July 27, 2017

Religion at the Millennium (long version)

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An abridged version of this article introduced The Ecologist special issue on Cosmic Religion, November 1999.


“The Millennium coincides with a widespread yearning for individual and Earth healing. Individuals and societies, global and local, and the whole Earth community suffer as never before under unsustainable human impact. The healing ministry should be broadened to include the earth, the living soil, plants, animals, water and climate, and the science and technology, which, when arrogantly misused, threaten the very continuation of our species and the biosphere as we know it.”

Edward Echlin

Three years ago, at a meeting on a ship that took us to Patmos, where St. John wrote Revelation, 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, in fact, did Hindu, Jain and Zoroastrian speakers. But none of them may have realised the full implications of this declaration: it was in effect an indictment of our modern industrial society itself.

Indeed, the destruction of the natural world, which is proceeding at an ever greater pace, is the inevitable consequence of the whole enterprise to which modern industrial society is so wholeheartedly committed: with ‘progress’ – in other words, 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 – the surrogate world – for the natural world – the real world – the product of 3,000 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 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 falsified) in controlled laboratory conditions.

In fact, this is an illusion, for verification or falsification serve to do little more than rationalise, 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 it reflects, and hence our world-view. To quote Michael Polanyi, the great philosopher of science:

“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]

Science as Religion

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. The idea that to destroy the environment is a sin is not only irreconcilable with the effective secular religion that underlies the world-view of industrial humanity, it also threatens to undermine its most fundamental tenet, which 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 – 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 drugs. Law and order are provided by our police force in conjunction with the law courts and the prison system, and so on.

And yet no value is attributed to the irreplaceable benefits derived from the normal functioning of the natural world, which assure the stability of our climate, the fertility of our soil, the replenishment of our water supplies, and the other vital components of a functioning planet.

It follows that to be deprived of these non-benefits cannot constitute an economic ‘cost’ – and the natural systems that provide them can thereby be destroyed with almost total impunity. This attitude is further rationalised by mainstream scientists, who set out systematically to denigrate natural processes. Darwin described nature as “clumsy, wasteful, and blundering”, and Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Laureate, talked despairingly of “nature’s own artless improvisations”. [2]

Mainstream science also 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, setting out what has come to be known as the ‘gladiatorial’ view of the natural world. In his celebrated Romanes lecture of 1890 he said

“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.” [3]

To Lester Ward, the American sociologist, the terrible shortcomings of the natural world 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.” [4]

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.” [5]

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, the ‘heretical’ early-Christian movement which, like mainstream scientists, saw the natural world as inefficient, more so, positively evil. They did not deny that there was order and law in the cosmos, but believed 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.” [6]

Hence, 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 [7] as he is condemned too by mainstream science. Jacques Monod, the Nobel Laureate, admits, on the other hand, 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.” [8]

This is an astonishing dogma, based largely on another dogma – 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 that of the spirit. The latter, though accepting the same premises, come to a very different conclusion. The world, they agree, is inefficient and badly designed – 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 presumption and also the ultimate blasphemy. Homo scientificus has deified himself. It is incumbent on him 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 James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. They have shown that the biosphere, or world of living things, together with its geological substrate and atmospheric environment constitute a single being. Lovelock refers to it as ‘Gaia’ – the Greek Goddess of the Earth.

Lovelock stresses the critical importance of maintaining the order of Gaia. 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.

We are only now realising this; for we have systematically changed the composition of the atmosphere, and are caught up in what appears to be a chain-reaction towards ever-worsening climatic destabilisation.

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The Importance of Holism

This brings us to the thesis of this unique Millennium Issue of The Ecologist. Contrary to what mainstream scientists tell us, I have consistently argued that natural systems at different levels of organisation seek, consciously or not, to maintain the order of the larger wholes of which they are part.

The biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy was struck by the “whole maintaining character” of life processes at the level of the biological organism. [9] So was the Austrian biologist 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. [10]

That the constituent parts of any natural system must strive to maintain its overall 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.” [11]

Thus children brought up in a broken home, as any social worker will confirm, will often 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 life outside of it. Nor, of course, can individuals, families, and communities, survive if the order of the natural world or the ecosphere is destroyed, as even the most extreme adept of the cult of selfishness will soon realise.

Unfortunately, this key principle only becomes apparent when life processes are seen in terms of their relationship with the whole of which they are part. Mainstream scientists who insist on looking at life processes in isolation from the whole – whose very existence most of them choose 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 of Oxford University, for whom there is “no selective advantage in displaying any concern for the stability and integrity of the larger whole”. [12]

If behaviour is looked at reductively, there is no way in which its ‘whole-maintaining’ function can be established, and hence no way of distinguishing between behaviour that serves to maintain and that which serves to disrupt the order of the living world. This key distinction is foreign to mainstream science – though critical to early archaic religions such as Judaism, as Margaret Barker in particular, makes clear elsewhere in this issue.

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Why Mainstream Religions Have Failed the Earth

If it is impossible to reconcile the notion that environmental destruction is a sin with either mainstream science or Gnostic religion, so it is also difficult – though by no means so 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 scarcely any interest in it.

Indeed, today, these religions have become increasingly ‘otherworldly’, and have ceased 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 to whom is attributed these same characteristics.

Mainstream religion has lost its way, and needs to return to its roots, and even go further and learn from the wisdom of primal people, a point strongly made by Father Bede Griffith in this issue. Darryl Wilson’s article “Grandfather’s Story” confirms this same point by providing some idea of how American Indian tribal people saw their relationship to the cosmos.

The relevance of tribal religions is that they are totally reconcilable with the notion that the destruction of the environment is a sin – more so, it is often their most fundamental teaching. For example, Robert Parsons, in his book on the religion of the Kono people of Sierra Leone, shows that their religion

“is not only an organisation 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.” [13]

To the Kono,

“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 producing the abundant tropical vegetation. The main preoccupation of the Kono, like all tribal people, is to maintain cosmic harmony.” [14]

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The cosmic symbolism in traditional architecture and the arts

The anthropologist Henrick Kraemer [15] 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.

It is likely that just about all the activities of primal people are geared to the achievement of this same end, whether it be their agricultural activities, the technologies they use, the design of their houses, of their temples, of their settlements or the performance of sacred rituals. Beyond their utilitarian functions, they all serve to maintain, in their eyes, the order of the cosmos. It might be worth noting how totally irreconcilable this is with the principle that all living things are fundamentally egoistic, individualistic and aggressive, which underlies Neo-Darwinism and sociobiology and, I am afraid to say, modern reductionistic ecology.

For primal people, to build a new village or city meant first building a holy house or temple, on the cosmic model. In this way, the settlement that surrounded it was integrated into the cosmic hierarchy or cosmicized. The traditional ceremony performed for that purpose was, as Eliade puts it, a re-enactment of the original act of creation, or cosmogenesis.

Reichel-Dolmatoff shows how the temples built by the Kogi Indians of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta are still seen as small scale versions of the cosmos:

Kogi temples are meant to be models of man’s relationship with the cosmos, models that convey a sense of world order and, simultaneously, are interpreted as the body of the Mother. Each post, beam or rafter, up to the smallest detail of roof construction, thatch or vines, used in tying together the different parts, has its specific symbolic values. A temple construction can be read as an anatomical model, a geographical model, a model of social structure and organization, or priestly ritual, or of the upper – and netherworlds; it also is an instrument for astronomical observation. [16]

Coomaraswamy tells us “man has always correlated his own constructions with cosmic or simple supramundane prototypes”. He gives the example of the Indian 7-storeyed palace (Prasada) with its various floors or earths (bhumi). “It has always been thought of as analogous to the universe of seven worlds”, Coomaraswamy quotes Mus in his great monograph on Barabadur.

Mus tells us that the Buddhist stupa cannot be understood simply from the “functional point of view”. It is its symbolic meaning that is important. For Mus the stupa represents a universe in parvo, the axis of the stupa being the axis of the universe, the dome representing the heavens. [17]

This was also true of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. According to the Midrash Tanhuma, it “corresponds to the whole world and to the creation of man who is a small world”. In an ancient Jewish legend, Yahveh orders Moses to build him the temple. “But how shall I know how to make it?” Moses asks. Yahveh answers:

“Do not get frightened; just as I created the world and your body, even so will you make the Tabernacle. You find in the Tabernacle that the beams were fixed into sockets, and in the body the ribs are fixed into the vertebrae and so in the world the mountains are fixed into the fundaments of the Earth. In the Tabernacle there were bolts in the beams to keep them upright and in the body limbs and sinews are drawn to keep man upright and in the world trees and grass are drawn in the Earth. In the Tabernacle there were hangings to cover its top and both its sides, and in the body the skin of man covers his limbs, and his ribs on both his sides, and in the world the heavens cover the Earth on both its sides. In the Tabernacle the veil is divided between the Holy Place and Holy of Holies, and in the body the diaphragm divides the heart from the stomach, and in the world it is the firmament which divides between the upper waters and the lower waters.” [18]

By seeing his body, his house and his settlement as reflecting the same critical order, which is also that of his society, of the natural world and of the cosmos itself, it becomes clear to vernacular man that his life is subject to the same single law that governs the cosmic hierarchy, and that he is a participant in the great Gaian enterprise, whose goal is to maintain the critical order of the cosmos.

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