The human species is inherently and resolutely religious. The Bible and the Christian tradition affirm this truth, even as we know that the religious impulse can so easily transform itself into idolatry.
Even the most cursory look at the world’s cultures will indicate the religious fervor that characterizes humanity. The only observers who seem shocked by this universal phenomenon are the secularists and the prophets of secularization theory who were absolutely certain that religious faith and religious fervor would disappear in the modern world.
Needless to say, it hasn’t turned out that way. The theory of secularization is a shadow of its former self. Leading proponents like Peter Berger of Boston University now acknowledge that the secularization thesis was not an accurate predictor of the fate of religious belief in the modern world. The modern world is not secularized. Indeed, many of the most heated conflicts around the world today involve conflicting faiths. As Berger has commented, it turns out that a few European nations and the American intellectual elites are the exceptions, rather than the rule.
And yet, the intellectual elites are not so secular as they believe themselves to be. As it happens, their religion may not be theistic, but it is a religion all the same.
That fact is confirmed in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, argues that the new religion of many secular folk is ecology. As Asma explains, many secular types suffer from “green guilt.”
In “Green Guilt,” he writes:
Now the secular world still has to make sense out of its own invisible, psychological drama—in particular, its feelings of guilt and indignation. Environmentalism, as a substitute for religion, has come to the rescue. Nietzsche’s argument about an ideal God and guilt can be replicated in a new form: We need a belief in a pristine environment because we need to be cruel to ourselves as inferior beings, and we need that because we have these aggressive instincts that cannot be let out.
Asma rightly notes that Friedrich Nietzsche, the nihilist who famously declared that God is dead, understood that religion was not dead at all. He “was the first to notice that religious emotions, like guilt and indignation, are still with us, even if we’re not religious.”
These “religious emotions,” including guilt, explain why so many people seek relief by therapy or treatment of some sort. Therapy replaces theology; the analyst replaces the minister; psychotropic drugs become the sacraments; and confessing one’s misdeeds on Oprah substitutes for the confession of sin. Some of the most obviously religious individuals on earth are those who genuinely insist that they are free from any religious beliefs at all.
Asma is not the first to note the deeply religious character of radical environmentalism, but his analysis of the structure of this religious system is truly insightful.
Instead of religious sins plaguing our conscience, we now have the transgressions of leaving the water running, leaving the lights on, failing to recycle, and using plastic grocery bags instead of paper. In addition, the righteous pleasures of being more orthodox than your neighbor (in this case being more green) can still be had—the new heresies include failure to compost, or refusal to go organic. Vitriol that used to be reserved for Satan can now be discharged against evil corporate chief executives and drivers of gas-guzzling vehicles. Apocalyptic fear-mongering previously took the shape of repent or burn in hell, but now it is recycle or burn in the ozone hole. In fact, it is interesting the way environmentalism takes on the apocalyptic aspects of the traditional religious narrative. The idea that the end is nigh is quite central to traditional Christianity—it is a jolting wake-up call to get on the righteous path. And we find many environmentalists in a similarly earnest panic about climate change and global warming.
Interestingly, Asma begins his article with an anecdote about his six-year-old son, who scolded his father for letting the water run too long. The boy is clearly “stressed and anxious” about the “sins of environmentalism.” The boy had obviously been indoctrinated into the religious system of environmentalism — something common to many of today’s children and adolescents.
Stephen Asma’s essay is important for multiple reasons. It is an excellent analysis of the religious character of environmentalism, complete with a set of comprehensive doctrines and religious practices. It is also an excellent consideration of the religious nature of human beings. Asma understands the pretensions of the secular mind, and he also sees the religious impulse working its way to the surface in the modern obsessions with health, fitness, and an ever-expanding set of “secular” sins.
At the same time, he writes from an apparently secular perspective — at least warning that we do not need yet another “humorless religion.” He is also identified as the author of Why I am a Buddhist. He seems above all to desire a bit less religious fervor from the environmentalists. He writes, “Let us save the planet, by all means. But let’s also admit to ourselves that we have a natural propensity toward guilt and indignation, and let that fact temper our fervor to more reasonable levels.”
We are left without a clue about what Asma would see as “more reasonable levels,” but his essay offers a rare glimpse into the religious character of the rather new faith of environmentalism, complete with its “potential for dogmatic zeal and obsession.” His essay puts an intelligent spotlight on the new religion of green.
Stephen T. Asma, “Green Guilt,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 10, 2010.
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