Nature, spirituality and the future of industrial society are interesting enough topics to ponder individually. As the author of over 20 books and as Grand Archdruid of the AODA, John Michael Greer likes to write about the overlap between them. One topic he’s been exploring on his blog is that of a changing religious sensibility, which is the underlying structure that religions are built on and what links different faiths of the same age together and separates them from faiths of different ages. Greer answered my questions about humanity’s changing relationship to religion, progress and the Earth.
You write on your blog that the promise of salvation from the natural world and the human condition are no longer appealing to a growing number of people today. Why do you think that is?
That’s an easy question to pose and a remarkably difficult one to answer. Why, for that matter, did the passionate longing for salvation from the material world and the human condition become so massive a force in the religious life of people over much of the western half of Eurasia from 600 BCE on? Before then, the idea of salvation was quite simply not an issue in most religious traditions; you prayed and made offerings to the gods in gratitude for their blessings, and the world and all the good things in it were among those blessings, not something you feared and hoped to escape from.
I don’t think anybody can say why one sensibility faded out and another took its place. For that matter, who can predict the rise and fall of fads like Hula Hoops or friendship bracelets? Our collective thought patterns have their own rhythm, and I don’t know anybody who can either predict or explain how that works.
With far more information at our disposal than we could possible make use of, we’ve become a knowledge-oriented society. As far as traditional religion goes, do you see a shift towards attaining knowledge and away from the experiential side of spiritual practice?
It’s a common fiction that we’re a knowledge-oriented society. Due to the current state of information overload, we’ve actually become a knowledge-averse society, where people go out of their way not to learn anything that conflicts with their beliefs. Most mainstream religions in the industrial world long ago stopped teaching people how to have religious experiences on their own, and taught them to take claims derived from officially approved religious texts at face value; I suspect we’ll see a lot less of that, and much more focus on religious experience, as the continuing pressure of information overload makes people more interested in something they can feel.
I could see that happening. How valuable do you think religious experiences are, given that all experiences are temporary, particularly as people place less emphasis on attaining the knowledge necessary to assimilate these experiences?
Religious experiences are even more essential than they’ve been in the past, because they’re the touchstone against which increasingly abstract and arbitrary belief systems can and will be tested. These days, a lot of people in the alternative religious scene are busy spinning intellectualized notions of what the universe and the gods ought to be like, and very few are asking the universe and the gods for their opinion! Religious experiences are how the universe
and the gods answer that question, and it’s a crucial resource if our ideas about the universe are going to be more than pointless babble.
Does science play a role in this new religious sensibility?
A religious sensibility is a basic pattern of emotions and imagery that underlies complex social phenomena such as religions or sciences. It’s not that science plays a part in the new sensibility, in other words; it’s that the sensibility will gradually transform science into its own image as it spreads, just as it’s already transforming religions.
You point to Lynn White’s essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” suggesting that our environmental crisis is deeply tangled with the religious sensibility of salvation and the belief in institutions that emerged from that sensibility. How can we best understand this entanglement?
The central theme of the old religious sensibility is the claim that humanity is separate from the rest of nature and deserves something better than the world we actually experience. In the case of theist religions, that takes the form of claims that this world is a temporary and disposable prologue to eternity in heaven; in the case of the civil religion of progress, the Earth becomes a temporary and disposable prologue to infinite expansion across interstellar space—the same thing, that is, dressed up in science fiction drag. In both cases the notion is that we don’t need nature, we don’t belong to nature, and we don’t need to care about nature.
History has shown that both technological progress, activism, legal and political changes, are nothing but partial solutions or quick fixes that fail to address the real cause of our environmental crisis. Yet, reverting back to a simpler, less resource intensive lifestyle is unlikely to happen for the masses. Do you see another route humankind can take to deal with the environmental crisis of our time?
Au contraire. Reverting back to a less resource intensive lifestyle is already beginning to happen for the masses. It’s not that they’re doing it voluntarily; it’s that, as the global economy lurches from one crisis to another under the increasing pressure of the limits to growth, they don’t have a choice. This is what all those scientists were warning us about, back in the 1970s: we can make the transition to a less resource intensive lifestyle deliberately, and do it in a controlled way that preserves many of the best achievements of the industrial age, or we can refuse to do so and make
the same transition in a sudden, ragged, uncontrolled way as we slam face first repeatedly into the consequences of our unwillingness to grasp the fact that we live on a finite planet.
Why have we developed such faith in progress?
For three hundred years, it’s been a very good bet. It’s just that, as brokerages like to point out, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. We experienced a lot of progress because we happened to be able to tap into half a billion years of stored sunlight, in the form of fossil fuels and a lot of other nonrenewable resources that no other species had gotten around to exhausting yet. Now that we’re getting close to the bottom of the barrel, we don’t have that advantage anymore, but very few people are willing to think about the consequences of that.