The Morality of Religion, Ideology, and Environmentalism

We live on planet Earth, and she is allergic to us. Our car exhaust, airplane emissions, and coal-fired power plants are smothering her. Our waste is choking her oceans and streams. These and other looming ecological and environmental catastrophes are the most pressing issues of our time, the problems at which all our collected human genius must be aimed. Or are they? The scientific study of religion and ideology has prompted me, a lifelong liberal, to question many of my most basic assumptions. Among them is the belief that large systems – abstract connections at the level of the planet, the biosphere, the world economy – produce the problems that most demand our attention, genius, and energy. 

In the liberal, scientifically literate milieu in which I was raised, large problems were king. The environment, wars in the Middle East, world hunger, the quest for world peace – as a child, it seemed as if every moral urge that issued from a trusted adult’s mouth was aimed at some terrible challenge far grander than the scale of my neighborhood or home. Compared with these system-wide concerns, nothing else – least of all small-minded conservative complaints about non-topics like “family values” – came close to mattering as much. This gorgeous, vulnerable pearl of a planet, whirling in space, was the context for everything else we humans might do, every moment of our lives – every love, every broken heart, every war and every summer night. As such, it had to come first.

The biggest of these big narratives – the one about short-sighted human beings choking their own poor planet to death – was one I and other youngish, educated children of the 70s, 80s, and 90s absorbed through our public school classrooms, earnest public television programs, and books. And let me be clear: this ecological, big-picture narrative still guides my own decisions about how to live, what kinds of economic choices to make, where to plant my flag upon our culture’s moral landscape. This is because the systemic, environmental, and ecological challenges that currently loom before us are, I think, the fulcrum upon which the 21st century will pivot – and indeed perhaps even the centuries beyond it. To speak bluntly: I think this stuff is important.

But now, today, the adult version of me also studies at Boston University and investigates the many-sided role religion plays in human communities. I peer through an evolutionary and biological lens to interpret religious behavior, and I take seriously that humans are evolved animals saddled with a confusing and complicated Darwinian legacy. This legacy  has shaped us into a species that, to a greater extent than nearly any other mammal, depends on strong, closely knitted groups for survival. A solitary human being in the ancestral wilds was not a proud individualist; she was dinner. Since humans have no fangs, claws, or ability to outrun wolves or leopards, we evolved to use our intelligence as our basic survival tool – notably our astoundingly acute social intelligence, which is what allows us to tackle problems collectively.

This, in turn, meant that one of the most important tasks for humans, along with gathering food, tending fires, and making clothing, was and is the daily maintenance of important social relationships. In the ancestral environment, friendships and strong family ties were not a luxury. They were the stout webbing that kept us cocooned against the forces of darkness, the inhospitable void. They were the very stuff of life.

The scientific study of religion is intimately tied with this story of our species’ tribal history because religion, it seems, provides many of the basic tools that people have used to create and maintain strong, durable relationships. Rituals, with their repetitive, rhythmic motions and communal singing or chanting, help sync up people’s bodies, harmonizing them with one another so that individuals are more disposed to trust and assist each other afterwards. Myths and supernatural beliefs create compelling imaginative worlds for tribes and groups to inhabit, weaving a sense of being privy to special secrets about the universe. And religious norms and morals often make people less competitive with others from their ingroup, helping to defuse the inevitable conflicts that erupt from status and mating.

So: what does this have to do with the environment? Everything. First, of course, it was the astounding success of these social and religious tools that allowed human groups to dominate their natural settings, and eventually the planet.

But even more important, I have come to believe, is that the inward-oriented, tribal machinations of human social groups often blind their members to issues beyond the group’s social horizon. The more involved a given person is in the everyday life of his community, his neighborhood, or his church, the less the grander, systemic patterns of planetary life are likely to be visible to him. The more faithfully a person carries out the countless small, daily ritual actions that maintain her all-important relational bonds, the less her eyes will be trained on the problems that loom beyond her social world – the troubles of history and global politics, the ominously shifting patterns of climate.

Conversely, it’s the people who are less invested in the particular ritual life of any single, specific cultural world who are most able, and likely, to stand back and perceive the broad-scale patterns in the life of the planet. In general, only the relatively “cultureless” – educated cosmopolitans, for example – are able to easily take in the bigger picture and understand, with a dark and sinking feeling, what will happen when fossil fuel really does run short or global climate change finally inundates the world’s coastlines.

Evidence for this irksome incompatibility is found in the literature of the social sciences. To take one example, in 2002, the University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox found in a longitudinal study that conservative Protestant and Catholic fathers in the United States spent significantly more quality time with their children than liberal Protestants or fathers who lacked religion. This included one-on-one time, dinners with family, and volunteering for youth activities. Perhaps most tellingly, it was church attendance that accounted statistically for much of the difference; conservative fathers who attended church – and thus who partook regularly in religious rituals – appeared to be more invested in the basic emotional lives of their families.

But this pleasantly mushy finding loses much of its luster when compared with another study from the early 1990s, in which political scientist James L. Guth and several colleagues found that it was precisely the same demographic groups that were much less likely to care about or be interested in environmentalism or ecological issues. That is, conservative Protestants and those who attended church services weekly were uniquely unlikely to say that they worried about the environment. In contrast, liberal Christians and those who infrequently partook in religious rituals considered the environment to pose one of the greatest problems for society today.

(Interestingly, though, Catholics – whose levels of church attendance and family involvement were more similar to those of conservative Protestants – were among the most likely to claim that the environment was a major concern for them. In many ways, Catholics in the U.S. often display characteristics of both the political right and left simultaneously – a topic we’ll tackle another time.)

Despite the characteristically complex position of Roman Catholics, these and similar studies  suggest that people who participate regularly in ritual, and who believe deeply in a spiritual worldview that is unique to their own religious society, are often both more invested in the small-scale health of their personal relationships – especially family and children – and less interested in larger, more systemic issues such as environmental degradation. Conversely, those who have little to do with regular ritual and who spurn particular religious worldviews appear to expend relatively less time and effort on the everyday maintenance of their closest relationships and to concern themselves much more directly with broader, more abstract problems.

I and many of my peers operate out of the latter paradigm. We’re educated, well-traveled, and savvy. We read and worry about big problems, like global warming or world overpopulation. And we tend not to be overly invested in any one particular cultural tradition. In fact, many of us see all traditional religious cultures, from Siberian shamanism to Roman Catholicism, as quaint, and slightly bemusing, relics of a different time. At their worst, they even seem dangerously parochial, superstitious, ignorant.

I believe that this broader, cosmopolitan perspective is extremely valuable. The big problems are real – very real – and we need to confront them with cunning and vision if we value our future on Earth. But even as we use our educated perspectives to tackle the big dilemmas, the research I have been citing urges that we also ought to realize that not all important problems are necessarily big – that is, abstract or structural – problems.

In fact, as I’ve studied the interactions of religion and culture, I’ve realized that the seemingly banal, everyday ritual interactions with our colleagues, family members, and friends are of precisely equal ethical importance to the big problems of climate change and social progress. It really does matter whether we partake in the effortful, often tedious work of maintaining relationships and communities. Religious participation and ritual appear to be vestiges of evolutionary tools that are remarkably good at helping us to do this. But the more educated and cosmopolitan mindset is largely abstract, systemic, and removed from the warmth and urgency of interpersonal life. It claims instead that if we can remember to recycle, sign petitions against human rights abuses, and buy compact florescent light bulbs – all of which are essentially abstract and non-interactive modes of expressing moral stances – our ethical duties have been accomplished.

This abstract ethics is what I no longer believe in. I believe the study of religion and ritual in human cultures argues compellingly for the importance of an interactive morality, one that prioritizes the concrete and particular life of communities and their relationships. This kind of morality is closer to that encouraged by our evolutionary heritage, which demanded constant, daily investment in relationships as the basic currency of survival.

At the same time, this interactive morality, on its own, is also no longer enough. We live now in a very broad, complex, and swiftly changing world in which systemic and abstract phenomena actually can affect us all – even at the local level of the tribe or community. If climate change disrupts all the weather patterns and agricultural cycles on Earth, then the best ritual practices and relational bonding in the world won’t save our societies from collapse.

The difficulty lies in the fact that the more our minds and bodies become habituated to one mode of morality – concrete and interpersonal on one hand, abstract and systemic on the other – the more deaf we become to the other mode. So, then, the environment is not the greatest problem. The greatest problem is our inability to weave together these two seemingly opposed ways of being moral. And if we cannot learn to embody both within each of us, then we will probably never be able to communicate effectively enough across ideological lines to solve the terrible dilemmas that stand before us as a civilization. And if we fail at this mutual communication, those seemingly distant large-scale threats will  become very concrete indeed – for all of us.

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