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Lisa Sideris
Department of Religious Studies

Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Monday, April 16, 2007

Do we really want a perfect world?

April 16, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- As science and technology advance to give humans more control of the world around us -- from curing diseases and lengthening the human life span to inventing new fuels and engineering genetically superior crops -- people who study ethics find more questions to ponder.

For example, at some point, is it important for humans to accept certain limitations?

Maybe so, according to Lisa Sideris, assistant professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington.

"In religious environmental ethics, which is the field I work in, environmentalists have tried to take religious ethics at the core of their traditions and extend them beyond humans to animals and the natural world. But that doesn't always work very well, because the resulting ethical imperatives fail to take into account the way nature actually works, particularly with regard to natural selection," Sideris said.

Some Christian ethicists argue, for example, that ethics should address all suffering in the natural world, not just human suffering. But this may very well clash with biological realities, Sideris pointed out. Some organisms kill and eat other organisms, and nature is not set up to provide for the needs of all life forms simultaneously, without conflict.

"Some Christians believe that nature is the way it is -- characterized by suffering and strife -- because it is 'fallen' from some more perfect, original state," Sideris said. "So they think it is appropriate for us to try to steer nature back toward that 'Garden of Eden.'

"I completely reject this interpretation of nature, which actually is pretty widespread among Christian environmentalists. I think Christians have to get on board with evolutionary theory if they want to understand what nature needs from us," she said.

Sideris believes that scientific knowledge of how nature actually works is missing from much of the debate about creation versus evolution, for example.

"It's impossible to talk about the environment without at least some knowledge of biological processes," she said. "So I'm interested in seeing what common ground can be found between scientific and religious perspectives on nature and the human-nature relationship. A lot of religious environmentalists, and even secular environmentalists, are too suspicious of science and stay away from it."

Sideris is editing a book of essays by Rachel Carson, the author of the famous 1962 book Silent Spring, which documented the dangers of pesticides and herbicides. The book is regarded by many as one of the most influential events that sparked the environmental movement.

"For me, the idea of a universe not for or about us is awe-inspiring," Sideris said. "Paradoxically, if we ever do succeed in gaining complete control over the natural world -- such that it is all about or for us -- we would lose our humanity. I think Rachel Carson understood this.

"Carson's concern about the environment was, at root, religious, partly because it sprang from her religious upbringing, but also because it was an expression of enchantment with something 'not-us,'" Sideris said.

"Nowadays a lot of theologians claim that science, especially Darwinism, has had the effect of 'disenchanting' nature -- stripping it of value or meaning, turning it into dead matter -- but I completely disagree. Darwin himself, certainly, had a very strong sense of wonder and enchantment, and he was a gifted writer as well."

Sideris can be reached at 812-855-6119 and For assistance, contact Hal Kibbey at 812-855-0074 and