Reconsidering civil religion, The politics of spirituality:

Civil earth religion versus religious nationalism

posted by Bron Taylor

My contribution to these discussions seeks to expand the analytical horizon of the foregoing discussion of civil religion both chronologically and geographically, with special attention to the growing importance of what I call “dark green religion,” and the possibility that it might precipitate the emergence of a global, civil earth religion.

Dark green religion, as I have constructed the term, involves the perception that nature is sacred and has intrinsic value, the belief that everything is interconnected and mutually dependent, and a deep feeling of belonging to nature. Often rooted in an evolutionary understanding that all life shares a common ancestor, dark green religion generally leads to a form of kinship ethics that entails ethical responsibilities to all living things. From this stance, all life is, quite literally, related—a belief that leads naturally to empathy for other living things, who, like us, have evolved through what Darwin aptly called the struggle for existence. Such perceptions generally lead people to see more continuities than differences between their own and other species, and this perception generally leads to humility about one’s place in the grand scheme of things.

I will presently say more about what a civil earth religion might involve. But, for comparative purposes, I will first summarize some conceptions about civil religion in the United States, including those presented in the preceding reflections. As Catherine Albanese noted in her essay, these reflections have run along both descriptive and normative lines.

Descriptively, some argue that the theory of civil religion has explanatory power, as it helps to account for citizen loyalty to the United States and other nation-states that justify their existence with some putative divine establishment, approval, or mission. Others find the theory empirically wanting and wish it would be abandoned. Some of those who value the proposal descriptively also consider it from an ethically normative perspective. Of these, some consider civil religion to be a pernicious social force that has legitimated imperialism and sometimes racism, first through the conquest of the continent’s aboriginal peoples, and later by promoting military adventurism abroad and economic injustice both within and beyond the nation’s borders. They contend, moreover, that by establishing the boundaries of citizenship and thus moral concern, civil religion is inevitably exclusionary, despite its pretensions of respecting pluralism, fostering unity, and promoting a higher, common good.

Defenders retort that, despite civil religion’s history and dangers, such condemnations are too categorical. For them, civil religion is not static, rooted only in an imperial mission: it also has resources for self-correction, including prophetic voices. According to this point of view, civil religion provides a basis for community that would be absent without its ability to inculcate shared values. Its defenders aver that by rooting such values in deep cultural streams, including the republic’s founding documents, and within the religious traditions of its inhabitants, it provides a basis for moving toward a culture that respects diversity, promotes justice, and creates sufficient unity to enable an ongoing struggle for authentic democracy.

For my part, I am ambivalent about civil religion. I agree that the notion has explanatory power. Both in the USA and in other nations, there is strong evidence that a generic, non-sectarian religiosity has often been used to reinforce patriotism and even, sometimes, virulent religious nationalism. I think, however, that the critics often ignore or downplay times when oppressed individuals and groups have turned the tables on those in power by demanding consistent application of the nation’s own stated ideals, whether these echo Abrahamic traditions or natural law philosophies that have advanced specific freedoms from arbitrary state power. The archetypal figure in this regard is, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. In promoting civil rights, King drew on the soaring rhetoric of the nation’s founding documents, which were steeped in European notions of natural rights, as well as on prophetic streams in the Bible and principled non-violence, the origins of which he attributed to Jesus and Gandhi.

It may also be, however, that the root of civil religion’s power lies in the human need to belong, whether to tribe, nation, or holy cause. From an evolutionary perspective, we can even plausibly postulate that this trait is deeply rooted in our genome because it has adaptive or survival value. In any case, since the best known version of civil religion theory has focused on the United States, and given the robust debate about it that has followed, it should be obvious by now that categorical normative assessments, whether positive or negative, cannot easily prevail.

What, then, if we change our frame of reference to include the fundamental shift in human understanding of our place in the world and how we got here, which is exemplified by the Darwinian revolution and has been spreading globally ever since? What, then, if we speculate, based on currently observable trends, not just a few years or decades into the future, but a century or more?

Trends easily discernible since the middle of the nineteenth century, and that began to intensify in the middle of the twentieth, reveal that, while nascent, the “dark green” nature religion that I introduced at the outset of this essay, and have detailed in a recent book, is spreading rapidly, if unevenly, around the world. While some devotees of the world’s largest and best known religious traditions are grafting dark green perceptions and values onto their own traditions, this trend is unfolding more dramatically outside of long established religious traditions. Indeed, it is most powerfully expressed within the ecological milieu, namely, those social spaces where diverse individuals and groups encounter and mutually influence one another as they struggle to understand and respond to an increasingly alarming global environmental crisis.

Participants include environmentalists and scientists, politicians and diplomats, artists, writers, filmmakers, business people, professors, and museum curators, as well as mountaineers, surfers, gardeners, and many others. Some of these actors believe in the existence of non-material divine beings, others are agnostic or atheistic, but they all affirm an evolutionary, ecological worldview. Those who are good examples of dark green spirituality have often had experiences of awe, wonder, and belonging to nature. Some add that they understand, personally and/or scientifically, the possibility of communication, and even communion, with non-human organisms. Their most common shared value is that all organisms, and the environmental systems upon which life depends, should be treated with respect, if not also reverence. Among those with dark green perceptions and values, however, the overall trend appears to be toward more secular forms.

Is it possible, then, at least when thinking long-term, that such perceptions and values could provide an affective and intellectual basis for a planetary civil earth religion? If so, can such a civil religion (spirituality, or worldview) withstand the criticisms typically leveled against civil religion, at least when it is associated with nation-states?

When speculating about the future on the basis of current trends, it is possible to conceive of the emergence of a planetary civil earth religion. Such a religion would shift, or supplement, current identities and loyalties linked to nationality, ethnicity, or religion to those inspired by allegiance to the biosphere. With such a shift, one’s identity as an earthling would come to trump other identities. The political theorist Dan Deudney has even argued that a planetary civil religion, for which he cleverly coined the term “terrapolitan earth religion,” is not only possible but needed as an affective basis for environmental values as well as for a federal-republican Earth Constitution. Such a constitution, he contends, is a prerequisite to the construction of an international political system capable of reversing the global decline of environmental systems. It is Deudney’s view, and that of many environmental and social scientists, that environmental decline is already causing the collapse of many ecosystems around the world, with corresponding—and intensifying—stresses on the human societies that depend upon them.

To those who fear that terrapolitan identities and political institutions represent totalitarian perils or utopian fantasies, Deudey’s comments about nationalism provide a counter-argument. Nationalism, Deudney notes, involves “an identity and loyalty based upon the experiences and feelings of connectedness to a particular place or area.” Since civil religion reinforces place-based national identities, then it is at least conceivable that the consecrated place could be the biosphere, rather than one or another nation.

Concrete evidence of just such a possibility can be seen in those whose primary identity is, already, as an evolutionary and earthly being, and whose preeminent political loyalty is to the biosphere, rather than to any human political system. We can also consider whether Yi-Fu Tuan’s notion of topophilia, E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, or other theories purporting to uncover people’s natural connections to nature, might also lend plausibility to the terrapolitan vision.

(As a quick side note: Those I have mentioned as pioneers of such a terrapolitan vision are not guilty of charges that they are environmental determinists, for they recognize that ecosystems and human cultures are mutually influential. They are, therefore, best understood as theorists of bio-cultural evolution, even though, as natural scientists, they generally have more insights into biological influences than cultural ones. For such theorists, any evolutionarily shaped predisposition to value nature is not causal; it also requires cultural reinforcement. This would not be the case were these theorists environmental determinists.)

In addition to providing provocative thoughts that address the possibility of terrapolitan spirituality and polity, Deudney contends that what he has also called “Gaian Earth Religion,” “Earth Nationalism,” and “green culture” would be significantly different and far less dangerous than other forms of political religion. Green culture would “replace or moderate state and ethnic nationalism rather than make it more truculent,” Deudney believes, because “environmental awareness brings with it awareness of the interconnected and interdependent character of the earth’s diverse inhabitants.” Expressing sympathy for James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Deudney also suggests that unlike religions established long ago, earth religion has “a moderate worldview with a scientifically credible cosmology.” It could, therefore, have greater staying power in the modern world and eventually, “underpin the social norms and behaviors of restraint that are necessary to achieve a sustainable society [. . .] providing a system of meaning that can span generations and foster a sense of transgenerational communal identity.”

This is a plausible argument because the traits typical of what I have labeled dark green religion, and which I see as exemplary of the earth religion Deudney envisions—such as a stress on ecological interdependence, an affective connection to the earth as home and to non-human organisms as kin, and resistance to anthropocentric hubris—are unlikely to promote cultural homogenization, xenophobia, or jingoism. This unlikelihood is evinced by the concrete examples of such spirituality that have already emerged and spread widely, encouraging terrapolitan earth identities, undergirding the global sustainability movement, and promoting humane and environmentally responsible public policies and institutions. Moreover, while many involved in these efforts consider themselves secular and eschew beliefs in non-material divine beings or forces, still others retain conventional religious beliefs while grafting onto them either a newly invented or ecologically enriched reverence for nature. So, for the most part, the more conventionally religious involved in these movements, and those whose spirituality is grounded in more naturalistic understandings, coexist with little friction, for they recognize that they share more with those who understand the biosphere as sacred, and who are working to protect and restore its environmental systems, than with those who are indifferent or hostile to such objectives.

In 1990, when we first met, Professor Deudney and I discussed the possibility that a few shared values, understood as spiritually significant, even if in different ways, might eventually provide a basis for new forms of environmental and political cooperation, both within and between nations. We were not the first to wonder if a form of civil religion might emerge that would support international cooperation, promote peace, and provide an antidote to virulent religious nationalisms. Early on, Robert Bellah had envisioned such a possibility, and in a September 2008 interview with Mark Jurgensmeyer, Bellah even approvingly observed that the sacredness of the human person and of the planet “is a view that transcends any nation and is shared by millions all over the earth.”

I have sought through my ethnographic and historical analysis to show that these trends are assuming an increasingly naturalistic/secular orientation, and that they are gaining traction much more rapidly than has been commonly recognized. I have also argued that dark green religion has characteristics that can function in ways that resemble what scholars have referred to as civil religion. What Deudney has illuminated especially well is that the perceptions and ideas inherent in earth religion make it unfriendly to religious nationalism, while suggesting hopefully that earthen spirituality might well develop in ways that are both ecologically and politically salutary.

I conclude in a more speculative direction. I think that profound changes began with the publication, 150 years ago, of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that will eventuate in a decisive watershed in human culture and religion. For the first time there is a cosmogony capable of being compelling, in its main outlines at least, to the world’s intelligentsia (including educators and other thought leaders, economic elites, and political decision makers). There are also communicative technologies ubiquitous enough to spread this evolutionary cosmogony wherever powerful political and religious forces allow it to propagate. This evolutionary cosmogony is generally fused, as well, to an ecological understanding of the interdependence of life. This hybridized, evolutionary/ecological worldview is spreading widely and rapidly. Sometimes it is being grafted onto existing religious worldviews, but for an increasing number of human beings, it provides a self-sufficient meaning system, one that is often also considered a source of spirituality and ethical guidance.

This perceptual revolution has faced incredulity and resistance, of course, yet it is no different in this regard from earlier cognitive shifts that decisively changed the way most people who are reasonably well educated view the universe and the human place in it. The evolutionary/ecological revolution will continue to win minds in a world that, at least if we extend the time horizon well into the future, will most likely be far more secular than it is today, for this worldview does not require beliefs in invisible beings or cosmic processes, but rather, on ordinary human senses (as enhanced, of course, by our increasingly clever gadgets). That this trend is present wherever educational systems are relatively strong also provides evidence that this revolution is here to stay and will continue to gather strength.

Another reason the evolutionary/ecological revolution must continue to strengthen is that, without an understanding of ecological interdependence, human beings will not succeed, long-term, in developing economies and social systems that can live within the carrying capacity of the habitats upon which they depend. Put bluntly, human societies that do not understand population dynamics and the human dependence on ecological systems will eventually collapse, taking with them their maladaptive cultural systems, including the religious beliefs and practices that hindered or prevented such understandings. Ecologically maladaptive cultural systems, religious or not, eventually kill their hosts.

Whether we are interested primarily in the descriptive aspects of the civil religion thesis, or more in the variety of moral issues that the phenomenon raises, or are concerned about the long-term viability of our species, we would be wise to broaden the geographic and chronological range of our analysis as we consider its characteristics, impacts, and future. When we do so, we may well discover that powerful new forms are emerging in which it is not the nation but the biosphere that is considered sacred and worthy of reverent defense. We would also be wise to wonder whether such developments constitute an ecologically and socially adaptive form of bio-cultural evolution.

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3 Responses to “Civil earth religion versus religious nationalism”

  1. avatar Evan says:

    19th-century social Darwinism makes me doubt that the dark green religion will be automatically benign. It will be interesting to see how the ethics evolve.

  2. avatar Rex Styzens says:

    In Nathan Schneider’s interview with Professor Juergensmeyer elsewhere on The Immanent Frame, the professor states, “. . . scholars are less and less sure about what religion actually is, and it has become an increasingly problematic subject to study.”

    Hence, I cannot help wondering if the appeal in this article to the possibility of a global “dark green religion,” compared favorably to forms of civil religion but on a worldwide scale, uses the concept of religion in a helpful fashion.

    Certainly, we need to increase our awareness of our responsibility for the well-being of our “spaceship” Earth. Such common practices as might unite us to take greater care of our home deserve to be encouraged. But I am reluctant to see that as comprehended by attitudes deserving to be called religion.

    My view is that religion is self-evident, and that means it relies on being itself without a sign of any sort. Emerson, in his essay “Experience,” writes, “The [scientist-]physicians say they are not materialists; but they are:—Spirit is matter reduced to an extreme thinness: O so thin!—But the definition of spiritual should be, that which is its own evidence. What notions do they attach to love! what to religion! One would not willingly pronounce these words in their hearing, and give them the occasion to profane them.”

    Religion does not produce results, even if as admirable as increases in love or the preservation of the Earth. Whenever a measure of any kind is assigned to religion, we then risk mistaking it for superstition. This is not to say that I might be able to tell the professor what religion is. The best we can currently do is to know what it is not, and it is not a means to an end. Instead it is the stellar example of what is an end in itself, something today it shares with art when that is treated as “for its own sake.”

  3. A fascinating essay indeed. As someone concerned about the effects of religious nationalism and civil religion, your essay dealt with numerous issues of interest to me. I would quibble with one aspect of your essay, however, in that I don’t see an automatic secularization in our future as the world is modernized. Here in the West, while the general move has been towards a modernist/materialist perspective among many, we’ve also seen a resurgence of the religious and supernatural impulse, especially among traditional religions. It may be death throes, to be sure, but as your own essay points out, we, as humans, seem to need a mythic aspect to our existence, whether religious or irreligious. So I guess I wonder what you mean by the term “secular” in this context? Especially if you allow for a mythic understanding of our beginning and purpose? Would it be a kind of Carl Sagan secular mythology, which posits space “gods” of far advanced alien races seeding the earth? Or a pantheistic “Pandora” vision which sees all of life as being one? Or maybe a combination of the two?

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