Religion in the Age of the Anthropocene

Arianne Conty of The American University of Sharjah introduces her paper ‘Religion in the Age of the Anthropocene’, justpublished in Environmental Values (Fasttrack November 2019)

Thanks to many recent scholarly attempts to view Western intellectual achievements as regional anthropological contributions rather than universal objective criteria, notions such as ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ have come to be understood as the product of a particular historical process and as expressing the specific distribution of ontological properties developed and structurally maintained by Western modernity. Other civilisations have adopted different systems of distribution, resulting in ontologies and principles of association between humans and non-humans that differ widely from that  which emerged in Europe a few centuries ago.

It has been by understanding the natural world as somehow empty of symbolic meaning and social relations that the Western world could dissociate it from ethical consideration, and thereby justify the destruction and depletion of the ecosystem. According to this modern separation, all entities either have objective material properties, and hence no intrinsic value, or have subjective moral properties that inhere in human beings alone.

Today, when human culture has finally reached the ends of the earth in what has come to be called the Anthropocene Age, this antithesis between nature and culture has lost all credibility. If we are to respond to anthropogenic climate change, it is important to interrogate the ideology that justified this dichotomy and set the human animal apart from the world that sustains it. Though scientific advances have clearly shown that we are part of an evolutionary system based on interdependence and co-relation, many modern human beings continue to falsely believe that they are not animals at all but rather autonomous individuals, somehow separate from the living material planet, created and endowed with an eternal soul by a God not of this world, a God who set human beings over and against a material world to be ‘subdued’. Because such an ideology found justification in monotheistic religiosity, a solution to the Anthropocene Age cannot come exclusively from science. Though science is essential in order to understand the eco-system and the functioning of its many parts, it is not enough.  Religious and moral motivations, sustainable ideologies and cooperative action are also necessary.

Yet the role of religion in sustainability efforts has been controversial.  Because Genesis 1:28 does indeed tell human beings to ‘subdue the earth’ and ‘have dominion’ over ‘every living thing that moveth upon the earth’, monotheistic religions have often been understood as complicit in the human exceptionalism that is thought to have created the conditions for the Anthropocene.Such a view was most famously exposed in Lynn White Jr.’s infamous 1967 article ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis’. In this article, White Jr. highlighted the anthropocentrism intrinsic to the biblical justification for the spoliation of nature. Though for White Jr. Christianity bore ‘a huge burden of guilt’ (1967: 504), he firmly believed that science and technology are not enough to solve the ecological crisis, and that religion is necessary. Though he noted that other religions, such as Buddhism, are more ecological, he felt that the West needs to build upon its own foundations, and thus called for a revolution from within Christianity, in the hopes that Saint Francis’ example could overcome Christianity’s anthropocentrism and provide an adequate ecological response.

Following Lynn White Jr. in turning to his namesake Saint Francis for inspiration and direction, Pope Francis responded to Lynn White Jr.’s influential essay in his 2015 Laudato Si’ Encyclical, and did his best to enact just such an internal revolution in order to rehabilitate the ecological contribution of the Christian tradition. Though Pope Francis admits that Christians have sometimes erred in their scriptural interpretations, the sanctioned interpretation of Scripture should focus not on dominion over nature but on stewardship of nature (Gen. 2,15), where ‘to steward’ means ‘to protect, care for, preserve, conserve, watch over. This implies a relationship of reciprocal responsibility between human beings and nature’ (2015: 77).

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St Francis Preaching to the Birds, by Giotto (Musée du Louvre)

But theologian John F. Haughtis not alone in thinking that boasting of St. Francis is not enough to make Christianity ecologically attractive. ForHaught, such an approach is insufficient, as it does not go far enough ‘in opening Christian faith to the radical renewal the ecological crisis seems to demand’ (2004: 235). Because monotheisms retain anthropocentrism, which is considered one of the chief causes of our environmental crisis, and treat the management of the natural world as a God-given human responsibility, much apologetic Christian theology has been replaced by what Haught calls the sacramental approach, which places the emphasis on the sacred quality of the universe, rather than on religious textuality and stewardship. The sacramental approach interprets the natural world as the primary symbolic disclosure of God, such that overcoming sin means overcoming our alienation from the cosmos. According to such a view, the mystery of God is revealed in the evolution of matter itself. Since the natural world is itself the expression of divinity, it has no need for human stewardship.

Yet for many scholars and religious activists fighting for ecological awareness, adopting an evolutionary, scientific and ecological perspective can come onlyat the price of sacrificing transcendental monotheistic beliefs. Such activists thus tend toward pantheism and animism, bringing to the fore non-Western ontologies that are eco-centric instead of anthropocentric. Indeed,if it was indigenous anthropology that allowed us to see that the nature/culture divide was a particular Western invention, we might learn something from animism, which, instead of separating the world into active subjects and passive objects, attributes subjectivity universally to all entities.

As a conceptual system, animism entails four interrelated ideas: personhood, relationality, location and ontological boundary crossing. According to the first characteristic, agency is redistributed from the exclusively human domain to the entire bio-sphere. Bears, and koalas, ants and nematodes all have their own complex cultures because nature is culture all the way down. Recognising personhood in non-human others entails understanding such persons as conscious agents capable of intentional and intelligent communication. For animists, such persons are defined relationally, our second trait, because they share their world with many other persons, with whom they enter into complex forms of communication. Persons exist through their relations because they are all dependent upon a shared eco-system, or location, our third trait, that grounds and gives meaning to their communication. Finally, the ability to cross ontological boundaries, our fourth trait, entails the ability to ‘adopt the perspective of nonhuman subjectivities’ in order to understand how they conceive of themselves as the center of their own worlds. This ability, which is essential for empathy, and is wired into many animals via mirror neurons, allows a person to feel as, and think as, another.

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Image representing animism, taken from Twitter – https://twitter.com/samim/status/1001747546681856000

What might it mean then, for us moderns, to re-become indigenous and adopt an animistic worldview? Should we prepare darts for a blowgun and set up camp in a Yurt or an earthship in abandoned industrial zones, or join the Zones à Défendrein France or The Earth Liberation Army elsewhere? This is certainly one way. But I would like to claim that we do not need to re-become animists, for, to quote religious studies scholar Graham Harvey ‘we have always been animists’ (2014:11).  We therefore remain capable of ‘seeing, feeling and thinking as another’, and this capacity is indeed an essential attribute of modern literature, philosophy, religion and politics. Indeed, it may very well be an essential attribute of being human. My article in Environmental Values seeks to show that the ontological boundary crossing required in order to ‘think or feel as another’ is intrinsic to modern culture as well and that we would do well to recognise and cultivate such a capacity if we hope to develop the solidarity required to address climate change.


One thought on “Religion in the Age of the Anthropocene

  1. Wonderful essay–can’t wait to read the full article! Do you cite Joanna Macy in the full article? I’d also point out that in some forms of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the “cosmic Christ” looms large, such that the “redemption of the Earth” is bound up with the re-turning of the soul to Christ as the principle of world-creation (Logos or Sophia). This comes particularly to the fore in the novels of Dostoevsky and the thought of Vyacheslav Ivanov, who tried to reconcile Dionysus and Christ in a new Christian paganism. Fantastic work, Arianne–looking forward to more.

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