Religion and World Eco/Social Systems

By: Bron Taylor

September 27, 2015

Religion and World Order

Tom Banchoff’s thoughtful assessment of on the role of religion in world affairs raises a number of important issues while simultaneously reflecting some assumptions and foci that merit some critical comments.

Defining Religion and Nature 

The most typical understanding of religion, for example, is that it involves beliefs in non-material divine beings and practices supposed to put people in proper relationship to them. This definition can occlude understanding and consideration of the full range of human emotions, perceptions, and practices, which encompass people’s ultimate concerns. Banchoff’s definition of religion includes the transcendent. Yet transcendence, like the supernatural, is defined in contrast with this-worldly immanence. 

For many, however, the biosphere is the sphere of ultimate concern, which along with the mysterious universe as a whole, inspires awe, wonder, humility, and sometimes, reverence for all organisms who are seen as relatives who share a common ancestor and arrived here through the same struggle for existence. I documented such trends in Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future and think the global, cultural-traction of such nature spiritualties demonstrates that, when thinking about religion and the world order, too often our understanding of ‘religion’ is too narrow. 

Just as our understanding of religion is often anemic, so is our understanding of the human place in nature. Historians and social scientists often view nature as mere backdrop to the human drama, failing to fully incorporate into their analyses the ways humans and their social systems are a part of nature and subject to natural laws. This occludes understanding of agency of ‘nature’—that we’re enmeshed in it and entwined in a long process of reciprocal influence and biocultural evolution. 

Much of our politics, ethics, and scholarly analysis is thus deeply anthropocentric, it is ‘all about us.’ Consequently, we do not incorporate into our diagnoses and prescriptions basic ecological facts, including about the devastating, cumulative effects on biocultural systems of even small actions when replicated by multitudes. 

Why is such analysis almost entirely absent from discussions of climate change, food insecurity, war, terrorism, and migration? It is impossible to fully understand any of these and their implications for the world order without incorporating such analysis, but there is little of it. Arguably, the absence of such analysis is a legacy, a cultural echo, of the pro-natalist anthropocentrism that characterizes most religions. 

Banchoff’s reflections are typical in this regard; so were Pope Francis’ in his environmental encyclical. Bridled by a deeply anthropocentric theology, Francis cannot fully incorporate environmental science into his analysis, for to do so he would have to reflect more deeply on the ways in which growing human numbers drive climate disruption, violence, and inequality. Francis has also clearly expressed his view that non-human organisms have intrinsic value but clearly, a single individual human life trumps that of the thousands of species that our own kind is driving off the planet. 

Religion to the Rescue? 

Banchoff has raised the question whether religions might be a significant and positive force in the world system. The historical record demonstrates they have, at various times and places, decisively promoted inclusion and exclusion, equality and inequality, tolerance and exclusion, and sometimes also violence. Can religions promote an effective response to the decline of the ecosystems upon which depend all the positive outcomes we might envision? 

My ongoing research suggests that although some religious individuals and groups from the world’s predominant religions are deeply concerned about environmental degradation and working hard to promote individual and collective action in response, they have not, as yet, precipitated successful in precipitating their envisioned groundswell of religious environmentalism. The evidence appears to indicate that traditional religious duties and moral obligations remain unconnected to environmental drivers for most religionists. Those involved in the world’s predominant religions are rarely more environmentally concerned and active, and usually less so, than their more secular counterparts when controlling for other variables. 

Terrapolitan Earth Civilization? 

There appears to be greater environmental awareness and concern, however, among those who have incorporated evolutionary and ecological understandings into their views of the human place in the world. Today, some religionists are fusing such understandings with their tradition’s longstanding metaphysical beliefs. Others, outside of the world’s predominant religious traditions, although entirely naturalistic in their outlooks, have found spiritual meaning and ethical guidance in such understandings. Such spiritualties and ethics can be considered a modern form of Natural Law philosophy. 

These developments suggest the possibility not only of resurrecting natural law as a form of civil religion, but also, the possibility of a civil earth religion. In Dark Green Religion and an essay titled Civil Earth Religion versus Religious Nationalism, I have argued that such spirituality avoids pernicious nationalism because it is rooted in an understanding ecological interdependence and evolutionary kinship, which erodes supremacist ideologies of all sorts, whether racist, religious or anthropocentric. The political theorist Daniel Deudney cleverly labeled this idea ‘terrapolitan earth religion’, arguing that it could provide the affective basis for a Federal-Republican Earth Constitution. Such a constitution, he thinks, is essential if we are to develop an adaptive and resilient system of global governance. 

The natural law tradition, which has been prominent in some streams of Christianity and especially in Catholicism, as well as in some theories of justice, is based on confidence that by taking the moral point of view, and reflecting rationally on the world, people of good will can, despite finding no consensus on the sources of existence, agree on a great deal ethically. We are all, after all, absolutely dependent on these sources however they are understood. In my view, for such promise to be realized, religious people will need to dig much more deeply into the facts of the world, and then fuse this with the universal capacity for awe, wonder, and reverence. 

I am not optimistic about this possibility but neither do I write it off, especially when thinking long term about the prospects for humans in nature.

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