Science in Christian Perspective


Ted T. Cable

Department of Forestry
Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kansas 66506

From: PSCF 39 (September 1987): 165-168.

Environmental problems have long been identified as, fundamentally, a matter of ethics. Leopold (1949) identified the development of a "land ethic" as the key to natural resource conservation. Although his notion of a land ethic has been criticized by some (for example, Heffernan 1982, Moline 1986) it has had a profound effect on the conceptualization of current natural resource management principles. Partridge (1982) interpreted Leopold's land ethic as "ecological morality," and examined the human psychological capacity to accept and implement such a land ethic.

Because natural resource management is based on ethical and moral systems, theology becomes relevant in dealing with environmental issues. Baer (1985) called for state universities to solicit input from theologians when dealing with agricultural and environmental ethics. Van Dyke (1985), drawing upon this link between theology and ethics, critiqued Leopold's land ethic from a biblical perspective.

Ecology and theology have historically interfaced in several areas. Some historians and scientists have implicated Christianity as a contributor to our environmental problems (for example, McHarg 1969, Nash 1970, Santmire 1985, Shepard 1982, Toynbee 1972, White 1967). Even some Christian theologians have been critical of the role of Christianity in developing environmental ethics (Schaeffer 1970, McDaniel 1986). In the growing body of literature dealing with Christian eco-theology, numerous scientists and theologians have responded by stating that biblical teachings have been misinterpreted and that the practice of Christianity may be a potential solution to our environmental problems (for example, Bratton 1984, Carmody 1983, Derrick 1972, Elsdon 1981, Geisler 1971, Hart 1984, Hinkley 1981, Miller 1979). Quigley (1970) presents a detailed historical review of the role religion has played in the development of environmental attitudes.

This interface between theology and ecology manifested itself during James Watt's tenure as Secretary of the Interior. Repeated allegations by the media that Secretary Watt based his management policies on his religious beliefs led to a detailed study of Secretary Watt's ecotheology (Bratton 1983).

In light of these relationships between ecologically appropriate behavior, environmental ethics and theology this descriptive study explores the nature of environmental education at a sampling of 125 private Christian colleges, and compares their course offerings with opportunities for environmental study at 25 nondenominational and 25 state schools.


During the fall of 1985, catalogs from 125 private colleges with denominational affiliations were inventoried for course offerings directly related to environmental studies. The stratified random sample consisted of 25 schools from each of the five denominations supporting the most colleges. These denominations were Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian. To serve as a basis for comparison, 25 randomly selected nondenominational private colleges and 25 state schools with enrollments of less than 10,000 students were studied. Seminaries and Bible schools which only offered degrees in biblical or theological studies, and schools offering only two-year programs were not sampled. The rationale for excluding these schools was that it seemed inappropriate to expect them to have environmental study programs. However, Bible schools which offered degrees in liberal arts and sciences were included in the survey. The private institutions were randomly selected from a list of colleges and universities with religious affiliation (Ohles 1982). State schools were randomly selected from a similar listing (Torregrasa 1986).

The following data were collected: denomination, college enrollment, and titles of all environmental science and related courses. The titles were subsequently placed into one of four categories: environmental science, environmental ethics, outdoor recreation/ skills, and environmental education methods. General science courses and courses in biology, chemistry, and the physical sciences were not included unless they focused specifically on the environment (for example, environmental chemistry, ecology, and most field courses). Likewise, educational methods classes were not tallied unless they dealt specifically with environmental education, and recreation classes were not included unless they dealt specifically with natural resource-based recreation (for example, wilderness camping). Sample course titles for each category are presented in Table 1.


Institutions with Denominational Affiliation

Enrollments of the sampled colleges with denominational affiliation ranged from 100 to 3500 with a mean of 1239.85 (Table 2). Of the 125 colleges sampled, only seven (5.6%) had no environment-related courses. Two hundred and ninety-six environmental study courses were offered by the 125

Table I

A listing of representative course titles by category

Environmental Science
Biology of the Environment
Conservation of Natural
Environmental Biology
Environmental Science
Environmental Studies
Field Ecology
Field Study of the
Marine Ecology
Nature Study
Public and Environmental
Tropical Field Research
Water Resources

Environmental Ethics
Bioethics Biological Problems: social and ethical implications Biology and Human Concerns Environmental Study and Religion Environmental Ethics
Environmental Forum
Environmental Issues
Ethics and the Life Science
Issues in Ecology
People, Pollution, and
Philosophy of Biology

Outdoor Recreation/
Outdoor Skills
Adventure Expedition
Backpacking & Wilderness
Camp Counseling
Outdoor Recreation
Outdoor Skills
Recreation & Park
Rock Climbing
Wilderness Camping
Wilderness Leadership

Environmental Education
Environmental Education
Outdoor Education

institutions (mean - 2.37). More than two-thirds (67.9%) of these courses were in the category of environmental science. Environmental ethics courses made up 17.7% of the courses, while outdoor recreation/ skills and environmental education methods courses made up 11.2% and 3.4%, respectively. The most common course type for all denominations was environmental sciences.

There was a statistically significant relationship between denomination and number of course offerings (x2 = 21.44, significance <.01, lambda - .58). Lutheran schools offered the most classes per institution (mean = 2.88 courses/ school). This was followed by Methodists (2.64 courses/ school), Baptist (2.40 courses/ school), Catholic (2.08 courses/school) and Presbyterian (1.84 courses/ school).

Lutheran schools not only offered the most courses in total, they also offered the most in every category except environmental ethics. Catholic schools offered the most ethics courses, but offered the fewest courses in environmental studies and outdoor recreation.

When the number of course offerings is compared to enrollments, the ranking of the denominations changes. Methodist schools with 2.53 classes/1000 students and Lutheran schools with 2.02 classes/1000 students again ranked high. Catholic schools offered the fewest classes/ 1000 students (1.48). The mean for the entire sample was 1.92 courses/ 1000 students.

State and Private Nondenominational Schools

All of the state schools, and all but one of the private nondenominational schools offered environmental study courses. The results for the state schools and the nondenominational private schools are very similar (Table 2). Like the denominational schools, the vast majority of environmental study courses offered by these schools were science courses, and the environmental education methods category had the fewest courses. The most notable differences between state schools and nondenominational private colleges were that: (1) state schools offered a total of 46 outdoor recreation classes (almost twice as many as the nondenominational colleges), and (2) nondenominational colleges offered a total of 57 environmental ethics classes, whereas state colleges only offered 16 of these courses.

These two types of institutions both offered three to four times the number of environmental study courses than the colleges with denominational affiliation. However, when courses/ 1000 enrollment are calculated, the results are similar to the colleges with denominational affiliation. Nondenominational schools offer more classes/ 1000 students than any other group (3.11). State colleges and universities offer 1.41 courses/ 1000 students-the least of any group of institutions considered.

Discussion and Implications

The fact that over 95% of the schools with Christian denominational affiliation offered some course(s) dealing with the environment seems to refute the criticism that depicts Christians as being negative, or at best apathetic, about environmental concerns. The distribution of classes by type was similar to that of nondenominational private schools and state schools. Although more classes were offered by nondenominational and state schools, one might expect larger institutions to have the human and physical resources to offer a more diverse array of classes. The mean enrollments of the nondenominational schools was almost three times the total mean enrollment of the denominational schools, and the mean enrollment of the state schools was over five times greater. There is no evidence that the relationship between course diversity and institution size is linear; however, when the enrollment of the institutions was considered, state schools had the fewest environmental study classes per 1000 students.

The greatest emphasis is in the area of environmental sciences (i.e., ecology) courses. The fact that this was a rather broad category encompassing several disciplines may have contributed to the large number of these classes.

Offering environmental science courses is appropriate. Theology teaches the responsibility and blessing of stewardship, but one must also know how to be a good steward. Effective stewardship of natural resources requires knowledge of ecological principles. The large number of course offerings in environmental science relative to the other categories suggests that both state and Christian colleges may be focusing their efforts on this cognitive level rather than on ethical or affective components of environmental awareness.

Although these science classes are important, Partridge (1981) describes the important role formal philosophy should play in environmental studies. Nash (197 6: 10) warns against an over-emphasis in the sciences, stating that: "Another challenge ... is to stem the gradual erosion of environmental studies into environmental sciences." He points out that the root of environmental problems comes from "man and his ideas," and therefore environmental education should be viewed as a general, multidisciplinary education.

Programs in both Christian colleges and secular universities may be imbalanced. There were relatively few offerings in environmental ethics. It is possible that some environmental ethics are being taught as part of environmental science classes; however, the importance of strong ethical foundations would seem to warrant separate courses.

Given the specialized nature of the subject matter, it was not surprising that relatively few courses were offered in outdoor recreation /outdoor skills and in environmental education. In fact, the list of outdoor skills classes was impressive considering the small size and apparent limited resources of the sampled schools.

Outdoor recreation/ skills courses can contribute to greater environmental awareness. Social welfare can be enhanced by better recreation resource management which improves the quantity and quality of recreation experiences while protecting the environment. Likewise, skill courses can: (1) teach people how to maximize enjoyment from outdoor activities, and (2) introduce people to new ways of enjoying the environment.

Although there was a statistically significant relationship between the offerings of the denominations, the implications, if any, are difficult to determine. There does not seem to be any doctrinal or theological reason to explain why Lutheran

Table 2

Number of environmental-related course offerings and enrollment data by institution affiliation

Number of enuironmental-related course offerings and enrollment data by institution affiliation

Total Mean Env. Env. Outdoor Env. Ed. Total Coursesl 1000
Denomination Enroll. Enroll. Sci. Ethics Rec. Methods Courses School Enroll.

Baptist 33,445 1337.80 40 11 9 0 60 2.40 1.79
Catholic 35,171 1406.84 29 18 2 3 52 2.08 1.48
Lutheran 35,718 1428.72 48 7 12 5 72 2.88 2.02
Methodist 26,047 1041.88 51 7 7 1 66 2.64 2.53
Presbyterian 24,600 984.00 33 9 3 1 46 1.84 1.87
Non-denominational 75,800 3032.00 150 57 25 4 236 9.44 3.11
State schools 158,492 6339.68 152 16 46 9 223 8.92 1.41

                              Total         Mean    Env.    Env.       Outdoor     Env. Ed.         Total         Coursesl    1000
Denomination   Enroll.      Enroll.    Set.    Ethics    Rec.            Methods      Courses         School     Enroll.

Baptist                33,445         1337.80   40         11            9                      0                 60                  2.40          1.79
Catholic              35,171         1406.84   29 
      18         2                      3                 52                  2.08          1.48
Lutheran             35,718         1428.72   48           7          12                      5                 72                  2.88          2.02
Methodist          26,047         1041.88    51          7            7                       1                66                   2.64         2.53
Presbyterian      24,600          984.         33          9            3                       1                46                   1.84         1.87
Non-denom.      75,800         3032.      150        57          25                       4              236                   9.44         3.11
State schools  158,492         6339.      152        16          46                       9              223                   8.92         1.41

TOTAL 3           89,273          2224.     503       125        104                     23              755                   4.31        1.94

and Methodist schools ranked high (both in total courses and in courses/ 1000 students) while Baptist, Presbyterian, and Catholic schools ranked relatively low in course offerings. The differences in course offerings may reflect differing degrees of sensitivity to environmental concerns and differences in the recognition of the theological implications of environmental ethics. However, it can not be necessarily assumed that a high degree of faith/subject integration automatically takes place in Christian college classrooms.

Christian theology is relevant to the maintenance of a stable global environment. By offering strong environmental studies programs, and by developing a concise, well-defined ecotheology, Christian colleges and universities have a unique opportunity and profound responsibility to contribute to a right relationship between humans and creation. A major contribution would be to encourage ecologically appropriate behavior from a Christian perspective. Theological arguments and practical environmental sensitivity may persuade a segment of the populace heretofore unreceptive to the pro-environment message. Intentions to behave in an environmentally sound manner result from: (1) sound attitudes concerning the outcomes of the behavior, (2) sound perceptions of normative behavior, and (3) motivations to comply with the perceived norms (Fishbein 1980). Environmental education in a Christian setting can effectively impact on all of these areas. To this end, Derrick (1972) called for Christians to "preach and practice ... cosmic piety" and to cultivate "appreciative gratitude" of God's creation. Practicing this cosmic piety, according to Derrick, involves rejecting materialistic tendencies, bringing under control current "technomania," and distinguishing real human needs from fictitious ones.

In addition to encouraging ecologically sound behavior, there are other compelling reasons why Christian colleges should offer environmental studies. First, environmental education is a prerequisite for effective participation in society. Christians should be prepared to articulate and defend philosophical positions on environmental issues. Second, it will be impossible for the Christian community to have a consistent, comprehensive world view until environmental issues are addressed in an ecotheological framework.

Third, there are the normal vocational reasons (i.e., to prepare students for professions in environment-related fields). A fourth, basic reason for offering environmental education is that it constitutes a practical, purposeful part of any general education.

Van Dyke (1985) noted that Christians have been "lazy, ignorant, and apathetic about environmental concerns." However, he adds that "only Christians have the ethical system strong enough to bring conviction, courage, correction, and direction, to the environmental dilemma." Likewise, Derrick (1972), referring to a possible global environmental crisis, stated that " . . . our survival may actually depend upon religion ... it may turn out that only Christianity can save the world." This survey indicated that there is currently a significant effort to teach environmental principles, and to a lesser degree environmental ethics, at Christian colleges and universities. However, the solemn conclusions of Van Dyke and Derrick should cause Christian educators to consider their commitment to environmental education and to strengthen it to meet the challenges and responsibilities of stewardship.


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