Diseases and pandemics have meant the world shares a common nightmare. While science can offer some answers as to why and what to do, for many, the reaction to the disease brought them to turn to religion and look at one or another form of faith to find solace.
But in a wider sense, this is a two-way street: religions influence values and our actions. Connecting religious policies and influencers with the nexus between humans, animals, and the environment – One Health – would be powerful and consistent with the teachings of most of the world’s faiths.
What we know about the connection between religion and One Health
In 2021 data was collected by Emily Hirata, a researcher at Edinburgh University through a literature review and key informant interviews with faith-based leaders involved in One Health issues.
Findings indicated strong linkages between religion, spirituality, and the well-being of humans, animals, and the environment. Nine major themes were identified, showcasing how One Health concepts are understood and can be integrated into religious and spiritual life:
1) spirituality as a deep sense of connection to something greater than oneself;
2) religion as the fundamental basis for how to relate to the world;
3) stewardship as a lifestyle of responsibility;
4) creation as valuable to God;
5) care and justice as God’s purpose for humanity;
6) the importance of language and appealing to value systems;
7) ensuring relevance and relatability;
8) credibility established by working from within; and
9) the potential of young people to mobilize action.
These findings suggest that linking religious, spiritual, and One Health understandings and practices together would lead to more effective, sustainable, and relevant One Health practices. In other words, it would appear that faith can act as a catalyst, increasing commitment and accelerating the adoption of a One Health approach.
Three religions and the Old Testament
Three of the world’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, share the teachings of the Old Testament, and in particular the Book of Genesis.
The obligation of humans to respect and protect the natural environment, to care for animals, themes that appear throughout the Bible, highlight our responsibility to act as stewards, to care for, manage, oversee and protect. The most famous case of a man saving animals from environmental disaster: Noah’s ark.
Frequently, the mandate directly relates to the problems we face today – the destruction of wildlife and habitat, and pollution of the land, water, and air.
And of course outbreaks of pandemic disease appear in the Old Testament such as the ten plagues of Egypt, which implicitly link faith playing a part in control over diseases and other afflictions.
The Eastern religions are the religions that originated in East, South, and Southeast Asia and thus have dissimilarities from Western, African, and Iranian religions.
A broad range of religions are included: East Asian religions such as Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Sindoism, and Chinese folk religion; South Asian religions including Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism; and Southeast Asian religions such as Vietnamese folk religion and Caodaism as well as animistic indigenous religions.
In September 1986 the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) celebrated its 25th anniversary by bringing together authorities from five major world religions to declare how the teachings of their faith lead each of them to care for nature. Much involved also was the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.
The event was initiated by WWF International President HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and took place over two days in the Italian town of Assisi, chosen for its association with St Francis of Assisi the Catholic saint of ecology.
What resulted from this unprecedented project were the Assisi Declarations: separate calls from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Islamic leaders to their own faithful concerning their spiritual relationship with nature and sacred duty to care for it.
The Assisi Declarations continued to be relevant over the years, and in particular, in 2002, when Pope John Paul II came to Assisi and gave a memorable address to the “representatives of the world religions”.
More recently, researchers in India reached the conclusion that “greater insight” and a “better understanding of the complex relationships between humans and non-human primates” could help in addressing future zoonotic diseases. In describing the relationship between humans and non-human primates in India in the One Health framework, there is the following observation from Gargi Vijayaraghan and co-authors:
“Being revered as deities in some religions of the world, non-human primates often share the same space as humans. Such coexistence and interactions with humans, especially around places of worship, have been known in India and elsewhere.”
They note that the COVID-19 pandemic is essentially a “One Health” crisis, underscoring the interconnections between the health of humans, animals, and the environment. Interestingly, they highlight the importance of religious beliefs, saying this:
“Religious beliefs could potentially influence perceptions, actions, and subsequent One Health outcomes resulting from human-animal interaction, which could impact human and animal welfare.”
Religion and One Health: “Common Cause” in addressing climate change, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, and animals
The links between religion and elements of the One Health concept are many and varied.
Consider what Ambassador Mussie Hailu, Director of Global Partnership, United Religions Initiative recently said: “We are putting the planet under enormous pressure by depleting scarce natural resources and polluting the air and water. Faith-based organizations play a significant role at the global, regional, and local level in addressing climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.”
A 2020 conference organized by the Pew Research Center on the intersection of science and religion, involved a small group of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists talking about their perspective. As one young Hindu woman put it, “When we do scientific research, we just have to ensure we do not endanger other living things, including animals and humans…that is the basic moral value.”
There are many similar statements from different secular and religious leaders about the human/animal nexus which underscore the fact that religious ideals implicitly endorse One Health concepts in doing common cause.
For instance, while not a religious leader, Dr. Rudolph Virchow practiced medicine in the nineteenth century in Germany and was known as the father of modern pathology; he was called the “Pope of Medicine.”
He is quoted saying “Between animal and human medicine there is no dividing line, nor should there be.” (bolding added)
So far, not enough faith leaders have been explicitly vocal, neither in the public space nor with their congregants about the importance of adopting the One Health approach.
Their voices would make a big difference in gaining acceptance by all elements of society, communities and government, which could accelerate action.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the author are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Love between humans and animals when the world is a big and lonely place Photo by Micanru taken in Germany, Feb. 15, 2020 (Wikimedia cc)