A Field Little Plowed? The Study of Religion and the Built Environment Today


Let me begin with a mythological allusion. The Roman god Janus was often depicted with two faces to signify his interstitial nature. He looked into the future and past, and oversaw beginnings and endings. He marked the boundaries between inside and outside. Janus, the gateway god, seems a suitable reference for my polarized reaction to Durham University Senior Lecturer Peter Collins’s interview on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

Head of Janus, Vatican museum, Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

From one perspective, I was delighted to hear a fascinating discussion of how Collins came to study the built environment early in his career. Using his experience studying an adjacent Quaker meetinghouse and an Anglican church, he demonstrates the many joys of reading the built environment closely. It is obvious, too, that he is productively sharing his skills with his students in the field. Teaching undergraduates the value of examining the built environment is a true service to the academy. We should all be so lucky to have Durham Cathedral or delightfully juxtaposed religious buildings down the road for our students to explore! [This material begins at 11:15 in the interview.]

From another perspective, however, I feel quite at odds with his view that religion and the built environment remains a “field little plowed.” The dissertation I am finishing at the moment in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for instance, begins with the premise that the built environment has been over-emphasized to the detriment of other modes of creating and maintaining sacred space.While I nodded enthusiastically when he praised Lindsay Jones’s The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture. (It is a fascinating and under-utilized two-volume theoretical work.) I confess that I gritted my teeth when he recommend Pierre Bourdieu’s 1971 essay ”The Berber House.” In 2013 we are still falling back on structuralism to look at religious buildings? (Jones, for his part, would probably be shocked.)

However, lest I be uncharitable to a colleague across the Atlantic, I think that my unease may be less disagreement than the simple product of differences in geography, discipline, and the years between our training. Collins is a social anthropologist who specializes in, among many things, Quakerism in 17th and 18th century England. I am a religious studies scholar who specializes in sacred space in the contemporary United States. I am finishing my degree in June, while he has been publishing for over 15 years.

It reminds me somewhat of Hans Rosling’s famous TEDTalk “Let my dataset change your mindset.” Our conceptions about the world, Rosling argued in relation to the division between first and third world, are not shaped by the time we live in, but by the year our teachers were born. Obviously this is overstating the case. 15 years isn’t that long. And academic discourse is not global health. I think it is telling, however, that my own Master’s degree adviser Peter Williams published his bibliographic essay for The Material History of American Religion Project on “The Built Environment of American Religion: The State of the Art”in 1995. He began by saying “Until recently, the study of America’s religious architecture and landscape was something that had largely fallen through the cracks of academe.” Collins similarly says there is very little on the built environment today. It is “fairly sparse” in Anthropology or there is “very little” in the Sociology of religion and only “slightly more prominent” in Religious Studies. I think–although I don’t have elegant charts to make my case–that today this characterization misses the mark.

Perhaps the fundamental challenge to a mighty wave of studies about the built environment, as Collins explores in the interview, occurs when we move beyond defining the critical terms (religion, built environment, material culture, etc.). When we look at the scholarship on the built environment we are forced to consult an ever-widening set of theories and methods. History, Anthropology, Sociology, Religious Studies, Gender Studies, Architectural History, Visual Studies, Literature, and so on all have contributions to the study of the built environment. The list is as broad as the academy itself. Yet, teaching our students the skills necessary to interpret and think critically about the built environment is a significant obstacle.

Durham Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons)

I also fully agree that a major issue is how easy it is to overlook the built environment all around us. Collins said, rather earthily, that he wondered “if sometimes it is because buildings are so bloody obvious, so huge and so manifest, that we don’t see them.” Isn’t this the very joke from David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

For Collins, the environment is humanity’s water. It is “all of that which exists outside of the human being,” and it includes those elements that humans build. If we want to be sensitive to it, then we must cultivate sensibilities that make it visible and legible. Since the scholarship surrounding the built environment comes from across the academy, it can be a tangle of interdisciplinary webs. Structuralism of the type Bourdieu presents in “The Berber House,” I would be the first to confess, can be a way to untangle this web or even avoid it altogether.

Collins later wonders why, when speaking about Jones’ comparative architectural model, so little has been done with it. If you brave Jones’s volumes, you will understand why. It is terrifically complex. It is also not something that can be presented without modification to undergraduates. [Jones is discussed  in the final 15 minutes or so of the interview.] Nevertheless, its presence here is an indication that the conversation may be evolving in ways that will promote its use in the future.

We are still confronting the double challenges of interdisciplinary expansion and, shall we say, legibility or transferability to our students and the public. The close-reading of the Quaker meetinghouse that Collins offers is a strong demonstration that the rewards of overcoming these challenges are high. I can contribute to these rewards by recommending a few recent titles that deal with the built environment in satisfying and novel ways. A comprehensive list, such as that offered by Williams above, is probably not possible without first retreating bookishly to the corners of the academy where our own disciplines lie. In that respect, the few items in my bibliography reflect my contemporary American biases. I also take “built environment” to indicate much more than simply religious buildings. This is a product not merely of my research in spatial theory and place studies, but of my interests in expanding the study of sacred space beyond the walls of the church. I encourage everyone to continue the discussion and add their own favorite recent items on religion and the built environment in the comments.

Selected Bibliography on Religion and the Built Environment since 1990

  • Chidester, David, and Edward T. Linenthal, eds. American Sacred Space. Edited by Catherine L. Albanese and Stephen J. Stein, Religion in North America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Diamond, Etan. And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caronlina Press, 1999.
  • Eiesland, Nancy L. A Particular Place: Urban Restructuring and Religious Ecology in a Southern Exurb. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
  • Farmer, Jared. On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Francaviglia, Richard V. Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin. Reno & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2003.
  • Griffith, James S. . Beliefs and Holy Places: A Spiritual Geography of the Pimeria Alta. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
  • Jones, Lindsay. The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture: Experience, Interpretation, Comparison. 2 vols, Religions of the World. Cambridge, MA: Distributed by Harvard University Press for Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, 2000.
  • Kieckhefer, Richard Theology in Stone: Church Architecture From Byzantium to Berkeley. London: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Kilde, Jeanne Halgren. When Church Became Theatre: The Transformation of Evangelical Architecture and Worship in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Kerstetter, Todd M. God’s Country, Uncle Sam’s Land: Faith and Conflict in the American West. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. Expanded ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. Sacred Ground : Americans and Their Battlefields. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Linenthal, Edward T. The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Livezey, Lowell W., ed. Public Religion and Urban Transformation: Faith in the City. Edited by Peter J. Paris, Religion, Race, and Ethnicity. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • Loveland, Anne C. and Otis B. Wheeler. From Meetinghouse to Megachurch: A Material and Cultural History. St. Louis: University of Missouri Press, 2003.
  • Mazur, Eric Michael and Kate McCarthy, ed. God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Metcalf, Barbara Daly, ed. Making Muslim Sacred Space in North American and Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • Meyer, Jeffrey F. . Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Moreton, Bethany. To Serve God and Wal-Mart. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  • Nelson, Louis P. American Sanctuary: Understanding Sacred Spaces. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2006. 
  • Orsi, Bob, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
  • Sheldrake, Philip. Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Treviño, Roberto R. The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. America’s ChurchThe National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Tweed, Thomas A. Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Shrine in Miami. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Williams, Peter W. Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States. Edited by Conrad Cherry, Public Expressions of Religion in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
  • Wilford, Justin G. Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Winston, Diane. Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Upton, Dell. Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • Zepp, Jr., Ira G. The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center. 2nd ed. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

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.


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.