In a conversation over the holiday I posited to a friend that the modern worldview which guides human action practically worldwide has all the hallmarks of a religion. I contended that this “religion” is at the root of our ecological predicament and that changing the current perilous trajectory of humankind would entail the adoption of an ecologically sound religion to replace it.
When I say religion, I mean “worldview,” and I believe the two are synonymous. Even if one has a supposedly secular worldview that relies on economics, psychology, biology or any other field for an explanation of how the world works, it will inevitably look like a religion since such worldviews have unquestioned (and often unquestionable!) premises and may make claims to explain all the social and/or physical phenomena we experience. These secular worldviews tend to be reductionist, describing the interactions of humans with one another and the physical world as nothing but a product of economic laws, human psychology or biological imperatives.
One cannot invent a religion. Religions either grow out of an accretion of spiritual and philosophical traditions over time or they start with a charismatic figure who brings a new set of ideas and standards into a society and is later labelled a divine prophet or the originator of a new philosophy or discipline.
I’ve tried to imagine what the shape of an ecologically sound religion/worldview might be. My friend wisely offered the following humble beginning: “Be kind. It’s all connected.”
The first two words are familiar to anyone affiliated with a religion. It is the equivalent of “Love thy neighbor.” But the second phrase creates an altogether more expansive meaning for the first, implying that we should not only be kind to our fellow humans, but to all nonhuman entities, animate and inanimate.
Just embracing such an attitude would mark a profound shift in consciousness. Achieving it in practice would necessarily be a revolution in modern society—overturning practically everything we now do under the influence of a consciousness that does not give any autonomous value to natural entities. Instead, those entities are valued only for what we can extract from them for our benefit.
It seems axiomatic that in a connected world our kindness to nonhuman entities would redound to our benefit. We would probably not continue to undermine the habitability of the biosphere as much as we do. On the other hand, we would be obliged to create a much larger space for nonhuman participants in the biosphere and that would mean a significant reduction in what we call our “standard of living.”
That seems like a reasonable tradeoff if it means that human culture would continue for a long time into the future instead of being threatened with extinction. Right now, however, we have made a devil’s bargain which few people comprehend. We’ve traded away durability for near-term comfort. And, we’ve mistakenly classified our level of comfort as an index of the durability of our culture. Most people believe the structures and processes we’ve concocted are hardy when they are, in fact, fragile and prone to collapse.
A new religion/worldview would have to convince us as a species that the seeming tradeoff of less comfort for more durability is worthwhile. How that could happen remains opaque. But it points to a problem more basic than our flawed physical infrastructure. The very way we imagine the world is making it impossible to change our current perilous course.
Photo: “Our nature of gods own country” (15 June 2017). Creator: Sunitha200313. Via Wikimedia Commons.