That mankind is facing an environmental crisis of biblical proportions is beyond dispute. Things have become so dire that world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking now says humans have less than a century to find another planet to live on. But what are the root causes of environmental destruction? Billions of people live in poverty and spend each day just struggling to survive. Clearly, these poor souls cannot be expected to lead humanity towards a more sustainable future. The big question is why people who have all of their basic needs fulfilled, who are further up the scale in terms of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and have full access to the latest information technology, do so little to stop or even mitigate the massive train wreck that is unfolding before our eyes. As we struggle for answers, it is important to understand how religion has helped shape the human psyche, and how it now impedes, to a greater or lesser extent, the rationality we need to solve our existential conundrum.
When John Lennon released his single hit Imagine in 1971, he probably had little idea his simple ballad of peace and goodwill would be named among the greatest songs of all time, nor that it would cause a furor among the staunchly religious and be banned from faith-based schools on both sides of the Atlantic. The words “Imagine there's no heaven...above us only sky” are apparently among the most offensive and inflammatory any human can utter.
Lennon's assertion that religion serves as an obstacle to “the brotherhood of man” is hard to argue with, especially in these times of strife, oppression and terror. Although war and religion do not always go hand in hand, they are definitely not unfamiliar bedfellows.
That people of faith have special designators for those who do not share their beliefs certainly doesn't help promote peaceful coexistence. Words like “infidel”, “apostate”,“kafir”, “antichrist”, “unbeliever” and “goy” are just some of the charming labels that have been used through the ages to set people apart. And let's not forget the lake of fire that, according to some scriptures, awaits those of little faith. (Am I the only one who objects to threats of torture and eternal damnation?)
But religion does much more than drive a wedge between people. It can also contribute to environmental destruction. Illusions, as I hope to demonstrate, are not always as harmless as they at first appear.
It is no secret that most religion flies in the face of scientific knowledge. Creating a baby through immaculate conception, changing water to wine, parting the Red Sea and flying off to Jerusalem on a winged horse are just a few of the “miracles” described in the scriptures. These types of events are often referred to as being supernatural, and for good reason: they cannot exist in nature. The laws of physics do not permit it.
Even if one accepts that all of these “miracles” are but parables meant to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, there is a much more fundamental and unbridgeable chasm between religion and science, namely that religions–particularly those of the Abrahamic variety–maintain that man has special status in the universe. This concept is implicit in god's words to Adam and Eve: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl in the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
The claim that humans are somehow superior to all other life forms is beyond preposterous. We share countless biological functions with other organisms. Like a rat or raccoon, we breathe air, eat food, drink water, urinate, defecate, reproduce, communicate and respond emotionally to life's circumstances. Cut us open and you will see much the same: blood, a heart, a liver, muscle tissue, fat, bones, a nervous system and so forth. But the similarities do not stop there. Thanks to modern science, we now know that we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, for example. Even the common alley cat has 90% of our genes.
And then there is this little gem, again from the King James Bible: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him....” Richard Dawkins, an expert in evolution and one of the world's leading atheist writers, has repeatedly pointed out that, since evolution is an ongoing process with no end product, it would be impossible to create anything in one's own image, unless, of course, that image is also constantly changing in the struggle to survive.
Dawkins has also taken aim at the idea of immortality, pointing out that no member of the clergy has ever given a satisfactory answer to the question of just when man received his soul from god. Was it when we dragged our knuckles on the ground, first walked on two legs, or started wearing clothes? The question makes perfect sense, but any attempt at an answer takes one into the realm of the absurd.
The claim that humans have special status in nature is clearly contrary to all we now know about the natural world. To say that we have a destiny that is different from all that surrounds us is a bit like saying fish do not belong in water.
So why do billions of people still cling to superstitions from a time when witches were burned at the stake and many believed the full moon transformed afflicted people into fearsome werewolves? One explanation is that religion is most often passed down unquestioningly from parents to children, and that this childhood indoctrination remains almost impossible to undo. When confronted with scientific evidence that conflicts with their beliefs, many reject the science outright, while others develop a kind of cognitive dissonance that allows them to juggle both balls at once.
Little does it matter that there is no middle ground when it comes to science and homocentric religions. Either we emerged from the primordial soup–along with everything else–some four billion years ago or we didn't. Either we are made of the same building blocks as all other organisms or we are a totally different animal. Either we share the same destiny as all other creatures or we go our separate ways after death. Choose your reality–one is based on fact, the other on fantasy.
There is also the question of right and wrong. Without moral guidance from god, many argue, man is left to his own devices, and this can result in a society where anything goes.
It is indeed true that, in a world with no god, values are relative rather than absolute. As French Philosopher Albert Camus wrote: “If we believe in nothing...we are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice.”
One might think that godlessness would result in anarchy and widespread barbarism. But not so! Secular societies have actually led the way in terms of human rights by, for example, protecting minorities, recognising women as equals, legalising same-sex marriage, and enshrining free speech. Compare that to societies where female rape victims are stoned to death, homosexuals are thrown from tall buildings, and journalists are regularly jailed or executed.
When discussing the deity issue, it is important to realise there are actually two questions. Firstly, is there a god and, secondly, is that god personal? The first question has no current answer and will likely be the topic of hot debate for as long as mankind exists. The second question is not hard to answer. There is just too much pain and suffering in the natural world to think that prayers have any effect other than to give worshipers the false impression that someone is actually listening. Do children with the most severe form of muscular dystrophy die because they have not prayed hard enough, or because they inherited a defective gene from a parent?
Interestingly, Albert Einstein, who spent his life pondering existence and whose name has now become synonymous with “genius”, admitted to having cosmic religious feelings, but firmly rejected the notion that there is an omniscient supreme being who takes an interest in human affairs. Asked if he believed in immortality, he replied: "No, and one life is enough for me."
The idea that humans are separate from the world in which they live is the result of a childish ego-centrism which is often referred to as anthropomorphism. We project onto the universe a subjective reality that reflects our deepest fears and yearnings, an imaginary structure that simply does not exist. Our prideful ego cannot accept the idea of personal extinction and so creates a simplified universe that centres around our species and includes the idea of divine intervention during this life and eternal bliss afterwards.
Religion, with its focus on an immortal soul, attempts to make static and permanent that which is temporal, fleeting and in a constant state of flux. Consider the words of Danish physicist Niels Bohr: “If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet. Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.” According to Bohr, everything we see around us–the ground under our feet and all we perceive as being solid–is really just energy in motion. What could be more amazing than that?
Man's yearning for immortality shows he is deeply troubled by the first law of nature, namely that all that lives must die. It reveals a failure to understand that death is what makes life precious. If everyone lived forever, all beauty, all sense of wonderment, would evaporate in a flash, only to be replaced by crushing boredom and despair. Life would have no value or meaning. What magnificence would there be in Beethoven's “Spring Sonata” if there were no spring? How moving would Mozart's Requiem be if there were no death? Clearly, life and death are inseparable, like two sides of the same coin.
The great English essayist Walter Pater, who was born many years before the Danish physicist, understood what science would later reveal, He wrote about “the splendour of our experience” and “its awful brevity”. He knew intuitively that life has value precisely because it is so brief.
Pater was fascinated by “that continual vanishing away, that perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves” and observed how each moment of beauty is “gone while we try to apprehend it, of which it may ever be more truly said that it has ceased to be than it is”. He concluded: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
But all this does not entirely answer the question of why you, I or anyone else should care if half of the world's population believes in a guardian angel and a postmortem ascent into paradise. The answer, in one word, is the anthropocene, a new geological era named after the most destructive species ever to walk the face of the Earth.
We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, an ecological calamity driven by climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, population explosion, and over-consumption. The current rate of extinction is estimated to be at least 1000 times normal. It is also estimated that, if the present rate of consumption continues, mankind will soon need four planets to feed his insatiable appetite.
Not until we accept that we are fully integrated in nature with no special status will we begin to see the Earth for what it is: a source of life rather than a commodity or resource that can be converted to cash. And not until then will we develop the emotional bonds with nature that are necessary to make us good stewards of the Earth.
Not until we abandon the idea that this world is a way station en route to a much more glorious future, will we stop treating it as a throw-away planet where environmental degradation is of little personal consequence.
Not until we accept that we are alone in the universe with no-one to turn to but ourselves will we understand our true predicament and take responsibility for the environmental crisis.
Not until we accept reason and science over religion and superstition will we understand the workings of nature, the consequences of our actions, and the steps that need to be taken to ensure a future for ourselves and the living world in which we are embedded. Only then will we realise that the laws of nature are non-negotiable and that all that is unsustainable will inexorably crash.
Not until we realise that we have won the lottery a thousand times over just by being here will we appreciate the true splendour–and brevity–of our existence, and be able to hear the real music of the universe.
Mankind is at a crossroads. We are facing ecological collapse on a grand scale, an event driven largely by a political system that is destroying democracy and concentrating money and power in the hands of a very few. There are no easy solutions, but a starting point might be to recognise the failings of our own dysfunctional psychology and shake off illusions that are, at least partly, the result of centuries of religious indoctrination. In short, it's time to look at the world through a clear lens.