To understand the predicament of industrial civilization, it’s not enough to grasp the outward shape of the crisis of our time: the looting of a finite planet’s stock of resources, the destabilization of the global climate, the breathtaking cluelessness with which politicians, pundits, and ordinary citizens alike insist that the only way we can get out of this mess involves doing even more of the same things that got us into it in the first place, and the rest of it. Follow the roots of our predicament down into the soil that feeds them, and you’ll find yourself in a murky realm of unspoken narratives and unacknowledged desires—the “mind-forg’d manacles,” as Blake called them, that keep most of us shackled in place as the great rumbling vehicle of global industrial society accelerates down the slope of its decline and fall.
Over the last seven months, I’ve tried to open up the obscurities of that subterranean realm using the language of religion as a tool. This is far from the first time that I’ve discussed the religious dimension of our blind faith in perpetual progress in these essays, but it’s the first time I’ve done so at length, and the sheer intensity of the emotions roused on all sides of the discussion is to my mind a sign of just how important that dimension has become.
The distinction made in an earlier post between religions and religious sensibilities is crucial to making sense of all this. Most discussions of the interfaces between religion, ecology, and the future have missed this distinction, and focused either on specific religious traditions or on the vague abstraction of religion as a whole. The resulting debates were not especially useful to anybody.
A classic example is the furore kickstarted by the 1967 publication of Lynn White’s famous essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” White argued that the rise of Christianity to its dominant position in the religious life of the western world was an essential precondition for the environmental crisis of our time. The old polytheist religions of the west, in his analysis, saw nature as sacred, the abode of a galaxy of numinous powers that could not be ignored with impunity; Christianity, by contrast, brought with it an image of the world as a lifeless mass of matter, an artifact put there by God for the sole benefit of human beings during the relatively brief period between the creation of the world and the Second Coming, after which it would be replaced by a new and improved model. By stripping nature of any inherent claim to human reverence, he suggested, Christianity made it easier for post-Christian western humanity to treat the earth as a lump of rock with no value beyond its use as a source of raw materials or a dumping ground for waste.
The debate that followed the appearance of White’s paper followed a trajectory many of my readers will find familiar. Partisans of White’s view defended it by digging up examples from history in which Christianity had been used to justify the abuse of nature, and had no trouble finding a bumper crop of instances. Opponents of White’s view attacked it by showing that the abuse of nature was not actually justified within a Christian worldview, and by and large they had no trouble finding a bumper crop of good theological grounds for their case.
What’s more, both were right. On the one hand, there’s nothing in Christian theology that requires the abuse of nature, and a very strong case can be made, from within the context of Christian faith, for the preservation of the environment as an imperative duty. On the other, over the course of the last two thousand years, very few Christians anywhere have recognized that duty, and a great many have used (and continue to use) excuses drawn from their faith to justify their abuse of the environment.
Factor in the influence of religious sensibilities and the paradox evaporates. A religious sensibility, again, is not a religion; it’s the cultural substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions that shape the way religious traditions are understood and practiced within a given culture or a set of related cultures. The religious sensibility that shaped Christian attitudes toward nature, and of course a great many other things besides, wasn’t unique to Christianity in any sense; it had already emerged in the Mediterranean world long before Jesus of Nazareth was born, and only the fact that Christianity happened to come out on top in the bitter religious struggles of the late classical world and suppressed nearly all its rivals gave White’s condemnation as much plausibility as it had.
As I sit here at my desk, for instance, I’m looking at a copy of On the Nature of the Universe by Ocellus Lucanus, a philosophical treatise probably written in the second or third century before the Common Era. Ocellus, like many of the cutting-edge thinkers of his age, wanted to challenge the popular notion that the cosmos had a beginning and might therefore have an end. That was part of a broader agenda—one that’s left significant traces in many contemporary currents of thought—that dismissed everything that came into being and passed away again as illusion, and tried to find a reality outside of the realm of time and change.
That commitment led to strange convictions. The fourth chapter of Ocellus’ treatise, for example, is devoted to proving that human beings ought to have sex. If, as Ocellus argues, the cosmos is eternal, it needs to remain perpetually stocked with its full complement of living things, and therefore human beings ought to keep on reproducing themselves—as long as they don’t enjoy the process, that is. Back of this distinctly odd argument lies the emergence, then under way, of that strain of thought we now call puritanism: the conviction that biological pleasures are always suspect, and can be permitted only when the actions that bring them also have some morally justifiable purpose.
In the generations following Ocellus’ time, that sort of thinking became standard in intellectual circles across the Mediterranean world, in modes ranging from the reasonable to the arguably psychotic. For all their subsequent reputation, the Stoics were on the mellow end; most Stoic thinkers classed sex as “indifferent,” meaning that it had no moral character of its own and could be right or wrong depending on the circumstances surrounding it. (Stoics criticized adultery, not because it was sex, but because it was breaking a promise, which they found utterly abhorrent.) The spectrum ran all the way from there to religious cults that made castration a sacrament or considered reproduction the most horrible sin of all because it trapped more souls in the prison of the flesh.
That was the religious sensibility of cutting-edge thinkers all through the world in which Christianity emerged, and since the new religion inevitably drew most of its early converts from people who were unsatisfied by the robust life-affirming traditional faiths the people of that time had inherited from their far from puritanical ancestors, it’s hardly a surprise that Christian teachings and institutions ended up absorbing a substantial helping of the attitudes that arose out of the rising religious sensibility of the time. Every human cultural phenomenon is complex, contested, and polyvalent, and the religious landscape of the western world is no exception to this rule; religious attitudes toward sex in that setting ranged all the way from the Free Spirit movement in late medieval Europe, which indulged in orgies as a sign that its members had returned to Eden, all the way to the Skoptsii of early modern Russia, who castrated themselves as a shortcut to perfect purity. Still, the average fell further toward the puritanical side of the scale than even so ascetic a pagan movement as the Stoics found reasonable.
I’ve used sex as an example here, partly because people perk up their ears whenever it’s mentioned and partly because it’s a good barometer of attitudes toward the biological side of human existence, but the same point can be traced much more broadly. White pointed to the sacred groves, outdoor worship, and ecological taboos of classical Mediterranean pagan religion, and contrasted this with the relative lack of veneration for natural ecosystems in Christianity. It’s certainly possible to point to counterexamples, from St. Francis of Assisi through the Anglican natural theology of the Bridgewater Treatises to the impressive efforts currently being made by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to establish ecological consciousness throughout the Eastern Orthodox church; the fact remains that so far these have been the exception rather than the rule. Given the sensibility in which the Christian church came to maturity, it’s hard to see how things could have gone any other way.
As the theist religions of the west gave way to civil religions, in turn, the same patterns held. Once again, that wasn’t true in a monolithic sense, and the first great wave of civil religion to hit the western world—the nationalism of the 18th and 19th centuries—went the other way, embracing reverence for nature and the irrational dimensions of life as a counterpoise to the cosmopolitan rationalism of the age. That’s why the first verse of “America the Beautiful”—consider the title, to start with—is about the American land, not its human history or political pretensions. Still, the ease with which that thinking was dropped by the self-proclaimed patriots of today’s American pseudoconservatism shows how shallow its roots were in the collective consciousness of our civilization. Back in the Seventies, you would sometimes hear that first verse sung in a rather more edgy form:
O ugly now for poisoned skies, for pesticided grain,
For strip-mined mountains’ travesty above the asphalt plain,
America! America! Man shed his waste on thee,
And milled the pines for billboard signs from sea to oily sea.
Back in the day, that stung. Sing it now, when it’s even more true than it was then, and the most common response you’ll get is blustering about jobs and the onward march of progress. Other ages have seen the same process at work: it’s when the balancing act among traditional narratives, mystical experience, and religious sensibility finally fails, and the theist religions of a civilization’s childhood and youth give way to the civil religions of its maturity and decay, that the underlying logic of its religious sensibility gets pushed to the logical extreme, and appears in its starkest form. In our case, that’s biophobia: the pervasive fear and hatred of biological existence that forms the usually unmentioned foundation for so much of contemporary culture.
Does that seem too strong a claim to you, dear reader? I encourage you to consider your own attitudes toward your own biological life, that normal and healthy process of ripening toward mortality in which you’re engaged right now. Life in that sense is not a nice clean abstract existence It’s a wet and sloppy reality of blood, mucus, urine, feces, and other sticky substances, proceeding all the way from the mess in which each of us is born to the mess in which most of us will die. It’s about change, growth and decay, and death—especially about death. Death isn’t the opposite of life, any more than birth is; it’s the natural completion and fulfillment of the process of being alive, and it’s something that people in a great many other cultures have been able to meet calmly, even joyfully, as a matter of course. Our terror of death is a good measure of our terror of life.
It’s an equally good measure of the complexity of religious sensibilities that some of the most cogent critiques of modern biophobia come from Christian writers. I’m thinking here especially of C.S. Lewis, who devoted the best of his adult novels—the space trilogy that includes Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—to tracing out the implications of the religion of progress that was replacing Christianity in the Britain of his time. Into the mouths of the staff of the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, the villains of the third book, Lewis put much of the twaddle about limitless progress being retailed by the scientists of his time. Why should we put up with having the earth infested with other living things? Why not make it a nice, clean, sterile planetary machine devoted entirely to the benefit of human beings—or, rather, that minority of human beings who are capable of rational cooperation in the grand cause of Man? Once we outgrow sentimental attachments to lower life forms, outdated quibbles about the moral treatment of other human beings, and suchlike pointless barriers to progress, nothing can stop our great leap outward to the stars!
You don’t hear the gospel of progress preached in quite so unrelenting a form very often these days, but the implications are still there. Consider the gospel of the Singularity currently being preached by Ray Kurzweil and his followers. I’ve commented before that Kurzweil’s prophecy is the fundamentalist Christian myth of the Rapture dolled up unconvincingly in science fiction drag, but there’s one significant difference. According to every version of Christian theology I know of, the god who will be directing the final extravaganza is motivated by compassion and has detailed personal experience of life in the wet and sticky sense discussed above, while the hyperintelligent supercomputers that fill the same role in Kurzweil’s mythology lack these job qualifications.
It’s thus not exactly encouraging that writers on the Singularity seem remarkably comfortable with the thought that these same supercomputers might decide to annihilate humanity instead of giving them the glorified robot bodies of the cyber-blessed in which Kurzweil puts his hope of salvation. It’s equally unencouraging when these same writers, or others of the same stripe, say that they don’t care if our species goes extinct so long as artificial intelligences of our making end up zooming across the cosmos. The same logic lies behind the insistence, quite common these days in certain circles, that our species can’t possibly remain “stuck on this rock”—the rock in question being the living Earth—and that somehow we can only thrive out there in the black and silent void.
I’m pretty sure that this is why the recent film Gravity has fielded such a flurry of nitpicking from science writers. What believers in progress hate about Gravity, I suggest, is not that it takes modest liberties with the details of space science—show me a science fiction film that doesn’t do so—but that it doesn’t romanticize space. It reminds its audiences that space isn’t the Atlantic Ocean, the Wild West, or any of the other models of terrestrial discovery and colonization that proponents of space travel have tried to map onto it. Space, not death, is the antithesis of life: empty, silent, cold, limitless, and as sterile as hard vacuum and hard radiation can make it. Watching Sandra Bullock struggling to get back to the only place in the cosmos where human beings actually belong is a sharp reminder of exactly what lies behind all that handwaving about “New Worlds for Man.”
Turn from the mythology of progress to the mythology of apocalypse, the Tweedledoom to Kurzweil’s Tweedledee, and you’re at least as likely to find biophobia, though these days it often takes an oddly sidelong form. Consider the passionate insistence, heard with great regularity on one end of the peak oil scene, that something or other is going to render life on Earth extinct sometime very soon—the usual date these days, now that 2012 has passed by without incident, is 2030. A while back, the favored cause of imminent extinction was runaway climate change; nuclear waste became popular after that, and most recently the death of the world’s oceans has become a common justification for the belief. None of these claims are backed by more than a tiny minority of scientific studies, but I can promise you that if you point this out, you will face angry accusations of pedaling “hopium.”
The people who spread these claims very often make much of their love for the Earth, but I have to say I find that insistence a bit disingenuous. Imagine, dear reader, that one of your loved ones—let’s call her Aunt Eartha, after one of my favorite jazz singers—has been told by a doctor that she has inoperable terminal cancer. Being aware that misdiagnosis is epidemic in today’s American medical industry, she seeks a second opinion, and you go with her to the hospital. A few hours later, the doctor comes to meet you in the waiting room, and tells you that he has good news: the first doctor has made a mistake, and there’s every chance Aunt Eartha still has many healthy years ahead of her.
Would you be likely to respond to this by becoming furious with the doctor and insisting that he was peddling hopium? If the doctor proceeded to show you the test results in detail and demonstrate why Aunt Eartha was in better shape than you feared, would you then go on to insist that if she wasn’t about to die of cancer, she was bound to die soon from diabetes, and when the tests didn’t bear this out either, would you start insisting that she must have severe heart disease? And if you did so, would the doctor perhaps be justified in wondering just how deep your professed love for Aunt Eartha actually went?
Mind you, those who talk about hopium have a point; the popular faith-based response to the crisis of our time that relies on the sacred words “I’m sure they’ll think of something” is a drug of sorts. Still, it bears remembering that the opposite of a bad idea is usually another bad idea, and hopium isn’t the only drug on the market just now; another is the equally deliberate and equally faith-based cultivation of despair. By analogy, we may as well call this “despairoin;” just as opium can be purified of the natural phytochemicals that make it hallucinatory and refined into heroin, hopium can be stripped of the hallucinatory fantasies of a bright new future, refined into despairoin, and peddled to addicts on the mean streets of the industrial world’s collective imagination.
I’ve suggested in the past that one of the things the paired myths of inevitable progress and inevitable apocalypse have in common is that both of them serve as excuses for inaction. Claim that progress is certain to save us all, or claim that some catastrophe or other is certain to doom us all, and either way you have a great justification for staying on the sofa and doing nothing. I’ve come to think, though, that the two mythologies share more in common than that. It’s true that both represent a refusal of what Joseph Campbell called the “call to adventure,” the still small voice summoning each of us to rise up in an age of crisis and decay to become the seedbearers of an age not yet born, but both mythologies also pretend to offer an escape from life, in the full, messy, intensely real sense I’ve suggested above.