Sustainable living as religious observance
I have spent the last few days at a conference organized by the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary near Artemas, Pennsylvania. Titled “The Age of Limits,” it was well attended and promises to be one of a series of annual conferences to address the waning of the industrial age and the social adaptation it makes necessary. This conference was quite different from all the others I have attended.
First, the venue is a campground; a beautiful one, consisting of lush meadows surrounded by an equally lush but passable forest girded on three sides by a fast-flowing creek of cold, clean water. This sanctuary is dedicated to nature spirituality, and includes a very impressive stone circle and a multitude of little shrines, altars, charms and amulets hung on trees. (Also included is an assortment of cheerful hippies skinny-dipping in the creek.) Second, spirituality was prominently featured in the presentations: the question of spiritual and emotional adaptation to fast-changing, unsettled times was very much on the agenda. Third, the campground is owned by a church; one of undefined denomination, theological bent or specific set of beliefs, but a church nevertheless. Lastly, the campground is run by a monastery that is at the heart of this church; the monks and nuns do not wear habits, do not seem to have not taken any specific vows other than those of loyalty, poverty and obedience, but in substance not too different from, say, the Benedictine Order: work is seven days a week, there is a meeting at eight sharp every morning, all meals are prepared and eaten together, and, except for insignificant personal effects, all property is shared.
In case the term “new-age hippies” has sprung to mind, let me add some more detail. This is not California (where the new-age flakes mostly reside) but southern Pennsylvania, on the Maryland border, some 30 miles from the dead industrial town of Cumberland, and, other than that, in the middle of nowhere. The campground is outfitted with hot and cold running water, electricity from a 10kW diesel generator, a septic system, a large communal kitchen and everything else needed to comfortably house and feed several hundred people. The buildings that are used year-round are super-insulated and heated with local wood. There is a machine shop which turns out, among other things, precision components for biomedical equipment, and a winery that makes several varieties of mead. The place has a strong survivalist bent, not of the doomsteading variety, but focused on being prepared to do whatever it takes, depending on what the future brings, be it farming or repairing the neighbors' farm equipment and ever-plentiful firearms. It is a perfectly good, successful example of thoughtful preparation and adapting in place.
I do not have an awful lot to say on the subjects of mysticism or spirituality, but since these were on the agenda at this gathering, at which I was invited to speak, I had thought that I could add something to the proceedings by holding forth on the (possibly) related topic of religion and the (potential) usefulness of religious institutions in helping us adapt to the unfolding deterioration and collapse of industrial civilization, all the while steering well clear of any mystical or spiritual matters. What follows is a summary of my talk, based on the notes I had scribbled on some index cards.
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Our social institutions are failing us. This is not an economic or technological problem but a cultural one. There are billions of people in the world who are able to survive on less than a dollar a day, and yet many of these people are happier than most of the people in the developed nations. This societal failure takes many forms. There is the educational system which mainly trains students to take tests (not a marketable skill), then attempts to teach them a job (which, more often than not, no longer exists). The best outcome that education can achieve—an educated person, versed in liberal arts and basic science—it considers useless.
There is the travesty of commerce and finance, with an insistence on growth at any cost, on maintaining inflated standards which make it impossible for people to meet their basic needs if they lack the money for the upscale, high-standard products and services that are considered mandatory, on extreme but impersonal interdependence where everyone is forced to rely on and to put their trust in complete strangers. It is a system that forces everyone to become a gambler—be it with your retirement, or with taking on student loans, or with most other investments. Furthermore, this system of legalized gambling is rigged so as to pool localized, personal risk into centralized, systemic risk that will, sooner or later, bring down the entire economic system.
The outcome of all this is that most human relationships have been reduced to the commercial, client-server paradigm. The intergenerational contract, where parents and grandparents bring up children who then take care of them in their old age, and which is an essential evolved trait of the human species, has been gambled away. There is extreme alienation, which reduces most conversations to scripted interactions on topics that are considered safe, and a great deal of transience, both in where people live and in the people with whom they associate. There is a steady replacement of local, human culture with commercial culture, packaged as a set of popular but short-lived cultural products.
Faced with all this, the natural response for many people is to want to turn their back on society, but without being alone. What institutions do we have that could help them accomplish this? Are there any that predate this now failed society, as well as the countless other societies that have failed before? Yes, there are. Religious institutions have turned their back on more societies than we can count, and have survived. Moreover, they have repeatedly provided a survival mechanism where all else had failed.
A well-studied example is Rome after the collapse of the Roman empire. Rome went from a majestic imperial center to a papal swamp. The barbarians destroyed the baths and the fountains, but left the aqueducts running. Over the following decades, the aqueducts filled Rome with water, turning it into a malarial swamp. The Roman forum was used to graze goats and to scavenge marble, which was then burned to make lime, to make mortar which was used to build churches and monasteries. What followed was an austere, ascetic age dominated by religion, which eventually coalesced into the Holy Roman Empire. It was neither holy, nor roman, nor an empire, but the dominant role of religion set the rules by which everyone had to play, even its rulers: no warfare was permitted on Sundays or feast days, or in churches or monasteries, which were treated as sanctuaries, as well as church property, which was considered sacrosanct. There followed several centuries of small-scale, silly little “operetta” wars, in which not too many people were hurt or killed. The last surviving echo of this age was the Christmas cease-fire during the first world war.
What makes religion unique among human institutions is its ubiquity (all cultures have it in one form or another) and its lack of compartmentalization. The secular universe is always broken up into specialties. Look at the departments at your typical college or university: there is marketing, communications, economics, political science, sociology, psychology, etc., which all have their circumscribed set of concerns. Anything else is considered interdisciplinary and results in a denial of tenure. In comparison, religion is a total system that encompasses every aspect of human existence. Moreover, religion (when placed in a position of authority) is able to place limits on the secular realm, rejecting those parts of it which it finds harmful or unhelpful. Religions also have the uncanny ability to demand and be granted social exemptions and become, to quite a considerable extent, a law onto themselves. The role and authority of religion tends to increase in times of adversity. Immigrants, exiles, diaspora communities are often held together by a church, a mosque, a synagogue, an ashram, etc. This effect usually wanes as times get better, but the institutions never quite go away, and come roaring back in times such as this.
I fully understand that religion is by no means popular with everyone. I would not have given this talk if this were, say, France, but the unique religious environment of the United States makes the subject impossible to ignore. To me, atheism is a perfectly valid belief (or, if you like, belief system). Everyone believes something, because our brains spontaneously produce explanations for things, even where there isn't one, as is generally the case with the stock market, which can go up or down for no reason at all. Everyone believes in a creation myth of one type or another. The atheist creation myth is the Big Bang, which is that the universe came into existence 12.75 billion years ago. Alternatively, you can believe that the world was created in 6 days of work, followed by a day off. Or, if you are one of the Oogla people described by Douglas Adams, who live in the Oogla tree and subsist on Oogla nuts, you believe that the universe was created when the Giant Pixie sneezed, in an event known as the Big Sneeze.
Theology and astrophysics and humor/science fiction literature are all very different from the point of view of their practitioners, but as for the rest of us who make up about 99.9% of humanity, it is a matter of choosing what we want to believe. We walk up to the great salad bar of faith and decide what to put on our plate. The practitioners try to restrict our choices (they are, after all, in competition with each other) but in the end it is up to us. If the beliefs happen to be contradictory, then we don't have to believe in them at the same time. To us, these are just different stories, accepted on faith, without proof or evidence. But there is one type of story that you get to play a role in, rather than just watch television. There are no historical reenactments of the Big Bang that I am aware of, no little Big Bang mangers, with the Three Subatomic Particles come bearing gifts, set up annually to commemorate the birth of the universe on its birthday.
We cannot not believe because our brains are wired for it. All of our perceptions and value judgments are based on what we believe. And our beliefs are mostly based on what we've been told when we were young and impressionable, and unquestioning. Some beliefs are outlandish; for instance, people believe that suburban real estate will continue to be valuable, because they will continue to be able to drive there. Religious belief in particular offers us a connection. The word “religion” comes from the Latin religere, to reconnect. Religion gives us a part to play. Scientific belief makes us a research subject, a specimen, or, if we are young and still daydream, a great scientist about to be awarded the Nobel prize. Science has its uses, of course. (The notes for this talk were written with a National Science Foundation Grantee Conference pen.) Science has its utility, you see. It can also inspire awe. The Large Hadron Collider is an awe-inspiring scientific experiment. But there are much cheaper ways to inspire awe, giving people a role to play at the same time; a role that expands in bad times.
The minimal functions of religion are limited to what one priest once expressed it as “Hatch 'em, match em and dispatch 'em”: baptism, matrimony and last rites. The maximal functions might be carried out by a network of monasteries that oversee agriculture and construction, regulate commerce, control politics, conduct scholarly investigation, limit warfare and offer education, medical treatment and all manner of advice. This describes, among many others, medieval Europe and Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion. Societies in which religious functions are maximized tend to last a few thousand years longer than the ones in which they are minimized.
There is a long-standing tradition of exempting religious organizations from the rules that govern civil organizations. These run the gamut from taxation to labor laws and land use laws, to lax law enforcement (which is why the Roman Catholic church in North America has not been summarily shut down, as a preventative measure, to prevent further incidents of child molestation). There are many special exemptions grandfathered in, from the Christian Scientists being exempt from Romneycare in Massachusetts to the Amish in Pennsylvania being able to live in ways that would alarm Child Protective Services were they living in a city. An exception that proves the rules is the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, which was torched out of existence by the FBI: if you stockpile illegal firearms and impregnate underage women whom you hold captive, the government will eventually go after you, but not before much soul-searching accompanied by a full-scale media frenzy. Cults are a bad problem specifically because political authorities are afraid to go near them. In the US, it's practically in their DNA to avoid a confrontation with anything even vaguely religious. Political arrangements are transient; religions are not. Also, religions often help governments do their job, or do the job that they do not do, of helping take care of the sick, the old and the indigent. Religious organizations face the fewest barriers to expanding their functions in bad times. They are the organizations most capable of creating alternative living arrangements during a time of permanent crisis.
Religious institutions are sustainable and resilient by virtue of the fact that they tend to outlive cultures, empires and civilizations. Not all of them are, but life in balance with nature is imperative for any religion that wishes to be one of the surviving ones. To this end, nature spirituality, which is practiced at the Four Quarters, seems to have its priorities straight. In any human endeavor there is always the threat of Realpolitik rearing Henry Kissinger's ugly head, and religions are no exception, but religions offer wider latitude for moral challenge than secular organizations (unless they are largely dead).
This brings us back to the American context. In other parts of the world, conscientious atheism can be perfectly moral, even scrupulous because for an atheist morality and ethics are ends in themselves, not motivated by some supernatural, external force. But the US was founded for religious reasons, and political tolerance of religious differences is here enshrined more fully than any other freedom. Given the steady erosion of civil liberties, the emergence of an untouchable financial/political elite beyond the reach of the law, and the acceptance of fraud at every level, an attempt to mount a moral challenge via the legal system is futile. At the same time, religious freedom will prove to be very difficult for American politicians to whittle down. It would be foolish to ignore so potent a source of public authority.
Religion does have a negative side, which we should not ignore either. It mostly has to do with identity games. Give an idiot a flag to wave, an anthem to sing and some patriotic drivel to repeat unquestioningly, and he will march off to battle to kill other such idiots who are marching under a different flag. Religions provide ample scope for such identification, but religious idiots tend to be even more ardent than political idiots. But at a higher, non-idiotic level, different religions tend to work and play well together. A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar... and what do you suppose they discuss? Who is the one true god? Not likely; they are far more likely to compare notes on whatever happens to threaten or to oppress them, and to share their troubles. Religious tolerance and religious freedom are exactly the same thing. Freedom from religion is just as important; the atheists deserve to have their own church. (It can be an open-air church, to save money, and it can stand empty.)
Note that I have not delved into the specifics of any one religion. I have used the word faith, but have refrained from using the s-word (spirituality). That's not what this talk was about. My point is that we have religious institutions, or traditions, that are able to survive just about anything. We also have a society that is disintegrating, a corrupt political system that will ruin many lies, and an economy that is failing to provide the necessities for more and more people. Why should we fight battles that have already been won? Religious institutions have already succeeded in fighting political institutions down to a reasonable truce, which the politicians are rightly terrified to break. Let us not start from scratch; let us work with what we already have.
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