Ecology as theology: religion must oppose the destruction of nature
The vast majority of the world’s population subscribe to a religion. According to Pew Research, although the number of people unaffiliated with a particular faith will increase by 2050, as a percentage, this group will fall from 16% now to 13% in 2050, because of the expected increase in human numbers, most of which will be within the religious population.
I was born into a Christian family, and as a child, went to Sunday school. However, I was also fanatically keen on David Attenborough documentaries, and I understood the enormous number of species that we shared the planet with, and knew that a boat couldn’t contain pairs of every species, and that’s without addressing the problems associated with getting pandas, kangaroos or llamas to the Middle East to get on board in the first place. I assumed that stories like this, along with strolls on water, resurrections and various other miracles, were allegorical, but it became clear that they were being taught to me and to other children as historical fact.
At around eight years old, I took my crisis to my mother:
Me: mum, are you really a Christian?
Mum: yes, you know I am.
Me: but do you really believe it’s true?
Mum: because that’s what I was taught as a child.
Me: so, if you’d been brought up in Egypt or India, you’d believe something different?
Mum: (long pause, maybe the first time she’d thought about this) yes, I suppose I would.
Me: so, do you really, really believe it’s true?
And that was that. In an instant I was no longer a Christian.
Later in life, I read more about Jesus, and was impressed with his message of love, the way that he threw the money-changers out of the temple, his fight against Roman imperialism and his willingness to die for his beliefs. I realised that had I been around at the time, I would almost definitely have been a follower of Jesus. This revelation tickled my mother pink – I’m guessing that she must have been thinking that I was destined for hell. And when there are difficult decisions to be made, I still ask myself, ‘what would Jesus do’, and then I don’t go far wrong. But I don’t have anything to do with the established church, of any denomination. I’m sure Jesus would be horrified at some of the things done throughout history in Christianity’s name, as well as the antics of people today who call themselves Christian. Blair springs to mind.
So I was very interested when someone sent me the video below – a sermon entitled ‘Ecology is the New Theology’ by reverend Michael Dowd. This is the kind of Christian thinking I could get behind.
His approach towards ecology, the universe, ‘creation’ (if you like) is one of reverence, humilty and gratitude. Ecology is not ‘for’ humans – we are part of it; we should be grateful for taking ‘enough’ from nature to be happy, not strive to take too much. We should express thanks to our ancestors for delivering us here, and be sure to leave a beautiful, bountiful earth for our descendants. But of course we are doing nothing of the sort.
But most importantly for me, he touched on five points that have been the main focus for Lowimpact.org since we were founded in 2001. They are:
1. We are in the 6th mass extinction event that the earth has experienced. It’s not slowing down, and unless we stop it, humans will not be able to inhabit this planet for much longer. See here.
2. Everlasting growth of the human economy is a religion – and a false religion at that. See here.
3. The real split in humanity is not left vs. right, but pro-future vs. anti-future. See here.
4. We’re living in a US empire, rather than in democracies. Empires are ‘wealth pumps’. The US contains 5% of the world’s population, but has sucked up a third of the world’s wealth. This situation is maintained with a network of US military bases in 150 countries, and sending your soldiers to other countries is not ‘defence’, it’s empire building, it’s attack. (I’d call it a corporate empire rather than a US empire – there are US citizens who are not benefiting from it, and non-US citizens who are). See here.
5. If you think that we can work to transform this system, you’re wrong. This system is collapsing and dying (and taking us with it). We have to build a new one, not try to save this one. See here.
To hear a US pastor talk about system change is refreshing (although interestingly, he never mentioned our current suicidal system by name – perhaps without a viable alternative, that’s a step too far). Any religion or political philosophy that requires lifestyle change by the majority for its implementation is doomed to failure, because not enough people will do it. If people had been asked to give up CFCs voluntarily, we’d probably be extinct by now, because even if it means death and destruction, the vast majority of people will not change their behaviour if it means a slight inconvenience. Some things have to be worked out at a higher level than the individual. The global agreement to stop producing CFCs gives me hope. The danger was seen, and the agreement was made – regardless of inconvenience or lost profits. The risk of the loss of the ozone layer was too great.
Dealing with climate change, ecological collapse and the quest for perpetual growth is a different matter. Causes and effects are not so obvious, and there are a lot of vested interests manipulating public opinion, with the result that regardless of the number of international conferences, reports and agreements, we don’t have the slightest chance of stopping the slide towards oblivion as long as we have a capitalist economy.
In the ‘perennial philosophy‘, popularised by Aldous Huxley, the core truth of all major religions are recognised. The ancients of India, Persia and the Levant taught that everything is one, and this is backed up by modern science. The atoms of all elements ultimately consist of quarks, pulses of energy, a pre-elemental force that was present in the moments after the Big Bang, but before hydrogen was created. Lao Tsu taught us of the Tao, and the need to live in harmony with all things; the Buddha taught us of the need to renounce worldly goods and seek enlightenment; Jesus taught us to love one another; and Mohamed taught us that we have to submit to a higher authority than humans. The fact that we are all going to die – to go back to nature (which Dowd associates with God), where we came from, means that every one of us has to submit at some point. For some, that realisation will come at the point of death, and for others, it will come in life.
For me, these teachings are self-evidently ‘right’, or as right as humans can ascertain. I can subscribe to all of them, if, as with my initial experience of Christianity, I ignore the very worldly prescriptions and proscriptions that cause so much trouble in the real world.
In a recent online conversation with a Christian friend, he pointed out several good Christians who had helped others and promoted environmental protection. But equally, there have been conquistadors, inquisitors, witch-burners and empire builders who considered themselves good Christians. It’s all in the interpretation. My friend’s focus is love. For him, Christianity means doing what Jesus would do. Yes, but we have a system that rewards non-love – ruthless, greedy, egotistical, materialistic, competitive people climb to the top in capitalism, and in a system like that, individual acts of love are kicking against the dominant worldview. You’re a fool if you don’t use sweatshops, avoid taxes, offer zero-hours contracts and corrupt politicians. Capitalism works against a loving society, in the same way that it works against balance with nature, enlightenment (it positively encourages the accumulation of worldly goods) and submission to the divine.
Dowd’s answer, for individuals and for our species, is to downshift – but many pastors, especially in US, preach that God wants us to be wealthy, because, like the good Samaritan, we can’t help others if we don’t have wealth ourselves. However, wealth comes in many guises – good health, satisyfing job, beautiful surroundings, happy family, strong community, peace – not just in the acquisition of money, and in the case of capitalism, for some, more money than can possibly ever be spent. Capitalism concentrates wealth, which ultimately destroys democracy, and requires constant growth, which ultimately destroys ecology. The reverend Dowd is right, we need a new system. Capitalism has to go, in the same way that the production of CFCs had to go – it’s too much of a risk to continue destroying ecology. Vested interests will fight change, and will use their media to convince others that there is no alternative to capitalism. But Michael Dowd is right.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Steve Gwynne January 14th, 2017
Im guessing Micheal Dowd is following the works of Albert Schweitzer and in particular his book The philosophy of civilization. Much of Schweitzer’s conclusions are based on reverence and the idea that we can choose between life-affirming or life-negating words and actions.
And then we have ENCYCLICAL LETTER
OF THE HOLY FATHER POPE
ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME
which is an inspiring perspective.
However there seems to be a paradox in all this since if our universe is essentially made up of quarks then in a sense nothing essentially dies but simply undergoes transformation (as per Laws of Conservation) with Newton’s Laws of Motion arguably determining the nature of these transformations.
This obviously does not detract from choosing between life-preserving and life-destroying words and actions as a moral basis for everyday living but there is the odd and paradoxical argument that it doesnt really matter at the end of the day since the process of the universe is simply a self-perpetuating recycling of quarks which highlights a deeper level of teachings promoted by prophets of different ages whether as Jesus says ‘all comes from the Father, all returns to the Father’. Similarly, the Buddha uses the notion of Sunyata (Absolute Void) to describe the same thing in order to articulate a foundational basis of Nothingness or No Self from which to practice detachment.
Hence this mediation between preservation, creation and annihilation and more especially the morality that is bound to this mediation is not so clear cut, hence the realm of ethics and politics. It would seem, at least for me, that there is is an inbuilt paradox (or uncertainty principle) in that all ethical and political claims are equally valid since eventually they all lead to the same outcome – the return to being quarks.
In this respect, capitalism has no less or more moral value than say ecologism, at least from the perspective of God (as quarkness). Thus Jesus’s claims are simply politico-ethical statements regarding how quarks should be transformed and other more ecological claims are simply politico-ethical statements about how quickly or not quarks should be transformed from one relatively fixed structure to another.
This means that the only real mediating strategy is power or as Nietzsche points out, the ‘will to power’ which humans may or may not intuitive realise. If ‘will’ in particular is the driving force behind power and decisions, then this explains why humans will try anything to influence, manipulate and distort facts in order to get their own way thus creating a layer of chaos and confusion in what is a very ordered universe, at least in terms of the rules and laws which determine how quarks are organised in the transformation of energy and matter.
Sorry I digressed there but I think you got my point! All politico-ethical positions are equally valid both morally and practically at least from the point of view of quarks or The Father, No Self or The Tao etc etc. Therefore the essence of religious thought (arguably mysticism) perhaps shouldnt really have either a postive or negative (charge) standpoint but perhaps should be essentially neutral!
(Not sure which is which – Holy Father, Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost)
2Andrew Rollinson January 14th, 2017
Thank you for this Dave,
As all the world’s religions have a common theme to care for the environment; and, (as you reference here) most of the world’s population subscribe to these religions, with an increasing trend forecast; I have thought for a long time that combined religion is the best vehicle to change the present system. Indeed, religions have power and influence, and I believe that they are inherently good (bad people distort them for their own personal motives). So let us use this.
I have actually tried in my way by suggesting this idea to some people that I considered to be influential, but I am a relative nobody, and I agree that it needs religious leaders to be more active. However, I suppose that Jesus was born into the life of a “nobody”…. I also particularly like where he upturned the tables of the money changers. This type of activism is needed today. If you live life by asking yourself “what would Jesus do”, and then acting on it, surely you are a Christian Dave?
Education is the thing, but this is intentionally managed to a great extent by corporate media and by how schools are controlled. Avoid the TV and national press completely, choose to read something like the Catholic Universe, and people would also likely agree with what the Pope and others like the Catholic activist John Dear are saying about the environment and the need for systemic change. Although most of this doesn’t make the national press (why would they publish something that would undermine their actions – far better to popularise sport), it is there if you look for it. And I expect that the same is occurring with other religions. If they could combine this, then there would be a large movement for change to meet all the things mentioned in the video by Michael Dowd.
Regarding Michael Dowd. I’d never heard him before, but I agree that history does repeat itself – the Roman Empire was destroyed by corruption from within rather than invasion from without, aided by growing Christianity. And, there is enough to show that things are already going the same way. I like what he says at the end too about making personal changes and taking on Love, Learn, Let go, and Carry forward. It is essentially drawn from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – the eight Beatitudes.
3Andrew Rollinson January 14th, 2017
I can’t think of how to say this without causing offence, but I can’t understand most of what you write. I am an engineer and have never studied classical philosophy, which is why I likely can’t understand you.
One thing that I could relate to though is where you mentioned that everything recycles. I am not sure what your arguement is here, but everything doesn’t recycle. Law of Conservation, yes, but you are missing “times arrow” – the second law of thermodynamics – entropy. Would you please explain what you mean here, and where quarks come into this?
4Steve Gwynne January 14th, 2017
Enjoyed that response but
1. How do you counter the prevailing politico-ethical argument of ‘take what you can while you can’ when everything simply returns to quarks anyway.
2. Surely (and sorry but being devil’s advocate here) the ecological preservation argument is motivated for personal reason’s whether it is to save oneself and one family from ecogical collapse or to save the world ecology as an end unto itself. Both are subjectively motivated politico-ethical reasons which simply desire quarks to be arranged one way rather than another. Since quarks (the ultimate reality, the Source of all Life, the Father) is not being destroyed, notions of good and bad are just arbitary designations that used to influence and distort the argument for personal desires. Does this mean even applying the terms good and bad is a bad in itself. From a universal (quark) consciousness then there isnt good or bad it is just change.
As I said Im being devil’s advocate only because point (1) needs to be countered with an argument that similarly appeals to ultimate reality rather than appeals to good or bad which are just subjective politico-ethical statements that are intended to influence others for personal motives.
5Steve Gwynne January 14th, 2017
No offence thankfully. I studied and practiced different spiritual practices including meditation for 20 years now and now my experience is being incorporated into quantum and newtonian physics. It is quite incredible how the two overlap which to me at least shows how powerful the intuitive sense is in terms of peering into the fabric of reality.
Times arrow and entropy is simply a part of this recycling process. The universe is effectively a closed infinite loop held in place by positive and negative charge relationships with neutrality at the centre. A very simplistic representation of this is the infinity sign of the figure 8 which incidentally if you chop out a half circle you get the Piscus. This simplistic model is broken into two parts with one circle of the infinity loop representing the creation stage and the other circle representing the annihilation (or destruction) stage. The middle is preservation or the neutral centre which everything is back to being quarks or Source.
The times arrow and entropy is simply the stage between creation and annihilation on the infinite loop cycle.
Because this infinite loop is closed we have the Laws of Conservation and Newtonian physics largely applies to the creation phase of the cycle.
If Dave’s blog had the option to upload images then I can show you how this works better using two infinity loops perpendicular to one another which enables me to show matter recycling and anti-matter recycling both with their creation, annihilation and preserving stages.
6Steve Gwynne January 14th, 2017
Quarks as Dave points out are the basic building blocks of reality.
Probably Dave can better explain. He seems to mediate between the two spheres of reality better than me (maybe!).
For me this isnt philosophy but mysticism, the true core of religion. Quantum physics has just made the spiritual reality easier to explain and comprehend.
Nietzsche’s work builds on these quantum insights philosophically and as of yet no religious thinker has been able to counteract point 1 using spiritual/quantum thought other than appeals to good and bad which are contained with the reality of form which is secondary to the reality of formlessness which is where quarks are.
You’d probably need to read Perennial Philosophy. I have a copy if you want mine.
7Steve Gwynne January 14th, 2017
Just opened it randomly to p85.
The worth of love does not consist in high feelings, but in detachment, in patience under all trials for the sake of God whom we love.
St John of the Cross.
Here St John is referring to the neutral centre rather than feelings of passion that are borne from attachment. In the neutral centre is the highest forms of Love from which God gazes over its creation and destruction.
8Steve Gwynne January 14th, 2017
I guess an alternative to the current ethos of take what you can while you can is share what you can while you can. However what can justifiably be shared or not shared is still subject to subjective points of view as is what can justifiably be taken or not taken is still subject to subjective points of view.
What can be taken and what can be shared is still determined by the will to power.
Humans seem to think that on balance they can take what they like when they like as long as it does not break any rules or in the case of the underworld even if it does break the rules.
The people have decided already I guess especially that quantum physics now verifies historical mystical insights.
9Dave Darby January 14th, 2017
Steve, I’ll go with Wittgenstein on this one: ‘that of which we cannot speak we must pass over in silence’. And I think that the ultimate destination of the energy released in the Big Bang is way beyond humans.
Who knows – evolution might eventually come up with a species that can stop the heat death of the universe, build new universes, or not require a physical universe at all. Again, it’s not something that humans can usefully comment on. All we know is that human extinction means that we’re out of the loop, and our descendants will play no part in it.
I can’t nail why it’s the right thing to do to live without damaging nature, and without inflicting violence on each other. It certainly feels like the right thing to do, but feelings don’t necessarily reflect reality. In the absence of any certainty on the subject, I’ll continue to heed the words of the prophets. Their core messages seem pretty spot on, notwithstanding the damaging interpretations flawed humans have often given them.
I’ll talk with our web guy about allowing images in the comments.
10Dave Darby January 14th, 2017
Andrew, I don’t know if I’m a Christian because I ask myself what Jesus would do. I also accept that Lao Tsu was right that we have to live in balance with all things, and that the Buddha was right to suggest that we might want to seek enlightenment and renounce worldly possessions / experiences. I think that Mohamed was right too – we have to submit to something more powerful than us – even if that something is insentient nature. We all came from it, and we’re all going back to it (‘it’s just a ride‘ as Bill Hicks used to say) – whether you want to label ‘it’ God, existence, the universe, the Brahman, nature or Allah. We have no way of knowing whether that ‘it’ involves a higher intelligence, but the alternative is that humans might be in possession of the highest intelligence in the universe, which feels unlikely (and looking round me, quite depressing). But we can’t know. We can just choose a path and go for it. Whether it’s possible to be on all those paths at the same time, I don’t know. What’s the point of seeking enlightenment without love, or submitting to the divine but living in a way that damages nature?
Philosophers like A J Ayer thought all this kind of pontification was a nonsensical waste of time, but the people who many consider prophets (those with a timeless core message, not the L Ron Hubbards or Joseph Smiths of this world) still have billions of followers, thousands of years after their deaths. That’s pretty powerful stuff, and it’s had, and is still having, a huge influence on the real world.
11Steve Gwynne January 28th, 2017
Thought this was interesting since the exact Wittgenstein reference popped up in this article. In short the article argues …
We might never be able to eff the ineffable, to paraphrase Douglas Adams’s comic detective Dirk Gently. But perhaps we can pinpoint the nature of the thing that can’t be expressed, or find a way to describe what it consists of. I believe that there are at least four possible candidates for a non-nonsensical answer: ineffable objects, ineffable truths, ineffable content, and ineffable knowledge.
12Andrew Rollinson January 30th, 2017
I was reading a bit about the Quakers recently. They have a lot in common with your descriptions, and they are active in trying to protect the environment. Historically they have brought about many changes to society so lets hope that can have some success with this too.