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On Reading Ralph Ellison Theologically

Ralph Ellison, famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, eschewed religiosity personally. His works mainly concerned race, artistry, and democracy in America. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (2017), Cooper Harriss seeks to uncover what he sees as the theological dimensions of Ellison’s secular conception of race. Because religion is a neglected topic in Ellison scholarship, Harriss’ reading presents an opportunity for fresh insights.[1]

Most scholars examining invisibility in Ellison’s novel consider it a social metaphor: the novel’s protagonist is made invisible by people’s refusal to really see him. Yet Harriss claims invisibility is also a theological trope, with roots in biblical materials, Protestantism, and Kongo traditions, antecedents that establish it as an unmarked religious category. More than the social marginalization of black bodies, Harriss contends invisibility is metaphysical, too.

To read Ellison as a theological thinker, which is also to read him theologically, Harriss calls upon Schleiermacher and Tillich, primarily, to expand the notion of religion. He explains that, to him, the terms “religion” and “religious” refer not to particular things but to “processes through which antagonistic cooperation between universals and particulars generates human quests for meaning” (16). Furthermore, “Ellison’s concept of race is foundationally religious because it is rooted in the relational, systematic interplay between, and the consequent aggregation of, the particular and the universal” (17).

Great authors like Ellison create characters and stories that are both particularized yet universal. The particularity gives a literary work its fully-fleshed characters and immersive world, while its universality connects it to readers’ own lives. In Invisible Man, after we hear the unnamed protagonist’s particular life story as a black man in America, he asks his famous universalizing final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” This interplay between particular and universal, is religious, in Harriss’ terms. Ellison is thus a theologian because he makes meaning out of this particular-universal relation.

The heart of Harriss’ argument is his claim that Ellison’s secular conception of race is an “invisible theology.” For Harriss, theology refers not to “God-talk” but to “meanings and significances generated by religious negotiations of universals and particulars,” or “faith seeking understanding” (16). Ellison’s work is religious because it is “meaning-making” and it is theological because it offers practical import for human living (16). These elements are inseparably linked: “the religious and the theological” are “critically cofunctional—never segregated (as they have become in contemporary academic discourse) but absolutely dependent upon one another” (17). Here Harriss is not just making a descriptive claim about the history of these distinct discourses, but asserting his desire to “annihilate” the wall between theology and religious studies, as he says in this interview. He wishes to “dislocate theology as ‘mere’ belief, prescription, or data and refashion it as a critical apparatus” that can help us solve contemporary challenges (192). Accordingly, Harriss argues that “the religious aspects of Ellisonian conceptions of race as a secular property—its invisible theology—may help us” to assess today’s political contexts (179). There is a social prescriptivism in this theological claim-making; Harriss hopes the invisible theology he’s unveiling—and creating—might save us.[2]

There is good evidence, Harriss claims, for reading Ellison theologically. Ellison derided what he saw as racial essentialism in the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s-1970s, which relied on materialist conceptions of race. Harriss asserts Ellison’s critical project worked against such materialisms, opening space for metaphysical speculation. He also relies on the coincidental publication of major works by three Protestant intellectuals to place Ellison in their midcentury American theological context. Over two chapters, Harriss connects Ellison’s ruminations on racism as America’s “original sin” to American civil religion as a form of residual Calvinism in a post-Protestant society. In a critical chapter, he argues that Ellison’s long friendship with Nathan A. Scott, Jr., literature professor and canon theologian, was really a “theological apprenticeship” for Ellison (96).[3] Cooper uses previously unpublished material to shed light on Ellison at several points, and provides provocative interpretations throughout.

Harriss’s book stands in the tradition of Scott’s scholarship—called Theology and Literature, Christianity and Literature, or Religion and Literature—albeit augmented by recent critical studies of race, religion, and secularism. Relying on a Tillichian theology of culture, Scott explored how a “religious unconscious” permeates cultural productions, even avowedly secular ones, and provides insight into how we ought to live. Harriss admits his own “Tillichian orientation” and states that Scott’s earlier work on Ellison “anticipates the premise, if not the thesis, of this book” (88, 98). Like Scott, Harriss seeks to uncover hidden religious dimensions in Ellison’s secular work to help us navigate the modern world. Both scholars utilize liberal Christian definitions of religion to find exactly these kinds of religious articulations in Ellison.

Harriss employs scholarship showing the theological and Protestant production of concepts like race and the secular to justify framing Ellison as a Protestant theologian (3, 41). Ellison would not recognize himself as such. Despite Ellison’s critiques of social science and Marxist materialism, he did not turn toward supernaturalism. Harriss rejects Ellison’s naturalism by insisting that we need to take “certain religious and theological dimensions seriously in their contention with what believers understand to emanate from invisible, supernatural realms” (14). This approach distinguishes secular from religious, recognizes Ellison as secular, and then rewrites him as religious anyway. Such theological caretaking confuses categorical entanglements with their identity. By yoking religious studies with theology and the secular with the religious, Harriss erases any difference. Arguing that secular writers are really theologians in disguise enacts a theological agenda. At stake is what we do as religious studies scholars.

Outside theological contexts, I am not convinced that the category “invisible theology” provides us greater analytical purchase on Ellison’s work. As someone who loves Ellison and studies religion, I was excited to encounter Harriss’ ideas. As a religious studies scholar, however, I found Harriss’ insistence upon a theological reading of Ellison’s work forced and unnecessary. In a spirit of antagonistic cooperation, a favorite phrase of Ellison’s, I find myself both affirming and resisting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology.

Notes

[1] Most recently, Josef Sorett locates Ellison’s Afro-Protestant racial aesthetics in the black church (2016, 141-149). Sorett and Harriss both claim religion underlies black secular artistic expressions, but their methods and conclusions differ.

[2] In Race and Secularism in America, Vincent W. Lloyd exhorts “the recovery of the religious, beyond secularism,” for its transformative potential (2016, 15). He adds that “remembering the religious—or the theological, as the unmanaged religious is sometimes called—points to traditions of imagining otherwise.” In Harriss’ work, I hear a similar normative voice, one that promotes Protestant theology as a useful mode for reading secular literature and for envisioning an “otherwise” that seems beyond our material reach.

[3] I found the evidence for such “instruction” to be thin (98). Harriss reads a lot into a letter Ellison wrote to Scott wherein Ellison laments the loss of the “sacred” in modern literature; Ellison saw that loss as muting moral assertion and forcing “depth and resonance” underground (97). Harriss repurposes Ellison’s “depth and resonance” as “shorthand” for religion (98-99, 116, 147).

References

Harriss, M. Cooper. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology. New York University Press, 2017.

Lloyd, Vincent W. “Introduction: Managing Race, Managing Religion.” In Race and Secularism

in America, edited by Jonathan Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, 1-19. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Scott, Jr., Nathan A. “Black Literature.” In Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing,

edited by Daniel Hoffman, 287-341. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” The Carleton Miscellany 18.3 (1980): 41-50.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” Callaloo 18.2 (1995): 310-318.

Sorett, Josef. Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Oxford University

Press, 2016.

 

Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, yoga mats, tantric guides, and more.

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

Religion, Secularism and the Chaplaincy

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.

Religion, Secularism, and the Chaplaincy

By Dusty Hoesly, University of California, Santa Barbara

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Winnifred F. Sullivan on Religion and the Law (22 April 2013)

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington, may be the supreme interpreter of the intersection of law and religion in American society today.  Each of her three books—Paying the Words Extra, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, and Prison Religion—treats individual legal cases both textually and anthropologically, examining their particular cultural and legal contexts as well as their wider import for discourse in American law and society generally.  Her work is attuned equally to debates within the field of religious studies, especially to how scholars of religion constitute the object of their study.

In this interview for The Religious Studies Project, Sullivan focuses on her latest project, which examines chaplaincy in secular settings, as well as on her larger body of work.  Her recent presentation, “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular,” uses chaplaincy as a lens for thinking beyond her previous work in critiquing constitutional and legal protections for religious freedom, and arguing for the instability and incoherence of the category of religion as a basis for legal regulation.  Putting aside her study of the management of religion in constitutional settings, in this project Sullivan examines how religion and law shape each other on the ground.  She concludes that chaplains have come to serve a role of ministering to what is increasingly understood as a universal spiritual need, which she labels a “naturalization of religion.”

For Sullivan, the figure of the chaplain in Western Christendom has always been an ambiguous figure, a minister whose duties lie away from church authority or congregational demands.  In modern secular institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and the military, the chaplain’s role remains ambiguous since, unlike doctors, guards, or soldiers, the chaplain is an explicit broker between the sacred and the secular.  The chaplain is paid by secular institutions and beholden to secular authorities, despite the religious character of the chaplain’s work or the chaplain’s religious allegiance.  Chaplains may find themselves obliged to endorse secular missions, such as nationalism or militarism, that run contrary to the chaplain’s religious mission.

The role of the chaplain and the social perception of chaplaincy in America have both changed significantly since World War II, Sullivan argues.  In the mid-twentieth century, patients, inmates, and soldiers imagined that chaplains had specific ministerial resources that were particular to each denomination, such that Catholic priests, for example, could offer services that no other denomination’s chaplains could.  Today, however, chaplaincy is far more generalized and less identified with any particular tradition.  Contemporary chaplains practice a “ministry of presence,” a stripped-down form of witness (to use a Christian word) that is a “suffering with” those seeking spiritual guidance.  Chaplains are trained to de-emphasize their individual religious identities so that they can provide a non-imposing, non-coercive presence, letting clients instead take the lead in terms of any religious specificity.

In her presentation, Sullivan observes the rise of credentialing as a major shift in chaplaincies during the 20th century.   Credentialing, rather than mere religious training, is now required in order to serve as a chaplain.  Would-be chaplains must earn a Master of Divinity degree, intern with a clinical pastoral education program, and obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement, all of which must be accredited or recognized by the government.  These cooperative efforts between state and religion have resulted in the standardization and professionalization of the chaplaincy.  Anyone can be a chaplain today, Sullivan argues.  It becomes a white collar job, one requiring expensive educational training and a lengthy apprenticeship.  As Randall Collins has argued, the credential becomes symbolic of one’s ability to do the actual work.

For chaplains who must serve a diverse clientele, including Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Southern Baptists, and atheists, specific denominational beliefs and practices, as well as religion itself, become “cultural resources” (to use James Beckford’s term).  Religion loses its claim to be sui generis, instead revealing itself to be socially constructed according to the practical needs of the moment when a client requests the services of a chaplain.  This offering of non-denominational spiritual advice to any and all seekers is illustrative of the secularization and commoditization of the chaplaincy.

But the process is not complete and, therefore, neither is Sullivan’s analysis.  Atheists and secular humanists may be consumers of chaplaincy services, but they are not yet permitted by the government to serve as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, or the military.  Even if the credentialing process in theory is open to any person, from whatever background, as Sullivan claims, this does not mean that anyone can become a chaplain in actual practice.  Groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers are seeking recognition by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, but they have been unsuccessful so far.  That said, many prisons now include yoga and meditation groups, blurring the boundary between secular and religious practices and challenging the role of prison chaplains as exclusive brokers between the sacred and the secular.  And some higher education institutions, including Harvard, Rutgers, Stanford, Columbia, and American University, now incorporate humanist chaplaincies, responding to a growing call for guidance that is explicitly secular.

How might these humanist movements complicate Sullivan’s analysis?  Sullivan argues that in contemporary American jurisprudence religion has become a universal human phenomenon, albeit one that takes many forms.  But in the instances noted above, we see people who reject religion and yet who desire counseling and meaningful ritual during difficult times in their lives.  These people feel that they are not being best served by the supposedly secularized chaplains which Sullivan describes.  They want a chaplain with a particularly secular worldview rather than a naturalized non-denominational Protestantism which they perceive as coercive and not representative of their beliefs.  While Sullivan maintains that today’s chaplains are priests of the secular, actual secular people are excluded from the chaplaincy.

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.  If religion and secularism are unstable and interpenetrating categories in American law, as Sullivan has argued, how can bureaucratic functionaries or judges justify excluding secular humanists from the chaplaincy?  Despite Sullivan’s claims about the naturalization of religion and the homogenization of the chaplaincy, American law still recognizes distinctions between what is religious and what is secular, and so do the people who consume and seek to provide chaplaincy services.

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 American West, 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. He has previously published The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion for the Religious Studies Project.

Bibliography

  • Collins, Randall. The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton             University Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. “We Are All Religious Now. Again.” Social Research 76.4 (2009): 1181-1198.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

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

On Reading Ralph Ellison Theologically

Ralph Ellison, famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, eschewed religiosity personally. His works mainly concerned race, artistry, and democracy in America. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (2017), Cooper Harriss seeks to uncover what he sees as the theological dimensions of Ellison’s secular conception of race. Because religion is a neglected topic in Ellison scholarship, Harriss’ reading presents an opportunity for fresh insights.[1]

Most scholars examining invisibility in Ellison’s novel consider it a social metaphor: the novel’s protagonist is made invisible by people’s refusal to really see him. Yet Harriss claims invisibility is also a theological trope, with roots in biblical materials, Protestantism, and Kongo traditions, antecedents that establish it as an unmarked religious category. More than the social marginalization of black bodies, Harriss contends invisibility is metaphysical, too.

To read Ellison as a theological thinker, which is also to read him theologically, Harriss calls upon Schleiermacher and Tillich, primarily, to expand the notion of religion. He explains that, to him, the terms “religion” and “religious” refer not to particular things but to “processes through which antagonistic cooperation between universals and particulars generates human quests for meaning” (16). Furthermore, “Ellison’s concept of race is foundationally religious because it is rooted in the relational, systematic interplay between, and the consequent aggregation of, the particular and the universal” (17).

Great authors like Ellison create characters and stories that are both particularized yet universal. The particularity gives a literary work its fully-fleshed characters and immersive world, while its universality connects it to readers’ own lives. In Invisible Man, after we hear the unnamed protagonist’s particular life story as a black man in America, he asks his famous universalizing final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” This interplay between particular and universal, is religious, in Harriss’ terms. Ellison is thus a theologian because he makes meaning out of this particular-universal relation.

The heart of Harriss’ argument is his claim that Ellison’s secular conception of race is an “invisible theology.” For Harriss, theology refers not to “God-talk” but to “meanings and significances generated by religious negotiations of universals and particulars,” or “faith seeking understanding” (16). Ellison’s work is religious because it is “meaning-making” and it is theological because it offers practical import for human living (16). These elements are inseparably linked: “the religious and the theological” are “critically cofunctional—never segregated (as they have become in contemporary academic discourse) but absolutely dependent upon one another” (17). Here Harriss is not just making a descriptive claim about the history of these distinct discourses, but asserting his desire to “annihilate” the wall between theology and religious studies, as he says in this interview. He wishes to “dislocate theology as ‘mere’ belief, prescription, or data and refashion it as a critical apparatus” that can help us solve contemporary challenges (192). Accordingly, Harriss argues that “the religious aspects of Ellisonian conceptions of race as a secular property—its invisible theology—may help us” to assess today’s political contexts (179). There is a social prescriptivism in this theological claim-making; Harriss hopes the invisible theology he’s unveiling—and creating—might save us.[2]

There is good evidence, Harriss claims, for reading Ellison theologically. Ellison derided what he saw as racial essentialism in the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s-1970s, which relied on materialist conceptions of race. Harriss asserts Ellison’s critical project worked against such materialisms, opening space for metaphysical speculation. He also relies on the coincidental publication of major works by three Protestant intellectuals to place Ellison in their midcentury American theological context. Over two chapters, Harriss connects Ellison’s ruminations on racism as America’s “original sin” to American civil religion as a form of residual Calvinism in a post-Protestant society. In a critical chapter, he argues that Ellison’s long friendship with Nathan A. Scott, Jr., literature professor and canon theologian, was really a “theological apprenticeship” for Ellison (96).[3] Cooper uses previously unpublished material to shed light on Ellison at several points, and provides provocative interpretations throughout.

Harriss’s book stands in the tradition of Scott’s scholarship—called Theology and Literature, Christianity and Literature, or Religion and Literature—albeit augmented by recent critical studies of race, religion, and secularism. Relying on a Tillichian theology of culture, Scott explored how a “religious unconscious” permeates cultural productions, even avowedly secular ones, and provides insight into how we ought to live. Harriss admits his own “Tillichian orientation” and states that Scott’s earlier work on Ellison “anticipates the premise, if not the thesis, of this book” (88, 98). Like Scott, Harriss seeks to uncover hidden religious dimensions in Ellison’s secular work to help us navigate the modern world. Both scholars utilize liberal Christian definitions of religion to find exactly these kinds of religious articulations in Ellison.

Harriss employs scholarship showing the theological and Protestant production of concepts like race and the secular to justify framing Ellison as a Protestant theologian (3, 41). Ellison would not recognize himself as such. Despite Ellison’s critiques of social science and Marxist materialism, he did not turn toward supernaturalism. Harriss rejects Ellison’s naturalism by insisting that we need to take “certain religious and theological dimensions seriously in their contention with what believers understand to emanate from invisible, supernatural realms” (14). This approach distinguishes secular from religious, recognizes Ellison as secular, and then rewrites him as religious anyway. Such theological caretaking confuses categorical entanglements with their identity. By yoking religious studies with theology and the secular with the religious, Harriss erases any difference. Arguing that secular writers are really theologians in disguise enacts a theological agenda. At stake is what we do as religious studies scholars.

Outside theological contexts, I am not convinced that the category “invisible theology” provides us greater analytical purchase on Ellison’s work. As someone who loves Ellison and studies religion, I was excited to encounter Harriss’ ideas. As a religious studies scholar, however, I found Harriss’ insistence upon a theological reading of Ellison’s work forced and unnecessary. In a spirit of antagonistic cooperation, a favorite phrase of Ellison’s, I find myself both affirming and resisting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology.

Notes

[1] Most recently, Josef Sorett locates Ellison’s Afro-Protestant racial aesthetics in the black church (2016, 141-149). Sorett and Harriss both claim religion underlies black secular artistic expressions, but their methods and conclusions differ.

[2] In Race and Secularism in America, Vincent W. Lloyd exhorts “the recovery of the religious, beyond secularism,” for its transformative potential (2016, 15). He adds that “remembering the religious—or the theological, as the unmanaged religious is sometimes called—points to traditions of imagining otherwise.” In Harriss’ work, I hear a similar normative voice, one that promotes Protestant theology as a useful mode for reading secular literature and for envisioning an “otherwise” that seems beyond our material reach.

[3] I found the evidence for such “instruction” to be thin (98). Harriss reads a lot into a letter Ellison wrote to Scott wherein Ellison laments the loss of the “sacred” in modern literature; Ellison saw that loss as muting moral assertion and forcing “depth and resonance” underground (97). Harriss repurposes Ellison’s “depth and resonance” as “shorthand” for religion (98-99, 116, 147).

References

Harriss, M. Cooper. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology. New York University Press, 2017.

Lloyd, Vincent W. “Introduction: Managing Race, Managing Religion.” In Race and Secularism

in America, edited by Jonathan Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, 1-19. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Scott, Jr., Nathan A. “Black Literature.” In Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing,

edited by Daniel Hoffman, 287-341. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” The Carleton Miscellany 18.3 (1980): 41-50.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” Callaloo 18.2 (1995): 310-318.

Sorett, Josef. Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Oxford University

Press, 2016.

 

Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.

In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, yoga mats, tantric guides, and more.

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

Religion, Secularism and the Chaplaincy

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.

Religion, Secularism, and the Chaplaincy

By Dusty Hoesly, University of California, Santa Barbara

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Winnifred F. Sullivan on Religion and the Law (22 April 2013)

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington, may be the supreme interpreter of the intersection of law and religion in American society today.  Each of her three books—Paying the Words Extra, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, and Prison Religion—treats individual legal cases both textually and anthropologically, examining their particular cultural and legal contexts as well as their wider import for discourse in American law and society generally.  Her work is attuned equally to debates within the field of religious studies, especially to how scholars of religion constitute the object of their study.

In this interview for The Religious Studies Project, Sullivan focuses on her latest project, which examines chaplaincy in secular settings, as well as on her larger body of work.  Her recent presentation, “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular,” uses chaplaincy as a lens for thinking beyond her previous work in critiquing constitutional and legal protections for religious freedom, and arguing for the instability and incoherence of the category of religion as a basis for legal regulation.  Putting aside her study of the management of religion in constitutional settings, in this project Sullivan examines how religion and law shape each other on the ground.  She concludes that chaplains have come to serve a role of ministering to what is increasingly understood as a universal spiritual need, which she labels a “naturalization of religion.”

For Sullivan, the figure of the chaplain in Western Christendom has always been an ambiguous figure, a minister whose duties lie away from church authority or congregational demands.  In modern secular institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and the military, the chaplain’s role remains ambiguous since, unlike doctors, guards, or soldiers, the chaplain is an explicit broker between the sacred and the secular.  The chaplain is paid by secular institutions and beholden to secular authorities, despite the religious character of the chaplain’s work or the chaplain’s religious allegiance.  Chaplains may find themselves obliged to endorse secular missions, such as nationalism or militarism, that run contrary to the chaplain’s religious mission.

The role of the chaplain and the social perception of chaplaincy in America have both changed significantly since World War II, Sullivan argues.  In the mid-twentieth century, patients, inmates, and soldiers imagined that chaplains had specific ministerial resources that were particular to each denomination, such that Catholic priests, for example, could offer services that no other denomination’s chaplains could.  Today, however, chaplaincy is far more generalized and less identified with any particular tradition.  Contemporary chaplains practice a “ministry of presence,” a stripped-down form of witness (to use a Christian word) that is a “suffering with” those seeking spiritual guidance.  Chaplains are trained to de-emphasize their individual religious identities so that they can provide a non-imposing, non-coercive presence, letting clients instead take the lead in terms of any religious specificity.

In her presentation, Sullivan observes the rise of credentialing as a major shift in chaplaincies during the 20th century.   Credentialing, rather than mere religious training, is now required in order to serve as a chaplain.  Would-be chaplains must earn a Master of Divinity degree, intern with a clinical pastoral education program, and obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement, all of which must be accredited or recognized by the government.  These cooperative efforts between state and religion have resulted in the standardization and professionalization of the chaplaincy.  Anyone can be a chaplain today, Sullivan argues.  It becomes a white collar job, one requiring expensive educational training and a lengthy apprenticeship.  As Randall Collins has argued, the credential becomes symbolic of one’s ability to do the actual work.

For chaplains who must serve a diverse clientele, including Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Southern Baptists, and atheists, specific denominational beliefs and practices, as well as religion itself, become “cultural resources” (to use James Beckford’s term).  Religion loses its claim to be sui generis, instead revealing itself to be socially constructed according to the practical needs of the moment when a client requests the services of a chaplain.  This offering of non-denominational spiritual advice to any and all seekers is illustrative of the secularization and commoditization of the chaplaincy.

But the process is not complete and, therefore, neither is Sullivan’s analysis.  Atheists and secular humanists may be consumers of chaplaincy services, but they are not yet permitted by the government to serve as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, or the military.  Even if the credentialing process in theory is open to any person, from whatever background, as Sullivan claims, this does not mean that anyone can become a chaplain in actual practice.  Groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers are seeking recognition by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, but they have been unsuccessful so far.  That said, many prisons now include yoga and meditation groups, blurring the boundary between secular and religious practices and challenging the role of prison chaplains as exclusive brokers between the sacred and the secular.  And some higher education institutions, including Harvard, Rutgers, Stanford, Columbia, and American University, now incorporate humanist chaplaincies, responding to a growing call for guidance that is explicitly secular.

How might these humanist movements complicate Sullivan’s analysis?  Sullivan argues that in contemporary American jurisprudence religion has become a universal human phenomenon, albeit one that takes many forms.  But in the instances noted above, we see people who reject religion and yet who desire counseling and meaningful ritual during difficult times in their lives.  These people feel that they are not being best served by the supposedly secularized chaplains which Sullivan describes.  They want a chaplain with a particularly secular worldview rather than a naturalized non-denominational Protestantism which they perceive as coercive and not representative of their beliefs.  While Sullivan maintains that today’s chaplains are priests of the secular, actual secular people are excluded from the chaplaincy.

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.  If religion and secularism are unstable and interpenetrating categories in American law, as Sullivan has argued, how can bureaucratic functionaries or judges justify excluding secular humanists from the chaplaincy?  Despite Sullivan’s claims about the naturalization of religion and the homogenization of the chaplaincy, American law still recognizes distinctions between what is religious and what is secular, and so do the people who consume and seek to provide chaplaincy services.

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 American West, 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. He has previously published The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion for the Religious Studies Project.

Bibliography

  • Collins, Randall. The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton             University Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. “We Are All Religious Now. Again.” Social Research 76.4 (2009): 1181-1198.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

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.