April 23, 2014

Religion at the Millennium (short version)

This article by Edward Goldsmith introduced The Ecologist special issue on Cosmic Religion, January 2000. See also an extended version of this article here.

Three years ago, at a meeting on a ship that took us to Patmos, where St John wrote Revelations, His Holiness The Metropolitan John of Pergamon declared that environmental destruction must be regarded as a sin. It was encouraging to see dignitaries from the Church of England and Roman Catholicism immediately concur, as did Hindu. Jain, and Zorostrian speakers.

But none of them may have realized the full implications of the Metropolitan’s declaration: it was in effect an indictment of our modern industrial society itself. The destruction of the natural world, which is proceeding at an ever greater pace today, is not an accident but the inevitable consequence of the whole enterprise to which our modern industrial society is so whole-heartedly committed: progress or economic development, its dominant feature.

This process has rarely been defined, but it involves – above all – the systematic substitution of the world of commodified human artefacts or the surrogate world, for the natural world or the real world – the product of three thousand million years of biological and ecological evolution

There is another problem with the notion that to ‘destroy the environment is a sin’. People may pay lip service to it, but it will only sink into their psyche, and its many implications will only be accepted and acted upon if it is reconcilable with the world-view with which they have been imbued.

This is true with everybody, whether they be pavement artists, theologians or scientists, though the latter claim that they only accept a proposition as constituting scientific knowledge if it has been verified, (or as Karl Popper insisted, “falsified”) in controlled laboratory conditions, an illusion of course as our more enlightened philosophers of science, such as Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, and others have shown. Verification or falsification serve little more than to rationalize and hence legitimise beliefs that have been acquired by intuition – which in fact are those that best fit in with our paradigm on the subject or our more general world-view. As Michael Polanyi puts it,

“the test of proof or disproof is in fact irrelevant for the acceptance or rejection of fundamental beliefs, and to claim that you strictly refrain from believing anything that should be disproved is merely to cloak your own will to hide your beliefs behind a false pretence of self-critical severity.” [1]

More to the point mainstream scientists, like everybody else, will do everything they can to preserve their paradigm or world-view in the face of knowledge that appears to undermine it and hence will reject any propositions that conflict with it. This is referred to by the eminent anthropologist A F C Wallace as “the principle of the preservation of cognitive structure”. [2]

The idea that to destroy the environment is a sin is also irreconcilable with what is the effective secular religion that underlies the world view of industrial man, whose most fundamental tenet is that science, technology and industry – perhaps allied with free trade – will create a material and technological paradise on earth from which all the problems that have beset us over the centuries, such as poverty, disease, unemployment, homelessness, crime, drug-addiction, alcoholism, and, as some scientists have actually assured us, even death itself, will have been eliminated once and for all.

It follows that all benefits are seen as man-made – the product of economic development. Thus health is seen as something that is dispensed in hospitals, or at least by the medical profession, with the aid of the latest technological devices and pharmaceutical preparations. Law and order, rather than being natural features of a normal human society, are seen instead as provided by our police force in conjunction with the law courts and the prison system.

On the other hand no value is attributed by our economists and politicians to the irreplaceable benefits derived from the normal functioning of the natural world and that assure the stability of our climate, the fertility of our soil, the replenishment of our water supplies, and the integrity and cohesion of our families and communitie. It follows that to be deprived of these non-benefits cannot constitute a ‘cost’ and the natural systems that provide them can thereby be destroyed with economic impunity.

This aberrant attitude is further rationalized by mainstream scientists, who set out systematically to denigrate natural processes, and seek to persuade us that “the wisdom of nature is a sentimental notion”, [3] worse still that nature incorporates an anti-wisdom, “clumsy, wasteful, and blundering” [4] as Darwin saw it. Likewise Sir Peter Medawar, biologist and Nobel Laureate, talked of “nature’s own artless improvisations”. [5]

Even worse, mainstream science sees the natural world as individualistic, aggressive and terrifyingly cruel. For Darwin “all nature is at war”, and his most eminent disciple, T H Huxley, concurred. As he stated in his celebrated Romanes lecture of 1890, setting out what has come to be known as the ‘gladiatoral’ view of the natural world,

“From the point of view of the moralist the animal world is about on the same level as the gladiator’s show. The creatures are fairly well treated and set to fight – whereby the strongest, the swiftest, and the cunningest live to fight another day. The spectator has no need to turn his thumbs down, as no quarter is given.” [6]

For Lester, the American sociologist, nature’s shortcomings are, as Donald Worster puts it,

“but an invitation to man to become nature’s engineer and create a paradise on Earth of his own design, whose functioning he can plan and direct in all its detail.” [7]

Darwinians and sociobiologists concur. For them it is possible to create a good world where we behave ethically towards each other, but for this to be possible we must declare war against the evil world of nature. As Huxley put it,

“the ethical progress of society depends not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.” [8]

This is one of the main tenets of what is in effect a secular religious cult – which follows in direct line from that of a number of well-documented religious cults that flowered in the early history of the Western world. One of the best documented is that of the Gnostics, who like mainstream scientists saw the natural world as inefficient and even positively evil. They did not deny that there was order and law in the cosmos, but it was a

“rigid and inimical order a tyrannical and evil law, devoid of meaning and goodness, alien to the purposes of man and to his inner essence.” [9]

For the Gnostics, God and the cosmos were no longer intimately related as in the classical world. They had become alien to each other, indeed opposites. So man was condemned to cosmic solitude [10] as he is too by mainstream science. Jacques Monod, the great French biologist and Nobel Laureate, admits that animistic man could see himself as an integral part of the natural world:

“Animism established a covenant between man and nature, a profound alliance outside of which seems to stretch only terrifying solitude. But today science has revealed to us the terrible truth, the ancient covenant has been broken, man knows at last that he is alone in the immensity of the universe, in which he has no function, in which he has no duties, and in which he emerged by pure chance” [11]

This is an astonishing dogma based largely on another dogma – equally untenable – that of the randomness of natural processes, especially the all-encompassing life process: evolution. Both are irreconcilable with any real knowledge of the structure and function of the world of living things.

However, there is one big difference between the position of the Gnostics and that of the mainstream scientists of today. For the former, God required that humanity break away from the evil world and restrict life to the life of the spirit.

The position of what is in effect the secular religion of modern science and the fundamentalist cult of socio-biology, though based on the same premises, comes to a very different conclusion. The world is inefficient, badly designed, and indeed thoroughly evil, the scientific priests agree – but the answer is not to hide from it but to redesign and transform it, according to their far better design. This is the ultimate blasphemy and also the ultimate presumption. Homo scientificus has in fact deified himself. He is now in a position to recreate the world.

The critical importance of maintaining the order of the living world is only just becoming apparent to what is still a minority of scientists, largely as a result of the work of Jim Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. They have shown that the biosphere or world of living things together with the geological substrate and atmospheric environment constitutes a single being, which of course traditional man has always known.

Jim Lovelock refers to it as “Gaia” – the Greek Goddess of the Earth. We can also refer to it as the ‘ecosphere’, to use a term coined by the ecologist Lamont Cole. Indeed if the atmosphere’s oxygen content were too low, then some species would not be able to breathe, while if it were too high the earth’s atmosphere would become so inflammable that a single spark could set off uncontrollable fires. If its carbon dioxide contents were in turn too low, the earth would be too cold, and if too high its temperature would exceed that which most forms of life could support – a principle which scientists have ignored to the cost of humanity and the natural world, as we are realizing only today, now that we are caught up in what appears to be a chain reaction towards ever-worsening climatic destabilisation.

Natural systems seek to maintain the order of the whole

Contrary to what mainstream scientists, and in particular sociobiologists tell us, natural systems at different levels of organization such as cells, biological organisms, families, communities, and ecosystems, seek, consciously or not, to maintain the order of the larger wholes of which they are part.

That remarkable theoretical biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy was struck by the “whole maintaining character” of life processes at the level of the biological organism. [12] So was the Austrian biologist E Ungerer who was so impressed by the “whole maintaining function of life processes” that he decided to replace the biological consideration of purpose with that of wholeness. [16]

That the constituent parts of any natural system must strive above all to maintain its order is clear because they evolved to fulfil their specific functions within it, and are thereby totally dependent on its preservation for their welfare and indeed for their survival.

Eugene Odum, whose “Fundamentals of Ecology” was the standard textbook in American universities for decades, points out that

“the individual cannot survive for long without its population, any more than the organ would be able to survive for long as a self-perpetuating unit without its organism.” [14]

Children brought up in isolation or by wild animals, of which a number of cases have been well-documented, never develop mentally beyond the age of four or five. Children brought up in an unstable family, or outside the family unit, tend to be emotionally unstable and have a far greater chance of becoming social misfits, delinquents, and criminals.

The family, however, cannot thrive as a little oasis of order in a sea of social disorder, and it needs to be part of a cohesive community, which is of such importance in the traditional world that people cannot imagine living outside it.

Nor, of course, can individuals, families, and communities, survive if the order of the natural world has been destroyed – a process to which we are today totally committed in order to maintain instead the order our aberrant world economy and the immediate interests of the multinational corporations that control it.

Unfortunately this key principle only becomes apparent when life processes are seen holistically in terms of their relationship with the spatio-temporal whole of which they are part. Mainstream scientists, who insist on looking at them in isolation from the whole – whose very existence most of them chose to ignore – continue to see them as random, malleable, goalless and self-serving.

This could not be better illustrated than by the writings of Professor Richard Dawkins at Oxford University, for whom there is “no selective advantage” in displaying any concern for the stability and integrity of the larger whole. [15] Hence they are only concerned with their own petty intent.

Also, if behaviour is looked at reductionistically, as mainstream scientists tend to do, there is no way in which its purposive and ‘whole maintaining’ function can be established, and hence no way of distinguishing between behaviour that serves to maintain the critical order of the living world and that which on the contrary serves to disrupt it, which explains why this critical distinction is foreign to mainstream science – though critical to primal religions and to early archaic ones such as Judaism, as Margaret Barker in particular makes clear in this Millenium issue of The Ecologist.

If it is impossible to reconcile the declaration that environmental destruction is a sin with either science or Gnostic religion, so is also difficult – though by no means as much so – to reconcile it with modern mainstream religions. For though they do not see the natural world and indeed the cosmos as evil, they have practically no interest in it.

With the disintegration of society these religions have become increasingly ‘other worldly’, and cease to fulfil their original role of linking people to their society, to the natural world, and to the all-encompassing cosmos. In the atomised society we have created only interpersonal relationships make any sense, and even religion becomes little more than an interpersonal relationship between a now asocial and an-ecological man and a God who is now attributed these same characteristics.

Mainstream religion has indeed lost its way and it needs to return to its ancient roots, and even go further and learn from the wisdom of primal people, a point made very strongly in this issue of The Ecologist by that remarkable man Father Bede Griffiths, who worked for many years in India and fully understood the religious culture of traditional people. Darryl Wilson’s article “Mis Misa” confirms what Father Griffith tells us by providing some idea of how American Indian tribal peoples – and let us not forget that we were once all tribal people – saw their relationship to the cosmos.

The relevance of the religion of primal people is that they are totally reconcilable with the principle that the destruction of the environment is a sin, more so, it is their most fundamental teaching. Indeed primal religio-culture is concerned above all with the preservation of the order of the cosmos and hence with that of its constituent families, communities, and ecosystems.

The French historian Fustel de Coulange, in his study of the ancient city, tells us that

“what unites the members of the ancient family is something more powerful than birth or sentiment, or physical force, it is the religion of the fireside and of the ancestors. It makes the families form one body in this life and in the other. The ancient family is a religious association more than an association of nature.” [16]

Robert Parsons, in his remarkable book on the religion of the Kono people of Sierra Leone, shows us that their religion

“is not only an organization of human relationships, but it includes also the relationships of people with the earth as a whole, with their own land, and with the unseen world of constructive forces and beings in which they believe. Religion brings them all into a consistent whole.” [17]

To the Konos, Parsons continues,

“the earth is more than a composition of inanimate particles of soil; it is a living being, the wife of God, with unlimited procreative powers, which produce the abundant tropical vegetation.” [18]

And the main preoccupation of Konos, like all tribal peoples, is to “maintain cosmic harmony”. The anthropologist Henrick Kraemer also notes how in primal societies

“the dominating interest is to preserve and perpetuate social harmony, stability and welfare. Religious cults and magic practices have chiefly this purpose in view. Everyone who has lived with a ‘primitive people’ and has tried to immerse his or her mind in theirs, knows the deep-rooted dread fostered towards any disturbance of the universal and social harmony and equilibrium. Whether a violation of this harmony issues from the universal sphere – for example, by an unusual occurrence in nature – or from the social, by a transgression of tradition or a disturbing event, it calls forth a corporate and strenuous religious activity towards restoring the harmony and thereby saving the fertility of their fields, their health, the security of their families, the stability and welfare of their tribe from becoming endangered.” [19]

It can be shown – as in fact I do in my book “The Way: an Ecological World-View” – that just about all the activities of tribal people were geared to the achievement of this same end, whether it were their agricultural activities, the technologies they used, the design of their houses, of their temples, and of their settlements. All served, above their obvious utilitarian functions, to help maintain in their eyes, the order of the all-encompassing cosmos.

Indeed to neglect the performance of these sacred rituals and ceremonies and in general to divert from the path or way that must be followed in order to maintain cosmic order was to violate all sorts of taboos – and in the words of Roger Caillois, “an act is taboo because it disrupts the universal order, which is at once that of nature and society”, and by so doing

“the earth might no longer yield a harvest, the cattle might be struck with infertility, the stars might no longer follow their appointed course, death and disease could stalk the land.” [20]

All this of course was absolutely true. The terrifying storms and the accompanying floods that we have just seen in Orissa and the Vietnam, and the increased incidence of devastating droughts throughout the world are above all the result of deforestation together with the transformation of the chemical composition of the atmosphere by the emission of greenhouse gases so that it resembles ever less that which is required to maintain climatic stability.

Whether we like it or not, the religious culture of tribal peoples told them the truth about their relationship with the cosmos. It did so of course in their special way – the way that would be best understood and believed in – not just intellectually but with their heart and souls, and hence that they would really feel committed to act upon.

In our modern society we are made to believe that science has a monopoly of the truth. Scientists are predominantly interested in establishing the truth of individual propositions, of the paradigms or world-views of which they are differentiated parts, let alone the ability of these world-views to provide the guidelines for fully adaptive behaviour, i.e., the behaviour is part of a strategy to maintain the order of the cosmos. In this respect it is totally different from religious truth. Roy Rappaport, the anthropologist and co-founder of Cultural Ecology, points out that important question concerning the models (or paradigms, or world views) of primal people

“is not the extent to which they are identical with what the analyst states to be reality, but the extent to which their direct behaviour in ways that are appropriate to the biological well-being of the actors and the ecosystems in which they participate.” [22]

The criterion of adequacy for a model is not its accuracy but its adaptive effectiveness. It is interesting that Roy Rappaport uses the words “adaptive effectiveness” in a wider sense than usual, must not only assure the well-being of the actors but also that of the ecosystems in which they participate.

I might have added of course that the natural world as a whole, or indeed of the cosmos. It is indeed in terms of the adaptiveness of the behaviour it gives rise to through the whole cosmic hierarchy. The religious truth as opposed to the scientific truth of a position or a world view of which it is part is judged. That is the difference.

It is irrelevant to ask whether Noah’s flood as described in the Old Testament actually occurred. It may well have done, but that is not the point. The flood symbolizes the forces of chaos that were let loose when people failed to observe the cosmic covenant. Noah’s flood was an archetype not an historical event. Its role as an archetype was incomparably to any possible role it may fulfil as an historic truth.

It is significant that Satya of Vedic India was synonymous with the term R’ta, which meant the way to be followed to maintain the order of the cosmos. Both the words Dharma, which is used later both in Hinduism as well as Buddhism, as well as Asher as used in ancient Persia also meant both the truth and maintaining the order of the cosmos. Significantly when the word R’ta fell into disuse its opposite Anr’ta continued to mean untruth.

The object of this special Millennium issue of The Ecologist is to show that these cosmic ideas figured prominently in the theology of our early mainstream religions though we have largely lost sight of them. It must be resuscitated. Only in this way can religion take the lead, mobilizing people to take that action required to solve the rapidly worsening environmental crisis which very seriously threatens our survival on this planet.

This whole argument is summed up by Professor Seyid Hossein Nasr, author of a seminal book on this subject entitled Religion and the Order of Nature that is reviewed by Margaret Barker. Krishna Chaitanya shows how this is true of the Vedic religion in India.

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1. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1978.
2. A. F. C. Wallace, Culture and Personality. Random House, New York, 1963.
3. Robert Augros and George Stanciu, The New Biology: discovering the wisdom in nature. New Science Library, Boston, Mass., 1987.
4. Ibid.
5. Sir Peter Medawar, The Hope of Progress. Wildwood House, London, 1974; pp.244-261.
6. Lester Ward, quoted by Donald Worster in Nature’s Economy. Sierra Club, San Francisco, 1977.
7. Darwin, quoted by Edward Goldsmith in The Way: an Ecological World-View. University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1988.
8. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989.
9. Lester Ward.
10. T. H. Huxley and Julian Huxley, Evolution and Ethics. The Pilot Press, London, 1947.
11. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion; p.250. Beacon Press, 1958.
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