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When Religion Fails, Economics Becomes Demonic

05/22/2015 02:50 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

Carbon pollution is undeniably the material cause of Earth's climate breakdown, but what is the root cause? Blaming our growth-dependent economic systems does not, in my view, go deep enough. Ultimately, religion is responsible -- but not in the way secularists might assume.

Crippled by what I call "the triple idolatries," our prevailing religions have failed to evolve norms and values on par with our species' escalating technological prowess. Religious leaders have failed to notice and then decry the suicidal path of societies dependent on massive extraction of carbon-rich fuels. And when religion fails, economics is unbounded by even the crudest requirements to protect nature's life support systems. When religion fails, economics becomes demonic.

Functionally, the role of religion has always been to shape norms and values such that individuals and cultures live in right relationship to reality. Healthy religions foster personal wholeness, social coherence, and ecological integrity. As noted philosopher of religion Loyal Rue wrote in his book, Religion Is Not About God,

The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), we will be doomed, but if we live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle.

Because human experience of the world is mediated by symbolic language (words), our species is uniquely challenged. We do not perceive and experience reality instinctively, directly. Rather, culturally evolved worldviews -- conscious or not -- necessarily stand between ourselves and nature. We see not only with eyes, but ideas.

Three core sets of ideas within the province of religion now exacerbate our species' predicament. Each is a form of idolatry -- something that dangerously detracts from our attention to and communion with reality, with God.

Idolatry of the otherworldly blinds us to the strictures of the natural, that is, to the absolute rules of nature revealed through the science of ecology.

Idolatry of belief tempts us to focus on what we think and profess rather than on what we value and do, and to mistakenly assume than any belief system can accurately map reality.

Finally, idolatry of the written word is what underlies both idolatry of belief and idolatry of the otherworldly. Our over-reliance on ancient texts (whose wisdom is frozen in time) precludes us from honoring the gleanings of science as aspects of revelation essential for these times.

Accordingly, we have failed to elevate ecology as integral to theology. Yet we must. Until we do, the global economy will be unbound by norms and values essential for these times. Absent an allegiance to fundamental ecological laws, economics will indeed trend toward the demonic. How else to characterize a system that rewards the few at the expense of the many and that induces millions of us to, unknowingly, condemn future generations to hell and high water? All this we bring about while doing nothing more despicable than living "the good life."

Our salvation as a species now depends on transforming our global economic system in ways actively pro-future (Christ-ian), rather than implicitly anti-future (anti-Christian). I offer three steps toward a pro-future religious revamping of worldviews:

1. God is reality with a personality, not a person outside reality. Any so-called God that is not at least a personification of that which brought life into existence, that which nourishes and sustains life, and that which receives life at its end - is not God. Reality is Lord and Nature is a primary revelation of reality. Everything, without exception, is accountable to, and subservient to, reality.

2. Facts are God's native tongue; evidence is modern-day scripture. Any understanding of "divine revelation" that does not include evidence cannot be counted as God's word. Evidence is our best map of reality. Scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence (God's evidential revelation) are essential for salvation, both to sustain our species and to grant individuals a chance to leave a positive, pro-future legacy.

3. Ecology is the new theology. Any understanding of theology that does not include ecology - the science of living in right relationship to Time/Nature/Reality - is a theology that our children and grandchildren will condemn.

Yes, religion is in dire need of an Evidential Reformation. The generations alive today stand at the brink. Here is the opportunity: after squandering our inheritance, humanity -- the prodigal species -- is coming home to Reality. Surely, this is good news.
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For those interested, I will be presenting on this subject June 5 at 2pm, at the "Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization" conference in Claremont, California (Session 1 of Section 4, Track 3). The title: "The Sacred Side of Science: Evidence as Modern-Day Scripture, Ecology as Theology."