Thursday, September 04, 2008

Religion and the Environmental Crisis

This will be part one of two.

This is an essay from the book "The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr," who was awarded inclusion in the Library of Living Philosophers, the one of the highest honors a philosopher can receive in his lifetime. One of the highest honors a theologian can receive in an invitation to deliver the Gifford Lecture in Glascow, Scotland, and Nasr is the only person ever to have received both of these honors.

His essay on Religion and the Environmental Crisis is an answer to those involved with Peak Oil, Climate Change, and other Environmental "Tragedy of the Commons" issues that we face today, who claim that Religion is an impediment to solving these problems, because religious people are looking for a new and improved hereafter and not concerned about today. Some even want the world to turn to chaos, they say, because they believe it will hasten redemption. While that may be true of a few people, the vast majority of adherents to the three monotheistic faiths on this planet do not view their role as stewards in that manner. In his essay, Nasr demonstrates that it is in fact people who lack religious faith who are the worst stewards of the "Commons."

If you have read Adam Smith and other economic basic works, you know that in these types of situations where people are withdrawing resources from a limited common supply [the classical examples usually involve overgrazing common fields or overfishing common fishing grouds] individuals or individual businesses have no economic incentive to conserve, switch to alternatives, relocalize, downsize and simplify. Only if everyone does it can it be truly sustainable and the resources preserved for future generations - but nobody will, since they don't trust their neighbors and/or competitors not to. If they don't do so-and-so now, but their competitors or neighbors do, then they "lose out." They get less of "the pie," whatever "pie" there is at issue, because the others have taken more than their fair share. So there's no economic incentive to relocalize or use mass transit or whatever - only religious and ideological motives lead people to do the right things for their community and their people at large.

Economics can only "maximize your value" for the here and now - it has no mechanism for dealing with the future, except in the very vaguest of terms. The market's hands are tied to the now and to predictions that are based only on the now and what can be projected only a short distance from the now. It is entirely unsuited for dealing with tragedies of the commons. In fact, the very first protest that I ALWAYS get when I tell people we need to relocalize our buying from our fellow Jews they VERY FIRST thing they always say is why should they, when everyone else is just going to go to wally-wort and buy cheap junk from China's slaveshops? They can only think in the now - now, we don't need to, now, we don't want to, now, if we do we'll be at a disadvantage compared to our irresponsible neighbors and competitors. Now, now, now. The future doesn't exist as far as economic incentive is concerned, except for the religiously or ideologically motivated.

The Environmental crisis is a tragedy of the commons with a religious twist - the traditional monotheistic religious actually have concern for the environment and command their adherents to be good stewards. Scientific rationalism and economic exploitation, and rampant consumerism have no such foundations!

A note: Since most Cheredi or Ultra-Orthodox or even Orthodox Jewish people will not read this book, simply because Nasr is a Sufi Muslim, I have decided to type this essay out here for you to consider. I assure you Nasr is not a radical Islamo-facists of any sort, and if you would consider reading the rest of the essays in his book, you would be pleasantly surprised at how tolerant and supportive he is toward Judaism and even Christianity.

In the meantime, here is Nasr's essay: Religion and the Environmental Crisis. My comments will appear in brackets.


For the title of my lecture, "The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of the Environmental Crisis," I have chosen both the words spiritual and religious. That was done on purpose, because the present usage of the word religion in many quarters often leaves out precisely the spiritual element. Those people who are looking for the inner dimension of religious experience and of religious truth are seeking for another word to supplement the word religion. It is tragic that this is so, but it is nevertheless a fact. The word spirituality in its current sense, and not the Latin term from which it derives, is a modern term. As far as my own research has shown, the term spirituality as it is used today began to be employed by French Catholic theologians in the mid-19th century and then crept into English. We do not find the use of this term as we now understand it earlier than the 19th century. Today it denotes for many people precisely those elements of religion which have been forgotten in the West and which therefore have come to e identified wrongly with spirituality as distinct from religion. From my point of view, which is always of course a traditional one, there is no spirituality without religion. There is no way of reaching the spirit without choosing a path which God has chosen for us, and that means religion (religio). Therefore, the reason I am using both words is not for the sake of expediency, but to emphasize that I mean to include a reality which encompasses both spirituality and religion, in the current understanding of these terms, although traditionally the term religion would suffice, since in its full sense it includes all that is understood by spirituality today.

It is important that we remember that all of us on the globe share in destroying our natural environment, although the reasons for this are different in different parts of the globe. In the modern world the environment is destroyed by following the dominating philosophy, while in what remains of the traditional world it is done in spite of the prevailing world view and most often as a result of external coercion as well as temptation, whether it be direct or indirect. I have repeated this truth in many places and have caused some people to become angry, but the fact is that the only action in which nearly everybody participates at the present moment of human history, from communist and socialist to capitalist, from Hindu and Muslim to Atheist, from Christian to Shinto, is in living and acting in such a way as to cause the destruction of the natural environment. This fact must seep fully into our consciousness while at the same time we remember the differences in motive and perspective among religious and secularized sectors of humanity. Obviously, for those for whom religion is still a reality, it is much easier to appeal to religion and the religious view of nature to discover the means through which a solution would be found for the crisis from which we all suffer.

We often forget that the vast majority of people in the world still live by religion. AS yet most Western intellectuals think about environmental issues as if everyone were an agnostic following a secular philosophy cultivated at Oxford, Cambridge, or Harvard, and so they seek to develop a rationalist, environmental ethics based on agnosticism, as if this would have any major effect whatsoever upon the environmental crisis. It is important to consider in a real way the world in which we live. If we do so then we must realize why in fact religion is so significant both in the understanding and in the solution of the environmental crisis. Let us not forget, I repeat, that the vast majority of people in the world live according to religion. The statistic that is often given, saying that only half of humanity does so, is totally false because it is claimed that in addition to the West one billion two hundred million Chinese are atheists or nor-religious. This is not at all the case. Confuscianism is not a philosophy, but a religion based upon ritual - I shall come back to that in a few moments. There are at most a few hundred million agnostics and atheists spread mostly in the Western world, with extensions into a few big cities in Asia and Africa. But this group forms a small minority of the people in the world. Those who live on other continents, as well as many people in Europe and America, still live essentially in a religious world. Although in the West the religious view of nature has been lost, even here it is still religion to which most ordinary people listen, while the number is much greater in other parts of the globe. That is why any secularist ideology that tries to replace religion always tries to also play the role of religion itself. This has happened with the ideology of modern science in the West, which for many people is now accepted as a "religion." That is why the people tho try to sell you many kinds of goods on television do so as "scientists" - agents of authority - and always wear a white robe, not a black robe of traditional priests. They are trying to look like members of a new priesthood. The function as the priesthood of a pseudo-religion. Their whole enterprise is made to appear not as simply ordinary science but as something that replaces religion. For people who accept this thesis it would be feasible to accept a rationalistic ethics related to science, but the vast majority of the people in the world still heed authentic religion. Consequently, for them, no ethics would have efficacy unless it was religious ethics.

[Worse: "science" has been used to justify horrible atrocities and those who follow science know that "scientific research" has a nasty tendency to find whatever the researches are paid to find, or are ideologically predisposed to find, or afraid of not finding...]

In the West, for 400 years, philosophers influenced by scientism have been trying to develop secular ethics and, sure enough, there are many atheists who are very ethical in their life. But by what norm are they to be considered as ethical? By no other than the very norms which religion instilled in the minds of the people of the West. If somebody murders his neighbor we think it is unethical. But why is it unethical? What is wrong with that? The television programs you watch on nature in Africa show that animals are eating each other all the time. If we are just animals, then what is wrong if we kill one another? That fact that everybody says "no" to such an act is precisely because there are certain religious values instilled even into the secular atmosphere of the modern West which speaks of so-called secular ethics. The values of this ethics really have their roots in religion. In nay case, no secular ethics could speak with authority except to those who would accept the philosophical premises of such ethics.

[Worse: many supposedly ethical secular people now believe in the name of "rational" and "scientific" truth that killing people is perfectly ok, that killing babies is ok, and that killing about half the earth's population by some means would be ok, all in the name of making life "better" for themselves - and it's always for themselves, you'll notice. You'll never see someone advocating radical population control volunteering to remove themselves from among the living - it's always "other people" who need to not exist.]

The fact remains that the vast majority of people in the world do not accept any ethics which does not have a religious foundation. This means in practical terms that if a religious figure, let us say, a mullah or a brahmin in India or Pakistan goes to a village and tells the villagers that from that point of view of Shariah or the Law of Manu (Hindu Law) they are forbidden to cut this tree, many would accept. But is some graduate from the University of Delhi or Karachi, who is a government official, comes and says, for rational reasons, philosophical and scientific reasons, that it is better not to cut this tree, few would heed his advice. So from a practical point of view, the only ethics which can be acceptable to the vast majority, at the present moment in the history of the world, is still a religious ethics. The very strong prejudice against religious ethics in certain circles in the West which have now become concerned with the environmental crisis is itself one of the greatest impediments to the solutions of the environmental crisis itself.

There is a second reason why religion is so important in the solution of the environmental crisis. There are many elements involved here but I will summarize. We all know and, even if we are not personally concerned with the metaphysical, spiritual, and cosmological roots of the environmental crisis, we are nonetheless aware of the fact, that outwardly (I do not say inwardly) this crisis is driven by the modern economic system appealing to human passions, especially the passion of greed intensified by the creation of false needs, which are not really needs but wants. This is in opposition to the view which religions have espoused over the millennia, that is, the practice of the virtue of contentment, of being content with what one has. The modern outlook is based on fanning the fire of greed and covetousness, on trying to do everything possible to attach the soul more and more to the world and on making a vice out of what for religion has always been a virtue, that is, to keep a certain distance and detachment from the world; in other words, a certain amount of asceticism. There is a famous German proverb, "There is no culture without asceticism," and this is true of every Civilization.

We are living in the first period in human history in the West in which, except for a few small islands here and there of Orthodox or Catholic or Anglican monasticism and a few people who try to practice austerity, asceticism, is considered to be a vice, not a virtue, preventing us from realizing ourselves, as if our "selves" were simply extensions of our physicality. This idea of self-realization is, of course, central to the Oriental and certain Occidental traditions. But it has become debased in the worst way possible and transformed into the basis for modern consumerism, which can be seen in its more virulent form in America - now fast conquering Europe, and doing a good job of reaching India, China, Indonesia, etc. (within the next decade we will have several billion new consumers in such countries thirsting for artificial things which they have lived without for the last few thousand years). And what this will do to the earth, God alone knows. It is beyond belief and conjecture what will happen if present trends continue. So what is it that can rein in the passions, either gradually or suddenly? Nothing but religion for the vast majority of people who, believing in God and the afterlife, still fear the consequences of their evil actions in their lives in this world. If it were to be told to them that pollution and destruction of the environment is a sin in the theological sense of the terms they would think twice before indulging in it. For the ordinary believer the wrath of God and fear of punishment in the afterlife is the most powerful force against the negative tendencies of the passionate soul. For nearly all people on the earth who continue to pollute the air and the water, and whose lifestyle entails the destruction of the natural environment, what is it that is going to act as a break against the ever-growing power of the passions except religion?

[Sadly, there are many millions of religious people who have not been taught the traditional teachings of their religious heritage properly and who follow what precepts they have been taught religiously, but then leave their place of worship or study, and spend the rest of the week driving away in their SUVs, shopping and partaking in the consumerist paradigm with gusto having not a single thought in their heads that it is unsustainable, burdening the poor, exploiting people in other parts of the world, damaging their air and water, ruining their health, and so on. They have no clue and don't give their wasteful and greedy lifestyle a second thought.]

The religions have had thousands of years to deal with the slaying of the passionate ego, this inner dragon, to use the symbol mentioned in so many religions. St. Michael's slaying of the dragon with his lance has many meanings, one of which is, of course, that the lance of the Spirit alone is able to kill that dragon, or what in Sufism is called nafs, that is the passionate soul, the lower soul within us. We rarely think of that issue today. But where is St. Michael with his lance? How are we going to stop people from wanting more and more if not through the power of the Spirit made accessible through religion? And once you have opened up the Pandora's box of the appetites, how are you going to put the genie back in the box? How are you going to be able, with no more than rational arguments, to tell people to use less, to be less covetous, not to be greedy, and so forth? No force in the world today, except religion, has the power to do that unless it be sheer physical coercion.

For the vast majority of people there is no other way to control the great passions within us which have now been fanned by, first of all, the weakening of religion and secondly, the substitution of another set of values derived from a kind of pseudo-religion whose new gods are such idols as "development" and "progress." But such notions do not have the power to help us control our passions. We have been witness during the last generation alone to the ever greater debunking of the traditional religious attitudes towards the world, especially what we call in Arabic rida, that is contentment with our state of being, a virtue which is the very opposite of the sin of covetousness. Of course, the Muslims have been criticized by the West for a long time for simply being fatalistic in the face of events, of being too content with their lot. This same debunking has also been directed toward similar Christian values. But that is because of a deep misunderstanding. Where, in the current educational system in the West, is attention being paid to these traditional virtues? Every from a purely emperical, scientific point of view, these virtues must be seen as being of great value, seeing that they have made it possible for human beings to live for thousands of years in the world without destroying the natural environment as we are currently doing. These traditional virtues that allowed countless generations to live in equilibrium with the world around them were at the same time conceived as ways of perfecting the soul, as steps in the perfection of human existence. These virtues provided the means for living at peace with the environment. They also allowed man to experience what it means to be human and to fulfill his destiny here on earth, which is always bound to try and inculcate such virtues within oneself.

Another cardinal and central role of religion in the solution of the environmental crisis, one that goes to its very root, is much more difficult to understand within the context of the modern mind-set. This role is related to the significance of religious rituals as a means of establishing cosmic harmony. Now, this idea is meaningless in the context of modern thought, where ritual seems to have no relation or correspondence with the nature of physical reality. In the modern world view, rituals are at best personal, individual, subjective elements that create happiness in the individual or establish a relationship between him or her and God. That much at least some modern people accept. But how could rites establishes cosmic harmony? From the modern scientific point of view such as assertion seems to make no sense at all. But it is not nonsense, it is a very subtle truth that has to be brought out and emphasized. From both the spiritual and the religious perspective, the physical world is related to God by levels of reality which transcend the physical world itself and which constitute the various stages of the cosmic hierarchy. It is impossible to have harmony in nature, or harmony of man with nature, without this vertical harmony with the higher states of being. Once nature is conceived as being purely material, even if we accept that it was created by God conceived as a clockmaker, this cosmic relationship can no longer even be conceived, much less realized. Once we cut nature off from the immediate principles of nature - which are the psychic and spiritual or angelic levels of reality - then nature has already lost its balance as far as our relation to it is concerned.

Now rituals, from the point of view of religion, are God-made. I am not using the term ritual as seen from the secular point of view, as if one were putting on one's gown and going to some commencement exercise or some other humanly created action, often called a "ritual" in everyday discourse today. I am using it in the religious sense. According to all traditional religions, rituals descend from Heaven. A ritual is an enactment, or rather re-enactment, here on earth of a divine prototype. In the Abrahamic world, that means that rituals have been revealed to the prophets by God and taught by them to man. The "repetition" of the Last Supper of Christ in the Eucharist, or the daily prayers of Muslims - where do they come from? According to the followers of those religions, they all come from Heaven. In Hinduism and Buddhism one observes the same reality. The differences are of context and worldview, but the fundamentals are the same. There is no Hindu rite which was invented by someone walking along the Ganges who suddenly thought it up. For the Hindus they are of divine origin.

[Even if you believe that their origin was the Nephilim, who went out to the nations masquarading as gods to people who were fooled by their amazing superhuman abilities and powers, we can still understand that for the most part, the pagan religions of the world had some truths in them (because even hasatan himself always mixes in enough truth to make the lies believable).]

The Muslim daily prayers, which we have all seen in pictures, were given by the Prophet to Muslims on the basis of instructions received from God. Even the Prophet did not invent them.

Now, these rites, by virtue of their re-enactment on earth, link the earth with the higher levels of reality.

[We believe that the point of maximum congruity is, of course, the Temple Mount, but everyday rituals can strengthen your link with Heaven at any location.]

A rite always links us with the vertical axis of existence, and by virtue of that, links us also with the principles of nature. This truth holds not only for the primal religions, where certain acts are carried out in nature itself - let us say the African religions or the Aboriginal religion of Australia, or the religions of the Native American Indians - but also in the Abrahamic world, in the Hindu world, and in the Iranian religions. Whether one is using particular natural forms such as a tree or a rock or a cave or something like that...

[Such as praying at the tomb of a patriarch or tzaddik, for example.]

...or man-made objects of sacred and liturgical art related to rites carried out inside a church, synagogue, mosque, or Hindu temple, it does not make any difference. The same truth is to be found in all these cases. From a metaphysical point of view, a ritual always re-establishes balance with the cosmic order.

[Lighting sabbath or festival candles at home would fall under this paradigm as well, since they are our "signal" to the levels of Heavenly reality above us that we are participating in the rituals as commanded.]


Part two to follow.

No comments: