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Dark Green Religion

Introductory note: The following is an edited transcript of a video I posted in the early days of the pandemic. (You know, those days when we had no idea what would happen next so we started making YouTube videos in order to distract ourselves. Also, having watched it now two years later, it’s clear I have no future as a YouTuber.) The video discusses the book Dark Green Religion by Bron Taylor. (More information about the book on Taylor’s site). I’m posting it here because I’ve been thinking again about the idea of dark green religion as I read Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters by Mary-Jane Rubenstein. I will almost certainly be posting in the future about her discussion of pantheism. One final note: I’m not so sure about the third implication of “dark” below. If I recall correctly, I added that myself, i.e., it’s not discussed by Taylor. While I still believe ideas in that point, I may have been stretching the meaning of “dark” there.

First, let’s define dark green religion. Dark green religion holds that “nature is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is therefore due reverent care”. Let’s break apart that definition:

  1. Nature is sacred. Theistic religions that believe in a transcendent God, separate from the cosmos and its source, believe that holiness resides in God. Christianity goes on to say that the cosmos is fallen and needs reconciliation with God. Dark green religion, on the other hand, states quite the opposite: the cosmos is holy, the source of our lives.
  2. Nature has intrinsic value. The cosmos does not derive its value from anything else. It is not valuable because it has a relationship to anything else, or is useful to anything else. It is valuable in itself.
  3. Nature is therefore due reverent care. Because the cosmos is holy and is valuable in itself, we are obligated to care for it with reverence. We care for it, not because it is an obligation laid on us by something separate from the cosmos, but because it is the source of all life.

Dark green religion flows from a “deep sense of belonging to and connectedness in nature”. It believes that all species are intrinsically valuable regardless of their usefulness to humans. Dark green religion holds at its heart certain values:

  1. There is a kinship between all of life. The entirety of the cosmos has rolled out from the Big Bang. The heavy elements that make life possible were born in the heart of stars. Every creature alive on Earth evolved from ancient common ancestors. Today we exist in a web of being, much as we humans may forget it.
  2. Dark green religion brings with it feelings of humility before the cosmos and a corresponding critique of the belief in human superiority. The last 150 years of our ever-increasing understanding of human evolution has shown us that humans are not the pinnacle of life on Earth. We are not the destination; we are just a branch of life.
  3. Dark green religion holds to an ethics of interconnection and interdependence. It believes about the cosmos what Dr. King said about humanity: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Taylor differentiates dark green religion from green religion, the latter of which he uses as a name for environmentally-conscious traditional religions. So, “green religion” refers to your local parish celebrating Earth Day - which is coming up on April 22nd, by the way. Green religion is a denomination divesting of fossil fuel stock holdings.

All of this is good! But the question remains: can traditional religions - religions that differentiate between God and the cosmos, that believe the cosmos is fallen - carry us into a green future? It may be the case that Christianity, for example - however sincerely green - may be irretrievably focused on humans. It is built on the relationship between God and humanity and its central message is concerned with restoring that relationship. An ecological ethic can sometimes feel like an addition to your house that doesn’t quite flow with the architect’s design.

On the other hand, an ecological ethic and reverence for the cosmos is part of the fundamental design of dark green religion. That is its whole purpose. This is not to say that green religion, environmentally-conscious traditional religion is any way bad. It is only to question whether it is the best vehicle into the future we need.

What makes dark green religion “dark”? This, for me, is one of the most fascinating aspects of it. The word “dark” has so many resonances. Let’s lay out a few based on Taylor’s book as well as my own thoughts:

  1. Dark in the sense of depth. Think of the green leaves on a street-side tree versus the dark, shadowy greens in a forest. Dark green religion is deeply committed to the sacredness of the cosmos. It seeks meaning in the world as it lays in front of us instead of transcendence in some heavenly realm.
  2. Dark in the sense of the shadow side of dark green religion itself. Any group of deeply committed people has a shadow side they must face, namely, the dangers of violence, fanaticism, and moral superiority. While I believe the dangers of so-called eco-terrorism are greatly exaggerated, fanaticism always presents real dangers.
  3. As we just said, there is a shadow side within dark green religion itself. The last point I’ll make here is how dark green religion presents a danger to those committed to the old, destructive ways of living. Just as dark green religion is built upon different premises than many traditional religions - even those attempting to green themselves - dark green religion is built upon values that are in direct opposition to the short-term thinking that dominates politics and growth-driven, profit-motivated economics. Make no mistake about it: if dark green religion got what it wanted, the world would be a different place and the powers that be would be de-throned. Yes, it would be different, but it would also be a world in which all of life would flourish and live peacefully together.

One final point to discuss is Taylor’s division of dark green religion into four categories - or maybe it would be better to call them tendencies because there are no hard boundaries between them.

The first division is between Animism and Gaian Earth Religion. The second division, within the first one, is between a naturalistic or a supernaturalistic flavor.

The difference Animism and Gaian Earth Religion is where you locate the sacred. In Animism, the world is full of intelligences and life-forces. They’re everywhere and everywhere is sacred because of this wild multiplicity. Within animism, there can be either a naturalistic or a supernaturalistic flavor. The supernaturalistic variety sees a world full of spiritual intelligences that are more than natural. The naturalistic variety sees a world full of life-forces that are explainable in terms of the sciences but are no less worthy of reverence because of that.

In Gaian Earth Religion, it is the cosmos as a whole that is sacred, alive, and conscious. It is a living system that must be venerated. The supernaturalistic variety sees the cosmos as a god, or some aspect of god, or some term along those lines. The naturalistic variety still sees some consciousness and life in the cosmos as a living system, but is satisfied to describe this in more scientific terms.

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