Archives For Dark Green Religion

Since the 2010 elections, and some would argue since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Christian social conservatism in the United States has been flexing its muscles. Anti-abortion legislation is at record highs, contraception is a hot-button issue once more, same-sex marriage (not to mention gay soldiers) continues to be used as a political football, and disturbing moments of Christian nativism have been creeping back into our national discourse. There are two popular theories as to why religiously-motivated culture wars have intensified at this moment. The hubris theory, which posits that Christian conservatives have already “won” in changing the American landscape and now are slowly pushing for even more, and the desperation theory, which envisions a demographically doomed conservative Christian rump fighting a rear-guard action against the inevitability of their inconsequentiality.

“…contrary to the whims of lazy pundits, the waning of enthusiasm for battling over “social issues” is not due to higher concerns about jobs, the deficit, and the economic future […] Put simply, the Christian Right is getting old.According to the largest and most recent study we have of American religion and politics, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, almost twice as many people 18 to 29 confess to no faith at all as adhere to evangelical Protestantism. Young people who have attended college, a growing percentage of the population, are more secular still. Catholicism has held its own only because the Church keeps gathering in newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, few of whom are likely to show up at a Santorum rally. To their surprise, Putnam and Campbell discovered that conservative preachers infrequently discuss polarizing issues from the pulpit. Sermons about hunger and poverty far outnumber those about homosexuality or abortion. On any given Sunday, just one group of Christians routinely grapples with divisive political issues: black Protestants, the most reliably Democratic constituency of them all.”

That January 2012 New Republic article by Michael Kazin, quoted above, draws on the work of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam and Notre Dame professor David E. Campbell, authors of the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.” In it the two political scientists argue that our religious culture has become increasingly polarized, while at the same time fostering a broad interfaith tolerance. Putnam and Campbell were recently given pride of place in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs to talk about the intersection of religion and politics (hint: they don’t like it), with much of the piece given over to talking about “nones,” individuals who claim no formal religion.

“In surveys conducted by the authors all “nones” grew by about 18% between 2006 and 2011, but young “nones” grew by about 90%–a truly remarkable difference. Campbell and Putnam have a convincing political explanation of this development: The growth of the “nones”, and especially of their young constituent, is a reaction against the Religious Right.”

What many have pointed out, including those who’ve gathered data on this growing demographic, is that “nones” aren’t anti-religious per se, they are simply against what they feel institutionalized religion has become (ie polarized and fixated on culture war issues). In short, as some would have it, we are becoming a nation of heretics. The big question is, if traditional (ie Christian) religion as we know is declining, if we are entering a post-Christian era, what will take its place? According to religion scholar Diana Butler Bass, author of the recently released “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening,” we are at a pivotal moment in history in regards to that question.

“The United States is currently in the throes of a spiritual awakening, says Diana Butler Bass. In her new book, Christianity After Religion, the author argues that we are at a crossroads in history—we can choose to move forward into new emerging spiritualities, or we can heed the siren sound of the traditionalists calling us back to a romanticized, rigid, past.”

Bass makes it plain that this awakening isn’t isolated to Christianity, or even to monotheism.

“…when I talk about the fact that we’re in an awakening, I believe we are in a period of intense cultural reorientation or revitalization, and that during an awakening, politics, worldviews, religion, education—the whole way a society approaches being community, and connecting with one another, and understanding their God or their gods—it all changes.”

I’ve mentioned before that the rise of the “nones” could be a very good thing for modern Paganism, and for religious minorities in general. Many “nones” are picking up spiritual practices from nature and the New Age, and scholars like Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future,” believe that nature-based spiritualities are best equipped to survive the collapse of the traditional religions.

“Where this cognitive shift has been made, traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings.”

This all sounds like great news, but it should be noted that Taylor, and Bass, envision a push-back from traditional religions. The numbers may be  shifting, generational plate tectonics slowly changing the old religious order, but the near future will continue to be numerically dominated by Christian adherents. For many of these Christians the answer is simple: teach young people the “real,” “authentic,” Christianity that has been distorted by the modern world (an argument that works on both the Christian right and left).

“It all comes down to teaching and role-modeling the elusive real fundamental Christianity to young people. [Drew] Dyck’s book [“Generation Ex-Christian”] , and books like “UnChristian”“Generation Hex”“Wicca’s Charm”, and many, many, more, all call for a return to an elusive central core of faith that is pure enough to withstand the rigors of engaging the wider secular/non-Christian world.Christians love these books, because it not only addresses a problem that worries them, but tells them that the solution is to become more Christian as a way to solve the problem.”

The latest call for revival comes from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whose “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” comes out this April. In it, he makes a “urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity” to “confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline.” Douthat, a proud hurler of the Cynthia Eller brickbat, does not want to live in a “Dan Brown America” and is very, very concerned about Hollywood’s rampant pantheism.

“It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James. But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world. In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing. If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now.”

In the mind of Douthat, and many others, it all comes down to (traditional) Christianity vs. Nature Religion (ie pantheism, New Age beliefs, “false” Christianities, and Paganism). The “green dragon” of environmentalism run amok. A preoccupation spawned by the existential dread of losing one’s invisible privilege in our society. Hence, the uptick in culture-war issues discussed at the beginning of this piece. Of course, being a Pagan, I’m hoping for a day when we truly do enter a post-Christian society. When non-Christian voices, and non-religious voices, truly get seat at the table (as opposed to occasional sympathetic Hollywood films or appearances on reality television). That the moment of reckoning for religion in America swings away from a reestablishment of traditional Christian power, and towards the inclusive awakening envisioned by Bass. A pluralistic nation that lives up to its pluralistic (and pagan) foundations.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the “nones.”

[REMINDER: I am currently raising funds so I can go on assignment to the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Meeting in Chicago this November. Two days into the campaign and I’m already over half-way to my goal! To everyone who has donated so far, THANK YOU, you are making robust and responsive Pagan journalism possible. If you haven’t pledged yet, please consider doing so today, the quicker we reach the goal, the faster we can move forward on building new funding models for Pagan media.]

Back in March the BBC reported on a study that predicted the extinction of religion in nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. The mathematical model used to make this prediction is very similar to one used to predict the extinction of languages. The idea is simple: as the population of religiously non-affiliated individuals grow, their preferences start to become attractive to more and more people.

Pagans dance in "nonreligious" Estonia. Photo: BBC.

“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.”It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. […]  In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.” The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category. They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them. And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.

This trend isn’t isolated to Europe, a new study by Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves, a specialist in the sociology of religion, says that religion in the United States is “softening”.

In “American Religion: Contemporary Trends,” author Mark Chaves argues that over the last generation or so, religious belief in the U.S. has experienced a “softening” that effects everything from whether people go to worship services regularly to whom they marry. Far more people are willing to say they don’t belong to any religious tradition today than in the past, and signs of religious vitality may be camouflaging stagnation or decline. “Reasonable people can disagree over whether the big picture story is one of essential stability or whether it’s one of slow decline,” said Chaves. “Unambiguously, though, there’s no increase.”

Another sociologist, Bradley Wright, notes that “it’s not random who’s leaving churches, as Christians affiliated more through the Republican Party, liberal, marginal churchgoers became offended and left.” At his blog, Wright points out that religion in American society has become increasingly polarized, with the people who find religion only “somewhat” important (you know, the “Christmas and Easter Christians”) a dwindling population.

“The last two years *may* represent a change in the importance of religion. While the most devout religious people (i.e., “extremely important) hold on to their beliefs, there is a significant drop in those who religion as “very” important, with these people appearing to transition to viewing it as only “somewhat” important. It’s too early to tell, however, whether this is a robust long-term trend. If it is, it could portend further polarization—as the middle ground of religious importance disappears.”

Most telling is the opinion of Chaves, who, according to the Associated Press, doesn’t think these trends “can be reversed by ramped-up evangelism or other conscious decisions by religious groups.” Now it should be noted that people with “no religion” aren’t without religious beliefs or ideas, a large number claim to believe in a divine power, and a recent study of the religiously unaffiliated  in the Pacific Northwest showed that many of them had adopted an informal sort of nature worship.

“According to the just-published “Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia.” … a lot of these “nones” in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches. Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia.” “This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions,” he says. The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: “nature spirituality,” such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.”

So when we are talking about the decline of “religion” in the West, what we really seem to be talking about is a decline in traditional “churched” congregations. These “unchurched” individuals aren’t becoming atheists or religion-free agnostics, but are instead building their own spiritual practices, or turning to decentralized open movements like modern Paganism. Nor is that a trend isolated to the United States, as a recent BBC piece focusing on religion in Estonia, the world’s “least religious” country, will tell you.

“It is one in a chain of events that led the majority of Estonians away from God, but that does not mean they do not believe in anything at all. About 300km from Tallinn I journey to the forest to meet a group of nature lovers – nature worshippers you might call them. “We are pagan,” says Aigar Piho, father of eight children from the village of Rouge in southern Estonia. Sitting on a log in a forest clearing he tells me: “Our god is in nature. You must take time, sit down and listen.” Like many Estonians Aigar is spiritual. He defines his religion as Maausk – a form of Estonian nature spirituality – in which the trees and earth are cherished objects that possess power. Aigar says his place of worship is the forest yet with neither ceremony nor routine nor religious text, it is hard to say it is an organised religion.”

Sounds pretty religious to me! But I would say that, wouldn’t I? In any case, the idea that people who have “lost” religion will turn to Paganism, the New Age, self-constructed spiritualities, and nature-based religions isn’t just wishful thinking on my part, just listen to Bron Taylor, author of “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”.

“Where this cognitive shift has been made, traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings.”

It should be noted that these trends, while relatively fast-moving on a societal level, aren’t likely to produce massive shifts in power structures or political allegiances in the near future. Pagans, nature-worshipers, and the “spiritual but not religious” demographics will still have to deal with increasingly polarized mainstream religions fearful of a post-Christian future. That said, if you are looking for the hopeful note in all the stories lately about extreme and increasingly reactionary trends among the dominant monotheisms, here’s your light at the end of the tunnel. The promise of a more Pagan tomorrow.

A few quick news notes to get you through your Friday.

Sacred Tribes Explores Dark Green Religion: Sacred Tribes, an academic Christian journal for the study of new religious movements, has released a special edition devoted to Bron Taylor’s book “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”. Taylor’s work has gained attention for its thesis that the future of religion may be nature religion.

“…traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings. This is because most contemporary nature spiritualities are sensory (based on what we perceive with our senses, sometimes enhanced by clever gadgets), and thus sensible. They also tend to promote ecologically adaptive behaviors, which enhances the survival prospects of their carriers, and thus their own long-term survival prospects.”

The bulk of the special edition is a long interview with Taylor [PDF] that travels through his evangelical Christian past, his entrance into the environmentalist movement, and the religious “social phenomena” of “dark green religion.”

“Such nature spirituality is often rooted in an evolutionary understanding that all life shares a common ancestor, and it generally leads to kinship ethics, namely, felt ethical responsibilities toward and empathy for all living things who, like us, evolved through what Darwin aptly called the struggle for existence. Such perceptions generally lead people to see more continuities than differences between their own species and other ones, and this in turn tends to evoke humility about one’s place in the grand scheme of things. I label such religion “dark” not only to emphasize the depth of its valuing of nature (a deep shade of green concern) but also to suggest that such religion may have a shadow side—it might mislead and deceive; it could even precipitate or exacerbate violence. Since there is no religion without dangerous manifestations, I believe, it is important to be alert to the dangers of religion, of whatever sorts they might be.”

The interview is followed by responses from Loren Wilkinson [PDF], editor of “Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources,” and Peter Illyn [PDF], founder of the Christian environmental group Restoring Eden. You may also want to read the introduction to this edition of Sacred Tribes [PDF] by editor John W. Morehead. The material is definitely worth an in-depth read. For a Pagan interaction with Taylor and his material, I recommend heading over to Anne Hill’s wide-ranging radio interview concerning “dark green religion.”

Kern County Victims Seeking Recompense: The Bakersfield Californian and the Associated Press are reporting that Grant Self, who was a victim of a giant dragnet that imprisoned dozens of innocent men and women during the height of the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of the 1980s, is filing suit  against the County of Kern for damages.

“Grant Self was convicted and spent decades in prison before he was granted parole in 2000. Then he was classified as a sexually violent predator and sent to a state mental hospital, said Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations. Nations, who will defend the county in the case, said Self’s conviction was eventually overturned after the Kern County District Attorney’s office refused to produce the one remaining witness who had not recanted his accusations against Self. “The judge would not not consider his lack of recantation without access to him,” Nations said.”

The widespread abuses of the Kern County arrests, led by the infamous Ed Jagels, were documented in the chilling 2008 film “Witch Hunt”. One of the individuals profiled in that film, John Stoll, won a 5.5 million dollar settlement with the county in 2009. As for Jagels, he has remained unrepentant about the lives he ruined, and remained district attorney until his retirement in 2009. It is my personal hope that Kern County is made to account for all the lives ruined, and years lost, due to these false convictions. Hopefully 2011 will also see more overturning of convictions that were based on little more than discriminatory profiling and moral panic.

Being Gay Within Vodou: Theologian and writer Rev. Irene Monroe has contributed an essay to the New England publication Bay Windows discussing how Vodou has created safe spaces for GLBTQ individuals in Haiti.

“But with the ancestral religious belief that behavior is guided by a spirit (loa), gay males in Haitian Vodou are under the divine protection of Erzulie Freda, the spirit of love. And as a feminine sprit, gay males are allowed to imitate and worship her. And lesbians (madivins) are considered to be under the patronage of Erzulie Dantor, a fierce protector of women and children experiencing domestic violence. Erzulie Dantor is bisexual, but she prefers the company of women. […] poorer classes of LGBTQ Haitians have at least two ways to openly express and celebrate who they are — in Vodou and in Rara festivals. At Rara Festivals, a yearly festival that begins following Carnival belongs to the peasant and urban poor of Haiti. The Rara bands come out of Vodou societies that have gay congregations where gay men are permitted to cross-dress with impunity.”

The issue of sexual orientation and gender identity within Vodou is no doubt a complex one, and I’m sure some of my Vodouisant readers will want to chime in on the issue, but I do think Monroe makes an important point about Vodou creating room within certain societies for the open existence and acceptant of GLBTQ individuals. I also agree that opportunities for this oft-misunderstoond faith to be “lifted up” should be taken.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Back at the beginning of this year I mentioned a new book by Bron Taylor, a specialist in environmental and social ethics at the University of Florida, called “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”. The book posits that the future of religion may be nature religion, as he pointed out in an interview with Religion Dispatches.

“…traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings. This is because most contemporary nature spiritualities are sensory (based on what we perceive with our senses, sometimes enhanced by clever gadgets), and thus sensible. They also tend to promote ecologically adaptive behaviors, which enhances the survival prospects of their carriers, and thus their own long-term survival prospects.”

Author, radio host, and Huffington Post blogger Anne Hill, intrigued by the concepts and themes in the book, recently decided to interview Taylor for her Dream Talk Radio program and podcast.

“I always appreciate a chance to refine my thinking in areas where I have a lot of strong opinions, and the confluence of spirituality, nature, and politics is one such place. Reading Bron Taylor’s excellent new book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, has given me that chance. I read most of this book while in British Columbia, teaching a group of 90+ people at a Reclaiming camp, the theme of which included “listening to the land, to sense the coming shift.” In spite of my misgivings about the theme, I thoroughly enjoyed the camp and the friends I was teaching with, and in our planning process we had several lively discussions that helped me refine even further my thoughts on the issues raised in Dark Green Religion. As soon as I got back from all that travel I interviewed Bron on Dream Talk Radio, so I pretty much unloaded onto him all the thoughts I’d had throughout the previous week. Whether you have read the book or not, I would love to hear your comments about our discussion, so without further ado here is the podcast.”

What results is an interesting conversation regarding nature, divinity, politics, spirituality, apocalypse thinking, and how different movements and groups have adopted “dark green religion”. You can download the entire interview, here. I encourage you to check out the interview and comment about the program at Anne Hill’s blog. You may also want to check out the Facebook page for Taylor’s book.

Religion Dispatches interviews Bron Taylor, a specialist in environmental and social ethics, core faculty member in the Graduate Program in Religion and Nature at the University of Florida, and author of the new book “Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future”. According to Taylor, the future of religion is nature religion.

“…traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings. This is because most contemporary nature spiritualities are sensory (based on what we perceive with our senses, sometimes enhanced by clever gadgets), and thus sensible. They also tend to promote ecologically adaptive behaviors, which enhances the survival prospects of their carriers, and thus their own long-term survival prospects.”

On his web site, Taylor even envisions the possible emergence of a global “earth religion”.

“Dark green religion—religion that considers nature to be sacred, imbued with intrinsic value, and worthy of reverent care—has been spreading rapidly around the world … such religion is becoming increasingly important in global environmental politics. It motivates a wide array of individuals and movements that are engaged in some of the most trenchant environment- related struggles of our time. It increasingly shapes the worldviews and practices of grassroots social activists and the world’s intelligentsia. It is already important in global environmental politics. It may even inspire the emergence of a global, civic, earth religion.

Taylor’s book seems to primarily focus on radical environmentalists, “surfer-spirituality”, and mainstream political and cultural “green” discourse in framing his “Dark Green Religion”, though modern Paganism does get mentioned in his chapter on Globalization in Arts, Sciences, and Letters.

“Starhawk, [Margot] Adler, and [Alice] Walker show that Paganism, by emphasizing Mother Earth as sacred and sometimes equating her with the body of the goddess, is fertile ground for enviornmentalism. Both Walker and Starhawk, who live in Northern California, have supported campaigns against logging in the redwood biome. Given the earthly ground of contemporary Paganism, it is unsurprising that when Paganism does lead to political action it would have a strong ecofeminist dimension.”

In addition, he also briefly mentions Gaian tendencies within the New Age movement. So it seems (at least some) Pagans are included in his “Dark Green” religious future. Though I’m a bit disappointed that he didn’t spend a bit more time on the topic, especially considering the growth of Pagan studies in recent years.

So how pervasive is this rising civic “earth religion” that Taylor posits? Christian scholar John Morehead wonders if the massive success of “Avatar”, with its pantheistic and environmental themes, may be connected to this phenomenon.

“…in terms of popular culture, such sentiments may also be seen underlying the science fiction/fantasy film Avatar. which has resonated with audiences for this and other reasons.”

Whether the future of religion is indeed nature religion, replacing the now-dominant monotheisms, remains to be seen, but the book looks like a fascinating exploration of the topic. You can download and read the entire first chapter of the book at the publisher’s web site. Taylor also promises more related content and a soon-to-be-launched blog on his personal web site.