Thursday, 31 January 2019

How The World Thinks

By Dr Jack Christian

How The World Thinks is the title of a recent (2018) book by Julian Baggini. It probably overstates what the book has to offer because whilst it is a good introduction to the major cultures of the Northern Hemisphere it has little to say about the indigenous cultures and religions of Africa, Australia and South America.  Nevertheless it is a valuable book offering insights into why other cultures might see things differently, something which is overlooked all too frequently in the Western world.

From a personal perspective it fleshed out my knowledge of Buddhist and Chinese thought, widened my knowledge of Hinduism and Islam and spoke to me of Shintoism for the first time in 50 years.  It made plain the interdependence of religion and philosophy in all these cultures and contrasted this (in my eyes) with the analytic atomism of the Western world which had led to their separation.  That however is not to say that religion and philosophy do not underwrite today’s culture in the Western world, they are just studied separately (again in my eyes).

The book is organized into four parts and a short conclusion.  In the first two parts Baggini discusses the epistemology and ontology of the Islamic world and the various cultures across Asia.  In part three he focusses on the nature of self as seen by these cultures.  (As a follower of deep ecology I found this section particularly fascinating.  Baggini speaks of no-self, relational self and atomised self; I believe it is in our understanding of self that causes us to identify with deep or shallow ecology).  Part four considers how the different cultures live, delving into their different ethical choices and positions.  The concluding section is only 19 pages long, I guess Baggini would prefer the reader to form his/her own conclusions.

Interesting lessons for me included the Japanese attitude to technology as an extension of Nature introduced on p140.  Humans are part of Nature, hence so it their technology.  This interplay of human ingenuity and Nature is discussed at some length and it left me wondering if it left any room at all for Nature to express herself, or whether she was just seen as some sort of poor relative who should welcome the changes being thrust on her.  I need to find out more about this.

Another lesson from a Japanese setting on p298 is the understanding that life is transient and thinking about (focusing on) the now is just as important as making rational (logical) deductions that will affect the future or analyse the past.  This underwrites an understanding that feelings are as important as rational thought and allows us to bypass Hume’s is/ought logical fallacy.  Thus we can take something we observe and allow it to influence how we act (naturalism).

This Western subordination of feeling to logic goes a long way to explaining something Baggini discusses earlier on p79, science for science sake.  Only in the west is science and intellectual development valued for its own sake, elsewhere it exists to serve human flourishing.

It might also explain the search for impartial ethical rules or guidelines such as Kant’s imperative or Bentham’s utilitarianism in the West.  This compares with the focus on virtue that can be found in most of the rest of the world.  Chapters 25 and 21 respectively discuss and exemplify these points in detail.

I suspect this critique of science, and logic and language would chime with many post-modern philosophers although I am not sure where they would stand on human flourishing.

Another lesson, this time from a Chinese setting on p224, is the difference between harmony and unity.  By definition to create harmony there must be more than one input, ie there cannot be unity!  This insight is further developed by Baggini on p315 to illustrate how cultures could mix in what he describes as moral pluralism.  I like this idea but I would talk in terms of agonistic pluralism; I suspect we mean the same thing though, a world where we live with different ideas but find ways make space for each other’s ideas.

However I would also heed his warning on p314 that ideas are part of living ecosytems and must be transplanted carefully or they can wither and die.  This reminded me of his earlier comments on p214 about relational versus atomistic selves and how the Western focus on individuality has lost sight of belonging and community.  This has led, he suggests, to considerable misunderstanding and disenchantment amongst many of its citizens.  Disenchantment that, I feel, has led to an antipathy towards other cultures that are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as receiving more attention.

In the final chapter, on p338, he returns to pluralism as part of a world seen through a multitude of perspectives.  This undoubtedly chimes with my view of the world.  We are all on the Way (Dao) but each of us sees it from a different vantage point.  If we can accept this it may help us build a better world.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Dark Green Religion: A Muse

By Dr Jack Christian

Dark Green Religion:  Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future is a book by Professor Bron Taylor published in 2010.  I found myself re-reading it this week as I was preparing a talk I am giving at my old school in December.  As well as the talk it turned out to be very relevant to my own thoughts on the environment, and biodiversity in particular; the threats to the latter having been in the news quite a lot over the last two weeks.  Further, and more specifically, it was very relevant to a poem I started last week about a walk I had taken in Sherwood Forest.   During this walk I felt a deep spiritual link to nature; the book helped in my reflections on this walk.  In this muse I simply share some of what I see as key points in the book and how I feel about them.

Taylor defines religion very broadly relying on the word’s etymological base which leads to ‘belonging or bound to’, in this case, shared beliefs.  The shared beliefs of dark green religion (DGR), he posits, are the intrinsic value of nature and the interconnectedness of nature (of which humans are a part).  He also offers a framework of analysis between animism and holism on the one hand, and naturalism and spiritualism on the other.  Animism is almost an idiographic approach where value is placed in individual creatures, plants, and even non-living things, holism refers to systems as the object of value, for example Earth or Gaia.  Naturalism sees either of these things as material with their own value and integrity which should be respected and from which we can learn and with which we could even, perhaps learn to communicate with.  Spirituality adds an immaterial element to our relationship with them in the way some people believe we can communicate with God (holism) or Spirits (animism).

Throughout his book he refers to many environmentalists and other scientists, artists and philosophers and notes how difficult is to isolate most of them into just one of these categories.  For example Charles Darwin was a scientist who was meticulous in trying to record his data objectively but at the same time he professed a deep affinity, connectedness even, with animals of all kinds.  Further he was a Christian and believed in God.  From personal experience I would say this was a pretty hard circle to square.

Taylor devotes chapters to DGR in North America; Radical Environmentalism; Surfing Spirituality; Globalization with Predators and Moving Pictures; Globalization in Arts, Sciences and Letters; Terrapolitan Earth Religion and finally DGR and the Planetary Future.  In the first of these he draws on the work of Whitman, Emerson, Muir and Thoreau amongst others.  Here I offer a few quotes from these giants as cited by Taylor.

“This is what you shall do:  love the earth and sun and animals” (Whitman)
“The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.  I am not alone and unacknowledged.  They nod to me, and I to them” (Emerson)
"Plants are credited with but dim and uncertain sensation, and minerals with positively none at all.  But why may not even a mineral arrangement of matter be endowed with sensation of a kind that we in our blind exclusive perfection can have no manner of communication with?” (Muir)

It seems to me that Walt Whitman is echoing St Francis of Assissi and Emerson and Muir are drawing attention to somethings philosophers, psychologists and even neuro-scientists still argue over – what is the mind, and the mind/matter conundrum.      

Thoreau offered 8 themes that Taylor suggests might be common to a universal DGR:

  1. The value of simple, natural and undomesticated (free) life.
  2. The wisdom of nature
  3. A religion of nature
  4. The laws of nature and justice
  5. An ecocentric moral philosophy
  6. Loyalty to and the interconnectedness of nature
  7. Moral evolution; the necessity of human moral/spiritual/scientific growth
  8. Ambivalence and enigma
I repeat these here to show the complexity of DGR – it isn’t just about loving Nature.

This complexity is emphasised in the chapter on radical environmentalism where he lists various approaches to environmentalism by numerous different authors.  There are philosophers including Baird Callicott and my own hero Arne Naess, environmental historians, native American scholars, scientists and conservationists such as David Ehrenfeld, anarchists and social ecologists, critics of technology, ecofemnists such as Vandana Shiva, anthropologists and ecopsychologists such as Paul Shepherd and Warwick Fox.

Taylor reflects on the work of a variety of individuals including William C Rogers who committed suicide after being arrested for destroying offices and premises belonging to companies that were expanding into areas critical for wildlife protection.  Aware he would be in prison for life he chose suicide and wrote the following:

“Certain human cultures have been waging war against the Earth for millenia.  I chose to fight on the side of the bears, mountain lions, skunks, bats, saguaros, cliff rose and all things wild.  I am just the most recent casualty in that war.  But tonight I have made my jailbreak – I am returning home, to the Earth, to the place of my origins”

Taylor finishes the chapter with a quotation from Paul Watson, founder of Greenpeace.  This starts,

“What we need  if we are to survive is a new story, a new myth, and a new religion.  We need to replace anthropocentrism with biocentrism.  We need to construct a religion that incorporates all species and establishes nature as sacred and deserving of respect.
Christians have denounced this idea as worshipping the creation and not the Creator.  Yet in the name of the Creator they have advocated the destruction of the creation….”

Watson is not the first or the only person to lay the blame for environmental destruction on the Christian faith.  Sadly this antipathy towards (primarily monotheistic) religions, and vice-versa, is a major impediment in protecting the Earth and her inhabitants.  Taylor returns to this in his concluding chapter on the planetary future.

The chapters on globalization note the attention paid to Nature in movies from Bambi to Lion King and Pocahontas (Colours of the Wind is my favourite song of all time).  He also notes the interest generated by people such as Steve Irwin and David Attenborough.  Under the banner of Arts, Sciences and Letters he notes that Ernst Haeckel, the zoologist who coined the word ecology was overtly spiritual about Nature.  He draws on a wide range of writers from David Ehrenfeld, a scientist, to Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and even Mikhail Gorbachov’s article Nature is My God.  He notes the dark green tone of the 1988 UNESCO publication of Man Belongs to the Earth.  Oh and he does an excellent deconstruction of Richard Dawkins anti-religious arguments en route.

In the penultimate chapter he wonders about the possibility of a worldwide DGR.  In doing so he notes the Marxist and Feuerbach critiques of religion (as a means of obfuscating oppression) and postmodern critiques alert to hegemonic narratives.  However his main focus is on the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002  and the diverse views that were to be found there.

The concluding chapter on DGR and the planetary future starts by noting some relevant factors:
  1. Evolutionary change has precipitated profound changes in most religious thought.
  2. The diversity in DRG thought and the spread of nature spirituality in the last 150 years has, in historical terms, been breathtakingly rapid.
  3. Whilst social change is not normally rapid, it can be; Taylor cites the Copernican revolution as an example.
  4. Social change is often driven by what are perceived as grave threats.
Again Taylor discusses the work of various scholars the most well know of whom is Baird Callicot.  He draws on the Earth Charter, a product of the 2002 World Summit, as a potential guide to a global DGR and he discusses how it might ‘catch on’.  However there is potential opposition noted in the form of established religions and modernist thinkers for whom religion is simply unacceptable.

All in all a serious book.  Of course things have moved on since 2010 and personally I am not at all sure if the world is greener or not.  For those who find these issues interesting Taylor is actually the editor of The Journal for the Study of Nature Religion and Culture which he founded in 2007.

On a personal note, as I said at the start of this muse I felt a spiritual connection whilst walking in Sherwood Forest recently and I am glad to find I am walking with any number of great thinkers from the past.  Like them I am, at times, uncertain of this connection.  The sceptic in me finds more academically acceptable reasons for my thoughts and feelings; for example am I really just reflecting preconceived notions that are the real me in an Heideggerian sense, or am connected to them through some infinite net of relationships such as the Buddhist Net of Indra.  Every day my belief in the latter becomes stronger, simply through my own experiences of the world, but it is hard to shake off the humanist education of the Modern world.