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Thursday, 23 May 2019 08:38
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Religious organizations’ participation in protecting the environment and coping with climate change in Vietnam

(LLCT) - In order to make practical contributions to protecting the environment and coping with climate change, in 2015 Vietnam deployed a coordination program between the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and religious organizations. So far, the program has attracted the participation of millions of followers of 14 religious organizations and established 322 models of religions protecting the environment and coping with climate change. Based on this practical experience, this article seeks to help clarify the scientific basis of religion in protecting the environment and coping with climate change, especially since religion has the following useful functions: 1) controlling society; 2) uniting society; 3) participating in and dealing with social issues; 4) socializing individuals; 5) building belief.

Keywords: religious organizations, protecting the environment, coping with climate change, Vietnam.

Climate change, exhaustion of resources, and environmental pollution are global issues, and they are also one of the biggest challenges for humankind in the 21st century. The causes of environmental pollution are still increasing and exhaustion of resources and climate change seems inevitable and can be attributed to two main factors: the law of objective development of nature, and humans. Protecting the environment and coping with climate change are urgent and strategic issues as well as the tasks of all nations in the world. In Vietnam, during our national industrialization and modernization - especially due to the rapid urbanization and development of a market economy in the context of international integration - environmental pollution and climate change have been increasing significantly. Vietnam is one of the five countries which are directly and heavily affected by climate change, so the proposed targets certainly cannot be obtained without the cooperation and contribution of the whole society and political system together with technical, economic, and international cooperative solutions. Therefore, Vietnam needs to improve the people’s awareness, change their attitudes, and promote the actions of bodies, organizations, and social classes in protecting the environment and coping with climate change.

On June 3, 2013, the 7th Plenum of the Party Central Committee (11th tenure) issued Resolution No. 24-NQ/TW on “Actively coping with climate change, strengthening resource management and protecting the environment” in order to make a big change in the implementation of this important task. This resolution states that by 2020 we will have basically and actively been adapted to climate change, prevented natural disasters, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, fundamentally changed in our exploitation and use of natural resources, effectively and sustainably restrained the increase of environmental pollution, re-introduced biodiversity in order to ensure the quality of living environments, maintained ecological balance, and moved forward to become a green, environmentally friendly economy.

The coordination program between the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and religious organizations, to protect the environment and cope with climate change in the 2015-2020 period, has been participated in by millions of followers of 14 religious organizations in Vietnam. The religious organizations and followers in our country all express great support and consensus, wishing that they and other social strata can work with the Party, the State, and the Vietnamese Fatherland Front to implement the tasks of protecting the environment and coping with climate change effectively(1). After 3 years of implementation, our country has established 322 typical models of religions organizations participating in protecting the environment and coping with climate change. The program has urged religious dignitaries, followers, and compatriots to improve their awareness and change their behaviors with regard to protecting the environment and coping with climate change. The participation of religions in this effort is a very active and cheering action which is not only beneficial but also suitable for the social role of religion.

Religion is frequently studied in a number of social sciences (philosophy, psychology, history, ethnology, sociology and religious studies, etc.). There are hundreds of definitions of religion in the world, but they can be grouped into two types of definitions: 1) definitions of the nature and 2) definitions of the function. While definitions of religion’s nature define what a religion is and what the manifestations of a religion are, definitions of religion’s function focus on explaining what a religion does for individuals, groups, communities, and societies. Both types of definitions try to find out the commonalities of religions, that is, to concretely state one or many characteristics that a certain practice must have in order to be considered a religion.

As far as law is concerned, religion is the belief of people along with the existence of a system of views and activities, including worshippers of dogma, law, ritual, and organization(2). From the scientific perspective, religion can be understood as any belief that recognizes a sacred, super-experimental field and any behavior to express the relationship between the people and that field. The most appropriate term for such behaviors is “spirituality.” The core of religion “is the belief in the sacred, the transcendent, or the super-experimental. If this element is available, it is a true religion; if this element is missing, it is not a religion anymore”(3). From the perspective of a religious function approach, the scientific basis of promoting the role of religion in participating in protecting the environment and coping with climate change in Vietnam can be seen in the following discussions.

Religion’s function of uniting society. According to E. Durkheim (a French sociologist (1858-1917), religion has the function of uniting society. Religion is an invisible string that creates a strong tie and harmonious life in a society, especially between people who share a religion. Religion is a component of social structure, creating consensus within society. Each society needs to find a balance around the values and standards which are accepted and implemented. Relationships between the members in religious community are mutually supportive, dependent, and binding in the fields of production and activities, including spiritual and religious life. Most studies have shown that the communities of religion, production, and activities of the Vietnamese are inseparable. Religious activities have become an organic part of the activities of communities and societies. Preventing environmental pollution and coping with climate change are heavy tasks in both the short term and long term, and it is not the job of only individuals or some social groups: participation of the whole society is required. Therefore, the function of religions in uniting society is the premier and favorable condition to connect to followers of religious communities and to improve and change attitudes and behaviors towards protecting the environment and coping with climate change in Vietnam today.

Religion’s function of participating in and dealing with social issues. Western sociologists have long recognized that religion plays the role of an organization capable of participating in solving social issues. When we emphasize the role of religion in taking part in solving social issues, we base our discussion on Karl Marx’s explanation about the cause of birth and illusionary compensation function of religion. Religion can give people courage before individual or national challenges because religious followers feel that life is impermanent and temporary. When encountering misfortune, humans are often comforted and given hope by religion. This is what led to Karl Marx referring to religion as “the opiate of the masses.” Researchers have proven that one of the changing tendencies of religion today is secularization. In fact, it is shown that in Vietnam religions have played more and more important roles in solving social issues. As Vietnam’s implementation of a market economy has increased, the gap between the rich and poor, disease, social evils, and other negative social phenomena have increased as well. These and other negative outcomes of recent industrialization, especially environmental pollution, climate change, and natural disasters, have caused a lot of people, including religious communities, to live in potentially risky and unexpected conditions. To solve these issues, participation of the whole society, including the active participation of religions, is required. Thus, to successfully implement all the targets in protecting the environment and coping with climate change in Vietnam, positive, active, practical, and effective participation of religious communities is indispensable.

Religion’s function in controlling society. According to E. Durkheim’s explanation, a religion has the function of controlling society, especially when law and morality have not met the requirements of society. The sacredness of religion is the implementation of content to control the society a religion is a part of. Religious sciences have proved that there is a reality that people attach sacredness to a reality, which is not nature, and not metaphysical thinking, but society itself. From the scientific perspective, religion is an important social institution to control, sanction, encourage, and promote the behaviors of followers. Some researchers have commented on religion’s function of controlling society as follows: “It bestows upon us life, but it can make us die. It has unlimited power upon us. Everyone depends on it in countless ways. The whole physical and symbolic world is brought about by society. All the institutions that we are living in belong to that society. This is the basic truth that a religion represents (4).  Whether it is good or bad, or whether it is socially supported or accused, individual motivation often pushes people towards religion. This is also the basis and center of creating the direct attraction of daily religious life, one of the main motivations of new religious spaces. This function of religion seems to be manifested in the most dynamic way in the development of religion (5). Thus, religion’s function of controlling society, together with other social institutions – especially legal institutions – if harmoniously combined with the religion’s function of controlling society, will promote the control and punishment or encourage the effective and valid implementation of Vietnam’s legal documents on protecting the environment and coping with climate change in religious communities in particular and society in general.

Religion’s function in socializing individuals/education. From the sociological perspective, each individual, in the process of receiving and creating knowledge, values, and social standards, are always simultaneously governed by different environments or elements such as families, schools, social groups, the mass media, etc., as well as the beliefs and religions that they hold or participate in. Thus, religion is regarded as a social institution that has the function of socializing individuals. The values and morality contained in dogmas and prayer-books always direct people to a moral and humane life. In today’s current condition, the social roles and demands of people are more and more diverse and complicated, because in modern society, the relationships and demands on people increase in direct proportion with the pace of the development of social civilization. To adjust and balance the roles and demands of people before the development of society, religion always plays a very important role because religions always have moral principles that guide daily life, inclining followers to the good and avoiding the bad. Facts have shown that the traditions of social morality, values, and standards of religious communities tend to be maintained and more beautiful than those in atheistic communities in general. Religious communities know how to protect the values of social and individual morality from the inner feelings of everyone from childhood onward. Religion’s methods of protecting social morality and standard values of religions are sometimes more effective than official institutions such as laws, courts, police, or prisons. Therefore, when issues related to protecting the environment and coping with climate change become issues of morality apparent in the values and standards of the lives of each follower, protecting the environment and coping with climate change will really be the daily core work of every religion and follower.

Religion’s function of building belief. Belief is in the nature and function of every religion. Being profound, belief in a religion will give people a particularly safe feeling, helping people be devoted to the religion and life wholeheartedly. In particular, in a context where society is still changing quickly and where social standards tend to be chaotic, the belief in religion is often the important not only to the religious followers but also to non-religious people. According to Buddhist philosophy and belief, when belief reaches the absolute happiness, it will help the follower evade the trivial comforts of life and allow them to live with morality. For specific respectable and thankful people, grateful behaviors are also practical and detailed. That is the nature of the relationship between people and the sacredness of religion. It is a type of unequal relationship, sacrificing the secular for the sacred and being both passive and dependent upon it. The main inspiration before the sacredness of religion is of course that of reverence and gratitude, but it is more inclined to the fear that comes from the permanent demand of safety in life which is originated from the inherent self-defense instinct in every creature. As a part of this, the unique manifestations of people are the self-defense methods before sacredness(6). Therefore, when it comes to a belief that the dangers to religious followers in particular and the society in general are caused by environmental pollution - in this case, climate change - it is necessary to take action to protect the environment and cope with climate change.

From the participatory practice of religious organizations in protecting the environment, it is time for us to change the view that protecting the environment and coping with climate change are only political, economic, and technical issues but also issues of values, standards, science, and social responsibility, a responsibility shared by every Vietnamese citizen. Thus, being active and taking positive and effective part in coping with climate change and protecting the environment must become one of the most important tasks of religions and followers in Vietnam.

To protect the environment in a sustainable way, it is necessary to change the lifestyle, awareness, and demands of people. As a part of this solution, the participation of religion is necessary. The Party and State need to continue acknowledging and promoting the contribution of religions in protecting the environment and coping with climate change. In particular, it is necessary to make expansions in sharing the responsibility to protect the environment with religious organizations so that they can implement their duties in an effective and responsible way, and, at the same time, society can use this as a basis to evaluate the effect of religious organizations in protecting the environment(7).



(1) Thu Ha: Promote the role of religions in protecting the environment and coping with climate change, http://www.dangcongsan.vn, 2015.

(2) National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Law on Beliefs and Religions 2016, Clause 5, Article 2.

(3) Peter Connolly (translated by Chu Tien): Religion Studies, from Different Approaches, Knowledge Publishing House, Hanoi, 2018, p.32.

(4) Bui The Cuong: Randall Collins: Sociology of the Supreme Being, Journal of Social Sciences, Issue 7-2007.

(5) Vu Quang Ha: Sociology of Religion, National University Publishing House, Hanoi, 2014.

(6) Ho Lien: Something about the Sacred and Culture, Ethnic Cultures Publishing House, Hanoi, 2009.

(7) Do Lan Hien: Ecological Religion Study - Practice in the World and Vietnam Today, Political Theory Journal, Issue 7-2017.

Dr. Do Van Quan

Institute of Sociology and Development,

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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