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Anonymous Believers in Bron Taylor’s ‘Dark Green Religion’ – Sarah Kleeb

Posted by: on Jul 3, 2010 | 3 Comments

While it may be suggested, under the manifold and ever-shifting definitions of religion within academia, that environmentalism is already a tradition bearing many of the attributes associated with differing forms of religious belief, it is worth differentiating between such an outside assessment and an internal identification on the part of an individual, group, or movement. In Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion, various forms of established thought with regard to environmental ethics are brought together in a way which suggests that they are key elements of a religious movement in and of itself. For Taylor, to be “Dark Green” is not simply to infuse pre-existing foundational tenets of belief with environmental significance, it is to be a member of a fresh (albeit deeply rooted) religious tradition and community. His project in this book is, at least in part, one of displaying the varying ways in which Dark Green Religion already exists, whether acknowledged or not, within a variety of environmentally sensitive, earth-centered, or bio-centric philosophies and traditions. Is this an entirely innocent task, however? When Taylor asserts that there are those that express convictions that “resemble religious characteristics without being self-consciously religious”[i], and yet who are included in his definition of practitioners of Dark Green Religion, is there any cause for concern? Moreover, what might be the impetus for ascribing a sort of anonymous affiliation to those who possess such convictions? Are all of those who profess deep concern for environmental causes, and who feel any kind of kinship with the multitudes of life on planet Earth – in whatever way, or for whatever reasons – automatically subject to his designation? If so, this internal identification takes on a sort of proselytizing element, even perhaps to the point of a colonization of thought, that might reproduce a detrimental model which proponents of environmentalism as religion seem dedicated to overcoming.

To set the stage for such a critique, one can turn to the section of Taylor’s book entitled “Rejecting (and Defending) Dark Green (Para)religion”. Here, Taylor critiques Richard Dawkins’ insistence against assigning religious terminology to what he deems non-religious experience or sentiment. He argues that Dawkins’ definition of religion is too narrow, that it focuses too exclusively on the idea of an “‘interventionist, miracle-wreaking…prayer-answering God'”.[ii] There is certainly little denying such a shortcoming in the thought of Dawkins’ and his ilk, and Taylor rightly points out the powerful weight of specifically religious language. However, he condemns Dawkins’ efforts to stress that those who utilize such language, but who are not otherwise necessarily affiliated with a religious tradition or worldview per se, “are not really religious (as he understands religion, of course)”.[iii] Renowned figures such as Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan are invoked by Dawkins as representatives of those who occasionally make recourse to the language of the transcendent, while rejecting the perceived traditional confines of specifically religious structures. Dawkins uses the words of these individuals to stress their feelings of kinship with the earth, which he divorces from a religious context (again, as he understands it) by means of illustrating their well-known distancing from typical religious forms. Taylor (perhaps rightfully) complicates this, noting through example the complex, and perhaps at times ambivalent, thought of each of these individuals with reference to questions of god, metaphysics, the futures of religious traditions, and the like. He includes them in his definition of Dark Green Religion, because his “definition of religion is more flexible for the simple strategic reason that it serves [his] interpretive purposes”.[iv]

Without delving into the understandably complicated thought of figures like Einstein and Sagan with respect to religious belief, we may still contemplate the ramifications of such a broad definition of religion, and the corresponding inclusion of those who are not “self-consciously religious” in this definition. This term “self-conscious” is of particular concern. There are, obviously, those for whom an identification of religiosity is lacking, they do not perceive themselves as “religious” individuals, despite adhering to some of the same criteria or experiencing some of the same phenomena Taylor establishes as part of his Dark Green Religion. They are not “self-consciously” religious. Taylor, however, inscribes upon them a form of religiosity – he is conscious of their religious nature, even if they themselves are not aware of it. He forms a definition of a kind of religion in which such individuals are included, even if they are oblivious to such an identification, or even perhaps unwilling to embrace it. An example of this might be someone like Tim Nicholson, the individual who famously won the November 2009 court case in England which resulted in the protection of environmentalist philosophy under the same heading as protection for religious beliefs. It is not a mighty leap to assume that a person who holds such an environmental ethic so strongly as to assert that his convictions are on par with religious beliefs would be included under Taylor’s umbrella of Dark Green Religion. Nicholson, however, has been quick to distance himself from such a potential affiliation: “Belief in man-made climate change is not a new religion, it is a philosophical belief that reflects my moral and ethical values and is underlined by the overwhelming scientific evidence.”[v]

It seems that such a wide definition of religion serves the purpose of creating a meaning system that can be labelled as such, and yet which rejects what are seen as the sometimes violent and arrogant tendencies of, particularly, the Abrahamic traditions. Taylor mentions multiple times in his book that many eco-spiritualists, naturalists, and the like, are wary of such traditions, due to their often anthropocentric worldviews and their role in the overwhelming disregard for non-human life on earth over the centuries.[vi] However, in trying to escape the perceived violence of these prevailing systems, has Taylor unwittingly unleashed a different sort of destructiveness – perhaps even a psychological form of violence – upon those whom he includes in his definition? Under the standards of Dark Green Religion, the multitudes of life on earth may be spared the ravaging caused by philosophies which disregard or minimize the value of a planet positively swelling with various forms of being. But is an injustice done to the idea of the lived-life of humans, the ability to at least in part define one’s own self, via a sort of imposition of identity that comes with assigning religiosity where it is internally unnoticed, or perhaps, unwelcome? Is Taylor simply exchanging one form of forcefulness for another?

An illustration of this in Taylor’s book might be his discussion of James Lovelock, the initial modern advocate for Gaian naturalism. I am not proposing to be an expert on the work of Lovelock, but rather am using Taylor’s own elucidation of his thought as a case in point. Taylor notes time and again Lovelock’s personal agnosticism, and general distrust of established religions.[vii] As such, Taylor utilizes the figure and thought of Lovelock as one that represents the difficulties of moving past the use of religious language – generally in the form of metaphor – when discussing matters considered worthy of reverence.[viii] While Lovelock may have grown “to appreciate the impulse to consider the Gaian system in religious terms,”[ix] he nonetheless refers to such translations as an instance of utilizing “the crude tool of metaphor”.[x] Religious language serving as a symbol to cultivate a particular form of understanding may indeed be a useful, if at times simplistic, tool. However, does such an admission warrant his inclusion under a specifically religious heading? Taylor says that “it seems clear that what Lovelock would most like to see is not an ecologized theism but a Gaian religion of nature,”[xi] however, that does not seem “clear” at all. For a self-professed agnostic, wary of religious traditions, warning against anthropocentrism in established religions and against the concrete application of the concept of Gaia as specifically theistic construction, what “seems clear” is that he is attempting to make space for potential metaphorical interpretations of his theories for those who already possess deep-seated religious convictions. It may be accurate to state, with Taylor, that “one need not believe in nonmaterial divine beings to have religion,”[xii] and his inclusion of such a wide variety of thinkers and philosophies in his definition of Dark Green Religion may surely be indicative of this. However, it is worth asking, does this also fit into Lovelock’s definition of religion, or the definition of religion held by any or all of the other groups or individuals included in Taylor’s study? Is Taylor placing upon someone like Lovelock a designation which Lovelock would place upon himself? His constant and consistent distancing from concretized religious statements, at least in Taylor’s depiction, suggests a negative response to this question.

To utilize the language of religion is to wield a powerful tool, loaded with potential for meaning.[xiii] As the case of Tim Nicholson proves, imbuing philosophical or ethical convictions with at least a quasi-religious sentiment provides a remarkable source for validation of said convictions in the public and legal spheres. The semantic potentials of religious speech offer a source of power and agency in terms of asserting authenticity or identity as groups or individuals deeply bound to particular standards and experiences. Yet, as with all forms of power, one must always make room for words of caution. In establishing this kind of thought as a viable alternative or supplement to the already-existing global religious traditions, Taylor advocates the idea of environmentalism as religion in an attempt to move away from the violence of anthropocentrism as a form of disregard for the variety of life on our planet. In so doing, however, it is perhaps advisable that too wide a net is not cast in creating this new tradition. While defining others as religious participants may not be the same form of violence as the ravaging of the earth and its inhabitants, it may be a harmful act nonetheless. Attempting to remove an individual from the process of defining the identity of that same individual her- or himself may be perceived as a destructive act, particularly when this negation is directly in the interest of the person or group making such a claim (such as Taylor), or in the interest of establishing parameters (and those within or outside the parameters) of social, religious, or political movements. It is essentially to state that that person’s vision and projection of their Self is irrelevant, or worse, incorrect. If the potent language of religion is indeed a means of asserting power, and if we can include in this vocabulary the idea of assigning a designation of religiosity, then those such as Taylor may be well advised to avoid laying a foundation for applying such language to those for whom it is foreign. Much like his critique of Dawkins, there is danger in labelling such individuals as “really religious” – as Taylor understands religion, of course.

[i] p. 77

[ii] p. 159

[iii] p. 160

[iv] P. 177

[v] November 3, 2009. Emphasis added.

[vi] pp. 5, 8, 32, 36, 75, 163, 170, 210 – Of course, he makes note of those within said traditions who try to reclaim environmentalist or bio-centric ethics and include them within their already existing worldviews – though even these, he says, often only do so by “apologetic” or “confessional” means. p. 11-12

[vii] pp. 36-8

[viii] p. 40

[ix] p. 36

[x] p. 38

[xi] Ibid

[xii] P. 40

[xiii] As Jürgen Habermas rightfully asserts, “Philosophy…will be able neither to replace nor to repress religion as long as religious language is the bearer of a semantic content that is inspiring and even indispensable, for this content eludes (for the time being?) the explanatory force of philosophical language and continues to resist translation into reasoning discourses.” “Themes in Post-Metaphysical Thinking”, p. 51


  1. Paul York
    June 14, 2012

    I have to agree with Bron Taylor’s argument that environmentalism could be considered a kind of religion — even if those who practice it say that it is not. If they actually say that, it is probably because they have a different definition of religion, one that is more conventional, referring to exoteric historical forms.

    The broader definition — one that could include secular movements — is more accurate because religion is a universal phenomenon, even if it takes different historical forms. That is why I would disagree with someone like Talal Asad, who argues that universal definition of religion are not supportable.

    Against that view are universal definitions of religion, not from only Clifford Geertz (whom Asad critiques on this point), but also Freud, Kant, and a host of others. Yes, the attempt to define religion in universal terms, often thought to exist a priori, is out of fashion, but that does mean it is wrong.

    The criticism of it, that it might ignore historical particularity, can be addressed by pointing out that a universal definition of religion need not claim exclusivity. If it does, that is incorrect, but if it allows for the endless expansion of the parameters of the definition, then a universal definition need not be wrong, and can in fact be quite enlightening.

    Yes, universal definitions are borne in historical contexts, but at the same time, we are all one species and thus can be expected to share some fundamental traits that exist a priori.

    Notably, Tillich’s humanistic definition of faith as “ultimate concern” is relevant here, because any kind of focus that consumes the “entire” person can be termed a faith, according to Tillich.

    Thus capitalism, communism, fascism, and of course environmentalism. Thus you have someone like David Loy writing about “the religion of the market.”

    Catherine Bell’s ritual theory also support this perspective in a way, because she argues that rituals are open-ended in their meaning, and we can see a great diversity of rituals performed by human beings on a daily basis; in other words, religion can be defined as a kind of practice, a thing that people do and engage in, rather than just a specific set of beliefs.

    I myself am part of a secular religion, one that is my “ultimate concern”: animal rights, human rights, and climate change activism, utilizing transformative non-violence philosophy.

    The others who do it with me, even if they are self-identified as atheists, are (in my view) practising a kind of faith.

    Kant referred to the “moral law within” that could be conveyed through historical forms of faith. Kant referred to Christianity specifically, but also said that any religion could act as a vehicle for the moral law, potentially. They could also violate it if wrongly interpreted and if corrupted by inclinations inconsistent with “good life conduct” and the creation of an ethical society.

    So it is not just practice and concern that goes to make up religion, but also morality. Environmentalism certainly qualifies, insofar as it is motivated by moral concerns.

    Of course it can also become a “counterfeit faith” (to use Kant’s terminology); the case of Richard Bransen and greenwash comes to mind, or the “environmental fascism” of those that advocate solutions that might kill people (e.g. nuclear energy, geo-engineering).

  2. skleeb
    July 3, 2010

    To Bron Taylor:

    It is late, I am tired, but feel compelled to reply nonetheless. So here’s hoping this response conveys my intentions clearly and accurately. I may have to revisit this tomorrow.


    I sincerely appreciate your response to my post. First, allow me to state the I did not write this anonymously – my handle is attached at the end of the article. I will be sure to reassert my authorship in the title of the article shortly.

    I have not claimed that you have willfully or intentionally committed an act of “psychological violence”, and, in fact, I tried to make it quite clear that this was perhaps something lurking beneath the surface – and therefore beneath the intention as well. However, lack of will or intention do not necessarily negate the argument. Creating problematics around the definitions we are claiming or laying upon others is a key element of Critical Theory, the school of thought to which I enthusiastically subscribe. The issue of “anonymous believers” pops up throughout much theological literature, and I fear it does a disservice to those upon whom such a label is applied.

    To be honest, I do appreciate your work, and would probably be among those you define as practitioners of Dark Green Religion (and as such, I am shocked to see that apparently I am not a “fair minded” reader). That being said, I maintain a firm conviction that we must be critical of those ideas with which we disagree, and even more so of those ideas with which we find kinship. This paper was written as part of a roundtable, gathered under the theme: “Environmentalism as Religion: A Fruitful Concept?”. While I appreciate the positive response to such a speculative title, I also feel it is crucial to ensure that the forms of religiosity being examined avoid the perceived pitfalls of the traditions they critique, lest they fall subject to contradiction. As such, this piece is intended to provide opportunities for reflection within such a construct. The definitions of religion are variable and flexible, indeed, and the ‘family relations’ discussion is not without merit. But the idea of defining an identity *for* another individual – and to do so in a way which ascribes upon them a form of religiosity which they may not accept – is something that I feel deserves greater attention. Is it necessarily the same thing to say that an idea “resembles” religion, and to say that such an idea is a part of a larger religious conglomerate, be it ‘Dark Green’, or any other of the multifarious religious forms? Obviously, my answer is “no”.

    While the intention of your work may not include establishing a new or particular definition of religion, there is still immense power behind religious language, and all such forms of power must be wielded with caution. We can certainly “mess” with such definitional boundaries, but even in the title of the work in question, a particular concept is being made clear. These boundaries are not arbitrary, in my opinion, and ascribing religiosity where it is unwelcome is not a neutral act. Should we proceed as though the label of “religion” is just one among many, and turn away from the historical weight of such a classification? Forgive me for being blunt, but we are not naming new species of fish here, we are working with categories that invoke epistemologies and truth claims, eschatologies and myths, moral and ethical determinates and potentially a lack thereof. One may claim to have no interest in such designations, but that does not necessarily leave them absent from their work. By constructing a label, and defining those to whom it may apply, boundaries *are* being created – whether or not this is intentional.

    You make mention, even here, of “the diverse examples of what [you] labeled dark green religion” in your book. My concern is that this diversity is potentially issued in a way that encompasses more than can be defended.

  3. Bron Taylor
    July 3, 2010

    As its author I appreciate the attention Dark Green Religion is receiving. I was, however, astounded to learn that this Anonymous commentator thought I might be guilty of “psychological violence,” imposing an unwelcome religious identity on some of those I discuss. To voice such a concern, Anonymous had to ignore the framework of the study and the many places where I explained that I was not advancing a new essentialist definition of religion, but rather suggesting that, by messing with conventional definitional boundaries of religion, it is possible to illuminate the affective, ethical, and religious dimensions of a wide range of social phenomena unfolding in the global environmental milieu.

    My effort to prevent such misapprehensions began in the book’s initial chapter, where following Benson Saler (in Conceptualizing Religion), and others advancing a “family resemblance” approach to the study of religion, I explained that I was not advancing a new theory or definition of religion. Rather, I was seeking to illuminate environment-related social phenomena and trends by examining their religion-resembling dimensions. I reiterated the point in the first sentence of the “Afterward on Terminology,” which appeared on p. 223:

    “I began this study by suggesting there can be explanatory power by deploying a flexible definition of religion as an analytic strategy. I also indicated that it does not matter to me whether anyone concludes that religion is a good term for the types of experiences, perceptions, values, and practices that I have described and called dark green religion.”

    This point was hard to miss elsewhere, as well, even on page 177, where Anonymous noted that I had defined religion with an interpretive purpose in mind! Not only was I proven “not guilty” of imposing an unwelcome religious identity on others by the quoted sentence. Elsewhere in the very same paragraph I wrote “I hope my profession in Chapter I—that I am disinterested in patrolling the boundary between what some people will count as religion and others will not, will be sufficient for most readers.” This is hardly the view of an authoritarian definition imposer!

    Fair-minded and careful readers will see that I made no autonomy-violating or identity-threatening assertions about whether those I discuss consider themselves religious. Nor did I imply that some of those I discuss simply fail to realize that they are religious. The fact is that I do not think it is possible to authoritatively determine where the boundaries of religion lie. I do think it can be illuminating, and even good sport, to playfully mess with the definitional boundaries of religion.

    This is in part why many are finding Dark Green Religion to be eye opening. There is a lot of fascinating, religion-resembling stuff out there where people are deeply concerned about our environmental predicaments. I agree with Saler in the above-mentioned book, that the scholarly objective is to say interesting things about human beings, not to obsess over where the boundaries of religion lie.

    Moreover, with Jonathan Z. Smith and many other religion scholars, I think the scholarly study of religion inevitably involves an etic (outsider’s/interpretive) perspective, and that even if we recognize that definitions can serve nefarious purposes, there is nothing necessarily sinister about selecting a definitional lens to examine phenomena that in the final analysis, some will and others won’t label religious.

    Anyone interested in the framing of my study, or more importantly, the diverse examples of what I labeled dark green religion in it (foremost for interpretive purposes), can read the introductory materials, preface and first chapter, via the books link available at my website, which is at