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Mother Earth, Sister Earth: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Susannah Crockford

A major theme of the interview with Dr. Crockford concerns the extent to which adherents of the “New Age” currents of thought she has studied in Arizona were motivated, or demotivated, by the framework of their ecospiritualities to address problems of environmental or ecological concern. She observed that, somewhat counterintuitively, a majority of the individuals with whom she had spoken evinced no particular commitment to environmental activism on either a societal or an individual level. Instead, they tended toward a millenarian belief that issues of pollution, mass extinction, climate change, and similar would largely resolve themselves in the course of a coming transformation of planetary consciousness, predominantly understood in terms of a shift from an exploitative relationship with an externalized nature—a paradigm coded as masculine—to a cooperative relationship with a nature in which human beings are understood as holistically embedded—a paradigm coded as feminine. Dr. Crockford further speculated that the apparent passivity of her research subjects toward environmental issues could be connected with this gendering of nature, insofar as the idea of “Mother Earth” implicitly casts nature in the role of caretaker, comforter, and nurturer. Indeed, in many ways it might be seen as effecting a startling transfer of responsibility insofar as nature can then be read, like a mother in respect of her child, as having some form of inherent moral responsibility to attend to the welfare of human beings.

I have lived in the American Southwest much of my life, and so Dr. Crockford’s description of Sedona and its inhabitants was very familiar to me (although I have never visited that particular corner of Arizona). I was somewhat startled, though, by the idea of connecting the kind of hyperemotionalized and largely disembodied approach to spirituality and the environment that she found there to gendered discourses. On a personal level, as a former inhabitant of the region, I see much closer connections between the kind of American New Age spirituality she described and the transhumanist millenarianism that pervades much of the culture of Silicon Valley. Both are driven largely by fear of imminent physical catastrophe that, in the minds of their adherents, can only be escaped by transcending the physical limitations of one’s humanity and finding refuge in a kind of Pleroma, be it “spiritual” or digital. In both cases, the work of reaching this safe-haven is understood as properly belonging only to a chosen few who possess the requisite vision, and one’s personal arrival at the envisioned end-point suffices as a total victory, either because the masses simply don’t matter (as in Silicon Valley) or because their conditions will be magically transformed by the deus ex machinasummoned by the efforts of their spiritual superiors (as in Sedona). That these broadly comparable attitudes thrive among women leading Goddess workshops and men in the commanding heights of one of the world’s most patriarchal subcultures suggests to me that gender-coding of the kind Dr. Crockford investigates is a generally tangential issue to many of these attitudes.

As a scholar in religious studies, however, the idea of this connection surprised me in a different way, as the majority of my own work concerns what some (but never its own participants) might call a “New Age” movement that flourished in Britain and Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s—a religious order called Lux Madriana. The Madrians, as they were known, also believed that the planet was approaching disaster and reconfiguration on a scale unprecedented in recorded history, that their religious movement was a vanguard of a new spiritual awakening, and that the new era would be dominated by feminine conceptions of Divinity and society. Indeed, their religion was based around the worship of God as Mother—a belief they said had once been universal to humanity in the days of what Marija Gimbutas called “Old Europe”, until being overthrown in the period of patriarchy, which they identified with the Hindu Kali Yuga, or Iron Age. Unlike the Sedonans, however, this prompted them to promote genuine political and social matriarchy, as well as to critique industrialism and most modern technology as near-diabolic outworkings of the modern obsession with quantification, scale, and material efficiency (à la the “reign of quantity” described by René Guénon, whom the Madrians greatly admired)—tendencies which they regarded as decidedly masculine. Accordingly, they protested nuclear power, commercial pesticides, and other environmental depridations and dedicated very practical (though ultimately unsuccessful) efforts toward the creation of sustainable, subsistence agricultural communities in several locations. Members of their order returned to the land, without electricity, in order to cultivate traditional trades and crafts as meditative disciplines and pathways to spiritual progress.

In asking myself why the feminine millenarianism of the Madrians did not beguile them into the same passivity that Dr. Crockford found to be so common in Sedona, I suspect the answer has less to do with concepts of gender and more to do with metaphors of family. For all that their social and political teaching was quite radical, Madrian theology was quite traditional (in both the common and the Guénonian senses of the term). While cultivating a strong sense of the Divine presence withinthe material world, they kept careful and nuanced distinctions between Creatrix and Creation; because God was seen as Mother, the Earth, as a part of the Creation, could not be. Instead, their scriptures taught that “the earth is thy sister, and the creatures thereof are thy kin” (The Heart of Water, v. 3)—a position echoing G.K. Chesterton (of whom they were also a great admirer), who wrote that “The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature was not our mother: Nature is our sister.” (Orthodoxy) Among the many creatures of the Earth the Madrians recognized were the fairies, whom they saw nearly everywhere in the natural world but (as they lamented in the pages of their magazineThe Coming Age) with less and less frequency as time went on, for they believed that modern practices of industrialized agriculture were driving the fairies, whom they called the “little sisters”, away from human habitations. In this charming term of endearment we perhaps hear another echo of Chesterton, who observed that “To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

In both Christianity and Madrianism there are, obviously, vast reaches of gendered implication in images of motherhood and of sisterhood but, in comparison with Sedona, the key aspect seems to be the difference between parenthood and siblinghood. Across many spiritual and religious traditions, including all those considered here, the image of the Divine parent does not contrast an adult child, but rather a little child, as the image of the believer or of humanity, and while a little child can be responsible to a father or a mother, no little child can be responsible forone. This is the symbolic trap of “Mother Earth” into which much of the New Age movement readily falls, implicitly (and perhaps quite accidentally) casting nature as the eternally self-sacrificing parent who will, from natural affection, ultimately give her own life for the welfare of her child. Indeed, one is tempted to read much New Age thought on the subject as a naturalized recapitulation of the Christian theme of Divine self-sacrifice born from the inexhaustible love of a parent. Wherever nature and deity come too close together, human beings will quite readily read themselves into the story of the prodigal son, whose parent, no matter how long he has been gone or what he has done, will gladly slaughter many animals to throw his welcome feast. Even a relatively young child, however, canbe responsible (within reasonable bounds) for a younger sibling, and we might well expect to find a more environmentally engaged attitude among those of any religion who expect that, one day, their Divine parent might call them to answer for what has become of their little sisters on their watch.

Dr. Crockford, at the beginning of the interview, usefully defines ecospiritualities as perspectives and practices that, beyond seeing the natural world as a divine creation or as a field of immanent divine activity, instead relate to nature, reified, as a divine force in its own right. Writers and speakers associated with these movements often portray this as a re-enchantment of the Earth—a return to the primordial worldview of peoples who still lived on lands they knew as sacred. Indeed, the subjects of Dr. Crockford’s research frequently alluded to the reverence in which the area of Sedona was held by the tribes that inhabited it. As jumbo-jet pilgrims seasonally swell the population of the fragile, drought-threatened landscape into a lucrative bazaar of workshops and mined crystals, however, the comparison that comes to mind is not with the respect given by the Apache and Yavapai to the lands from which they were forcibly removed in the 1876 midwinter march that killed nearly half of them. Instead, one cannot help but think of the customs of peoples throughout history who, upon choosing a sacrificial victim, have dressed and celebrated them as a god before delivering them over, bound, to satisfy the true objects of their worship.

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

The Contextuality of Naturalness: Science and Religion in Language and Life

Dr. Robert McCauley endeavors to provide at least one answer to the profoundly interesting question, “How do science and religion differ?” He delivers an answer through the lens of cognitive science, offering us an interesting and somewhat intuitive dichotomy. That is, the cognitive processes associated with religious thinking and those associated with scientific thinking are for the most part fundamentally different. McCauley describes religious thinking as being a ‘maturationally natural’ cognitive process whereas scientific thinking is more deliberate and less intuitive. It is this kind of difference that often puts these two ways of thinking at odds, as can be seen in historical texts such as Frazer’s The Golden Bough and in contemporary debates between atheists and theists. Adding the informative perspective of cognitive science to the mix is a great step toward reconciling these seemingly incompatible types of thought. But this begs the question, what is the state of the dialectic between these two perspectives after accepting McCauley’s thesis?

The focus and scope of this paper will be to explore two major areas of importance in considering this question: 1) the logistical problems of such an overarching thesis, and 2) the theoretical inconsistencies of the religion-science dichotomy. First, attention needs to be brought to the precarious logic involved in such a dichotomy. To borrow from Wittgenstein, this thesis is involved in a language game. Many of Dr. McCauley’s most crucial premises and inferences rely on inherently ambiguous language. ‘Science’ and ‘religion’, for example, are entirely debatable concepts in and of themselves. And more importantly, Dr. McCauley’s dichotomy of religion and science hinges of the concept of naturalness, which is similarly ambiguous. Indeed, he qualifies his use of the word and narrows its meaning to refer to maturational processes, which are generally more intuitive to our cognition. Measuring by this qualified definition of “natural,” scientific thinking will not fit in this category, but that does not mean that it is not natural. Rather, it just means that science is not natural in the same sense as religion. Of course, I am not supporting a deconstructionist view where all theses are victims of ambiguous language. I am suggesting, however, that we pay close attention to the manipulation of language at play in this theory, since its most crucial concepts are theoretically loaded and can mean such wildly different things according to the context of its use.

Specifically, I find the manipulation of language at work in McCauley’s thesis to create two problems. First, the way the concepts of ‘science’, ‘religion’, ‘naturalness’, and ‘maturationally natural’ are redefined and are constrained by reworked parameters creates a large possibility for misunderstanding on the reader’s end. That is, the thesis is hyperbolic in that these concepts are used in a very specific way, and the broader conclusions that readers are likely to pursue, and the polarized conclusion of the thesis expressed in the title are not deducible from the constrained terms of McCauley’s argument.

Second, the hyperbolic nature of McCauley’s argument is fundamentally problematic for his thesis, since it is an all-encompassing proposition. Beyond discussions of whether his argument is valid or not, we run into the typical problems associated with inductive logic, where, even if the premises are true and the inferences are valid, the conclusion may still be false. In this case, we can accept the validity of McCauley’s argument, but then still wonder if religion is natural and science isn’t. Because if the language of the premises is hyperbolic, and the conclusion is an all-encompassing proposition, then we must wonder if we have arrived at the right conclusion, and more to the point, if that conclusion is the logical destination of the constrained and redefined terminology of the argument.

Evidencing the precariousness of the language game, Dr. McCauley gives up an alarming amount of ground by conceding that some science is, in fact, natural, and some religion is unnatural. This concession is a sign of a highly thought-out and nuanced argument, and it makes his position highly defensible by its specified parameters, but it is also an indication of a hyper-rational logic that often misses the human component of things. And, it requires that we invoke a fundamental principle of science by asking if the specified definitions and conclusions of McCauley’s theory might be applied to the broader context of human cognition more generally?

To put that question in a form more directly aimed at the thesis: do we have sufficient evidence to say with conviction that religion is natural and science is not? I think not. I think we can say that religion is more maturationally natural than science, but to go beyond that is a bolder claim than the research can fully support. But that shouldn’t be a shock; to say religion is natural and science is not is to take on a monumental burden of proof. Logically speaking, the statement Religion is more natural than science and the statement Religion is natural and science is not are as dissimilar as night and day. While the language and mood of the book and McCauley’s arguments in his podcast are much more subtle than the title suggests, acknowledging a misuse of language in the thesis might be beneficial in understanding the state of this issue and furthering the research on this topic.

For example, Dr. McCauley in his podcast cites the Copernican Revolution as an example scientific knowledge becoming functional in maturationally natural cognitive pathways. With such a formidable counterexample to his thesis, which can’t be written off as categorically different from other “science,” we must wonder how many other counter examples we can come up with. As a thought experiment, consider philosophy as a science. Philosophy especially represents the careful, deliberate, and systematic thinking that Dr. McCauley associates with scientific thinking. And yet we talk about people adopting and living philosophies. I know that my changing philosophies in life have mirrored my evolving perceptions, understandings, and feelings. But living out philosophy does not involve the careful systematic analysis of how to act out your personal philosophy in each moment; surely it is more natural and automatic than that, aside from thoughtful judgment and decision making. Obviously there is a distinction between lived philosophy and analytical and continental philosophy. My point is that a proponent of a certain analytical philosophy lives out this philosophy in much the same way a scientist lives out science. Not ‘science’ as the category of scientific thinking as Dr. McCauley uses it, but science as bits of fact, varying in their characteristics and the roles they play in the experiences and thought of individuals. That science is more maturationally natural to some people than others, depends on the prominence of science in his or her culture. It makes perfect sense that a scientist will incorporate scientific knowledge into his way of life more so than an unscientific person, because he has more scientific knowledge available to him to effect the way he lives. And, as in the thought experiment, surely the scientific man who lives by scientific knowledge and scientific principles will do so, at least at times, tacitly or automatically, which Dr. McCauley associates with maturational processes.

McCauley does make a distinction between practiced naturalness and maturationally natural cognition. His focus on the uniqueness of maturationally natural cognition is that what is maturationally natural is natural independent of cultural context. But we do not have sufficient reason to rule out that the process of inducting scientific knowledge into maturationally natural cognitive pathways is not only a function of practice but also the cultural availability of scientific bits of fact and principles. The role an individual plays in his or her society will greatly affect what knowledge will play a role in his or her life. This could explain why McCauley has found that religious thinking is maturationally natural in children and science is not. It seems to me that children are consistently exposed to religious thinking, while scientific thinking is slowly acquired and often less appealing as it mostly enforced by school, while religion is seemingly much more available to children through movies, parents, churches, friends, ads, magazines, bibles, etc. These thought experiments urge us to at least wonder if what makes religious thinking more maturationally natural than scientific thinking is the cultural context in which such thinking is framed. Perhaps it is not religious thinking that is natural, but the deeply rooted religious trends in our society and cultures that shape our thinking from our birth to death. In order to rule this out, research needs to be done on whether characteristically non-religious societies demonstrate maturationally natural religiosity in the same capacity as the current research demonstrates in our society.

Another form of counter argument we should consider is this: even if we accept that children evidence the maturational naturalness of religion, can we not argue, as Frazer does in the Golden Bough, that religious thinking is a lesser or faulty form of scientific thinking? For Frazer, religious thinking is a misunderstanding of the causal mechanisms of the world. Especially when McCauley uses the term ‘religion’ in the very specific way of referring to the highly instinctual and sub-analytical thinking tied to mechanisms of agency detection, we must ask, is maturationally natural religious thinking just faulty scientific thinking waiting to be remedied by our developing scientific cultures? There are emerging narratives of children who immediately reject notions of supernatural agents and embrace scientific thinking. McCauley rejects such narratives as an example of a deficit in what is normatively natural. But before making such arguments, we must first prove that what he is calling maturationally natural cognition is truly independent of cultural influence, and what’s more, that such cognition is not just a less developed form of scientific thinking, much as a child’s first words are an ill-formed version of language. We do not consider childish babbling the natural state of language. We should not consider a misunderstanding of the causal mechanisms of the world as our natural state of thinking. Until these questions are further analysed and such counterexamples are considered, whether Dr. McCauley has drawn a false, or at least overly bipolar, dichotomy between religion and science is up for grabs. Even if all of my criticisms and counterexamples are refuted, I hope that they are at least constructive, as I have great respect for McCauley’s work and only wish to promote a reflective dialectic between science and religion, and between emerging perspectives on the state of this relationship.

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.

Religion After Darwin

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species  was published in 1859, and had an immediate and dramatic effect on religious narratives. Traditional religions were forced to adopt an evolutionary worldview, or to go on the offensive; whereas New Religious Movements like Wicca or New Age adopted an environmental concern as a central part of their belief. And possibly, for individuals and groups committed to protect, preserve or sacralise nature, environmentalism has become a kind of religion in itself.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida. He is also a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. His central scholarly interest and personal passion is the conservation of the earth’s biological diversity and how human culture might evolve rapidly enough to arrest and reverse today’s intensifying environmental and social crises. He edits the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, as well as the two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. His latest book is Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2009) – the first chapter can be read on his website, along with a wealth of other supplimentary material including a piece on Bron’s thoughts on the movie Avatar, as discussed in the podcast

Podcasts

Mother Earth, Sister Earth: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Susannah Crockford

A major theme of the interview with Dr. Crockford concerns the extent to which adherents of the “New Age” currents of thought she has studied in Arizona were motivated, or demotivated, by the framework of their ecospiritualities to address problems of environmental or ecological concern. She observed that, somewhat counterintuitively, a majority of the individuals with whom she had spoken evinced no particular commitment to environmental activism on either a societal or an individual level. Instead, they tended toward a millenarian belief that issues of pollution, mass extinction, climate change, and similar would largely resolve themselves in the course of a coming transformation of planetary consciousness, predominantly understood in terms of a shift from an exploitative relationship with an externalized nature—a paradigm coded as masculine—to a cooperative relationship with a nature in which human beings are understood as holistically embedded—a paradigm coded as feminine. Dr. Crockford further speculated that the apparent passivity of her research subjects toward environmental issues could be connected with this gendering of nature, insofar as the idea of “Mother Earth” implicitly casts nature in the role of caretaker, comforter, and nurturer. Indeed, in many ways it might be seen as effecting a startling transfer of responsibility insofar as nature can then be read, like a mother in respect of her child, as having some form of inherent moral responsibility to attend to the welfare of human beings.

I have lived in the American Southwest much of my life, and so Dr. Crockford’s description of Sedona and its inhabitants was very familiar to me (although I have never visited that particular corner of Arizona). I was somewhat startled, though, by the idea of connecting the kind of hyperemotionalized and largely disembodied approach to spirituality and the environment that she found there to gendered discourses. On a personal level, as a former inhabitant of the region, I see much closer connections between the kind of American New Age spirituality she described and the transhumanist millenarianism that pervades much of the culture of Silicon Valley. Both are driven largely by fear of imminent physical catastrophe that, in the minds of their adherents, can only be escaped by transcending the physical limitations of one’s humanity and finding refuge in a kind of Pleroma, be it “spiritual” or digital. In both cases, the work of reaching this safe-haven is understood as properly belonging only to a chosen few who possess the requisite vision, and one’s personal arrival at the envisioned end-point suffices as a total victory, either because the masses simply don’t matter (as in Silicon Valley) or because their conditions will be magically transformed by the deus ex machinasummoned by the efforts of their spiritual superiors (as in Sedona). That these broadly comparable attitudes thrive among women leading Goddess workshops and men in the commanding heights of one of the world’s most patriarchal subcultures suggests to me that gender-coding of the kind Dr. Crockford investigates is a generally tangential issue to many of these attitudes.

As a scholar in religious studies, however, the idea of this connection surprised me in a different way, as the majority of my own work concerns what some (but never its own participants) might call a “New Age” movement that flourished in Britain and Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s—a religious order called Lux Madriana. The Madrians, as they were known, also believed that the planet was approaching disaster and reconfiguration on a scale unprecedented in recorded history, that their religious movement was a vanguard of a new spiritual awakening, and that the new era would be dominated by feminine conceptions of Divinity and society. Indeed, their religion was based around the worship of God as Mother—a belief they said had once been universal to humanity in the days of what Marija Gimbutas called “Old Europe”, until being overthrown in the period of patriarchy, which they identified with the Hindu Kali Yuga, or Iron Age. Unlike the Sedonans, however, this prompted them to promote genuine political and social matriarchy, as well as to critique industrialism and most modern technology as near-diabolic outworkings of the modern obsession with quantification, scale, and material efficiency (à la the “reign of quantity” described by René Guénon, whom the Madrians greatly admired)—tendencies which they regarded as decidedly masculine. Accordingly, they protested nuclear power, commercial pesticides, and other environmental depridations and dedicated very practical (though ultimately unsuccessful) efforts toward the creation of sustainable, subsistence agricultural communities in several locations. Members of their order returned to the land, without electricity, in order to cultivate traditional trades and crafts as meditative disciplines and pathways to spiritual progress.

In asking myself why the feminine millenarianism of the Madrians did not beguile them into the same passivity that Dr. Crockford found to be so common in Sedona, I suspect the answer has less to do with concepts of gender and more to do with metaphors of family. For all that their social and political teaching was quite radical, Madrian theology was quite traditional (in both the common and the Guénonian senses of the term). While cultivating a strong sense of the Divine presence withinthe material world, they kept careful and nuanced distinctions between Creatrix and Creation; because God was seen as Mother, the Earth, as a part of the Creation, could not be. Instead, their scriptures taught that “the earth is thy sister, and the creatures thereof are thy kin” (The Heart of Water, v. 3)—a position echoing G.K. Chesterton (of whom they were also a great admirer), who wrote that “The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature was not our mother: Nature is our sister.” (Orthodoxy) Among the many creatures of the Earth the Madrians recognized were the fairies, whom they saw nearly everywhere in the natural world but (as they lamented in the pages of their magazineThe Coming Age) with less and less frequency as time went on, for they believed that modern practices of industrialized agriculture were driving the fairies, whom they called the “little sisters”, away from human habitations. In this charming term of endearment we perhaps hear another echo of Chesterton, who observed that “To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

In both Christianity and Madrianism there are, obviously, vast reaches of gendered implication in images of motherhood and of sisterhood but, in comparison with Sedona, the key aspect seems to be the difference between parenthood and siblinghood. Across many spiritual and religious traditions, including all those considered here, the image of the Divine parent does not contrast an adult child, but rather a little child, as the image of the believer or of humanity, and while a little child can be responsible to a father or a mother, no little child can be responsible forone. This is the symbolic trap of “Mother Earth” into which much of the New Age movement readily falls, implicitly (and perhaps quite accidentally) casting nature as the eternally self-sacrificing parent who will, from natural affection, ultimately give her own life for the welfare of her child. Indeed, one is tempted to read much New Age thought on the subject as a naturalized recapitulation of the Christian theme of Divine self-sacrifice born from the inexhaustible love of a parent. Wherever nature and deity come too close together, human beings will quite readily read themselves into the story of the prodigal son, whose parent, no matter how long he has been gone or what he has done, will gladly slaughter many animals to throw his welcome feast. Even a relatively young child, however, canbe responsible (within reasonable bounds) for a younger sibling, and we might well expect to find a more environmentally engaged attitude among those of any religion who expect that, one day, their Divine parent might call them to answer for what has become of their little sisters on their watch.

Dr. Crockford, at the beginning of the interview, usefully defines ecospiritualities as perspectives and practices that, beyond seeing the natural world as a divine creation or as a field of immanent divine activity, instead relate to nature, reified, as a divine force in its own right. Writers and speakers associated with these movements often portray this as a re-enchantment of the Earth—a return to the primordial worldview of peoples who still lived on lands they knew as sacred. Indeed, the subjects of Dr. Crockford’s research frequently alluded to the reverence in which the area of Sedona was held by the tribes that inhabited it. As jumbo-jet pilgrims seasonally swell the population of the fragile, drought-threatened landscape into a lucrative bazaar of workshops and mined crystals, however, the comparison that comes to mind is not with the respect given by the Apache and Yavapai to the lands from which they were forcibly removed in the 1876 midwinter march that killed nearly half of them. Instead, one cannot help but think of the customs of peoples throughout history who, upon choosing a sacrificial victim, have dressed and celebrated them as a god before delivering them over, bound, to satisfy the true objects of their worship.

Protected: Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature (Classroom Edit)

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Dickies one piece mechanic suits, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

The Contextuality of Naturalness: Science and Religion in Language and Life

Dr. Robert McCauley endeavors to provide at least one answer to the profoundly interesting question, “How do science and religion differ?” He delivers an answer through the lens of cognitive science, offering us an interesting and somewhat intuitive dichotomy. That is, the cognitive processes associated with religious thinking and those associated with scientific thinking are for the most part fundamentally different. McCauley describes religious thinking as being a ‘maturationally natural’ cognitive process whereas scientific thinking is more deliberate and less intuitive. It is this kind of difference that often puts these two ways of thinking at odds, as can be seen in historical texts such as Frazer’s The Golden Bough and in contemporary debates between atheists and theists. Adding the informative perspective of cognitive science to the mix is a great step toward reconciling these seemingly incompatible types of thought. But this begs the question, what is the state of the dialectic between these two perspectives after accepting McCauley’s thesis?

The focus and scope of this paper will be to explore two major areas of importance in considering this question: 1) the logistical problems of such an overarching thesis, and 2) the theoretical inconsistencies of the religion-science dichotomy. First, attention needs to be brought to the precarious logic involved in such a dichotomy. To borrow from Wittgenstein, this thesis is involved in a language game. Many of Dr. McCauley’s most crucial premises and inferences rely on inherently ambiguous language. ‘Science’ and ‘religion’, for example, are entirely debatable concepts in and of themselves. And more importantly, Dr. McCauley’s dichotomy of religion and science hinges of the concept of naturalness, which is similarly ambiguous. Indeed, he qualifies his use of the word and narrows its meaning to refer to maturational processes, which are generally more intuitive to our cognition. Measuring by this qualified definition of “natural,” scientific thinking will not fit in this category, but that does not mean that it is not natural. Rather, it just means that science is not natural in the same sense as religion. Of course, I am not supporting a deconstructionist view where all theses are victims of ambiguous language. I am suggesting, however, that we pay close attention to the manipulation of language at play in this theory, since its most crucial concepts are theoretically loaded and can mean such wildly different things according to the context of its use.

Specifically, I find the manipulation of language at work in McCauley’s thesis to create two problems. First, the way the concepts of ‘science’, ‘religion’, ‘naturalness’, and ‘maturationally natural’ are redefined and are constrained by reworked parameters creates a large possibility for misunderstanding on the reader’s end. That is, the thesis is hyperbolic in that these concepts are used in a very specific way, and the broader conclusions that readers are likely to pursue, and the polarized conclusion of the thesis expressed in the title are not deducible from the constrained terms of McCauley’s argument.

Second, the hyperbolic nature of McCauley’s argument is fundamentally problematic for his thesis, since it is an all-encompassing proposition. Beyond discussions of whether his argument is valid or not, we run into the typical problems associated with inductive logic, where, even if the premises are true and the inferences are valid, the conclusion may still be false. In this case, we can accept the validity of McCauley’s argument, but then still wonder if religion is natural and science isn’t. Because if the language of the premises is hyperbolic, and the conclusion is an all-encompassing proposition, then we must wonder if we have arrived at the right conclusion, and more to the point, if that conclusion is the logical destination of the constrained and redefined terminology of the argument.

Evidencing the precariousness of the language game, Dr. McCauley gives up an alarming amount of ground by conceding that some science is, in fact, natural, and some religion is unnatural. This concession is a sign of a highly thought-out and nuanced argument, and it makes his position highly defensible by its specified parameters, but it is also an indication of a hyper-rational logic that often misses the human component of things. And, it requires that we invoke a fundamental principle of science by asking if the specified definitions and conclusions of McCauley’s theory might be applied to the broader context of human cognition more generally?

To put that question in a form more directly aimed at the thesis: do we have sufficient evidence to say with conviction that religion is natural and science is not? I think not. I think we can say that religion is more maturationally natural than science, but to go beyond that is a bolder claim than the research can fully support. But that shouldn’t be a shock; to say religion is natural and science is not is to take on a monumental burden of proof. Logically speaking, the statement Religion is more natural than science and the statement Religion is natural and science is not are as dissimilar as night and day. While the language and mood of the book and McCauley’s arguments in his podcast are much more subtle than the title suggests, acknowledging a misuse of language in the thesis might be beneficial in understanding the state of this issue and furthering the research on this topic.

For example, Dr. McCauley in his podcast cites the Copernican Revolution as an example scientific knowledge becoming functional in maturationally natural cognitive pathways. With such a formidable counterexample to his thesis, which can’t be written off as categorically different from other “science,” we must wonder how many other counter examples we can come up with. As a thought experiment, consider philosophy as a science. Philosophy especially represents the careful, deliberate, and systematic thinking that Dr. McCauley associates with scientific thinking. And yet we talk about people adopting and living philosophies. I know that my changing philosophies in life have mirrored my evolving perceptions, understandings, and feelings. But living out philosophy does not involve the careful systematic analysis of how to act out your personal philosophy in each moment; surely it is more natural and automatic than that, aside from thoughtful judgment and decision making. Obviously there is a distinction between lived philosophy and analytical and continental philosophy. My point is that a proponent of a certain analytical philosophy lives out this philosophy in much the same way a scientist lives out science. Not ‘science’ as the category of scientific thinking as Dr. McCauley uses it, but science as bits of fact, varying in their characteristics and the roles they play in the experiences and thought of individuals. That science is more maturationally natural to some people than others, depends on the prominence of science in his or her culture. It makes perfect sense that a scientist will incorporate scientific knowledge into his way of life more so than an unscientific person, because he has more scientific knowledge available to him to effect the way he lives. And, as in the thought experiment, surely the scientific man who lives by scientific knowledge and scientific principles will do so, at least at times, tacitly or automatically, which Dr. McCauley associates with maturational processes.

McCauley does make a distinction between practiced naturalness and maturationally natural cognition. His focus on the uniqueness of maturationally natural cognition is that what is maturationally natural is natural independent of cultural context. But we do not have sufficient reason to rule out that the process of inducting scientific knowledge into maturationally natural cognitive pathways is not only a function of practice but also the cultural availability of scientific bits of fact and principles. The role an individual plays in his or her society will greatly affect what knowledge will play a role in his or her life. This could explain why McCauley has found that religious thinking is maturationally natural in children and science is not. It seems to me that children are consistently exposed to religious thinking, while scientific thinking is slowly acquired and often less appealing as it mostly enforced by school, while religion is seemingly much more available to children through movies, parents, churches, friends, ads, magazines, bibles, etc. These thought experiments urge us to at least wonder if what makes religious thinking more maturationally natural than scientific thinking is the cultural context in which such thinking is framed. Perhaps it is not religious thinking that is natural, but the deeply rooted religious trends in our society and cultures that shape our thinking from our birth to death. In order to rule this out, research needs to be done on whether characteristically non-religious societies demonstrate maturationally natural religiosity in the same capacity as the current research demonstrates in our society.

Another form of counter argument we should consider is this: even if we accept that children evidence the maturational naturalness of religion, can we not argue, as Frazer does in the Golden Bough, that religious thinking is a lesser or faulty form of scientific thinking? For Frazer, religious thinking is a misunderstanding of the causal mechanisms of the world. Especially when McCauley uses the term ‘religion’ in the very specific way of referring to the highly instinctual and sub-analytical thinking tied to mechanisms of agency detection, we must ask, is maturationally natural religious thinking just faulty scientific thinking waiting to be remedied by our developing scientific cultures? There are emerging narratives of children who immediately reject notions of supernatural agents and embrace scientific thinking. McCauley rejects such narratives as an example of a deficit in what is normatively natural. But before making such arguments, we must first prove that what he is calling maturationally natural cognition is truly independent of cultural influence, and what’s more, that such cognition is not just a less developed form of scientific thinking, much as a child’s first words are an ill-formed version of language. We do not consider childish babbling the natural state of language. We should not consider a misunderstanding of the causal mechanisms of the world as our natural state of thinking. Until these questions are further analysed and such counterexamples are considered, whether Dr. McCauley has drawn a false, or at least overly bipolar, dichotomy between religion and science is up for grabs. Even if all of my criticisms and counterexamples are refuted, I hope that they are at least constructive, as I have great respect for McCauley’s work and only wish to promote a reflective dialectic between science and religion, and between emerging perspectives on the state of this relationship.

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.

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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.

Religion After Darwin

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species  was published in 1859, and had an immediate and dramatic effect on religious narratives. Traditional religions were forced to adopt an evolutionary worldview, or to go on the offensive; whereas New Religious Movements like Wicca or New Age adopted an environmental concern as a central part of their belief. And possibly, for individuals and groups committed to protect, preserve or sacralise nature, environmentalism has become a kind of religion in itself.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida. He is also a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. His central scholarly interest and personal passion is the conservation of the earth’s biological diversity and how human culture might evolve rapidly enough to arrest and reverse today’s intensifying environmental and social crises. He edits the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, as well as the two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. His latest book is Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2009) – the first chapter can be read on his website, along with a wealth of other supplimentary material including a piece on Bron’s thoughts on the movie Avatar, as discussed in the podcast