate story is a canvas for your own bias, and a window into how you perceive the world,” said Prabhaker. “Everybody is using the tools at their disposal to try to make sense of this inexplicable crisis that’s happening. What better way than to scrutinize the language that people are using, which in so many cases veers into religious territory?”
Fellowship, story grant opportunities
One purpose of this inaugural event was to announce two great opportunities to help journalists find these missing stories. The shared deadline is fast approaching.
- SEJ’s Fund for Environmental Journalism is offering story grants of up to $5,000 for stories that cover religion and the environment.
- RESP is offering a paid 6-month fellowship open to journalists, editors and public-facing academics who are producing — or want to learn how to produce — stories at the intersection of religion and the environment.
Deadline for both the story grants and the fellowship is June 15. Apply now and spread the word to others who might be interested.
For more information on these opportunities — and on stories that cut across religion, spirituality and climate change, follow RESP on Twitter at @ReligionEnviro.
And be sure to view the full “Missing Stories: Uncovering Environment-Climate-Religion Connections” webinar.
Meera Subramanian is an award-winning independent journalist whose work has been published in national and international publications including the New York Times, TheNewYorker.com, Nature, Virginia Quarterly Review and Orion, where she serves as a contributing editor. She is also co-director of the Religion & Environment Story Project. Her book "A River Runs Again: India's Natural World in Crisis" was short-listed for the 2016 Orion Book Award. She is a member, and former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists board of directors. You can find her at www.meerasub.org and @meeratweets.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 22. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.