Religion as Plague

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

Just when we thought that religion, like smallpox, had been conquered and locked away safely in a vault, it has been released by fundamentalist terrorists of all kinds, and in new virulent forms, once again threatens the well-being of the world. I used to think that the major problem with religious belief and conservation was the injunction in the Bible that man was to dominate the beasts. Dominate the world. I now think that while that remains a problem, and a serious one, an equally damaging proposition, increasingly evident both in America and elsewhere, is the rise and rise of fundamentalism that denies the reality of evolution.

This refusal to recognise the reality of common origins of the life forms on this perhaps unique planet, of our close relationship to not just the apes but to all mammals, and our slightly more distant relationship to other vertebrates, and ultimately to all other animals, results in an attitude, a state of mind, in which all those other life forms can be extinguished. It is an attitude not unlike that which led to ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. It also results in a state of mind in which human life is only a waiting period to go to heaven, so that what happens to the earth while the chosen are waiting is really of not even casual interest.

It may also result in the belief that there is ultimately nothing that humans can do to damage the earth since god is in charge as a kind of maintenance engineer. In America and increasingly in other western countries there is a return to beliefs in the chain of being. God, it was believed, had created a complete hierarchy, fixed forever. It began with god at the apex, who was represented (and 'anointed by god') on Earth by the King, then down through the aristocracy in various grades and the church hierarchy running in parallel, then through freemen and down to peasants and serfs. From there the hierarchy ran through animal species starting with the more complex and ending with animals like worms. All was fixed in place immovably.

Having largely got rid of kings as rulers though, the conservatives in the society were concerned that the rest of the hierarchy, in which they had favoured places, might also be questioned. Real democracy and relative equality might take over as a human idea. If you were near the top of the hierarchy these dangerous possibilities had to be nipped in the bud and they have been. In Australia the debate over a Republic revealed the continuation of a belief in a divinely appointed figure to lead the country. In America, lacking someone with the title of king, the President, or at least Republican presidents, have increasingly taken on all the trappings of divine rule. It has the advantage that mere mortals in the media or among the populace cannot question their activities. In other countries even more clear cut theocracies have arisen again. One of the areas in which rulers cannot be questioned is of course the environment.

A religious belief which relies on evolution not having occurred is like a religious belief that relies on the sun revolving around the earth, or on thunder and lightning being the result of gods fighting, or on Spring coming only after a virgin is sacrificed.

There is another point. If children are receiving such a poor education that they are taught to believe in creation and not taught evolutionary biology, then they will become the kind of poorly educated adults who don't understand what is happening to the world around them. There isn't time now for the kind of fundamentalism that produces mass ill education. Nor is there time for the kind of media that sends uninformed junior reporters out on 'mother nature' stories, or which treats all animal stories as jokes. The public in general receives its adult education from the media, and it is being very poorly served. People can't vote or make life decisions without full information and understanding about environmental effects.

Fundamentalist religion also brings with it a feeling that with everything created 6000 years ago it is no big deal if some or even all are lost. A sense of the immense time that has taken to evolve both individual species and their ecological communities must surely make you pause before wantonly destroying something that is literally irreplaceable.

Furthermore if there is no time depth to the ecology of the Earth, if what we see now is what was created 6000 years ago, then there is nothing that can be learnt from past extinction events like the massive losses of species in Pleistocene times, the loss of the dinosaurs, the loss of the giant mammals. To the people who have 'museums' in which humans and dinosaurs coexist, and who interpret the history of the Grand Canyon in a biblical time scale, there were no extinction events (except of course the flood that led to Noah's Ark, perhaps one of the silliest of all the silly biblical beliefs about the history of the environment), no climatic changes. Not only can these people learn nothing from the past, they cannot therefore imagine a different future.

Finally understanding an ecosystem and the way it works involves a state of mind which can see the interconnections between things and knows that in the time since life was established on Earth there is no beginning and end to ecosystems. Nor do they have prime movers or first causes - a natural ecosystem is a self-sustaining system. Recognising that this is the way the world works would be difficult for those who believe that there is a supreme being who set everything in motion and keeps it in motion, and can be asked to set aside reality to suit the needs of a particular human individual.

In the religious mind humans in general have been set above the animal world by god as a totally separate creation. The attitude would be I guess that we could lose the whole of the natural world and it wouldn't matter, all that matters is that there would remain a bunch of humans (the ones with the correct religious beliefs obviously) on the ball of rock serving god and waiting for heaven. Environmental actions might be taken by religious people, but they would be taken from a sense of duty rather in the way that one might serve on a soup kitchen.

A country in which religious beliefs teach humans that they have no kinship with other animals, no linkages with the rest of the natural world through evolution and ecology, is also dysfunctional. Conservation of the environment has to be the result of people feeling that kinship with the world they evolved into, not one in which a few species (the deserving ones) are saved in zoos and the rest of the ecosystem destroyed. Such a strategy may work in the short term, just as putting people in workhouses works in the short term, but we urgently need approaches for both society and the environment that work in the long term. Religion is preventing the development of such approaches, not because of the belief that humans have dominion over the natural world, as important as that fallacy is, but because of the belief that humans are separate from the natural world. Religious beliefs in this area align with the ideology of economic rationalism, both blind faiths need to be left behind, and quickly.