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Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

 

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

by Professor Michael Stausberg, University of Bergen

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project interview with Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism (15 April 2013)

In this podcast Alex Norman defines a spiritual tourist as a person who is travelling for spiritual betterment. As he himself admits, this is a pretty loose term. Alex carries on by saying that the people he interviewed in his research typically decided to change themselves or to reconstruct their lives, be it because they found their basic worldview unsatisfactory or because their lives in significant aspects went out of control. This need, obviously, can arise for people from all sorts of backgrounds, be they committed Christians or atheists. Is the term spiritual betterment as a project is applicable to everybody or only to such people from the spiritual milieu? Can also religious people travel for spiritual betterment or only such persons who have severed their ties to religious communities or ideologies (if they ever had such commitments)? In the podcast, the conversation partners seem to have a mutual understanding of the kind of practices characterized as ‘spiritual’, but no clear examples are given. On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

The podcast creates the impression that the persons interviewed by Alex are characterised by hostility towards Christianity and by a worldview that assigns agency to the subject; the latter aspect is often seen as a hallmark of New Age worldview (or spirituality). When seeking to better themselves spiritually, these people visit places or take part in activities that are part of religious traditions to which the tourists do not belong. Apparently, this exposure or this participation can contribute to the project of spiritual betterment, which thereby thrives on and is to some extent dependent on places and practices maintained by established religions. Given that the research was conducted at these sites we do not learn much about the travel careers of these spiritual tourists and the long-term biographical significance of their trips. This calls for follow-up research. It would also be interesting to know how widespread a social phenomenon this kind of spiritual tourism is.

In the interview, spiritual tourism is contrasted with the way many ordinary tourists visit religious buildings “between a baguette and a croissant”. This seems to imply the idea that, from a religious studies perspective, the ordinary tourists are less genuinely important, as if this somehow were not the real thing. As I have tried to show in my book Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), when addressing tourism in the study of religion\s we should not restrict our inquiry to forms of tourism framed as religious or tourism but should cast our net wider to cover the variety of interfaces between the domains of religion and tourism—in the same way that we study the representation of religion in media instead of only focusing on religious newspaper, television channels or websites. While the Lonely Planet India may indeed, as Alex says, exhort its readers to try out different forms of religious places and practices, this volume is untypical for the series as a whole; yet, as a genre travel guidebooks are interesting because they are a kind of literature from which many travellers derive their information about religion. As I argue in my book, tourism is a major arena for religion (and spirituality) in the contemporary world, even though many intellectuals tend to despise tourism and tourists. Spiritual tourism as analysed by Alex is one such nexus.

Towards the end of the podcast, Alex seems to come close to a post-Durkheimian theory of the implicitly religious nature of holidaying. This line of thinking refers to three types of evidence: points of identification, gathering of masses that constitute society, and commitment. I don’t think that any of this will take us very far. If earlier on people identified with religion, and now they identify with traveling, does that amount to indicating a potentially religious nature of tourism (as if people would not identify with all sorts of things)? I also doubt that the very gathering of masses at beaches (an old trope in anti-tourism rhetoric!) is enough to qualify this phenomenon as ultimately resembling religion. As it proceeds, the argument seems to transport a Tillichian notion of religion, where religion is identified as what ultimately matters to us, so that people who spend much of their available money on holidays can be interpreted as expressing a ‘religious’ valuation of them. Is it necessary and theoretically compelling to turn everything of significance for people into something religious?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Michael Stausberg is professor of religion at the University of Bergen. His book publications in English include Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism (Equinox 2008) and, as editor or co-editor, Defining Magic (Equinox, 2013, with Bernd-Christian Otto), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011, with Steven Engler), Contemporary Theories of Religion (Routledge, 2009) and Theorizing Rituals (Brill, 2006-2007; with Jens Kreinath and Jan Snoek). See Michael Stausberg’s website for a full list of publications and downloads.

Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism

What would you think if I told you I had just come back from a holiday in Aya Napa? How about Santiago de Compostella or Glastonbury? How about Mecca? When does travel become pilgrimage, and what are the spiritual factors behind our holiday choices? In this week’s interview, Alex Norman and David Robertson discuss the history and modern relevance of journeys undertaken for spiritual benefit and transformation.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Alex Norman lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

An Astrology (and Spiritualities) for the Modern

Campion’s suggestion of Theosophical astrology being an astrology for the modern, in the context of a revision of the Enlightenment and ‘modernity’, sheds light on the place of alternative, holistic, and esoteric spiritualities in the modern world.

An Astrology (and Spiritualities) for the Modern: A Reflection on Nick Campion

By S. Francesca Po, King’s College London

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 December 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Nick Campion on Astrology (3 December 2012).

‘[Theosophical astrology] is an astrology of modernity’, suggests Nick Campion in his interview with the Religious Studies Project.  However,  before even coming to this suggestion, David Robertson asked some very challenging, informed questions on the assumptions about astrology—particularly, if contemporary astrologers have ‘reinterpreted’ astrology in order to appeal to the cosmology of modernity.  This question is also relevant to many alternative, holistic, and ‘postmodern’ spiritualities, which I hope to focus on in this reflection.

Firstly, Campion clarifies the concepts of the Enlightenment and modernity.  Regarding the Enlightenment, what is commonly understood as a period that triumphed reason is currently being challenged, as many of the advocates for ‘reason’ during the Enlightenment were devout practitioners of Rosicrucianism and esoteric Freemasonry.  The concept of ‘modernity’ is just as complex.  Giving the example of the founders of modern art, Campion points out that they too were practitioners of esoteric traditions: Wassily Kandinsky, the founder of abstract art, was a Theosophist, and André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was an astrologer.  The Enlightenment and modernity are not, perhaps,as pragmatic, empirical, or objective as academic scholarship may have previously thought.

That being said, Campion continues, the notion of ‘modernity’ being something that is countered against or opposed to esoteric traditions is simply not valid, because the Enlightenment and modernity were actually heavily driven by esoteric worldviews.  He argues that labelling the New Age ‘postmodern’ is problematic in the same way.  His suggestion that ‘[Theosophical astrology] is an astrology of the modern’ is simply to display continuity in history: astrology has always existed with no breaks, there are always competing currents of which religious/spiritual/esoteric practices have more validity or effectivity, and there are always practices that are committed to developing alongside the rest of culture.  In this case, Theosophical astrology is part of the continuous lineage of astrology in the West, and has developed a system that is compatible with the modern worldview.

My research focuses on the population in the United Kingdom and the United States that have no religious preference (the ‘nones’) and generally are not institutional attendees (the ‘unchurched’), but may still engage or sympathize with religion.  This research led me to ethnographic work on various non-religiously affiliated social groups – namely the ‘integral milieu’ (otherwise known as the ‘intellectualist wing of the New Age’ [Heelas, 1996, p. 5]) and the ‘post-Christian milieu’ (the more ambiguous branches of the Emerging Church, to be detailed later in this article) – that may generally be considered alternative, holistic, or ‘postmodern’.

Within my research, like Campion, I have also encountered the problem with using the concept of ‘postmodernism’ as a label for these spiritualities.  ‘Postmodernism’ has been defined as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives…’, ‘frank revelations of theoretical perplexity, testimonies to dramatic shifts in reality, and expressions of existential despair’, and ‘a stylistic promiscuity favoring eclecticism and the mixing of codes; parody, pastiche, irony, playfulness and the celebration of the surface “depthlessness” of culture’ (Christiano, 2007, p. 47).  Although many of the groups I am studying are generally ambivalent of metanarratives, recognize the complexity of existence, and favor eclecticism, I have observed that they do actually recognize tangible truths, even if only temporary ones, and ultimately strive for a depth that one can be comfortable in, even if it may not be attained.  Kevin Christiano argues that:

‘a postmodern religion would not be captured within a church—or not a highly conventional such organization…  Religion in postmodernity would be ahistorical and anti-traditional…  Most of all, it would not hesitate to implode on the individual, and it would not regret the mess…’  (Christiano, 2007, p. 48)

Although the groups I am studying are not at all traditional constructs of religious institutions, they do exhibit historicity and tradition, and though they may have the ability to ‘implode on the individual’, they would probably attempt to ‘clean up the mess’ of it.  Within my observations, alternative, holistic, and ‘postmodern’ groups may, at most, only resemble postmodernism, but are actually continuous with the lineage of modernity.

More specifically, two ‘postmodern’ religions or spiritualities that are actually continuous with modernity are the ‘progressive milieu’ (Lynch, 2007, p. 10) and the Emerging Church. The ‘progressive milieu’ is what Gordon Lynch calls the milieu of individuals and groups coming from the progressive branches of all religious traditions.  They engage in many practices and have many ideas that may be considered alternative, New Age, or ‘postmodern’, but Lynch argues that they are actually continuous to modernity using a similar argument as Campion (Lynch, 2007, pp. 65-70).  He says, ‘progressive spirituality is not so much postmodern, as a particular form of modernism – a softer modernism – a spiritual way of living for the modern age’ (Lynch, 2007, p. 68).

Similarly, the Emerging Church is a milieu of individuals and groups that generally do not identify with any religious tradition, explores and experiments with a wide range of religious and philosophical ideas and practices, but claim groundedness in Christianity.  Historian Dominic Erdozain and sociologist Walt Scalen both argue that the Emerging Church is continuous with the same ‘spirit of reason’ as the Enlightenment, and shares a lineage with Enlightenment evangelicals (Erdozain, 2011, p. 93, 121; Scalen, 2010, p. 72).  Erdozain says, ‘[Evangelicals] had to step away from the inherited structures of the faith before they could engage with their culture.  They were the pioneers of the emerging church’ (Erdozain, 2011, p. 93).

Campion’s suggestion of Theosophical astrology being an astrology for the modern, in the context of a revision of the Enlightenment and ‘modernity’, sheds light on the place of alternative, holistic, and esoteric spiritualities in the modern world.  Alongside my own observations and research, I find Campion’s insight an imperative one in the study of contemporary religion.  The spirit of challenging and experimenting with religious ideas and practices is not simply a passing ‘postmodern’ project within the human desire to place meaning in a chaotic cosmology—it is a ‘spirit’ that has always existed in human history.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

S. Francesca Po is currently a doctoral student of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London, and is teaching modules on Buddhism. The working title of her thesis is ‘After “Spirituality”: An Emerging Common Sociality Among the New Age, Religious, and Religiously Unaffiliated in the United Kingdom and the United States’ under the supervision of Dr. Marat Shterin. Prior to being at King’s, she lectured at the University of San Francisco; received an M.A. in Philosophy and Religion, with a concentration in ‘Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness’ at the California Institute of Integral Studies; a B.A. in Religious Studies and Music at the University of California at Berkeley; served in the United States Peace Corps in Kazakhstan; and has had a career as a high school teacher of philosophy and religious studies, and campus chaplain. She has published and spoken on various subjects, including: nonviolence, politics, popular culture, religion, sociology, and spirituality. For an institutional biography, visit: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/trs/people/stuprofiles/research/po.aspx

In-text References

  • Christiano, K. J. (2007). Assessing Modernities: From “Pre-” to “Post-” to “Ultra-.” The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion (pp. 39–56). London: SAGE.
  • Erdozain, D. (2011). Emerging Church: A Victorian Prequel. The Great Tradition – A Great Labor: Studies in Ancient-Future Faith (pp. 92–121). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub.
  • Heelas, P. (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Lynch, G. (2007). The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-First Century. London: I.B.Tauris.
  • Scalen, W. (2010). The Emergent Church: Cutting Edge or 60s Redux. The Year 2010 Proceedings of the ASSR-SW, 66–74.

Emerging Church Recommendations

  • Bell, R. (2011). Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions. London: HarperCollins UK.
  • Cox, H. (2010). The Future of Faith. New York: HarperCollins.
  • DeYoung, K., & Kluck, T. (2008). Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be. Chicago: Moody Publishers.
  • McLaren, B. (2010). A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. London: Hachette UK.
  • McLaren, B. D. (2007). Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.
  • Rutba House. (2005). School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publ.
  • Sweet, L. (2000). Postmodern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century Church. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.
  • Sweet, L., Sweet, L. I., McLaren, B. D., & Haselmayer, J. (2002). A Is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2008). New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church. Ada, MI: Brazos Press.

Integral Milieu Recommendations

  • Aurobindo. (1985). The Life Divine. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
  • California Institute of Integral Studies. (2012). The California Institute of Integral Studies. Retrieved from http://www.ciis.edu/
  • Esalen Institute. (2011). Esalen Institute. Esalen Institute. Retrieved from http://www.esalen.org/
  • Gebser, J. (1985). The ever-present origin. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
  • Grof, S. (2000). Pschology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. SUNY Press.
  • Kelly, S. M. (2009). Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era. Herndon, VA: Lindisfarne Books.
  • Macy, J. (2007). World as lover, world as self: courage for global justice and ecological renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
  • Swimme, B., & Berry, T. (1994). The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era–a Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Tarnas, R. (2011). Passion of the Western Mind. Crawfordsville, IN: Random House Publishing Group.
  • Wilber, K. (2000). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Vernacular Religion

Images of Jesus on a slice of toast; Koran verses in an aubergine; statues which cry blood; Angel Colour cards and Atlantean crystal therapies; popular religious expressions are everywhere. Over the past decades, a number of scholarly terms have been coined for such phenomena – ‘implicit religion’, ‘invisible religion’, ‘everyday religion’ or, the topic of this interview, ‘vernacular religion’. Each does different work, but each fundamentally acknowledges that what real people actually do on the ground, what they believe, what they identify with etc has a fundamentally greater impact upon religion as it exists in the real world than the discourses of theologians, philosophers and academics. In this interview, Marion Bowman showcases her fascinating research into the ways in which religion permeates everyday life, paying particular attention to the manifestations at the famous Glastonbury Festival.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Dr Marion Bowman is Senior Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the Open University, former president of the BASR and of the Folklore Society, and currently on the executive board of SIEF’s Ethnology of Religion Working Group.

She began her academic career at Glasgow University, but switched to Lancaster University where she came under the influence of Professor Ninian Smart, a revolutionary figure who has acquired almost mythic status in the field of Religious Studies. Her research is concerned with vernacular/ folk/ popular religion – ‘religion as it is lived’ – contemporary religion (especially, New Age/Alternative Spirituality, Paganism, New Religious Movements, Vernacular Christianity) and contemporary Celtic Spirituality in Christianity, Paganism, Druidry, New Age/ Alternative Spirituality and New Religious Movements.

Marion’s Publications include Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief (2012) and Beyond the New Age: Exploring Alternative Spiritualities (2000). You can listen to Marion talking about airport chapels with Norman Winter at the Multi-Faith Spaces conference held at the University of Manchester.

The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion

Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2008), may be the best interpreter of environmentalism as a religious project working today.  His latest book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010), argues that the constellation of spiritual and naturalistic worldviews which hold nature as sacred can be described as part of a new religious movement, one that might replace traditional religions and help save our planet from ecological disaster.

In the wide-ranging interview for the The Religious Studies Project, Taylor traces the history of the greening of religion, the growth of a naturalistic cosmology based on Darwinian science (that for many has replaced traditional religions like Christianity), the coalescence of a new form of religiosity Taylor dubs “dark green religion,” how conceptualizing this phenomena as religion can be analytically useful, how the narrow-mindedness of new atheists like Richard Dawkins can limit their analyses, and whether dark green religion will transform human culture and the future of life on earth.

In this response, I will focus on a few key points that Taylor makes in the interview, and then offer a brief reflection about his book Dark Green Religion.

In the interview, Taylor begins by critiquing the “greening of religion” hypothesis, which holds that (primarily Western) religions can respond effectively to the environmental crisis by becoming more environmentally-friendly [cf. Roger Gottlieb’s A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (2006)].  For Taylor, it is not clear whether traditional religions like Christianity are actually turning green or whether they are just reflecting the society in which they are situated (as society is becoming more environmentally conscious).  Insufficient evidence exists to support the claim that religion is driving people to become better caretakers of the earth, he claims.  Despite the plethora of optimistic research about the greening of religion, I think Taylor is correct to sound this note of caution in interpreting earth-friendly religions like contemporary liberal Christianities.  Even after greening these religions, the tradition-bound, dominion-theology roots of our ecological crisis will remain.  Still, Taylor should provide a fuller explanation of why this is so.  However, pushing further, I wish Taylor would address the often-uncritical embrace of Eastern and indigenous religions as paragons of environmentalist ideas and practices.  Sometimes the portraits of non-Western religions painted by environmentalists are too rosy, belying complicated relationships with nature that remain underexplored.  For example, many of the dark green religion subjects Taylor discusses in his book do not think critically about the social and physical construction of wilderness, still assuming an idyllic natural state untouched by humans, one granting little to no agency to indigenous populations, as if native peoples leave no footprints.  Taylor could have complicated and improved his analysis by discussing this issue.

Next, tackling the perceived division between science and religion, Taylor discusses three major responses to Darwinian evolution in Western culture: rejecting evolution, grafting an evolutionary worldview onto a religious one (e.g. Catholicism, liberal religions), or embracing atheism and agnosticism.  However, for Taylor, even atheists and agnostics seek meaning and a moral sensibility, often finding them in nature, such as through the mythic meaning-providing aspects of the Darwinian evolutionary narrative.  Many who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious” may fit into this mold, in a more pagan or animistic vein, as might the scores of scientists who use religious rhetoric to describe their findings and experiences in nature.  Even an atheist like James Cameron, the director of Avatar, has deep environmental concerns and passions, such as kinship ethics, a theory of intrinsic value, an awareness of the interdependence of all life on earth, a humble sense of being one species amongst others (even noting cross-species continuities and animal consciousness), and an evolutionist, cosmological narrative of common origins.  Following E. O. Wilson, Taylor argues that kinship ethics, for example, is part of the emotional repertoire of human beings, that spiritualities of fellow-feeling are cross-culturally present across time.  Thus, as Taylor rightly shows, the supposed divide between religion and science—as well as between religion and irreligion—is messier than most commentators allow.

While Richard Dawkins and other so-called new atheists argue that religion is always poisonous, Taylor claims that their narrow view of what constitutes religion occludes from them phenomena that they support and about which they might agree.  Many atheist scholars use romantic language to describe their wonder at nature, for example.  Additionally, atheistic nature spirituality of the sort Taylor describes has wide cultural traction.  Dawkins should ratchet back his anti-religious rhetoric and read more religious studies literature, such as Taylor’s book, thus nuancing his view of religion.  If he did so, Dawkins might find that dark green religion describes his own naturalistic worldview (see Dark Green Religion: 158-160, 177-179).  New atheists should heed Taylor’s call for greater attention to the contested category of religion and to ways in which they may share central convictions with dark green religion.

In an optimistic mood, Taylor maintains that dark green religion is likely to become a global civil religion, especially as we better understand ecological science and our contemporary environmental predicaments.  Dark green religion may not replace traditional religions ultimately, but it could be the small piece upon which we can all agree.  While it is admittedly difficult to predict the future, Taylor claims that we could be in a gestalt period, a world-transformative moment in our religious and cultural life, one in which the fate of our planet hangs in the balance.  For Taylor, it is reasonable to speculate that religions which originated thousands of years ago will be less prevalent thousands of years into the future, and that dark green religion characteristics will be more prevalent than today’s traditional religions.  Although I am not inclined to indulge Taylor’s crystal ball-gazing, it is clear that he describes a major shift in ecological consciousness and spiritual belonging in his latest book, to which I now turn.

Taylor’s extremely well-read survey of contemporary environmentalist nature religiosity, Dark Green Religion, employs literary, ethnographic, and material cultural accounts to chart a global spiritual movement that seeks to protect the earth and reshape humanity’s role in it.  Chapters in the book define what he terms “dark green religion,” portray its historical tributaries and luminaries, analyze radical environmentalist and surfing spiritualities, examine the globalization of dark green religion through documentaries and the arts and sciences, and explore the role of global institutions such as UNESCO and global sustainability summits as they promote dark green religion.  Traits of dark green religion include an awareness of ecological interdependence, spiritualities of connection and belonging, kinship ethics, a sense of the intrinsic value of all life, contact with nature, and an evolutionist cosmogony (83, 149-151).  Throughout the book, Taylor acknowledges the hybridity and bricolage of dark green religion and its various sources and manifestations, noting that pinning it down to any particular creed, person, or institution would over-simplify a complex phenomenon.  Even in defining dark green religion, Taylor is careful to preserve such flexibility as it suits his interpretive purposes (101, 125).  Wary of using other terms that might carry unintended baggage, such as pantheism, deep ecology, or even nature religion [of the sort described by Catherine Albanese in Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (1990)], Taylor acknowledges that his new interpretive category may have limited utility beyond the scope of his book’s arguments (223-224).  In the end, he finds dark green religion to be a global, civic earth religion capable of replacing all other religions and perhaps thereby saving the planet.

One of the strengths of this book is Taylor’s eclecticism, as he draws from many and varied sources to make his argument, pulling quotes from nature writers, magazine ads, nature documentaries, and environmental legislation, for example.  He successfully brings these strands together into a cohesive whole, providing strong evidence for dark green religion’s existence.  He also adroitly explores how naturalistic accounts of the universe can be religious, in a way that moves beyond the claim that science is like religion since it is a totalizing worldview.  As a hybridizing and dynamic religious worldview, dark green religion is evolving and sprouting new forms, a fact that Taylor suggests will help it grow and flourish (185, 189).

Taylor labels dark green religion as “dark” because he wants to show its depth as well as its shadow side, such as elitism and radicalism (e.g. eco-terrorism).  However, he ultimately dismisses the dark side as a fringe that does not represent the mainstream of dark green religion.  This dismissal is unfortunate because it undermines the complexity that Taylor seeks to show, that this religion also has a significant dark side which has resulted in bodily injuries, damaged property, and loss of income.  Moreover, even within environmentalist kinship ethics, troubling choices have to be made, such as those that pit one community’s needs against another’s.  Dark green religion is not a panacea for the world’s problems or for resolving human conflicts.

In its bricolage, dark green religion takes from indigenous spiritualities across the globe and blends them with Western spiritual, cultural, and political ideals.  Taylor fairly represents the appropriation issues at stake, and he also highlights the viewpoints of indigenous peoples in global environmental summits, showing how race and religion become hot buttons within dark green religion.  However, there are also a few places where Taylor and his dark green religion subjects seem to compare apes to indigenous peoples, searching to find our most primitive and commonest characteristics while also raising the status of nonhumans (e.g. 30).  In an evolutionary perspective, comparing people to apes is not necessarily a bad thing, but when only indigenous peoples are compared to apes, then it begins to sound prejudiced.  I would like to hear Taylor’s response to this kind of under-the-surface bias.

The end of the book veers into advocacy of environmentalism and even dark green religion itself, as Taylor claims it can help preserve our planet and our species.  In this vein, he criticizes Christianity and other religions as unable to correct their anthropocentrism; he sees no hope in the greening of religion, instead encouraging readers to embrace the dark green religion he describes (178, 197, 206-207, 218, 221-222, 286).  However, in the book, Taylor needs to provide more evidence as to why other religious worldviews will necessarily fail us, and to engage more fully with Eastern and indigenous religions.  And some readers may question Taylor’s switch from description and analysis to advocacy.

Despite the few quibbles I present here, I admire Taylor’s work greatly.  Although there are many scholars examining nature and religion, few do so as thoroughly and thoughtfully as he does, and no one has presented as convincing a case for a global new religious movement based on environmentalist beliefs and practices.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics.

Bibliography

Albanese, Catherine L. Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Gottlieb, Roger S. A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Podcasts

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

Michael Stausberg. Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

 

Some Questions about Spiritual Tourism

by Professor Michael Stausberg, University of Bergen

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 17 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project interview with Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism (15 April 2013)

In this podcast Alex Norman defines a spiritual tourist as a person who is travelling for spiritual betterment. As he himself admits, this is a pretty loose term. Alex carries on by saying that the people he interviewed in his research typically decided to change themselves or to reconstruct their lives, be it because they found their basic worldview unsatisfactory or because their lives in significant aspects went out of control. This need, obviously, can arise for people from all sorts of backgrounds, be they committed Christians or atheists. Is the term spiritual betterment as a project is applicable to everybody or only to such people from the spiritual milieu? Can also religious people travel for spiritual betterment or only such persons who have severed their ties to religious communities or ideologies (if they ever had such commitments)? In the podcast, the conversation partners seem to have a mutual understanding of the kind of practices characterized as ‘spiritual’, but no clear examples are given. On a more fundamental level, this raises the question whether ‘spiritual’ refers to a quality that may come in addition to an identification as religious, or whether the two refer to different groups and types of persons.

The podcast creates the impression that the persons interviewed by Alex are characterised by hostility towards Christianity and by a worldview that assigns agency to the subject; the latter aspect is often seen as a hallmark of New Age worldview (or spirituality). When seeking to better themselves spiritually, these people visit places or take part in activities that are part of religious traditions to which the tourists do not belong. Apparently, this exposure or this participation can contribute to the project of spiritual betterment, which thereby thrives on and is to some extent dependent on places and practices maintained by established religions. Given that the research was conducted at these sites we do not learn much about the travel careers of these spiritual tourists and the long-term biographical significance of their trips. This calls for follow-up research. It would also be interesting to know how widespread a social phenomenon this kind of spiritual tourism is.

In the interview, spiritual tourism is contrasted with the way many ordinary tourists visit religious buildings “between a baguette and a croissant”. This seems to imply the idea that, from a religious studies perspective, the ordinary tourists are less genuinely important, as if this somehow were not the real thing. As I have tried to show in my book Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), when addressing tourism in the study of religion\s we should not restrict our inquiry to forms of tourism framed as religious or tourism but should cast our net wider to cover the variety of interfaces between the domains of religion and tourism—in the same way that we study the representation of religion in media instead of only focusing on religious newspaper, television channels or websites. While the Lonely Planet India may indeed, as Alex says, exhort its readers to try out different forms of religious places and practices, this volume is untypical for the series as a whole; yet, as a genre travel guidebooks are interesting because they are a kind of literature from which many travellers derive their information about religion. As I argue in my book, tourism is a major arena for religion (and spirituality) in the contemporary world, even though many intellectuals tend to despise tourism and tourists. Spiritual tourism as analysed by Alex is one such nexus.

Towards the end of the podcast, Alex seems to come close to a post-Durkheimian theory of the implicitly religious nature of holidaying. This line of thinking refers to three types of evidence: points of identification, gathering of masses that constitute society, and commitment. I don’t think that any of this will take us very far. If earlier on people identified with religion, and now they identify with traveling, does that amount to indicating a potentially religious nature of tourism (as if people would not identify with all sorts of things)? I also doubt that the very gathering of masses at beaches (an old trope in anti-tourism rhetoric!) is enough to qualify this phenomenon as ultimately resembling religion. As it proceeds, the argument seems to transport a Tillichian notion of religion, where religion is identified as what ultimately matters to us, so that people who spend much of their available money on holidays can be interpreted as expressing a ‘religious’ valuation of them. Is it necessary and theoretically compelling to turn everything of significance for people into something religious?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Photo: Hilde Strand (2012)

Michael Stausberg is professor of religion at the University of Bergen. His book publications in English include Religion and Tourism (Routledge, 2011), Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism (Equinox 2008) and, as editor or co-editor, Defining Magic (Equinox, 2013, with Bernd-Christian Otto), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011, with Steven Engler), Contemporary Theories of Religion (Routledge, 2009) and Theorizing Rituals (Brill, 2006-2007; with Jens Kreinath and Jan Snoek). See Michael Stausberg’s website for a full list of publications and downloads.

Alex Norman on Spiritual Tourism

What would you think if I told you I had just come back from a holiday in Aya Napa? How about Santiago de Compostella or Glastonbury? How about Mecca? When does travel become pilgrimage, and what are the spiritual factors behind our holiday choices? In this week’s interview, Alex Norman and David Robertson discuss the history and modern relevance of journeys undertaken for spiritual benefit and transformation.

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Alex Norman lectures at the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he completed his doctorate in 2010. His central research interests revolve around the confluence of travel practices and religious practices. His book Spiritual Tourism (Continuum 2011) examines the intersection of travel and secular spiritual practice by contemporary Westerners. His other main research interest is in new religious movements, and in 2012 he co-edited the Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill 2012) with Carole M. Cusack. From 2010 to 2013 Alex was co-editor of Literature & Aesthetics, culminating in a special issue examining travel and literature published in 2012. His latest research project looks at the various ways in which travel events and traditions have impacted the formation of new religious movements.

An Astrology (and Spiritualities) for the Modern

Campion’s suggestion of Theosophical astrology being an astrology for the modern, in the context of a revision of the Enlightenment and ‘modernity’, sheds light on the place of alternative, holistic, and esoteric spiritualities in the modern world.

An Astrology (and Spiritualities) for the Modern: A Reflection on Nick Campion

By S. Francesca Po, King’s College London

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 5 December 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Nick Campion on Astrology (3 December 2012).

‘[Theosophical astrology] is an astrology of modernity’, suggests Nick Campion in his interview with the Religious Studies Project.  However,  before even coming to this suggestion, David Robertson asked some very challenging, informed questions on the assumptions about astrology—particularly, if contemporary astrologers have ‘reinterpreted’ astrology in order to appeal to the cosmology of modernity.  This question is also relevant to many alternative, holistic, and ‘postmodern’ spiritualities, which I hope to focus on in this reflection.

Firstly, Campion clarifies the concepts of the Enlightenment and modernity.  Regarding the Enlightenment, what is commonly understood as a period that triumphed reason is currently being challenged, as many of the advocates for ‘reason’ during the Enlightenment were devout practitioners of Rosicrucianism and esoteric Freemasonry.  The concept of ‘modernity’ is just as complex.  Giving the example of the founders of modern art, Campion points out that they too were practitioners of esoteric traditions: Wassily Kandinsky, the founder of abstract art, was a Theosophist, and André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was an astrologer.  The Enlightenment and modernity are not, perhaps,as pragmatic, empirical, or objective as academic scholarship may have previously thought.

That being said, Campion continues, the notion of ‘modernity’ being something that is countered against or opposed to esoteric traditions is simply not valid, because the Enlightenment and modernity were actually heavily driven by esoteric worldviews.  He argues that labelling the New Age ‘postmodern’ is problematic in the same way.  His suggestion that ‘[Theosophical astrology] is an astrology of the modern’ is simply to display continuity in history: astrology has always existed with no breaks, there are always competing currents of which religious/spiritual/esoteric practices have more validity or effectivity, and there are always practices that are committed to developing alongside the rest of culture.  In this case, Theosophical astrology is part of the continuous lineage of astrology in the West, and has developed a system that is compatible with the modern worldview.

My research focuses on the population in the United Kingdom and the United States that have no religious preference (the ‘nones’) and generally are not institutional attendees (the ‘unchurched’), but may still engage or sympathize with religion.  This research led me to ethnographic work on various non-religiously affiliated social groups – namely the ‘integral milieu’ (otherwise known as the ‘intellectualist wing of the New Age’ [Heelas, 1996, p. 5]) and the ‘post-Christian milieu’ (the more ambiguous branches of the Emerging Church, to be detailed later in this article) – that may generally be considered alternative, holistic, or ‘postmodern’.

Within my research, like Campion, I have also encountered the problem with using the concept of ‘postmodernism’ as a label for these spiritualities.  ‘Postmodernism’ has been defined as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives…’, ‘frank revelations of theoretical perplexity, testimonies to dramatic shifts in reality, and expressions of existential despair’, and ‘a stylistic promiscuity favoring eclecticism and the mixing of codes; parody, pastiche, irony, playfulness and the celebration of the surface “depthlessness” of culture’ (Christiano, 2007, p. 47).  Although many of the groups I am studying are generally ambivalent of metanarratives, recognize the complexity of existence, and favor eclecticism, I have observed that they do actually recognize tangible truths, even if only temporary ones, and ultimately strive for a depth that one can be comfortable in, even if it may not be attained.  Kevin Christiano argues that:

‘a postmodern religion would not be captured within a church—or not a highly conventional such organization…  Religion in postmodernity would be ahistorical and anti-traditional…  Most of all, it would not hesitate to implode on the individual, and it would not regret the mess…’  (Christiano, 2007, p. 48)

Although the groups I am studying are not at all traditional constructs of religious institutions, they do exhibit historicity and tradition, and though they may have the ability to ‘implode on the individual’, they would probably attempt to ‘clean up the mess’ of it.  Within my observations, alternative, holistic, and ‘postmodern’ groups may, at most, only resemble postmodernism, but are actually continuous with the lineage of modernity.

More specifically, two ‘postmodern’ religions or spiritualities that are actually continuous with modernity are the ‘progressive milieu’ (Lynch, 2007, p. 10) and the Emerging Church. The ‘progressive milieu’ is what Gordon Lynch calls the milieu of individuals and groups coming from the progressive branches of all religious traditions.  They engage in many practices and have many ideas that may be considered alternative, New Age, or ‘postmodern’, but Lynch argues that they are actually continuous to modernity using a similar argument as Campion (Lynch, 2007, pp. 65-70).  He says, ‘progressive spirituality is not so much postmodern, as a particular form of modernism – a softer modernism – a spiritual way of living for the modern age’ (Lynch, 2007, p. 68).

Similarly, the Emerging Church is a milieu of individuals and groups that generally do not identify with any religious tradition, explores and experiments with a wide range of religious and philosophical ideas and practices, but claim groundedness in Christianity.  Historian Dominic Erdozain and sociologist Walt Scalen both argue that the Emerging Church is continuous with the same ‘spirit of reason’ as the Enlightenment, and shares a lineage with Enlightenment evangelicals (Erdozain, 2011, p. 93, 121; Scalen, 2010, p. 72).  Erdozain says, ‘[Evangelicals] had to step away from the inherited structures of the faith before they could engage with their culture.  They were the pioneers of the emerging church’ (Erdozain, 2011, p. 93).

Campion’s suggestion of Theosophical astrology being an astrology for the modern, in the context of a revision of the Enlightenment and ‘modernity’, sheds light on the place of alternative, holistic, and esoteric spiritualities in the modern world.  Alongside my own observations and research, I find Campion’s insight an imperative one in the study of contemporary religion.  The spirit of challenging and experimenting with religious ideas and practices is not simply a passing ‘postmodern’ project within the human desire to place meaning in a chaotic cosmology—it is a ‘spirit’ that has always existed in human history.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

S. Francesca Po is currently a doctoral student of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London, and is teaching modules on Buddhism. The working title of her thesis is ‘After “Spirituality”: An Emerging Common Sociality Among the New Age, Religious, and Religiously Unaffiliated in the United Kingdom and the United States’ under the supervision of Dr. Marat Shterin. Prior to being at King’s, she lectured at the University of San Francisco; received an M.A. in Philosophy and Religion, with a concentration in ‘Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness’ at the California Institute of Integral Studies; a B.A. in Religious Studies and Music at the University of California at Berkeley; served in the United States Peace Corps in Kazakhstan; and has had a career as a high school teacher of philosophy and religious studies, and campus chaplain. She has published and spoken on various subjects, including: nonviolence, politics, popular culture, religion, sociology, and spirituality. For an institutional biography, visit: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/trs/people/stuprofiles/research/po.aspx

In-text References

  • Christiano, K. J. (2007). Assessing Modernities: From “Pre-” to “Post-” to “Ultra-.” The Sage Handbook of the Sociology of Religion (pp. 39–56). London: SAGE.
  • Erdozain, D. (2011). Emerging Church: A Victorian Prequel. The Great Tradition – A Great Labor: Studies in Ancient-Future Faith (pp. 92–121). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub.
  • Heelas, P. (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Lynch, G. (2007). The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-First Century. London: I.B.Tauris.
  • Scalen, W. (2010). The Emergent Church: Cutting Edge or 60s Redux. The Year 2010 Proceedings of the ASSR-SW, 66–74.

Emerging Church Recommendations

  • Bell, R. (2011). Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions. London: HarperCollins UK.
  • Cox, H. (2010). The Future of Faith. New York: HarperCollins.
  • DeYoung, K., & Kluck, T. (2008). Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be. Chicago: Moody Publishers.
  • McLaren, B. (2010). A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith. London: Hachette UK.
  • McLaren, B. D. (2007). Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.
  • Rutba House. (2005). School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publ.
  • Sweet, L. (2000). Postmodern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century Church. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.
  • Sweet, L., Sweet, L. I., McLaren, B. D., & Haselmayer, J. (2002). A Is for Abductive: The Language of the Emerging Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Wilson-Hartgrove, J. (2008). New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church. Ada, MI: Brazos Press.

Integral Milieu Recommendations

  • Aurobindo. (1985). The Life Divine. Twin Lakes, WI: Lotus Press.
  • California Institute of Integral Studies. (2012). The California Institute of Integral Studies. Retrieved from http://www.ciis.edu/
  • Esalen Institute. (2011). Esalen Institute. Esalen Institute. Retrieved from http://www.esalen.org/
  • Gebser, J. (1985). The ever-present origin. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
  • Grof, S. (2000). Pschology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. SUNY Press.
  • Kelly, S. M. (2009). Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era. Herndon, VA: Lindisfarne Books.
  • Macy, J. (2007). World as lover, world as self: courage for global justice and ecological renewal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
  • Swimme, B., & Berry, T. (1994). The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era–a Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Tarnas, R. (2011). Passion of the Western Mind. Crawfordsville, IN: Random House Publishing Group.
  • Wilber, K. (2000). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

Vernacular Religion

Images of Jesus on a slice of toast; Koran verses in an aubergine; statues which cry blood; Angel Colour cards and Atlantean crystal therapies; popular religious expressions are everywhere. Over the past decades, a number of scholarly terms have been coined for such phenomena – ‘implicit religion’, ‘invisible religion’, ‘everyday religion’ or, the topic of this interview, ‘vernacular religion’. Each does different work, but each fundamentally acknowledges that what real people actually do on the ground, what they believe, what they identify with etc has a fundamentally greater impact upon religion as it exists in the real world than the discourses of theologians, philosophers and academics. In this interview, Marion Bowman showcases her fascinating research into the ways in which religion permeates everyday life, paying particular attention to the manifestations at the famous Glastonbury Festival.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Dr Marion Bowman is Senior Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the Open University, former president of the BASR and of the Folklore Society, and currently on the executive board of SIEF’s Ethnology of Religion Working Group.

She began her academic career at Glasgow University, but switched to Lancaster University where she came under the influence of Professor Ninian Smart, a revolutionary figure who has acquired almost mythic status in the field of Religious Studies. Her research is concerned with vernacular/ folk/ popular religion – ‘religion as it is lived’ – contemporary religion (especially, New Age/Alternative Spirituality, Paganism, New Religious Movements, Vernacular Christianity) and contemporary Celtic Spirituality in Christianity, Paganism, Druidry, New Age/ Alternative Spirituality and New Religious Movements.

Marion’s Publications include Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief (2012) and Beyond the New Age: Exploring Alternative Spiritualities (2000). You can listen to Marion talking about airport chapels with Norman Winter at the Multi-Faith Spaces conference held at the University of Manchester.

The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion

Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2008), may be the best interpreter of environmentalism as a religious project working today.  His latest book, Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010), argues that the constellation of spiritual and naturalistic worldviews which hold nature as sacred can be described as part of a new religious movement, one that might replace traditional religions and help save our planet from ecological disaster.

In the wide-ranging interview for the The Religious Studies Project, Taylor traces the history of the greening of religion, the growth of a naturalistic cosmology based on Darwinian science (that for many has replaced traditional religions like Christianity), the coalescence of a new form of religiosity Taylor dubs “dark green religion,” how conceptualizing this phenomena as religion can be analytically useful, how the narrow-mindedness of new atheists like Richard Dawkins can limit their analyses, and whether dark green religion will transform human culture and the future of life on earth.

In this response, I will focus on a few key points that Taylor makes in the interview, and then offer a brief reflection about his book Dark Green Religion.

In the interview, Taylor begins by critiquing the “greening of religion” hypothesis, which holds that (primarily Western) religions can respond effectively to the environmental crisis by becoming more environmentally-friendly [cf. Roger Gottlieb’s A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (2006)].  For Taylor, it is not clear whether traditional religions like Christianity are actually turning green or whether they are just reflecting the society in which they are situated (as society is becoming more environmentally conscious).  Insufficient evidence exists to support the claim that religion is driving people to become better caretakers of the earth, he claims.  Despite the plethora of optimistic research about the greening of religion, I think Taylor is correct to sound this note of caution in interpreting earth-friendly religions like contemporary liberal Christianities.  Even after greening these religions, the tradition-bound, dominion-theology roots of our ecological crisis will remain.  Still, Taylor should provide a fuller explanation of why this is so.  However, pushing further, I wish Taylor would address the often-uncritical embrace of Eastern and indigenous religions as paragons of environmentalist ideas and practices.  Sometimes the portraits of non-Western religions painted by environmentalists are too rosy, belying complicated relationships with nature that remain underexplored.  For example, many of the dark green religion subjects Taylor discusses in his book do not think critically about the social and physical construction of wilderness, still assuming an idyllic natural state untouched by humans, one granting little to no agency to indigenous populations, as if native peoples leave no footprints.  Taylor could have complicated and improved his analysis by discussing this issue.

Next, tackling the perceived division between science and religion, Taylor discusses three major responses to Darwinian evolution in Western culture: rejecting evolution, grafting an evolutionary worldview onto a religious one (e.g. Catholicism, liberal religions), or embracing atheism and agnosticism.  However, for Taylor, even atheists and agnostics seek meaning and a moral sensibility, often finding them in nature, such as through the mythic meaning-providing aspects of the Darwinian evolutionary narrative.  Many who self-describe as “spiritual but not religious” may fit into this mold, in a more pagan or animistic vein, as might the scores of scientists who use religious rhetoric to describe their findings and experiences in nature.  Even an atheist like James Cameron, the director of Avatar, has deep environmental concerns and passions, such as kinship ethics, a theory of intrinsic value, an awareness of the interdependence of all life on earth, a humble sense of being one species amongst others (even noting cross-species continuities and animal consciousness), and an evolutionist, cosmological narrative of common origins.  Following E. O. Wilson, Taylor argues that kinship ethics, for example, is part of the emotional repertoire of human beings, that spiritualities of fellow-feeling are cross-culturally present across time.  Thus, as Taylor rightly shows, the supposed divide between religion and science—as well as between religion and irreligion—is messier than most commentators allow.

While Richard Dawkins and other so-called new atheists argue that religion is always poisonous, Taylor claims that their narrow view of what constitutes religion occludes from them phenomena that they support and about which they might agree.  Many atheist scholars use romantic language to describe their wonder at nature, for example.  Additionally, atheistic nature spirituality of the sort Taylor describes has wide cultural traction.  Dawkins should ratchet back his anti-religious rhetoric and read more religious studies literature, such as Taylor’s book, thus nuancing his view of religion.  If he did so, Dawkins might find that dark green religion describes his own naturalistic worldview (see Dark Green Religion: 158-160, 177-179).  New atheists should heed Taylor’s call for greater attention to the contested category of religion and to ways in which they may share central convictions with dark green religion.

In an optimistic mood, Taylor maintains that dark green religion is likely to become a global civil religion, especially as we better understand ecological science and our contemporary environmental predicaments.  Dark green religion may not replace traditional religions ultimately, but it could be the small piece upon which we can all agree.  While it is admittedly difficult to predict the future, Taylor claims that we could be in a gestalt period, a world-transformative moment in our religious and cultural life, one in which the fate of our planet hangs in the balance.  For Taylor, it is reasonable to speculate that religions which originated thousands of years ago will be less prevalent thousands of years into the future, and that dark green religion characteristics will be more prevalent than today’s traditional religions.  Although I am not inclined to indulge Taylor’s crystal ball-gazing, it is clear that he describes a major shift in ecological consciousness and spiritual belonging in his latest book, to which I now turn.

Taylor’s extremely well-read survey of contemporary environmentalist nature religiosity, Dark Green Religion, employs literary, ethnographic, and material cultural accounts to chart a global spiritual movement that seeks to protect the earth and reshape humanity’s role in it.  Chapters in the book define what he terms “dark green religion,” portray its historical tributaries and luminaries, analyze radical environmentalist and surfing spiritualities, examine the globalization of dark green religion through documentaries and the arts and sciences, and explore the role of global institutions such as UNESCO and global sustainability summits as they promote dark green religion.  Traits of dark green religion include an awareness of ecological interdependence, spiritualities of connection and belonging, kinship ethics, a sense of the intrinsic value of all life, contact with nature, and an evolutionist cosmogony (83, 149-151).  Throughout the book, Taylor acknowledges the hybridity and bricolage of dark green religion and its various sources and manifestations, noting that pinning it down to any particular creed, person, or institution would over-simplify a complex phenomenon.  Even in defining dark green religion, Taylor is careful to preserve such flexibility as it suits his interpretive purposes (101, 125).  Wary of using other terms that might carry unintended baggage, such as pantheism, deep ecology, or even nature religion [of the sort described by Catherine Albanese in Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age (1990)], Taylor acknowledges that his new interpretive category may have limited utility beyond the scope of his book’s arguments (223-224).  In the end, he finds dark green religion to be a global, civic earth religion capable of replacing all other religions and perhaps thereby saving the planet.

One of the strengths of this book is Taylor’s eclecticism, as he draws from many and varied sources to make his argument, pulling quotes from nature writers, magazine ads, nature documentaries, and environmental legislation, for example.  He successfully brings these strands together into a cohesive whole, providing strong evidence for dark green religion’s existence.  He also adroitly explores how naturalistic accounts of the universe can be religious, in a way that moves beyond the claim that science is like religion since it is a totalizing worldview.  As a hybridizing and dynamic religious worldview, dark green religion is evolving and sprouting new forms, a fact that Taylor suggests will help it grow and flourish (185, 189).

Taylor labels dark green religion as “dark” because he wants to show its depth as well as its shadow side, such as elitism and radicalism (e.g. eco-terrorism).  However, he ultimately dismisses the dark side as a fringe that does not represent the mainstream of dark green religion.  This dismissal is unfortunate because it undermines the complexity that Taylor seeks to show, that this religion also has a significant dark side which has resulted in bodily injuries, damaged property, and loss of income.  Moreover, even within environmentalist kinship ethics, troubling choices have to be made, such as those that pit one community’s needs against another’s.  Dark green religion is not a panacea for the world’s problems or for resolving human conflicts.

In its bricolage, dark green religion takes from indigenous spiritualities across the globe and blends them with Western spiritual, cultural, and political ideals.  Taylor fairly represents the appropriation issues at stake, and he also highlights the viewpoints of indigenous peoples in global environmental summits, showing how race and religion become hot buttons within dark green religion.  However, there are also a few places where Taylor and his dark green religion subjects seem to compare apes to indigenous peoples, searching to find our most primitive and commonest characteristics while also raising the status of nonhumans (e.g. 30).  In an evolutionary perspective, comparing people to apes is not necessarily a bad thing, but when only indigenous peoples are compared to apes, then it begins to sound prejudiced.  I would like to hear Taylor’s response to this kind of under-the-surface bias.

The end of the book veers into advocacy of environmentalism and even dark green religion itself, as Taylor claims it can help preserve our planet and our species.  In this vein, he criticizes Christianity and other religions as unable to correct their anthropocentrism; he sees no hope in the greening of religion, instead encouraging readers to embrace the dark green religion he describes (178, 197, 206-207, 218, 221-222, 286).  However, in the book, Taylor needs to provide more evidence as to why other religious worldviews will necessarily fail us, and to engage more fully with Eastern and indigenous religions.  And some readers may question Taylor’s switch from description and analysis to advocacy.

Despite the few quibbles I present here, I admire Taylor’s work greatly.  Although there are many scholars examining nature and religion, few do so as thoroughly and thoughtfully as he does, and no one has presented as convincing a case for a global new religious movement based on environmentalist beliefs and practices.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics.

Bibliography

Albanese, Catherine L. Nature Religion: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Gottlieb, Roger S. A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Taylor, Bron. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.