Rubin – Worshipping Green Idols
"Worshipping Green Idols"
Charles T. Rubin
Prepared for the Philadelphia Society National Meeting, Oak Brook, Illinois, April 25, 1998.
All rights reserved by the author.
If we ask "Is contemporary environmentalism a religion?" we must start with three undeniable
observations. The first is that many people act passionately out of concern for what we have come
to call "environmental issues," and a great many more feel, or claim to feel, passionately about
The second observation is that mainline, progressive churches and synagogues, along with some
elements of the American evangelical movement, have not infrequently adopted the cause and
language of environmentalism into their social action agendas and/or modes of worship. At the
same time, some environmentalists sometimes speak a religious or quasi-religious language.
The third observation is that there are some–still relatively few–people who deliberately and
explicitly engage in a sort of nature worship, some others who in their beliefs and actions come
quite close to such worship. Additionally, there are intellectuals, few in number but not without
influence, who are engaged in proselytizing on behalf of such worship: say a Father Thomas Berry,
who in the name of environmental concern seems to look back fondly to the pagan despotisms of
the ancient world1, or Dolores LaChapelle, who thinks that some of our modern social problems
stem from the suppression of ancient orgiastic rituals.2
These three observations certainly illustrate the remarkable affective power of the contemporary
environmental movement. But before we conclude from them that this movement as a whole is best
understood as a religion, we should deal with two important questions. The first is, does the
temptation to call environmentalism a religion reflect more on the character of contemporary
environmentalism, or on the character of contemporary religion? The second is yet more basic: if
environmentalism is a religion, what difference does that make for our judgement of whether it is a
good thing or a bad thing? Let me take up each in turn.
The temptation to call environmentalism a religion may stem in part from something that Aaron
Wildavsky and Mary Douglas described beautifully in their book Risk and Culture: the essentially
sectarian nature of the movement.3 They illustrate well how in its organization, behavior, and
worldview it is like many religious sects: oppositional, egalitarian, apocalyptic. But for Wildavsky
and Douglas, the sectarian was a kind of organization first and foremost–it could be religious in
character, or not. To know if environmentalism is a religious sect we would need to look beyond its
organization and the beliefs characteristic of that sectarian form to something else. What else? What
does the word "religion" add to the picture?
If we call environmentalism a religious sect it seems to me to be more telling about what we mean
by "religion" in the modern world than about what environmentalism is. The weakening grip of our
understanding on the serious nature of faith and the obligations pertaining thereunto is nicely told by
the Oxford English Dictionary entry for "religion." It begins with "a state of life bound by monastic
vows" and proceeds through an increasingly generic series of meanings to "devotion to some
principle." Doubtless a future edition will include the entry, "whatever I feel like doing." If all religion
is, is devotion to some principle, then of course environmentalism is a religion–but I doubt that
either the friends or the enemies of religion would be satisfied with such a degraded use of the term.
To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, if our environmentalism is a substitute for religion, then so is our religion.4
We need to be cautious about associating any and all deeply or passionately held beliefs with
religion or with some sort of religious impulse if we want to use the term seriously. Surely it is
possible for there to be serious, faith-based reflection on man’s relationship with the created
world–something different from "the environment." Furthermore, that, in an increasingly secular
world, environmentalism may somehow appear as a substitute for faith in God strikes me as a
plausible argument. Yet when we seek to understand the environmental movement and its
relationship to such faith we should be wary of accepting substitutes. When people stop believing in
God, C.S. Lewis said (At least, I think so–someone in this audience will know for sure), it’s not
that they believe in nothing, it’s that they will believe anything. This "anything" does not have to be at
all like a religion in any serious sense to fill a space vacant of faith–particularly if people persistently
misunderstand or are made to misunderstand what is missing in their lives. For example, Screwtape
wishes Wormwood to encourage his victim’s belief in "creative evolution, scientific humanism or
communism." Today Screwtape might just as well recommend environmentalism. It shares with the
other "isms" the future-orientation which is, as he teaches, at once so appealing and so destructive
of virtue. Screwtape admits that the enemy above also wants us to think about the future, but
argues correctly that it is no small difference to assert that our father below would have us "haunted
by imminent visions of a heaven or hell on earth"– the stock in trade of contemporary
environmentalism.5 If these "isms" are to be treated as religions, they are strange religions that act to
destroy faith. I grant it can have rhetorical appeal to be able to speak about "the god that failed" or
"the religion of secular humanism," just as I think that there are audiences before whom it is useful
for environmentalists to speak in religious tones. Still, these tropes do not conform to the highest
standard of rhetoric: speaking the truth effectively.
If we have come to a point where we can say "he recycles religiously" with the same seriousness
that we might have once said "he prays religiously," it is a tribute to the secularism that is inherent in
what many mean by "religion" today, more than to seriousness about recycling. The category has
come to put all faiths, revelations and principles on an equal footing regardless of their content–a
fine rubric for a secular society, but one which those who live by faith might be wary of. Such
creeping secularism makes it hard to be sure about what we are seeing when we find
environmentalism infiltrating worship. When progressive congregations adopt programs and prayers
calling attention to our environmental sins, they might be making genuine efforts to rethink the status
of God’s creation as it can be understood in sacred terms. Or they might be falling prey to the
temptations of paganism. But it seems to me more likely that they are exhibiting here, as they
already have in so many other forms, their readiness to adopt the intellectual fashions of the secular
world, whether that secularism is called environmentalism, existentialism, communism, feminism, or
We are justified in calling environmentalism a religion, then, only if we are satisfied that "mere faith,"
(if one might generalize beyond Lewis in this way), is the same as "mere religion." I think it is not,
and hence regard this way of conceptualizing environmentalism as problematic. In its origins and still
today in its essence environmentalism is a secular, utopian, political ideology. 6 In fact, most of its
key founders were intensely secular in outlook, an accompaniment of the scientific pretense that
was so central to their arguments. In its formative period, the 1960s, environmentalism was more
hostile to established religions than not. The fact that Lynn White’s famous, and famously bad,
essay blaming mainstream Judeo-Christianity for the environmental crisis was published in Science
magazine–the nation’s most prestigious general science journal–was as much symptomatic of this
hostility as causative.7
Now, it is always possible that in some manner unknown to them, these environmental popularizers
were building on assumptions, or using language, that can in some way be linked to a faith tradition.
Such a claim would be easier to make if there were a bright line to be traced between the
conservation movement of the earlier part of this century, and contemporary environmentalism,
since conservationism shows more signs of having been influenced by various strands of Protestant
belief. But I think there is no such bright line, that history shows more discontinuity than continuity,
as the very terms we use witness. We are not all conservationists today, but environmentalists.
On the other hand, suppose I am wrong on that point, and that the linkages can be made. What
does it tell us if we can find remnants of older American faith concepts or modes of thought within
contemporary environmentalism? Not much, it seems to me, because the secular intentions of
today’s authors count for a good deal. It may be that the phase "environmental apocalypse" would
not have some of the meaning and resonance it has without the Apocalypse of St. John. But at the
very least, the use of such a term commits the contemporary author who uses it to nothing in
Christian doctrine. Wildavsky and Douglas show nicely how apocalyptic tendencies are part of
sectarian culture generally, a glue to hold together a mode of organization that is always on the
verge of schism. As a matter of our anthropological or sociological study of environmentalism,
playing the religion card is not even strictly speaking necessary, except in cases where the faith
content is overtly developed. Furthermore, from this point of view to speak of finding "secularized
religious concepts" in environmentalism may or may not say something interesting to a historian of
ideas, but in connection with any serious conception of faith it would be immediately seen as
Let me turn now to my second question: if we accept that environmentalism is a religion, does that
tell us anything about whether it is a bad or good thing?
The answers sometimes provided to this question might give the friends of faith some pause. If
environmentalism is a religion, then we should fear it as we would fear the domination of any
religious orthodoxy. If environmentalism is a religion, it should not be taught in schools. If
environmentalism is a religion we should, in my friend Marlo Lewis’ memorable phrase,
"disestablish the green cathedrals" and privatize the National Parks.
It may be a problem for such arguments that they appear to rely on a Jeffersonian "wall of
separation" understanding of the first amendment that in other contexts conservatives would be
(rightly) loath to rely on. Nor do I imagine that many libertarians would look forward to a world in
which a property developer might face free-exercise legal challenges should he wish to infringe
upon what is suddenly a sacred grove. But I think this kind of negative judgement of
environmentalism as a religion faces yet deeper problems. The fear of environmentalism as a
religion is here implicitly a reduction of faith to dogma, by way again of our easygoing rubric of
religion. We fear the victory of a dogma that will be enforced by law and policy. However, at the
same time, the thoughtless toleration that has come to be implicit in "religion" assures us that in
matters of dogma there are no meaningful disputes. We don’t want the state supporting teaching
Talmud to children, and we equally don’t want the state supporting Druidical child sacrifice. As
between the two, what can one say?
In other words, if we want to critique environmentalism as a religion, we are left with an awkward
choice. Either it is bad because it is a religion, on a par with all others in its potential danger if it
gains public power, or it is a bad religion, i.e., in its still relatively rare overtly religious forms,
polytheistic and idolatrous in fact or in tendency, while in its more attenuated mainstream forms
skirting a heretical pantheism. Such concerns will have the appearance of mere bigotry if the real
issue is framed only as what the state should or should not be supporting. While if we start from
what the state should or should not support, the "religion of environmentalism" quickly gains the
status of its at least more venerable brethren.
As I would want neither a public crusade against environmentalists for being pagans nor the
perception of moral equivalence between every tree-hugger and every rabbinic student, I find this
result a Hobson’s choice. If we come to accept the proposition that environmentalism is a religion, it
will as a result of this choice only make the movement the more difficult to criticize. The most likely
result would be that environmentalism increases in respectability. We easy going Americans rarely
publicly criticize a religion not our own, even as many would tend to be encouraged in their Ben
Franklinesque willingness to cooperate with and contribute to what must, as a religion, obviously
therefore be a good cause–even if it is not exactly their church. Neither would environmental
policies suddenly disappear from the public agenda if the public thought environmentalism was a
religion, any more than the fact that some people think our laws against murder are grounded in the
Ten Commandments makes those laws disappear.
Thinking of environmentalism as a religion, then, obscures the ground on which we are to judge it a
good thing or a bad thing. That comes as no surprise if we see it less as a religion than as a political
movement. Like any political movement, it is based on a normative vision of how the world should
be, and a diagnosis of what is wrong with the present world based on that vision. Finally it presents
a program for achieving the vision. To judge it requires confronting its norms and the means put
forward to achieve them. To say all of this is a religion is either to accept the notion that any
strongly held normative claim is religious, or to suggest that environmentalists should be as free from
external scrutiny of their faith claims as any other religious group–i.e. to denigrate religion or to
The result again is that environmentalism becomes harder to criticize starting either from faith or
from reason. But these are just the sort of critiques that are most necessary. Environmentalism has
to be displayed with all the inadequacies of its scientific foundations, without implying that flawed
science is the essence of religion. Its utopian and indeed often totalitarian political assumptions need
to be investigated, without the dogmatic assumption that it must share such characteristics with faith.
And when environmentalism does make faith claims, they need to be critiqued for their theological
or Biblical inadequacies, without the assumption that "anything goes" under the banner of religion.
This necessary road is a hard road, and the virtue of giving up and calling environmentalism a
religion may be evident to those who think that the battle against environmentalism is lost in
principle, and its ill effects can only be confined, its less problematic aspects channeled in healthier
directions. Whether such tactics will work against a still young and vigorous sect may be open to
doubt. But to treat the matter tactically is to forget something so basic and so obvious that I almost
hesitate to say it. If religion retains any meaning, it is a meaning that centers on God. The
environment is not God, and God is not the environment. Environmentalism does not start from faith
in God, but from faith in our own powers. It may pretend to be a religion, or we may pretend it is a
religion. But as the old joke goes, you can call the cat’s tail a leg, but a cat still doesn’t have five
1. Thomas Berry, The Dream of Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988).
2. Dolores LaChapelle, Earth Wisdom (Silverton: Finn Hill Arts, 1978).
3. Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of
Technological and Environmental Dangers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
4. The original statement is "Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion." T.S.
Eliot, "A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry," in Selected Essays: New Edition (New York: Harcourt,
Brace & World, 1964): 32.
5. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: Bantam Books, 1982): 44.
6. For a full discussion of the political program that drives contemporary environmentalism see
Charles T. Rubin, The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism (Lanham,
MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998). For an intelligent and more sympathetic view of
environmentalism’s political roots, see Bob Pepperman Taylor, Our Limits Transgressed:
environmental Political Thought in America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992).
7. Those strands of environmental thinking mentioned at the outset that are overtly and
self-consciously modes of paganism or nature worship even stand to some degree in tension with
the radical environmentalism with which they are most frequently allied. It is among "deep
ecologists" that such religious forms are most likely to be found. Yet in principal, the
"ecoegalitarianism" of deep ecology, its postulation of the equal value of all forms of life, stands in
tension with any hierarchical kind of spirituality. That eliminates a fair number of older forms of
worship. That, in turn, may help explain why so often these modern believers in the old ways end
up inventing their rituals and doctrines, choosing with abandon among older forms and adding new
at will. It might be said that they are less inviting old gods back than inventing new ones. Such an
approach to faith is itself distinctly modern and, ultimately, secular in inspiration.