Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Environmentalism and Religion: "the child is father of the man"

on animals (reposted from May 1, 2009)

"It is understandable that Luther could have found this preoccupation [with personal self-acceptance] in the apostolic message since it was his own question. [...] It was also perfectly natural for a John Wesley, a Kierkegaard, or today for an existentialist or a conservative evangelical reader to make the same assumption and find the same message--for all of these are in their variegated ways children of Luther, still asking the same question of personal guilt and righteousness."
--John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

In some strains of Christianity, you may find a human-centered chauvinist attitude toward the natural world. The thinking seems to go that since humans are the pinnacle of creation, the rest of the created world exists for whatever humans wish to use it for. There is, then, a divinely sanctioned human "dominion" over the rest of creation (this way of thinking may be opposed by the concept of "stewardship"--essentially the idea that God made all of creation for himself, and humans are caretakers. In this way of thinking, nature has transcendent purpose, and humans have a moral obligation to care for creation. I commend the concept of "stewardship" for finding in nature if not "inherent" value, then a value wholly separate from humankind's utilitarian use of it).

This religious human-centered attitude toward the environment actually eases into secular human-centered attitudes toward the environment (or do these secular views emerge from the religious thought?). In one business-friendly strain, what matters is human benefit, and if the environment is damaged for the economic interests of humans (or corporations, or governments), so be it--what matters is human use. Another strain can suggest that humans, as the most advanced species, have an inherent right to use the lower species for whatever purposes humans want. As Harold Herzog writes in "Human Morality and Animal Research: Confessions and Quandaries," "Research with animals is based on the premise that a 'superior' species has the right to breed, kidnap, or kill members of 'lesser' species for the advancement of knowledge."

I think it possible that these secular arguments about human use of nature (including animals) may develop from the same historical strain as Christianity's arguments about human use of nature (including animals). The child may be father to the man.

One might think that "Environmentalism" is an alternative, or a corrective, or in opposition to, a religious-based human-centered attitude toward the environment. But this is not always the case. It seems to me that some (I won't say many) environmentalists maintain human-centered chauvinist attitudes toward the natural world. Some environmentalists view the natural world as worth protecting and preserving--so that humans can continue to use it. What environmentalists? Environmentalists that eat meat.

If you claim to be an environmentalist but still think animals can be killed for your pleasure, then whom are you really trying to save the environment for? You're not trying to save the environment for the animals (you probably don't see inherent value in the animal, if you are willing to eat it for your pleasure). And you probably don't see inherent value in the natural world outside of human use. Environmentalism can maintain this chauvinism, can still see humankind in a power-relationship over the natural world. Secular environmentalists can still believe in human "dominion" over the rest of the natural world, can still see humans in a position of control, capable of using any part of the natural world (including animals) for our own purposes. It is worth preserving the environment, not for its inherent value, but for its value to humans.

The child is father of the man.

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