Religion, Nature, & the Perception of Self

I’ll never forget the effect this poster had on me when I saw it some years ago. Upon first impression, the poster seemed to be an appeal to the mainstream Western view that religious extremism was the cause of the September 11th attacks, and if religion did not exist, thousands of innocent Americans would still be alive today. When I saw the poster, however, the September 11th attacks represented to me the zeitgeist of an entire generation’s struggle with religious and political conflict, with no simple causes and no simple effects to summarize the event so easily.

Decades before September 11th, 2001, our American foreign policy had long been involved in supporting oppressive regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere. We’ve propped up dictators, built bases on holy lands, bombed mosques and innocent civilians and called it “collateral damage.” And of course, all of this, along with our unwavering support of Israel and seeming indifference to the plight of the Palestinians has continued to inflame old religious wounds and anti-U.S. sentiment.

After the September 11th attacks, our government has waged two wars in retaliation, killing innocent Iraqis and Afghanis on a ten-fold scale in our efforts to “bring freedom” to the Middle East and “justice” to the terrorists. Of course, beyond the political rhetoric, a quick search on Google with the terms Bush, Iraq, and holy war will reveal religious connotations rooted in our foreign policy too numerous for me to stomach. Knowing that Bush has used the term “crusade” to describe the War on Terror and has said that the Iraq war was a “mission from God,” one can’t help but sense the overtones of Christian empire building that draw parallels to past periods of conflict between Christians and Muslims.

Seeing the September 11th attacks in this broader light, the full meaning of the political poster I saw becomes apparent: the blame for the whole karmic tragedy of 9/11, its lead up, and its aftermath, cannot be found in the zealous ideology of one religion or another, but within religion itself.

The very nature of religion makes violence possible, makes the most horrific and barbarous behavior acceptable so long as the violence dished out is upon the “other” and not “yourself,” and is otherwise done in the service of a god or divine covenant. How many people have been killed over the last 10,000 years in the name of one god or another? How many nations have conquered another nation and put its people in bondage in the name of one god or another? The story of Exodus is just one example of literature that reinforces this acceptable doublethink. “You shall not murder,” as Moses is commanded. Yet it was perfectly acceptable for hundreds or more of the Egyptians to be killed off so that God’s “chosen people” could be freed and prosper. Earlier in the story, God says that:

I have come down to rescue [the Israelites] from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land … the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

So, following God’s logic, once the Israelites come to this land, they now have the officially stamped and approved permission from God to take for themselves the land currently occupied by six other groups of people. The message of God and the authors who speak for Him seem to be clear: don’t kill people… unless God says it’s okay, or says it’s okay indirectly by giving you land that’s currently occupied by others.

Later in history, Socrates, one of the greatest philosophical thinkers both then and now, was put to death by a jury in Athens because he was either an “atheist” or because he just didn’t believe in the “right” gods, which, according to Meletus, the man who convicted him, was probably the same difference (Trial & Death of Socrates 29-31). In both examples, and thousands of others, the common thread is this: belief in the “right” god or gods gives a license to kill.

This “one right god” meme is common to almost all religions throughout history, and, evolutionarily speaking, we can understand why. Religions who posses this meme are more likely to pass on their beliefs to the next generation. If your religion is the “only right” religion, and your relationship with God is more important than everything else in life, then you’ve got a pretty good incentive to convert others and kill any detractors. It’s a spreading mechanism, selected naturally in the meme pool not because there is any rationality to the “one right god” meme, but because it gives spreading power to the religions that get infected by it. It’s in this way that I consider this meme much akin to that of a sexually transmitted disease. Like any virus looking for an exploitable niche, it seems inevitable that such a meme would come to find a home in most of the world’s major religions.

Another meme that may prove even more lethal to our species on a collective level, rather than an individual one, is the meme that says that Man is separate from nature, and that God gave Man the world to rule and use as he sees fit. The most obvious example of this meme in literature can be found in Genesis:

God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

The implications of a human culture seeing itself as separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world are deeply profound. This meme would not be such a problem if it were contained within just one culture among many others. Unfortunately, this meme long ago hitched a ride on the back of our main civilizational ancestors, which have since colonized 99% of the planet, so that now, the belief in our divorce from nature is considered nearly synonymous with humanity itself.

It’s here that I should mention that religion has played a useful (though I would argue outdated) role in our history as an evolving species. Religion has provided the primary means that we have so far found meaning in life, and Man cannot live without meaning. Religion has shaped and defined our place in the world, made sense of the injustices, given us hope for the future, and offered us security in times of uncertainty. It has helped to explain the big questions, and given us comforting explanations for phenomena that at the time we were unable to comprehend. But given the power of religion to shape how we see the world and how we live in it, the narratives and mythologies that we tell ourselves are incredibly important.

What happens to a culture when it believes it is separate from nature and weaves this narrative into all of its stories, literature, movies, books, and conversations, so much so that it becomes ambient in the culture and is taken for granted? To put it simply, it becomes a blind spot, a silent cancer, an unspoken burden – one that, no matter how many problems it causes, we cannot question, because we must fulfill the sacred covenant most explicitly and famously outlined in Genesis. We are separate from nature, and it is our job to rule over it.

The most fundamental aspect of this belief is how it shapes our core identity. What do we consider “self” and what do we consider “other”? Think about all of the implications: you can exploit or destroy that which is not yourself. You can believe (foolishly) that you are not subject to the same laws that govern nature. You can care less and value less the things that are not connected to “you.” You can objectify nature and destroy it at your whim, exploit it as you please, kill it as you see fit, all without much internal conflict, because, according to your religious mythology, that’s what you’re “supposed” to be doing anyway.

Now let’s turn it around. Let’s think about how all of these things would change if our original premise were changed to: “we are nature.” Most people value things they identify with themselves. You do not destroy, pollute, exploit, or try to maim yourself. You would realize and accept the scientific and ecological laws that say, “Destruction of an ecosystem that you depend on destroys you as well.” You would value yourself over a corporation’s profits. You would value higher pollution taxes that protect you from toxins in your body. You would consider any economic costs that would be incurred to protect nature unquestionably worth it, because you value yourself more than any economic profit. You would design your cities, cars, factories, and material products in ways that do not destroy or pollute your self. You would do innumerable things that would contribute to the health and prosperity of nature, because that translates directly to the health and prosperity of society.

Today, of course, we can see clearly which one of these two mythologies was embedded within the civilization we have created. Declining fisheries, forests, and fresh water; poisoned lakes and rivers, depleted soils, and declining species diversity: they are all symptoms of a culture that cares more about its relationship with God and other humans than its relationship with the natural world. In the blip of just 10,000 years, we have doubled in population over a half-dozen times (fulfilling another common edict religion has provided us), and our impact on the planet now threatens us with a new problem our civilization has never faced before: ecological collapse due to the self-reinforcing feedback-loops that would be triggered by a two degree rise in global climate.

In a strange way, true contemporary followers of the Genesis story might say that all of these environmental problems we see today are all “part of the plan.” It’s all “collateral damage,” as the military would say, in our crusade to make the earth truly fit for Man, shaped to his needs and fancies – a home for a true king of kings. Of course, while putting the New World to the plow and building great cities was essentially holy work for our country’s settlers, seen from the Native American’s perspective, the story these settlers were enacting represented nothing less than a war on the natural world. Nevertheless, as our Founding Fathers saw it, it was their job to subdue nature and rule over it, and that’s exactly what they did, in a fashion not unlike so many of the rulers that we’ve all learned about in Western Civilization textbooks.

In more recent decades, while the language our political leaders use to describe our responsibility to nature has taken on the essence of a Mother Teresa more than a Ghengis Khan, the original belief that we are separate from nature remains the same. That is, whether we are nature’s good steward or its ruler, “we” are still separate from “it.”

As long as that remains true, and our sense of self and identity remains incredibly narrow and individualistic, the patterns we have seen play out over the last 10,000 years of Western civilization will continue, with all of the violence, blood shed, and environmental degradation that has come with it. This is one reason why I believe that the world’s religions have served their brief usefulness in our evolution as a species, but they are no longer necessary to experience meaningful, secure, and enriching lives. Currently, given the advances of science and the humanistic values of secular society, the archaic and dogmatic religions of our past are causing far more harm than good. If religion is to remain relevant in a society 200 years from now, or 1000 years from now, it will have to let go of many of the negative qualities that up to now, has been used precisely to define what religion is. Religion is going to have to reinvent itself, if we are going to continue to use the word at all. To point in the direction of where this search for a new interpretation might begin, I will end with a quote from one of my favorite thinkers, J. Krishnamurti:

When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind” (Freedom from the Known 51-52).

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