Reverend Billy preaching the Gospel in the Church of Stop Shopping
Every once in a while, a well-scrubbed pair of young people in dark suits exit their car in front of my house and head for the door, Bibles tucked under arms, cheerful smiles radiating from their innocent faces. It’s a signal for me to be really quiet and pretend there is no one home.
The media are abuzz these days with polling data showing a longstanding decline in American religiosity. Nearly every Christian sect as well as religious Judaism has been steadily losing adherents for years while poll categories of “no religious affiliation,” atheist, agnostic and “undeclared” are growing. What is going on?
Surely the well-publicized miseries wrought by religious fanaticism are a big factor. The pedophilic scandals of the Catholic Church and the widely publicized peccadillos of a few charismatic Christian evangelicals have also no doubt played a role, but I suspect that a large part of the problem (if one can call it that) goes deeper.
Mainstream religions, it seems to me, share two main features: a good story and socially useful dogma. In Judaism the story involves the creation of Earth and mankind, the downstream tribulations of a semitic tribe and the evolution of the tribe’s special personal relationship with God, a collective loyalty to whom is a prerequisite for successful warfare with other tribes. Christianity builds on this story with a mystical virgin birth, a life centered around love and forgiveness, a martyred death and a miraculous resurrection bundled together with promises of a blissful hereafter.
The dogma of Judaism involves behavioral edicts particularly well adapted to a nomadic desert people emerging from the fog of prehistory. A clear set of basic behavioral laws (which, perhaps for mnemonic purposes, just happen to fit on the fingers of two hands) set out ways to minimize intratribal conflict and promote tribal cohesion: don’t take your neighbor’s stuff, leave your neighbor’s wife alone, etc. The dogma of Christianity, coming later to lubricate emerging urban life with more far-reaching behavioral guidance, adds generosity, charity and forgiveness to the basics of the Big Ten.
The overlooked backdrop of both of these grand pragmatic codes of conduct is the fact that they developed during eras when mankind was essentially irrelevant to the successful ongoing function of the Edenic home planet. Yes, organized agriculture had spread beyond the fertile crescent by the Common Era but the harnessing of millennia of solar power stored in fossil beds and the extraction of vast amounts of raw materials had not yet resulted in the agricultural domination of most of the earth’s arable land and the rearrangement of its geography and atmospheric balance. And the onslaught of a sixth extinction was still far in the future as what are now considered the world’s major religions were establishing themselves in the minds of man.
The stories which breathed life into those codes of conduct reflected reality as it was perceived at the time: asses and goats, tents and spears, slings and arrows, shepherds and stables, slayings with swords, crucifixions and duplicity, deserts and lots of wilderness – you could even see the stars in the night sky back then! They were magnificent stories and functioned exceedingly well as vehicles for the dogmas needed for human society, as it was structured at the time, to thrive. Twenty-one centuries later, however, as the Hubble telescope brings us images of the edge of the cosmos, electron microscopes make visible things at the molecular level and magnetic resonance imaging lets us introspect in ways not dreamt of even a few decades ago, reality, as we now can appreciate it, has quite suddenly become orders of magnitude richer. At the same time, and perhaps for similar reasons, our species has become orders of magnitude more powerful. As part of the same process by which our societal structures have made it possible for our clever brains to figure out how to get things done, we find ourselves to be quite literally Masters of the Earth. Suddenly the fate of the very space we inhabit is in our hands. It is time for religion to catch up. We need new stories and new dogmas.
I am not a big fan of David Brooks. Perhaps it’s because, like me, he considers himself an authority on all things profound and important, and we usually come down on opposite sides of issues. Nevertheless, a few days ago he and I seemed to inhabit the same page.
Brooks was talking about spirituality and referencing a book by Columbia University Professor of Psychology and Education Lisa Miller called The Spiritual Child. Miller discusses evidence showing that spirituality is in part genetic and that the higher power that defines this sense may take the form of God, nature, spirit, or less well-defined universalism.(italics mine) Brooks faults Miller for her failure to “……pay sufficient attention to the many secular, this-world ways people find to organize their lives” – by which I think he means different religions, philosophies and ideologies – but he ends up admitting that “…..it does seem true that most children are born with a natural sense of the spiritual…… They have a natural sense of the oneness of creation. If they find a dead squirrel on the playground, they understand there is something sacred there, and they will most likely give it a respectful burial……” I think Brooks is right on there, and I would take it one step further.
Back when those old time religions were evolving, they capitalized upon this instinctive awareness of a larger power to help organize human society and minimize threats to its integrity while couching the dogma in stories suited to the perceived realities of the times. Today, since our understanding of reality is leagues greater than it was then, they have lost their punch. Mundane miracles like Red Sea waters parting (for which there are several very plausible physical explanations) or virgin births (some birds and bees do it after all) inspire less awe. One need only watch James Gorman’s NYTimes Science Take videos or check out the molecular animations on XVIVO to sample the high level miraculousness of our modern worldview. So our current, enormously enriched reality requires new stories, but that’s not all.
That enhanced understanding has resulted in our species now having incredibly more power. So much power, in fact, that our physical world has been transformed from the day when those old stories and dogmas originated. God above now looking down at Earth from His seat in the heavens sees the urban centers of His planet ablaze in electric light at night and during the day watches its glaciers shrink, its rainforests transformed into plantations and its rivers redirected – all of this with precious little thought given to where this is leading by all but a few of those flawed folk he created in His image.
But thank God for those few voices crying in the wilderness and calling our attention to where it does seem to be leading, namely a hostile environment with drastically changed climate, flooded coastlines and a flora and fauna impoverished by overexploitation and habitat destruction. Not a pretty picture, I would say, and one begging for new religious dogma to set things straight and new stories added to the old ones to empower the dogma.
The dogma part is easy. How about adding ten more commandments to the previous ones?
- Thou shalt not squander thy natural resources – leave what remains of the coal and oil in the ground, develop renewables, turn off unneeded lights, do not let thy parked car idle, conserve water, etc.
- Thou shalt honor the earth which, after all, sustains you – even though it is difficult to notice when your meat and vegetables are lined up neatly on supermarket shelves.
- Respect every living creature and recognize that it requires a suitable habitat and probably plays a role in the balance of nature and can offer you benefits about which you are completely ignorant.
- Do not flush pills or other toxic stuff down the toilet – remember that it eventually ends up in our rivers and oceans.
- Lobby hard to give the Environmental Protection Agency more power.
- Demand proper enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and work to strengthen it.
- Limit family size.
- Eat less meat and fish.
- Do unto the rest of the earth as you would do to your own back yard.
The stories needed are, well, another story. We’ve got some of the parts, but there’s more work to be done. The romantic poets – Coleridge, Wordsworth and Whitman in particular – gave us some ideas and a vocabulary. Henry David Thoreau set the scene with Walden. Aldo Leopold added some lyrical prose with A Sand County Almanac. Rachel Carlson opened more eyes with A Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us. Edward Abbey jazzed things up a bit with The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire. Al Gore wrote a Book of Revelation with An Inconvenient Truth. And the likes of John McPhee, Bill McKibben, Carl Safina, E.O. Wilson and many many other fine writers labor away today, hoping that the pen is mightier than the oil rig and adding their contributions to the canon. My sense is, however, that these separate chapters and verses now need a larger than life hero or heroine – a Moses, a Jesus, a Buddha, a Mohammad – in short, I guess, a Messiah or a Gaia preaching biophilia or even Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping – to breath life into the stories, galvanize the believers and send the disciples out to convert the masses.
No small task, really, but a much needed one and the time may be about right. Now, when that gas-sipping hybrid pulls up in front of my house and a couple of young people wearing old backpacks and hand-me-down blue jeans head for my door with copies of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything under their arms, I plan to put some water on the wood stove for tea, break out the granola bars and invite them in to hear what they have to say.