I call this a catechesis without a hint of irony. Like any religion, the Eco-Gospel has a creation and fall myth, a ring of prophets and an official hierarchy, and a robust eschatology. Granted, it should be called an anti-gospel, since it is a message of doom, not of hope––a katangelion, not an euangelion. I wish I could score another neologism by calling the target of this post envirovangelism, i.e., environmentalism with enough depth to be religious, but the term has a pedigree, according to Google. I like "envirovangelism" not only because it's snappy (and apparently unclaimed), but also because of the hint of "viral" popularity it conveys about environmentalism. If nothing else, environmentalism has "gone viral" and now feeds on itself as a positive feedback loop of media generativity.
In any case, the Eco-Gospel's creation myth is basically Darwinian evolution, which is fine as far it goes. Its fall legend is, of course, the Industrial Revolution, but may extend as far back as the implicit misanthropy of a lot of environmentalism would carry it, namely, to the rise of human interests in nature. The ring of prophets and priests are none other than the likes of Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich, Al Gore, and the coterie of scientists populating the Climate Research Unit, and other great envirovangelists. There is even a fairly elaborate code of piety that extends to which kind of car a Green Person may drive, which foods she may or may not eat, what kind of people she may or may not associate with (if only for the good of her own Green Consciousness). It might even count as a sacrament of confirmation to buy a hybrid-engine car and surely a good contender for communion would be the tending of one's compost pile.
It is the eschatology of the Eco-Gospel, however, which most caught my eye today. My own students were being dutifully filled with fear at the doom coming to mankind if we do not repent. The "good news" is that there is hope of a splendorous heaven awaiting us if we reduce our carbon footprints, buy green, and vigorously clamp down on population growth (which our less inhibited and freer thinking ancestors would recognize as colonialism and genocide in slow motion). Enemies of the katangelion are enemies of the true good of mankind and should be opposed as heretics. Everyday the words of the prophets are confirmed: We are all guilty of the sin of hurting our Mother in Earth and we must all turn from our corrupt, industrial ways–– must all return to Eden from Nouveau Jerusalem. Eventually, the darkness will be overcome, whether by a redemptive treacly pastoralization of humanity or by a just damnation of humanity to eternal extinction by Mother Nature and her demiurge the Selfish Geneie. Until then, however, terrestrial Nature––Nature "dwelling among us"––suffers like a paschal lamb for our endless sins against Life.
Richard Dawkins is known for, among other things, accusing religious parents of child abuse for raising children under a faith system. The fear of hell and the (putative) scorn for rationality amount, in Dakwins' lidless eyes, to actual abuse of children. For my part I have to wonder which is more cruel, though. Filling children's heads with fears of fire and brimstone, while giving them heartfelt assurance and explicit instruction in how to avoid such a fate (the Sinner's Prayer, the Sacraments, etc.)––or filling their heads with dread of ice, flooding, famine, and extinction without giving them any assurance "there is a way out" nor any explicit instruction about how one can be saved. After all, what can a typical 5-year-old do about melting ice caps and dying frogs in the Amazon? Nothing, except risk a slow descent into environmental melancholy and a sense of impotence in the face of the coming doomsday. There is a reason religious people have shaped the world more than non-religious people: they ignored a creeping sense of futility and acted as if God were literally on their side.
Moreover, is "Our Father in Heaven" really less abstract and misleading to a child than "carbon-based global warming" and "rampant extinction"? As a child grows up, certainly his grasp of complex ecological concepts will improve and he will get a more realistic, more defensible view of envirovangelism. But the same goes for a traditionally religious child: Our Father in Heaven coalesces into the Being of All Being in a way that salvages forgivably crude childhood catechism while also meeting advanced criticisms in an abstract mode.
My claim is that evangelistic environmentalism is strikingly like a religious phenomenon. I would like to note that some environmentalists are explicit about the religious burdens and blessings of environmentalism, invoking the Spirit of Gaia, the Spirit of Humanity, ancient Pagan Wisdom, and the like as a direct challenge to the alleged anti-environmentalism of mainstream religion (viz., Christianity). Nor am I the only person to have pointed at the religious air of environmentalism. Consider:
Is Environmentalism a Religion?
by David Boaz
Novelist Michael Crichton said that environmentalism had all the trappings of a religion: “Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday.” Atwood is filling it out with saints and hymns.
Environmentalism as Religion
by Michael Crichton
I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can't be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people---the best people, the most enlightened people---do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.
Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism.
Environmentalism as Religion
by Paul H. Rubin
Consider some of the ways in which environmental behaviors echo religious behaviors and thus provide meaningful rituals for Greens:
• There is a holy day—Earth Day.
• There are food taboos. Instead of eating fish on Friday, or avoiding pork, Greens now eat organic foods and many are moving towards eating only locally grown foods.
• There is no prayer, but there are self-sacrificing rituals that are not particularly useful, such as recycling. Recycling paper to save trees, for example, makes no sense since the effect will be to reduce the number of trees planted in the long run.
• Belief systems are embraced with no logical basis. For example, environmentalists almost universally believe in the dangers of global warming but also reject the best solution to the problem, which is nuclear power. These two beliefs co-exist based on faith, not reason.
• There are no temples, but there are sacred structures. As I walk around the Emory campus, I am continually confronted with recycling bins, and instead of one trash can I am faced with several for different sorts of trash. Universities are centers of the environmental religion, and such structures are increasingly common. While people have worshipped many things, we may be the first to build shrines to garbage.
• Environmentalism is a proselytizing religion. Skeptics are not merely people unconvinced by the evidence: They are treated as evil sinners. I probably would not write this article if I did not have tenure.
In a blog post about Rubin's essay one anonymous commentor wrote this zinger, "In the Christian Bible there is one character who says 'Worship me and I will give you power and authority over all the kingdoms of the Earth'. The modern environmental movement has taken this an turned it around: 'Worship the Earth and it will give you power and authority over evil'." Touché!
In "New Religion of Environmentalism," Robert H. Nelson writes:
When Earth Day started in 1970, few people would have expected it to become a globally observed religious holiday with its own ten commandments, including “use less water,” “save electricity,” “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and “spread the word.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants people everywhere to “commit to action” in defense of the Earth.
America’s leading environmental historian, William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin, calls environmentalism a new religion because it offers “a complex series of moral imperatives for ethical action, and judges human conduct accordingly.”
In an article at the website Beyond Atheism, the author writes with a refreshing measure of frankness:
Let's face it: sometimes it's pretty lonely being an atheist. Everyone else in town gets all gussied up and gets together in church while we sit at home or roam the empty streets in search of open businesses. As much as we criticize them, folks who belong to religious communities get a lot out of it. …
What's an atheist to do? As I described in the Further Than Atheism article To Church or Not To Church, some atheists choose to go to church even though they don't believe, … [but for some atheists] that's a little difficult to stomach, so we're left on our own.
A great alternative for atheists is to join non-religious activist groups. Activism is like religion in that it is based in groups of people that come together because of shared ideals, but it's unlike religion in that it doesn't demand absolute allegiance or an abandonment of critical thinking (at least in the best activist groups - I'll admit that there are some activist communities in which unthinking devotion is a basic requirement of membership).
Environmentalism is particularly ideal for atheists because it isn't based upon a short-term objective. The environmental problems our world faces are so immense that we can all be pretty sure that environmental organizations will be needed for generations to come. Environmentalism is also fantastic because it's compatible with a secular humanist perspective. … Almost all atheists assume that this world is all we've got, so it makes the best sense for us to work to preserve its integrity.
Note the last few sentiments. A secular religion inevitably latches onto "something Greater", some unseen, undying, metaphysical Principle of Unity and Order (such as "Humanity" of "the good of future generations") which explains an individual's predicaments, prospects, dreams, and duties.
But perhaps the atheist environmentalist should wary. This video captures just how profoundly religious (or "enthusiastic," in Knox's sense of the term) environmentalism can be. It speaks for itself.
It might be objected that this is an unfair exhibit in my case, since it is clearly an extreme eco-group and therefore an outlier among real eco-friends. By my lights, though, I don't see the point of environmentalism––an Ism––if it doesn't have room for this kind of mania. The basic complaint of most environmentalists, as I understand them, is that too many people care too little about the Earth. Ergo, the cure of environmentalism is to make more people care more about the Earth. It logically follows that the fewer people care too little, or the more people who care enough, are environmentalist victories. But what would "caring enough" look like? Anything close to a naturalist shrug ("It's Nature, shit happens, gotta roll with it––evolution, the circle of life") is obviously far short of that to which what environmentalism calls us. The environmentalist must by definition exceed shrugging naturalism if she is going to do all she can, and convince all the people she can, to "save Earth." Hence, the clear-minded environmentalist will be drawn closer and closer to the behavior in the Earth First! video. So it is in the eco-spiritual life: to stand still is to fall behind.
A final objection may be that I'm right––but it doesn't prove as much as I think. In other words, perhaps a winning rejoinder is to admit my––and others'––analysis of environvangelism is basically correct: environmentalism is religious, but then deflect the blow by saying "religious" is just a limiting term for the larger category of "anthropological." Meaning, it may be a small price to pay to admit environmentalism is religious in nature, since the objector might want to re-situate religion itself in the larger arena of "evolved human behavior." That is the tack Crichton seems to take in the lecture I linked above. Religious structures of behavior are universally and irrepressibly human, so it's natural to see environmentalism fill in the space for those structures. Hence, the objection goes, envirovangelism is not wrong for being religious, because religion is not right: it just is, it is "just something people do to get by." At that point, however, I think the debate quickly dissolves into irrationalism, for if envirovangelism is, like religion, just an evolved survival mechanism, then why defend it as a scientific ideology? If environmentalism is inherently, or at least inevitably, religious, is it "pure science"? And if it is pure science, why is it, by all appearances, so remarkably religious?
Or might that not be a great clue itself? Perhaps the religious impulses of "scientific environmentalism"––as well as the equally profound and equally marginalized scientific impulses of religion––point to a higher synthesis in which humankind can assume its full stature as naturally religious beings. To find "pure religion" and "pure science" arching back to meet other again and again is to see a great clue about reality: both endeavors are deeply human efforts to know the Creator of both the heavens and the earth. A core tenet of Christianity, in most cases, is that humans are naturally, instinctively drawn Godward. It turns out a major tenet of evolutionism says the same: we are just as naturally and adaptively religious as we are scientific. Otherwise, we are no more rational in science and in religion than any other creatures in their own adapted animadversions. A high price indeed to pay for Scientific Rationalism.