What people believe happens after death guides their perception of Earth and their behavior, including whether they choose to recycle or buy energy efficient devices, according to a new study.
Research from Arizona State University and the University of Wyoming found that religious beliefs about the afterlife predicted how people value and practice sustainability. the to study was recently published in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
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“The importance of sustainability is increasingly recognized around the world, with people of all faiths keen to ensure that the way we use resources is sustainable, that we are good stewards of the Earth. “, said Catherine johnson, associate research professor in psychology. “We found that the level of investment in sustainable behaviors was partly predicted by beliefs from the afterlife: if people believe in reincarnation, they are more invested in sustainability and stewardship. ”
Independence versus interdependence
Johnson’s research team, Elizabeth minton from the University of Wyoming and Madeline Parde McClernon, a recent ASU graduate, first conducted in-depth interviews with a group of participants. The group was made up of people from different religions including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Sikhism.
“What was lacking in much of the previous research is examining people of all of these different faiths in one study – most of the previous research has focused on one, perhaps two different faiths, thus limiting our understanding of. how faith more holistically influences sustainability behaviors, ”Minton said.
Interview responses were categorized based on how sustainability was defined and also based on religious beliefs regarding the relationship between people and the Earth. Religious beliefs did not affect the definition of sustainability – all participants defined it as the preservation of natural resources for the future – but they did affect why people chose to implementation of sustainable practices.
Christians, Muslims and Jews have indicated that they see sustainability as a way to achieve personal independence, especially financial independence. Responses from Buddhists and Hindus underscored the interconnections between people and the Earth.
“The independence-interdependence distinction is something that has the potential to change the way sustainable practices are promoted by policymakers, nonprofits and sustainable product traders,” Minton said.
The impact of the afterlife
The research team also examined how religious beliefs about what happens after death affected sustainable practices in daily life, an idea that came from McClernon.
“Madeline wondered if people who believe in reincarnation, who believe they will come back to Earth after death, would be more invested in the idea that Earth has to be a good place to return. This idea ended up being the foundation for his doctoral thesis and these experiments, ”Johnson said.
Two groups participated in this experiment. One was made up of people living in the United States and the other was made up of people living in India.
Belief in reincarnation predicted behaviors such as conserving water, volunteering for organizations that promote sustainability, or choosing to purchase energy efficient devices. Belief in paradise was linked to fewer sustainable practices and less general concern for the environment.
“Our results show that if a person believes in reincarnation, instead of believing that they will leave Earth after death, they invest a lot more in making sure Earth is a good place to come back to,” said Johnson.
Despite the differences in religious beliefs, study participants had one thing in common: Many cited the personal benefits of sustainability practices.
“We were surprised that, regardless of their religious beliefs, people indicated that they were engaging in sustainability practices because it benefited them in one way or another,” Johnson said. “This finding suggests that communicating the personal benefits of sustainability could be used to increase environmentally responsible practices.”
This work was funded by a grant from Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University and the Sustainable Business Practices Fund at the University of Wyoming.