Religion and Intolerance: How the Environment and Culture Impact Each Other

Jen Crick

The American Heritage Dictionary defines culture as, “socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought,” and religion as, “a set of beliefs, values and principles based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” Intolerance is defined as, “ unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression especially in religious matters , or  unwilling to grant or share social, political, or professional rights.”

Religion, more than any other aspect of culture actively tries to change the paradigms through which humanity views the world, while intolerance attempts the same, but in an entirely negative and opposite way. Religion is unique in that unlike artistic ability, professions, or literacy, it functions as a lens for interpreting the rest of culture, each other, and especially ourselves. This framework for understanding extends to the environment and our behavior, art and institutions that affect it. Intolerance acts in the same capacity as a cultural phenomenon, but distorts the lens through which we view society, undermining our ability to adapt to new environments and situations.

A common theory states that religion has always served this function, in two different ways, and that,

"One is explanatory and manipulative, designating which forces are driving mysterious seeming events in the world and trying to influence them. The other is integrative and controlling – organizing groups to deal with those forces and justifying the power gained by some individuals over others within those groups."

- Ehrlich, Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect

Ehrlich’s first way of examining religion’s role in the greater realm of human culture lends itself readily to explaining why humans historically have been so set on understanding and altering their environment. Even from the first civilization in Sumer, people have been physically forcing the land to produce what they wished through processes like irrigation [2]. However, this was not the only method through which humans tried to eke out more food from the earth; religious ceremonies for fertility and continued produce are depicted in myth as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh [3]. By the time that Classical Greek and Roman civilizations and technologies reached their heights, religion had an explanation for most natural aberrations and a god for every natural phenomenon. Religious ceremonies were well defined and not simply relegated to the priests of a town or city, but were also an important part of the general population’s lives.

In the case of both the Sumerians and the Greco-Romans, Ehrlich’s bipartite approach to religion created not only technology and failing that, myth; but also gave rise to a thriving, well-defined and self-aware priesthood [4]. Both ancient and classical societies respected priests as integral to a society and vital to its survival, but as a separate group of people with their own duties and functions. In Indian society, through the conduit of Hinduism, priests even carved out the highest caste for themselves, making them the most powerful and respected people in their culture. Because of the unique role that religion played in both civilization and individuals’ lives, priests and religious people gained a status superior to people not involved in the prevailing religious life of their culture.

Unfortunately, this superiority created intolerance for people who differed from the religious cultural norm as early as the Christians in the Roman Empire [4]. By the Middle Ages, Christianity dominated Western culture with Islam in the East, and the crusades ensued. This culturally ingrained intolerance gave rise to new technologies, like trade routes and the beginnings of globalization. After the Industrial Revolution occurred, Western civilization once again forayed into greed-fueled intolerance, but this time found an outlet in colonialism and the environmental wealth to be found in Africa [5].

This intolerance, unfortunately perpetrated under the guise of spreading salvation and the superiority of white religion and culture, had massive repercussions for not only the people of Africa, but also for the environment. In addition to the disastrous extraction practices of European capitalism, crippling a people so totally as colonialism did to most of Africa forces them to rely entirely on their environment for survival, which causes further depletion of the natural resources available for human existence. Environmental degradation makes it even harder for people to eke out a sufficient livelihood, let alone find opportunities for betterment of their situation, resulting in the creation of a truly vicious feedback loop [1].

As Ehrlich argued, Religion can explain and integrate the environment into society in a healthy way. Conversely, it can manipulate and control society through intolerance, which has major negative ramifications for both other people and the environment. Only when we strike that healthy and needed balance between religion, the environment and different cultures will we be able to peacefully and sustainably coexist.





  1. Ehrlich, Paul R., Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000, pg. 215.
  2. Teresi, Dick, "Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science", Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-83718-8, pp. 325-367.
  3. Epic of Gilgamesh. Available at <>.
  4. Chant, Colin, "Chapter 2: Greece" in " Pre-industrial Cities and Technology," Routledge Press, 1999, pp. 48-80.


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last updated 2/18/08