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Sandra Maurice

October 17th, 2023

Childlessness as a pro-environmental behaviour: A challenge to the Abrahamic procreative teachings

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Sandra Maurice

October 17th, 2023

Childlessness as a pro-environmental behaviour: A challenge to the Abrahamic procreative teachings

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

With more and more young people choosing not to have children for environmental reasons, those coming from religious backgrounds with strong procreational teachings face a complex eco-anxiety. Dr Sandra Maurice outlines some of the teachings and responses to them.

When you hear the words “Climate Crisis”, you tend to think about global warming, extreme hot weather, and other environmental disasters that have become, unfortunately, more common. But have you ever considered the impacts which this crisis has on mental health? Whether affected by extreme environmental events, or by simply being constantly exposed to the news, one can suffer from disorders such as phobias, anxiety, depression, panic disorders, as well as other mental illnesses.

After the floods in Pakistan, 73% of youngsters aged from 10 to 19 years old, reported suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The past few decades have shown increasing research on the impacts of climate change on mental health, from which a new terminology emerged, describing the specific mental challenges related to the climate crisis, such as ecological grief and climate- or eco-anxiety. Eco-anxiety often leads to worrying about whether you are making the right decisions for our planet, and is related to adapting pro-environmental behaviour, like participating in recycling programmes or commuting by bicycle, but what was recently considered pro-environmental is: Childlessness.

Climate change and reproductive choices: Research reveals the link

In a poll taken in 2020, in the US, on childless citizens aged from 18 to 44 years old, it was found that 14% stated that climate change is a ‘major reason’ for not wanting to have children.

An empirical study, the first of its kind, was conducted in the US on citizens aged between 27 and 45 years old, to discover if climate change is affecting the reproductive choices of people or not. The results showed that most of the participants, with a percentage of 96.5%, were worried about the future of their actual, expected, or hypothetical children, compared to 59.8% who expressed their worries about the carbon footprint of their offspring. Quoting some of the respondents, a 32 -year-old consultant in Ohio wrote: “I cannot produce another person that will continue to destroy the planet…” And amongst those who dreaded bringing children into what may be, as some of them have described, apocalyptic conditions, a childfree 31-year- old writer in Washington, stated that despite the fact that she really wants to become a mother, climate change is the ‘sole factor’ making her decide not to have biological children. In her opinion, she would be bringing children into a dying world.

Similarly, voluntary childlessness in response to climate change is not limited to the western world. A study published by the “Arab Youth Council For Climate Change”, revealed that 40% of the participants showed concerns about environmental issues too, surpassing even, the social and political challenges, furthermore, 70% of the Arab youth expressed experiencing eco-anxiety. Rowaida Mahmoud, a married 26-year-old, Egyptian woman, expressed to the online platform Raseef22 her devastation, by saying: “We don’t want to bring a child into this burning world…”

That’s why, it should not be surprising when UNICEF, during COP27, published the results of a U-Report poll, taken on 243,512 worldwide participants, revealing that respondents from the African regions, were the highest number expressing their concerns about climate change, leading them to reconsider their desire to have children. The greatest percentage, however, belongs to the Middle East & North Africa (44%) and Sub-Saharan Africa (43%).

Pro-natalism in the face of pro-environmentalism

With these growing concerns, it is becoming clear that climate change determines the reproductive choices of today’s youth who are not refraining, however, from getting married. Childless couples, especially in the Middle East, face pressures from families, friends and religious leaders. Regardless of their concerns about a dark future, followers of Abrahamic faiths, according to their religious teachings, are encouraged to procreate.

Be fruitful and multiply (Bereishit 1:28)

Procreation is the first mitzva mentioned in the Torah and the main commandment given to creation. The Sages state that by having children, both the father and the mother become partners in creation with God; “There are three partners in the creation of a person: God, the father, and the mother” (Nidda 31a), and by fulfilling this mitzva, you walk according to God’s will.

As written in Yeshayahu 45:18 ‘He did not create it to be empty; He formed it to be inhabited’, the Sages proclaim in the Mishna (Gittin 41b), that the world was created for procreation. One example to show that having children is a sacred and essential duty to creation, is what R. Yaakov declared, that if someone chose not to participate in procreation, it is the same as deprecating the divine image.

The Torah gives an obligation to have one son and one daughter according to what is stated in Bereishit 1:27, just as God created Adam and Hava, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”. However, the Sages added a rabbinic commandment to have even more children and that is for two reasons. The first one is to express the value of life in accordance with the Torah, that states that procreation is both a mitzva and a blessing; Rambam wrote that a man cannot rabbinically ignore procreating as long as he has the strength to, as by adding a Jewish soul, he builds the world.

The second reason is to ensure the fulfilment of the commandment and the continuity of the family in case one of the children dies or is infertile. So any couple is obligated to have at least four or five children and to continue procreating as long as they are able to provide for them.

Children are a heritage from the Lord (Psalm 127:3)

The first commandment given to man in the garden of Eden, was to procreate, according to Genesis 1:28 ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…’ (NIV).

According to Rev. Thomas Egger, from the Lutheran Church, the words in (Genesis 1:28) are more of a blessing and a promise, than a commandment, and that parents participate with God in His creative powers by bringing children into the world and by teaching them to know God.

In the marriage service in the Anglican Church, the congregation prays together saying: ‘…bestow, we beseech thee, upon these two persons the heritage and gift of children…’. The Anglican Church teaches that marital sex is in nature a procreative act and that abortion is immoral, and that contraceptives are only to be used to plan a family and not to prevent having children.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church, according to the 1968 encyclical, written by Pope Paul VI, states that marriage puts a responsibility on the couple to transmit human life. His Holiness clearly mentioned that marriage should not have only love for a purpose, but also, procreation, and that the married couple is not free to act according to what they think is right but according to God’s will.

Children are the ornaments of life (Al-Kahf [18]: 46)

Moreover, according to Islam, children are a great blessing from Allah and it is a sacred right bestowed to man. God’s messenger (PBUH) encouraged his ummah to get married in order to have children and procreate. It was narrated by Abu Hurairah that: The Messenger of Allah said: “Marry, for I will boast of your great numbers”.

The Islamic Shari’ah (legislation) as per Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali- has five higher purposes which are: Preserving religion, souls, minds, offspring, and money. Accordingly, everything should fulfil these 5 objectives, otherwise, it’s considered harmful.

It is worth mentioning that Al Ghazali declared that getting married with the intention of having a child is considered an act of worship as it achieves higher purposes such as; preserving the continuity of the human race, which is what God wants but also, one tends to render God’s messenger (PBUH) proud before other prophets on the Day of Resurrection.

Even though Abrahamic scriptures might differ according to each religion, they all agree that procreation is a sacred and valued commandment given to man and that the couple will be blessed by seeking procreation. Thus, couples of the Abrahamic faiths who decide to remain childless as a result of being anxious about the climate crisis, may deal with objection and pressure from their religious leaders.

Religion has a major role

Climate change is certainly one critical and complex topic that needs to be handled properly, and hence comes the role of religious discourse in addressing the fears and anxiety related to the environmental crisis, and instead of judging them, religious leaders might try to put effort into understanding today’s anxious youth and guide them to what helps and not disables them. In my opinion, we will always face contradictions between religious teachings and worldly matters, and in a world torn between multiple opinions and convictions, religion should be the guiding light to the confused youth.

Image by Huitzil on Climate Visuals

About the author

Sandra Maurice

Dr Sandra Maurice is a pediatric dentist with a strong commitment to public health advocacy. Her passion lies in raising awareness about mental health and exploring diverse religious perspectives. Additionally, she dedicates her time to volunteer as a teaching trainer, educating others about child sexual abuse and bullying prevention. In her leisure moments, you'll often find her immersed in the world of art, pursuing her love for painting and singing.

Posted In: Environment and Religion

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