How Science and Religion fail us Morally

I know of only three basic approaches to morality. The one that has been around the longest looks to Nature itself for direction in how the human should live. There have been variations on this view, ranging from the animism of hunter-gatherers, to the shamanism of tribal peoples, to the Taoism of the historical Far East. Then, some four thousand years ago, a monotheistic religion arose in the West, which declared that all morality was decreed by a male god-figure in the sky, and that the Laws of Morality were codified on clay tablets miraculously delivered to the Earth, to be discovered by a special chosen people. This was the doctrine of Judaism, which was later picked up by the Christians and declared to be Universal Law, with the injunction to spread this Law, and this religion, all over the world. Some fifteen or sixteen hundred years later, with the rise of the Scientific Revolution, a wholly different doctrine of morality would begin to take shape. Among scientific materialists, morality would come to be seen as a strictly human invention. Morality might well have social benefits– they would say–providing some basis for a social contract, perhaps, but had no relevance or validity beyond this limited, and somewhat arbitrary, application.

The better to understand and sort out this muddle, it is instructive to view it in historical perspective: to see how one thing led to another led to another: how the egalitarian spirituality of animism, which located meaning and morality in the spirit-filled Earth, was transformed into a monotheistic religion which put the human at the center of everything, subject to the directives of a distant all-powerful patriarch, while the Earth itself was demoted to lowest possible statues within this rising new hierarchy. With its roots in the Agricultural Revolution, this cosmological and ontological reversal of an ancient understanding of the world took several millennia to fully develop and become codified, but in its effects it has proved to be a cognitive and ideological revolution on a scale never seen before or since. This revolution–which has never been given its proper name—was a usurpation of Power on the most grandiose scale imaginable. At the heart of this revolution was the dual claim that the human was separate from Nature and that the Earth was the sole property of human beings. In place of Sacred Earth we now had Empire Earth—and when enough people came to take this proposition seriously, and commit themselves to its assumptions, the Revolution of Empire Earth was on its way.

This is the historical context in which another, but lesser, revolution was to take place: the Scientific Revolution. And here again it is important to understand the historical situation when Establishment Religion and Establishment Science divided the world between them, in a Power-sharing compact that still informs, and shakes, the world today. In essence, the deal was: the Church would take the ‘soft’ and less visible side of things: the spirit, the emotions, the soul, along with all the doctrines that attach to their sacred text. Science would deal with the physical and material: those things that could be weighed, measured, and computed. That wholeness does not divide itself so neatly into discrete categories of mind and body, matter and spirit, did not seem immediately troubling to either side of this grand bargain. One reason for this has to do with our Western philosophical tradition, in which (Platonic) Dualism and (materialistic) Atomism had been at loggerheads for two millennia and more. Christianity had long allied itself with the two-different-worlds view of Plato, replacing Plato’s world of perfect ‘forms’ with its (distant) Christian Heaven. The Earth, in both Christianity and Platonic thought, remains as a flawed, and rather despised, lesser realm.

Atomism is monistic and materialistic, and is philosophically irreconcilable with dualism. It is also reductionist, and sees things in terms of their smallest constituent parts—long thought to be the atom. Working within the reductionist-materialist cognitive framework that Science inherited as their part of the bargain, it is not surprising that they came up with the explaining story they did. The world as they saw it through their materialist lens, had no mind, no spirit, no creator, and thus it came to seem that it had no meaning or purpose, either. Instead, at least among the more extreme materialists, the Universe and the Earth would come to be understood as random, meaningless, and indifferent to humans, with the Laws of Life cruelly set up as one-life-against-another in pitiless competition for survival. This view, I should point out, has not been derived scientifically, but is instead a bedrock assumption taken for granted and passed on from one generation of scientists to another, as unquestioned, and unquestionable, doctrine. With such a nihilistic worldview it is little wonder that morality is seen by Science as a wholly human construction– something we pretty much make up as we go along.

When Science parted ways with Religion four or five hundred years ago, they did not start fresh with a brand-new set of underlying assumptions. Instead, Science embraced the entirety of our long cultural tradition, going back to the beginnings of agriculture. What they did, by way of distinguishing themselves from Religion, was embrace one school of Greek philosophy over another (Atomism over Dualism), making that the basis for their inquiry into Nature, and also the basis of their worldview. That is, Science is nothing more than a schism within the Revolution of Empire Earth. In both the religious and the scientific paradigms, the human being is still at the center of everything; none of the other plants, animals, or fungi has status of any importance, except in how they serve the human being. And the desacralized Earth remains as nothing more than a storehouse of resources, a waste dump, and a Power to be outdone and overcome. The Community of Life is not recognized as an interdependent, holonic community which far exceeds the sum of its parts. Nor is the self-organizing, life-nurturing Earth itself recognized as anything but an indifferent machine. Stuck in a scientific model where organism is simplified to mechanism, and complex, non-linear systems are reduced to a cartoon version of their relational intricacy, it is perhaps not surprising that Science has so little to offer in the area of morality.

It is true that there was once an ecologist who was also a moralist of Nature, and here is an example of his thinking: ‘A thing is right,’ he said,’ when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ Aldo Leopold was an unusual man, and a brave one, because thinking in whole systems like this very much went against the grain of the scientific community of his own day– and it still does. In fact, this kind of thinking is much more allied with the Indigenous Worldview than with that of the West. His Land Ethic is very similar to that of indigenous people: it ‘simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.’ Within our culture, such talk is worse than heresy; it is counter-revolutionary, as it would topple the human from his lofty throne and invite him to transform himself ‘from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.’ An Earth-centered and system-centered Land Ethic ‘implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.’ Schooled to see the world through the prism of the isolated individual, neither scientists, nor anyone else, is encouraged to notice the kinds of relationships that are implied by the word: ‘community.’

The best our most up-to-date science can do is notice, and quantify, whether or not certain moral strictures serve some practical purpose in the real world. They can say that treating cows as sacred in a country like India has particular practical results—which they can demonstrate with graphs and charts. But it is not theirs to comment on this practice as moral doctrine.

Moral doctrine is supposedly the province of Religion—and certainly Establishment Religion claims morality as its own—but their vision of what morality is, is truncated and foreshortened by their myopic and narcissistic anthropocentrism. That is to say, when you look at something like the Ten Commandments you see that it has only to do with how people relate to their jealous god, or how they relate to one another. Nowhere do you find any injunctions about how to relate to the Earth, or to the other creatures of the Earth. Nor is this simply an oversight; instead, it follows quite logically from the Big Lie of Separation and the cultural and philosophical Revolution of Empire Earth. If everything is about people, and people only, then it follows that morality can only be about people, too. The thinking is circular, solipsistic, and tautological, but few have seemed to notice just how much has been left out of what passes for morality—namely, the more-than-human world. Having no cultural taboos against destroying other life forms and taking their habitat for our own, and, with no prohibitions against tearing apart the living Earth, paving it over, and choking it on our poisonous wastes, we have systematically committed acts for which our language has no name—and no shame.

We have lately had to invent our own words to describe what are essentially crimes against Nature—words like ecocide or omnicide—but these do not begin to cover the multitude of sins that the Church itself does not acknowledge as wrong. We can speak of the human extirpation of species—which is ongoing at about the rate of 200 species a day—but we have no terminology for this offense. When you kill a king you call it regicide; when you kill off an entire species, you are left speechless, at a loss for words. You can try coining a clumsy word like species-o-cide or planet-o-cide, and someone might have a vague idea what you mean, but the fact is, we have in our culture no prohibitions against depleting the species of the Earth, or against so degrading the Earth that it will no longer support Life. With no such cultural taboos–deeply understood and felt by all–mere neologisms carry little weight.

It is difficult to believe that a dominant culture like ours could live in the world for thousands of years and remain so oblivious to the world that has given us our lives. But this is what we have done: we have built a false world inside the real world, and all we have seen is the one of our own making. The voice of Aldo Leopold is, to my mind, a voice of sanity in a world gone mad, speaking simple, obvious truth: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’ Integrity and stability are qualities that might be rendered in some measurable form, and may thus seem appropriate to the concerns of the scientifically trained ecologist. But what about this quality of beauty: How does that figure in? I think it is first and foremost a human response to the self-willed and spontaneous beauty of the natural world; not just the sunsets and the grand views, but the aesthetic way in which Nature organizes itself, at all scales: from the microscopic to the telescopic to the everyday. Moreover, beauty does not just exist for its own sake, but is a talisman and marker for something else: and that is system health. In the world of Nature, when something looks good to the eye, it is probably because balance and symmetry manifest themselves from the inside out. Beauty and system-health go together, and whether that system is an organism, an ecosystem, or a planet’s biosphere, it is a pretty good guess that when natural beauty has been replaced by its opposite something is amiss.

Western Religion and Western Science fail us morally because they are obsessively human-centered, and made accordingly blind to the larger context of our lives– blind especially to the health and beauty of the complex systems that make our lives, and all Life, possible. A system of morals that does not recognize biotic systems, and our dependence upon them, is worse than dysfunctional: it is suicidal—along with also being ecocidal, species-o-cidal, and planet-o-cidal. And this is moral failure on the grandest scale imaginable. What is needed in place of our myopic human-centered ethical shortfall is, of course, an Earth-centered moral system that recognizes our dependence upon everything else for our survival. And it is not like we would have to start from scratch to arrive at such a system. Our wild ancestors (and indigenous people alive in the world today) understood (and understand) the relationship between the human and the rest of the living world. They understood (and understand) that all systems, at all levels, are mutually interdependent, and rely upon reciprocity to go on working at their optimum best. These systems require something of us, and we owe them a moral debt, for giving us precious Life. We are born into the world with responsibilities to the Whole, and any morality that fails to recognize this basic truth has failed us and the Life System at one and the same time. This, it turns out, it the price of living the Big Lie. We are not Separate from everything else, and we never could be. All flourishing is mutual, and any morality that does not stand on this truth is a sham.


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