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Religion and the Environment

Lecture delivered to "The Earth our destiny" conference, Portsmouth Cathedral, 2002-11-30

Environment is the stuff of religion, and religion is the stuff of the environment. Their relationship once went without saying. Yet we live at a time when they are being prised apart. This is the slow-acting result of two main factors: our vastly increased knowledge of the natural world and the place of the human species within it; and our vastly increased knowledge of the human mind, and how and why we believe and act as we do.

But there are limits on all human understanding, and the way such understanding changes from generation to generation. For example in the twinkle of time which is the last hundred years, we have had our notions of time and space stretched to a hitherto unimaginable degree. For our ancestors time was measured in thousands of years; for us we count in billions to measure the time light has taken to reach us from the visible ends of the universe when it was still young. As for space, it was not until the 1920s that we realized that the galaxy, in which our own solar system is an extremely small and suburban member, was not the universe, and that billions of other galaxies stretched in all directions. The immensity of time and space is a constant reminder of our own insignificance. Yet for us all this is relatively new.

Not surprisingly there is a tension between the enormous possibilities of the human mind and the inbuilt and irremediable limitations on its range. John Donne (the seventeenth century poet and Dean of St Paul's) once wrote:

"... our creatures are our thoughts, creatures that are born giants; that reach from east to west, from earth to heaven; that do not only bestride all the sea and land, but span the sun and firmament all at once; my thoughts reach all, comprehend all. Inexplicable mystery; I their creator am in a close prison, in a sickbed, anywhere, and any one of my creatures, my thoughts, is with the sun, and beyond the sun, overtakes the sun, and over goes the sun in one pace, one step, everywhere."

With equal prescience J.B.S. Haldane (the scientist) wrote

"my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose".

When all is said and done, the most amazing thing about the universe and our tiny world within it, is life itself, what E.O. Wilson has called the biospheric membrane wrapped around its surface. That surface is wafer thin. Wilson once wrote of a hypothetical journey outwards from the centre of the earth.

"For the first twelve weeks you travel through furnace-hot rock and magma devoid of life. Three minutes to the surface, five hundred meters to go, you encounter the first organisms, bacteria feeding on nutrients that have filtered into the deep water-bearing strata. You breach the surface and for ten seconds glimpse a dazzling burst of life, tens of thousands of species of micro-organisms, plants and animals within a horizontal line of sight. Half a minute later almost all are gone. Two hours later only the faintest traces remain consisting largely of people in airliners who are filled in turn with bacteria."

If the traveller were to go still further, out of the earth's system, and could look at the surface of our neighboring planets, Mars and Venus, he would realize just how amazing the phenomenon of life really is. The skins of Mars and Venus, and so far as we can see, the skins of the other planets in the solar system, are stable and chemically inert. By contrast ours is turbulent with a highly reactive chemical mixture.

Yet the turbulence of the earth's atmosphere has a stability of its own. It did not happen all at once. Once life had started in the form of prokaryotic cells (cells without a nucleus), it began to evolve, and the atmosphere evolved with it. By preserving and making use of water, carbon, hydrogen and sunlight, cells both prokaryotic and later eukaryotic (or cells with a nucleus), transformed their physical surroundings and the rocks, muds and gases of which they were composed. Its detritus is under our feet in the sedimentary rocks, ranging from shales rich in organic matter to such carbonates as limestone and marble.

Photosynthesis and oxygenation are the two driving forces which have made the world we know. Atmospheric oxygen increased from less than one part in a million to one part in five, and a layer of the oxygen molecule O3 formed which helped protect the living cells, now evolving in all directions, including the combination which is ourselves, from the deleterious effects of ultra violet light.

The complexity of life, now and in the past, is beyond measurement. As it evolved over hundreds of millions of years, its proliferating parts remained interconnected, and in different degrees interdependent. Obviously living organisms found some physical circumstances more comfortable than others, and took advantage of them. Less obviously, living organisms through the familiar mechanisms of natural selection, genetic mutation, symbiosis, and chance were able within limits to establish the physical circumstances which best suited them. These lay in broad stability.

Such stability is transient. Environmental circumstances are changing all the time. Life has also had many shocks in its long history. Perhaps the most devastating was 250 million years ago when over 90% of marine species perished. Then there was the likely impact of the bolide which hit the earth 65 million years ago, and ended the long dominance of the dinosaur family. So far life has always recovered, and assumed new forms. The degree to which there is some constraint on such forms, particularly among multi-celled eukaryotic organisms is a matter of continuing scholarly debate. Evolution of new forms will not continue indefinitely. The life expectancy of life on earth is limited. Eventually our sun will become a red giant, and expand to near the orbit of the earth around it. Long before then life on earth will be extinct.

Where in all this are humans? Seen from space we are no more than mites on the skin of the Earth, and inside as well as outside us are countless billions of mites, all profoundly connected in mutual dependencies. Without them, or their ancestors now embedded within us, we could neither move, nor breathe, nor eat. The dry weight of a human body is 10% bacteria. Charles Darwin put the point very well when he wrote

"we cannot fathom the marvellous complexity of an organic being, but … each living creature must be looked at as a microcosm, a little universe, formed of a host of self propagating organisms, inconceivably minute, as numerous as the stars in heaven."

The particular assemblage of chemicals and micro-organisms which is ourselves is recent in the history of life. It is also pretty insignificant. Humans evolved from bipedal, tree-living apes living in Africa some two to three million years ago. This is not the place to attempt to trace our complicated genealogy since those times. There are continuing uncertainties about the variant hominid species which emerged in response to changing environmental conditions, in particular the cooling, and eventual ice ages of the last two million years.

Only two such species seem to have been around one hundred thousand years ago: the are Homo Neandertalensis, with a specific adaptation to ice age conditions, and the archaic ancestors of Homo Sapiens. By less than 30 thousand years ago, the Neandertalers were gone, probably destroyed or absorbed by our own ancestors, who henceforth were the only humans. Until around ten thousand years ago, they were hunters, gatherers and scavengers of no fixed address. Since the latest recession of the glaciers and warming of the earth, they have developed agriculture, cities, industrial exploitation of resources, and now information technology.

But look in on us, and what do we find? Physicists point out that our bodies, which look so solid to the eye and touch, are mostly empty space at the atomic level, and the atoms themselves are mostly space as well. Then look at our prized source of selfhood. Are we each of us one person or many? Our individual decision-making process has been described as a boardroom of quarrelsome directors, some apparently rational but others pushing deeper agendas. Is awareness of self a convenient illusion, changing as often as the cells which make up our bodies?

It can be argued that religion is one of the elements that holds us together, and indeed the society of which we are all part. Even among the most sceptical, religions and ethical beliefs have a profound hold. It is worth asking why. In my view there are five main reasons. All can be subjected to analysis, whether deriving from ecology, genetics or social studies, and all relate to the natural environment.

So religion has an integral role in human evolution. Beliefs have of course evolved as societies have evolved. Whether God made man in his own image seems to me a proposition of little or no meaning; but man certainly made God in his image. Over time God has served as many varieties of human writ large: creator, destroyer, liberator, terrorist, king, conqueror, law giver, judge, arbiter, clockmaker (whether blind or not), engineer, friend, father, son, victim and lover. It is in the literature of many cultures. But because gods or God constitute a social as well as individual experience, a huge apparatus has grown up to regulate and interpret human access to the divine.

Oracles, ritual, sacraments, holy texts are vital in this respect. Fundamentalists of all religions interpret almost everything, including science, in their light. Thus the creationists in Christianity who rely on literal reading of the Bible. Thus also some bizarre science in Islam. Recently a physicist in Islamabad calculated that Heaven was receding from the Earth at one centimeter per second less than the speed of light. This was based on a verse in the Koran which said that worship on the night on which the book was revealed was worth a thousand nights of ordinary worship. This amounted to a time dilation factor of 1,000, which the physicist put into a formula of Einstein's theory of special relativity.

Of the five main reasons for religious belief that I have suggested, some are of declining importance. But for many God remains the ultimate guarantor of ethics, those broad rules by which humans regulate relations with each other, and to a lesser extent with other forms of life as well. They continue, in some countries more than others, to survive as part of traditional culture. Even if some find belief implausible they prefer not to challenge it. They also provide some justification for our self appointed role as stewards of the earth.

They also continue to offer something of an explanation. Science has enormously enlarged human knowledge of the universe and of the human mind, but there are still frontiers beyond which it cannot penetrate. What was there before the Big Bang? What is the universe expanding into? Why are things as they are? Why did life begin? Have humans a role beyond that of animals? Is consciousness significant?

There has been new interest in the so-called Anthropic Principle which in a nutshell means that our ability to observe the universe has implications for what it is and the laws by which it works. From this flows the idea that the laws must be such as to permit observers to exist. We are not now far from Archdeacon's Paley's arguments for design. Some astronomers believe our universe to be "special", thereby opening the possibility of other universes with different physical constants and other paths of evolution. Others reject the notion, notably Heinz Pagels, who described the Anthropic Principle as "needless clutter in the conceptual repertoire of science". The debate continues.

But however many arguments we can adduce - moral, social, genetic, scientific or other - for religion, we still have to ask ourselves the awkward, inescapable, fundamental question. Is it true? Here I think there is only one answer. We simply do not know. That is not of course to say that it is untrue. As the well known scientist T. H. Huxley once wrote "... I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything."

This may be enough for some people. It was not enough for T. H. Huxley's grandson Julian, who embarked on a search for religion without revelation, or E. O. Wilson who has since developed the concepts of scientific materialism and the evolutionary epic as substitutes for religion. Others have made similar efforts in the same direction. But none has reached anywhere near the human core. Some people may not believe in God, but most people want to believe in something.

The present collectivity of life on earth cannot be distinguished from the present collectivity of its physical surroundings. The animate and the inanimate shade into each other. This is the environment. As I have suggested, it was - and in some cases still is - the stuff of religion. But it has also been the stuff of science. James Hutton, the geologist, recognized it as long ago as 1785. T. H. Huxley did likewise in 1877. Almost a century later James Lovelock developed ideas on the same subject which, on the advice of the novelist William Golding, he called Gaia. In a paper written with Lynn Margulis in 1974, he wrote

"Gaia theory is about the evolution of a tightly coupled system whose constituents are the biota and their natural environment, which comprises the atmosphere, the oceans and the surface rocks".

There are, I suppose, two main approaches to it. One is the familiar product of the age of specialists in which we live. Many inhabit little boxes, and rarely like to lift the lid. They are better at reducing problems to their constituent elements than in seeing the connections between them and how the resulting mechanism works. Research assessment has a marked aversion to interdisciplinarity. In this view Gaia seems almost impossibly difficult, and should be relegated to poets or philosophers.

The other approach is to give life a teleological character, and through it trace evidence of God's design in the creation of mankind and a nature subservient to it. They slip easily into a use of words which gives Gaia an implied capacity for conscious manipulation. For them Gaia is the study of a super organism like an ants' nest or the jellyfish known as the Portuguese man of war with some element of consciousness in charge. It is not easy to find a middle way. In one sense the living world is a combination of individuals who respond to and make their physical environment. In another they do constitute a kind of superorganism.

It can be seen most clearly with bacteria which, through their direct cell division and promiscuous exchange of DNA, can indeed be seen as one. The same cannot be said for eukaryotic cells, which are ephemeral combinations of individuals. But as we know from recent advances in genetic engineering, genes can and do transfer laterally, and in any case have a high degree of mutual dependence.

This is a long way from seeing the superorganism as conscious and purposeful. But if the animate and inanimate worlds do shade into each other, then feelings about religion are bound to enter in. It is hard to imagine any system of belief which is not grounded in nature and in different ways expresses reverence for life.

There is a wide spectrum. At one end are those for whom nature is self sufficient and self regulatory. Life is a constant flux and humans should put themselves in harmony with it. One of the favourite symbols of Taoism is water: humans should "be the stream of the universe." Buddhists likewise look for harmony. All life is one and indivisible. The overriding moral value is compassion for all beings. Neither Taoists nor Buddhists find it necessary to invoke God as a manipulator of his creation. Hindus have many gods but associate them with a nature vibrating with life. Such life allows animals, including humans, to move in and out of each other through reincarnation. Hinduism lacks the intellectual organization of other religions, as do most other animist systems of local gods and goddesses.

At the other end of the spectrum are the religions with a God, sometimes supported by a hierarchy of beings - ranging from angels to saints - who often serve as personifications of this or that place or activity. Such religions are usually characterized by sharp distinctions between God, humans, and other living creatures. To some extent Judaism, Christianity and Islam share this tradition. The notion that nature is made for human delectation, that humans are a creation separate from the rest, and that only humans have souls, also has roots in later Greek philosophy. Thus Aristotle wrote that as nature made nothing without purpose, it must have made animals for the sake of man. No wonder that after Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, a Victorian lady observed that she hoped that his ideas about evolution were not true, but that if they were, they would not become generally known.

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, and evident to some degree in almost all religious traditions, is the idea of divine immanence in nature. This immanence can show itself through natural objects, or as a kind of electric charge, which in the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins "will flame out like shining from shook foil."

I doubt if the long term effects of science, and in particular Darwinism, have yet worked themselves through the way we think, and in particular through systems of religious belief. Recently many religious leaders have sought to align themselves with green issues and to harness green enthusiasm, particularly among the young, to their causes. Here the idea of humans enjoying special God-given status as stewards of the earth has proved attractive. In my view it is a considerable presumption. As James Lovelock once said: "we should no more expect humans to be stewards of the earth than goats to be gardeners." This is not to say that humans would not do better to regard themselves as stewards rather than goats.

Lectures usually end with conclusions. After this prolonged excursion around ideas of religion and the environment, some of you may expect no less from me. If so I will disappoint. It is the nature of this debate that we cannot draw conclusions. But there are still certain things that can be said. Let me express them in a series of propositions.

I want to give the last word to the twelfth century abbess Hildegard of Bingen who wrote of God

"…I ignite the beauty of the plains,
I sparkle the waters,
I burn in the sun, and the moon and the stars…
I adorn all the earth,
I am the breeze that nurtures all things green…
I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with joy of life".

Let us likewise rejoice.


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