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Finding Happiness

By Rachel Faugno
Photography by Patrick O’Connor

Philosophy professor Roger S. Gottlieb cares passionately about society’s spiritual and moral well-being, seeing them as inextricably linked to the survival of our planet. This author/editor of 14 books and more than 50 articles on topics including political philosophy, religious life, and environmentalism challenges his students to consider moral aspects of their life choices.

“Our current lifestyle is inflicting mortal damage to the planet. Even if we do not consciously acknowledge this fact, we are aware of it on some deeper level, which causes profound currents of unhappiness,” he asserts. “We need to do a much better job of incorporating ethical considerations into private and public policies if we are to heal ourselves and the planet.”

Gottlieb is currently working on two books scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in 2006. One, titled A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future, is the first full-length study of the social and political aspects of religious environmental activism. The other, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, is an edited collection of essays by 25 leading scholars on all aspects of the religion-ecology connection. Here, Gottlieb talks about his own moral and spiritual journey and how it impacts his classes at WPI.

What led you to pursue philosophy?

I grew up in White Plains, New York, in a middle-class suburban family. In a lot of ways I was a typical kid, a Boy Scout, a member of the wrestling team. But from an early age I was sensitive to the injustices of the world. The train to Manhattan took us through Harlem, and I remember thinking there was something terribly wrong about the poverty I saw. I grew up in the ’60s, when issues of social justice were front and center in the feminist, antiwar, and antipoverty movements. When I went to Brandeis, I thought I’d become a psychologist. But I took one psychology course and found it unbelievably dull. I took one philosophy course and was immediately hooked.

What exactly excited you?

The idea that you could penetrate by sheer mental force the meaning of life, the source of happiness. There was something incredibly powerful about that, something that seemed tremendously important to me. Unfortunately, in those days philosophy was dominated by traditional trappings of masculinity. The goal seemed to be to find the one counterexample that would leave the other person’s position in the dust. I was lucky, during grad school, to be exposed to feminist ideas about noncompetitive ways of talking, learning, and teaching. I learned how to ask the same important questions, but pursue the answers differently.

What is the role of philosophy courses at a technological university?

There was, perhaps, a time in human history when people could claim to be unaware of the consequences of their actions. That is no longer the case. Today, we are almost painfully aware (or should be!) that all of our actions and policies have an impact on the environment, on other species, and on fellow human beings. Therefore, even our personal choices, right down to what we drive and the food we eat, have a moral dimension. The task of philosophy is to challenge students to think seriously about their beliefs and values, to give them the tools to make life choices that will contribute to the development of just and sustainable societies.

What do you hope your students will retain?

I hope that they will apply moral criteria to their personal and professional choices, that they will challenge assumptions, that they will stand up for social justice, and that they will grow throughout their lives as spiritual and ethical beings.

What happens when students don’t agree with you?

I hardly expect them to agree! Look, I can’t pretend that I’m detached about the fate of the earth or social injustice—who on the Titanic could say he doesn’t care whether the ship sinks or not? I’m not detached, but I do try to be objective. And my political outlook is that no long-term changes can arise unless people learn to think and act for themselves. I’m not here to indoctrinate, but to awaken. I also think it’s critical to treat people—all people—with respect. If a student disagrees, his or her ideas are as important, and deserve as much of a hearing, as mine.

You’ve written about religious environmental activism. What is that?

Religious leaders around the world are responding seriously to the environmental crisis. I can give you many examples. Pope John Paul II called nature “our sister.” The Christian Orthodox spiritual leader Bartholomew said that to pollute is a sin. A remarkable coalition of religious and indigenous groups planted eight million trees in Zimbabwe a few years ago. The entire Sikh community has committed itself to protecting the environment for the next 300 years. A group of Methodist activists confronted Staples about selling paper whose production causes toxic dioxins in the water and the air. And the Sierra Club, a secular environmental group, has worked with the National Council of Churches to champion environmental causes. Evangelical Christians, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Reform Jews, bishops in the Philippines—all these and more have taken a stand and taken steps to protect the environment.

Why are religious organizations concerned about the environment?

If you believe that the earth was divinely created, or if you simply believe that we have a moral obligation to leave a habitable world for future generations, environmental protection is a religious issue. And religious leaders carry great weight. Up until a few years ago, many of the fishermen of Madagascar engaged in the practice of dynamiting for fish. It was easy, but it was also destroying marine life. The government told them to stop. Environmental groups told them to stop. Nothing worked until their sheikhs told them the practice was not in keeping with Islamic teachings. They stopped. Aside from the environment, how would you describe the impact of religion on modern American life? In the past few years there’s been a lot of discussion about the religious right and the secular left. These labels prevent us from getting to the heart of the issues. Many on the right are horrified by drugs, teenage sexuality, the decline of the nuclear family. They’re scared by the bankruptcy of our culture. I don’t blame them. On the other hand, I am totally opposed to what the religious right thinks is the explanation or solution to these problems, and I think religions in general have a great deal to learn from the analyses and history of the secular left. The point is not bad religion vs. good secular politics. The point is good politics—religious or secular—vs. bad politics.

What forces have shaped your spiritual journey?

In the last 25 years, it has been my experience as a father. I had a son who was born with brain damage. He lived only five days and he never came home from the hospital. Three years later, my third child, my daughter Esther, was born with multiple handicaps. My wife and I took her to 250 doctors and healers. Sometimes I took her to 15 doctor appointments in one month. An event like this puts you in a different world. You’re different from your colleagues. And when you have a child like Esther, you’re either a spiritual being or you’re miserable. In your despair, you come to realize (sometimes) that the only way to a happy life is through love. Other values, the things we were supposed to expect from our children, simply won’t work.

And when you’re not teaching...

Well, for an old guy I’ve got a pretty good jump shot. And I like to schmooze with my family and friends, seek out some of the nature that’s left and take photos of it, and listen to music. When I’m looking at a bird in flight or listening to a Beethoven quartet, the world, despite everything, is still very beautiful.

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Last modified: Dec 21, 2005, 13:44 EST
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