An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore
Religion was early humans’ first venture at understanding the cosmos and their place in its unfathomable mysteries. The first religions worshiped the elements of nature, especially cosmic entities, animals and the diverse land forms of the Earth and the Goddess. They respected all that flourished but were equally terrified by the powerful and destructive forces they had to contend with. These initial attempts to understand the environment were simple, yet not very comprehensive and hard to validate.
Many religions continued to develop and encompassed a wide array of beliefs and rituals. Paganism and its offshoots became prolific and attracted many followers. At this time, all religions were pluralistic and their deities possessed both positive and negative qualities, often human in nature, but no notion of evil was equated with them. Deities were seen as being either helpful or hurtful towards humans and also were thought to need much appeasement in the form of sacrifices of goods, possessions, food and even human blood sacrifice to gain favor and grace.
The ruling elite, early theologians and religious leaders noted the proliferation of the new religions and practices and concluded that this development would create an obstacle to maintaining order and morality in the growing populations so a religious doctrine that could unite the public and negate belief in multi-deities was sought. The notion of a single deity to be called God was concocted and introduced to simplify the story of creation and to appeal to the perceived intellectual capacity of the masses. To assure a condition of adequate power and control, the concept of good and evil was also introduced. Good was compared to ethical or normative behavior and the hurtful pagan deities were synthesized into one evil entity slated to be satinic who would forever be a temptation to mankind. God being equated with the good, and Satan being attributed with evil were introduced so there were now only two paths to choose from behaviorally; that of the establishment and God or that of an evildoer or Satan. God was also attributed to be of the male gender to demote women so men could dominate them. The Pagan religions were then dismantled through the persecution and annihilation of their followers by the ruling classes and the newly formed Christian religious institutions. This strategy was intended to create only one acceptable worldview and to discourage others from forming and acquiring new followers.
The newly emerging thought structure contended that a creator of great power and intelligence must have been the source of everything; thus, religion, philosophy and science all headed up the challenge to explain the origins of the universe and discover purpose and meaning within its essence. The need to infer a single and separate deity to account for the unanswered questions about creation changed our close-knit relationship with nature from nature as a deity or deities to nature as an inanimate object.
Another issue of significance was that religion also began to take on the role of acting as a behavioral gatekeeper: to teach and control behavior to ensure safety and well-being and to utilize the deity concept as a deterrent for anti-social or unethical behavior. Unwanted behaviors took on the definition of sin punishable in the afterlife and a whole new religious psychology was born. Guilt and shame, sins’ by-product, became a powerful emotional state that haunted the human psyche with increased intensity. Behavior could then be redirected or controlled by anyone in a position of religious or civil authority who could persuade one of his or her wrongdoings. Punishment for undesirable behavior became a focus of attention and a comprehensive system of law and order began to develop and became a component of all cultures over time.
Human emotions also underwent a change in perception. The sexual desires and intense feelings like anger and passion were misunderstood as well as feared, and became the target of suppression and were likened to the unruly facets of nature metaphorically. Again, the elements took on another negative connotation and the human-nature gap widened. The environment had now been demoted from its sacred ground to that of an enemy, something to be reckoned with.
Religion eventually made its way into civil matters that complicated allegiances between religious and civic beliefs. Religious beliefs often conflicted with scientific and philosophical treatise as knowledge increased and more complicated issues continued to come into play.
To this day, religious, philosophical and scientific formulations are frequently at great controversy with each other and the negative effects on our relationship with the environment derived from these differences have persisted as well.
The Religion-Nature Relationship
Many ecologists and professionals from other disciplines attribute the root cause of our ecological crisis to the Judeo-Christian philosophy that states humans are separate and superior to the natural world. However, this concept is not found in any of the scriptures of the world’s major religions including Christianity. In fact, most religions have acknowledged the sanctity of nature and God’s gift in providing nature as a suitable home for his beloved creations: humans, fauna, flora and the elements of the Earth. Also, there are references that include respect and stewardship for the Earth and all its creatures as well. Saint Francis of Assisi asserted a holistic theology with nature and is credited with being the first deep ecologist. So how did these notions change to those attributing our supremacy over our habitat?
Expedient re-interpretation of the scriptures to promote people as having the right to dominion over the Earth came from influential theologians who saw the advantages and riches that could be obtained from the natural world if exploitation, domination and control were encouraged and in good conscience. The new religious mandate that emerged implied that humans were special, separate and superior to all other entities and that God had created the Earth for the exclusive pleasure and benefit of humanity. Over time, this new philosophy spread throughout the religious community and became the dominant thought structure that has prevailed, in large measure, in many, if not most of our religious institutions throughout history.
There are some biblical statements in Genesis that imply that man has the right to dominion over the Earth and there has been much controversy on the literal interpretation of this notion. Some theologians take this idea literally and others feel that God wanted humans simply to be good stewards and respect the Earth as well as use its bounties for human endeavors.
Regardless of the differing opinions on this matter, enough emphasis was placed on human supremacy to alter the perception of the planet’s intrinsic worth to that of a collection of natural resources that could be exploited with impunity. This way of thinking can be seen as a significant contributor to the development of our current environmental crisis.
Religious theologians continued to endorse more anthropocentric dogma; the intellect was declared an elevating status for humans and emotions were deemed subordinate to rational thought. The variable, uncontrollable and seemingly irrational forces of nature were likened to human emotions metaphorically and given an evil connotation. Animals were demoted to a soulless status as well as all the elements of the Earth and nature became increasingly seen as an evil entity to discredit Pagan beliefs. The concept of good versus evil was initiated into the human psyche with increased emphasis to manage behavior. Spirituality became divorced from matter, Earth from heaven and God from humanity and equated with the realm of metaphysics.
As these new concepts took hold, they undermined Pagan religions that believed in the sanctity of Mother Earth and gave justification for the slaughter of its occult followers in the inquisition of 1484, sanctioned primarily by the Catholic Church. A very large but unknown number of peasants, witches of whom a majority were women and animals known as familiars, were slaughtered in an attempt to wipe out all Pagan beliefs and superstitions. It also had the effect of discouraging other unorthodox belief systems from evolving or continuing as well.
Religious beliefs often became the justification for the suppression or annihilation of those who held differing belief systems and many political ideologies became subject to religious disdain as well.
The human need to simplify the questions of existence resulted in polarized thinking and the creation of simplified explanations and hypothesis by employing the process of reductionism and fragmentation. Psychologically, it appears that the human intellect attempts to reduce complexity into simpler concepts and parts to attain understanding and often resists or foregoes looking at those concepts in a holistic manner. This process of constructing reality is at the heart of our misconceptions about our relationship with nature and the underpinnings of our ecological crisis.
Despite the damage done by past religious theology, doctrine and practice, some modern religions are recognizing the importance of our interdependence with the Earth, are promoting stewardship in their congregations and are also trying to undo the deep rooted and prevailing prejudice against the Pagan culture and its beliefs and insights.
Johnson, William M. “The Rose-Tinted Menagerie, 1The Blood-Red Menagerie,1.2 In God’s Image.” Rays of a New Aeon, 8 February 2016, aeolusathene.simplesite.com/425047539/3517289/posting/text. Accessed 31 May 2020.