In search of eco-salvation
Many religions are now more likely to preach about saving the planet than saving souls.
These days, moralisers find it easier to make people feel guilty about their impact on the environment than about committing one of the seven deadly sins. Not surprisingly, many religious institutions are busy reinventing themselves by promoting ecological virtues and preaching against the eco-sins of polluters.
On occasions, the attempt to recycle traditional theological concerns in a green form becomes a caricature of itself. In August, Dom Anthony Sutch, a Benedictine monk, announced that he would hear eco-confessions of sins against the environment at the Waveney Greenpeace festival, in a confessional booth carefully constructed from recycled materials. The good monk clearly practices what he preaches. He tries ‘very hard’ to live a green lifestyle and is proud of his principal achievement – reducing his electricity bill by 30 per cent. This mock ritual is unlikely to offer penitents’ salvation or redemption, but their ‘awareness’ will be raised. And these days being ‘aware’ is recognised as akin to being virtuous.
Sometime back in the 1980s, Western societies gave up on the project of rescuing ‘traditional values’ and morality. From time to time, conservative politicians and moral entrepreneurs have attempted to launch back-to-basics crusades promoting ‘family values’. However, their lack of popular appeal has only exposed society’s estrangement from these traditions. Indeed by the Eighties, even religious institutions found it difficult to uphold their own authority with conviction. Instead of influencing society many churches began to internalise the attitudes associated with the lifestyles of their increasingly individualised consumerist flock. The last quarter century has seen a steady diminishing of religious authority in Western societies. Debates about the role of women priests, homosexuality and marriage indicated that religious institutions have become confused about their own relationship to traditional values.
One consequence of the erosion of religious authority was that the church became exposed to the critical scrutiny of the public. A dramatic manifestation of the loss of religious authority is the spate of child abuse scandals that have incriminated church leaders. In many places Catholic officials were forced to respond to the public’s mistrust of their conduct by banning priests from any private contact with children. For example, Australian guidelines, drawn up with the approval of the Vatican, insisted that confessionals had to be fitted with glass viewing panels. Priests are also banned from seeing any child alone with the door closed (1). The readiness with which the clergy is prepared to modify the ritual of confession is testimony to its ambiguity and defensiveness about its own tradition.
Forced on to the defensive and sensitive to the charge of being out of touch with public concerns, Western religions have looked for new ways of rebuilding their authority. As I have argued elsewhere, some church officials attempted to associate themselves with the authority enjoyed by psychology and therapy and reinvented themselves as counsellors and therapists (2). As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey noted, ‘Christ the Saviour is becoming Christ the counsellor’ (3).
In recent years, some in the church have sought to gain the public’s ear through the greening of traditional doctrines, and Christ the Saviour is fast becoming Christ the environmental activist. Western society is continually in search of rituals and symbols through which moral probity can be affirmed. It appears that, for many church leaders, the project of saving the planet offers more opportunities for reconstituting rituals and symbols than the saving of souls.
It is not just the odd priest offering absolution through the ritual of eco-confession. Church leaders have embraced the rituals of eco-morality to demonstrate their commitment to a higher good. Absolution through carbon offsets appears to be the way forward.
Pope Benedict XVI has called for the upholding of ‘green culture’, and the Vatican has announced that it will soon become the world’s first carbon neutral state. A Hungarian entrepreneur plans to plant trees on a denuded island in the Tisza River to offset the Papal carbon emissions. The newly planted 37 acres of holy land, to be renamed the Vatican Climate Forest, is supposed to absorb as much carbon dioxide as the Vatican emits. At a ceremony publicising the initiative, Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, noted that ‘the book of Genesis tells us of a beginning in which God placed man as guardian over the earth to make it fruitful’ (4). As far as some Vatican leaders are concerned, offsetting carbon emissions plays a role analogous to that of fasting or self-mortification in previous times. Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca Alameda, an official at the Council for Culture, argues that ‘one can emit less CO2 by not using heating and not driving a car, or one can do penance by intervening to offset emissions, in this case by planting trees’.
The Catholic Church appears to take the view that it can revitalise its relationship with people through preaching the virtues of environmental responsibility. According to press reports, the Pope will use his first address to the United Nations to warn the world against global warming and promote saving the planet as a moral duty for Catholics (5). In recent months, the Pope has actively sought to associate himself with green issues. ‘Before it is too late, it is necessary to make courageous decisions that reflect knowing how to re-create a strong alliance between man and the earth’, he told a rally of young people.
The assimilation of eco-morality into the idiom of theology and liturgy is not confined to Catholicism. In the USA, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment unites the US Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches, the Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life and the Evangelical Environmental Network in a crusade to save the earth. Through an implicit reinterpretation of classical dogma, the sanctity of nature and all creation displaces the traditional focus on the sanctity of human beings. The Eco-Kosher network celebrates food that is ‘ecologically benign’ and ‘promotes values that appeal to a wide variety of people, including Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists, vegetarians, and health conscious individuals’. There are many attempts to rebrand Judaism as an environmentalist religion. ‘You cannot be a conscious Jew without being conscious of the environment’ argues Jonathan Helfand, a professor in the Jewish Studies Department at City University of New York (6).
In 2006, the Church of England launched an eco-crusade entitled ‘Shrinking the Footprint’. The Archbishop of Canterbury complained that ‘early modern religion contributed to the idea that the fate of nature is for it to be bossed around by a detached sovereign will, whether divine or human’. It seems possible that those misguided early modern religionists received that idea from the Book of Genesis, where God gives Man dominion ‘over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth’. Now the head of the Anglican church protests about nature being ‘bossed around’ not only by Man, but by God. This year, the Church of England launched a booklet of green tips for the faithful entitled How Many Christians Does it Take to Change a Lightbulb? Its eco-commandments include: share cars on the road to church, use virtuous low-energy lightbulbs but cast out junk mail, and do not flush the loo at night.
Eco-Congregation Scotland has produced a ‘Church Check-Up’ to see whether a local church’s environmental practices are up to scratch. Its check-up is designed to help churches ‘identify and affirm their existing environmental ministry’. It asks questions like ‘How regularly during the year are environmental concerns included in worship?’, ‘In your Church’s prayer do you “Say sorry for the harm done to the environment”?’, ‘Does your Church sing hymns or songs that celebrate the wonder of creation and express the calling to care for the environment?’ The aim of the ‘check-up’ is to encourage churches to embrace environmental concerns as the focus for worship.
Eco-spirituality is also seen as a moral resource that can transcend cultural and religious differences. This summer, the 9th Islamic Fayre in Bristol promoted an eco theme. ‘Islam is a religion of peace but is also known as a religion of nature’, stated Rizwan Ahmed, the event’s organiser. And Farooq Siddique, community development officer of the British Muslim Cultural Society noted that the ‘event is also about bringing communities together’. The hope that the appeal of eco-spirituality could counteract the influence of radical jihadist sentiments has encouraged British officialdom to support such initiatives.
The appeal of eco-spirituality to so many different religions is a testimony to the powerful influence that environmentalism exercises over contemporary culture. At a time when traditional institutions find it difficult to connect with popular concerns, environmentalism is still able to transmit ideas about human responsibility through appealing to a sense of right and wrong. That is why the authors of children’s books and school officials also use environmentalism as a vehicle for socialising youngsters.
However, eco-spirituality cannot really compensate for the loss of traditional moral authority. Indeed the very embrace of the environmentalist agenda can only accelerate the decline of institutions that cannot give meaning to the religious doctrines on which they were founded. The shift away from God towards nature inevitably leads to a world where the pronouncements of environmentalist experts trump those of the priesthood. It will be interesting to see what will remain of traditional religion as prophecy and revelation is displaced by computerised climate models.
Frank Furedi is author of Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire Of The Unknown to be published by Continuum Press in November (see Amazon(UK) for further details). He is speaking at the sessions What is education for?, The resurrection of religion and Terrorism at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.
(1) See Daily Telegraph, 26 September 1997
(2) Therapy Culture, Frank Furedi, Routledge, 2004
(3) ‘Therapy is new religion’ says Carey, Daily Telegraph, 1 August 2000
(4) Vatican boosts carbon-neutral effort, Elisabeth Rosenthal, International Herald Tribune, 9 September 2007
(5) Pope to make climate action a moral obligation, James Macintyre, Independent, 22 September 2007
(6) Eco-kosher issues take root in Jewish Gardens, Liz Kay, Baltimore Sun, 7 September 2007