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] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/6494213/Climate-change-belief-given-same-legal-status-as-religion.html. 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
[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