What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Lucas Johnston


In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

by Lucas Johnston

One of the upper level courses in my regular rotation is “Religion and Ecology,” although I’ve changed the course content with each iteration. In the most recent version, the description reads:

This course explores the complex relationships between ecosystems, religions and cultures. Human cultures and their religious production have always depended on the natural world not just for physical and spiritual subsistence, but also as a source of inspiration or veneration, for metaphors of the sacred, and for exploitation. This course will: a) utilize an interdisciplinary approach to analyze arguments for the emergence of religion as a response to ecological and social constraints; b) survey how various cultures have imagined the natural world and their ethical obligations toward it (if any), including the development of new nature-based religious movements; and c) review arguments for and against the notion that religion is evolutionarily adaptive.

As with all of my courses, I imagined a set of learning outcomes, skills that students should have by the end of our semester together. In this case, I specified that students should be able to understand the ways in which religions shape understandings of their habitats and relationships to them; conversely, that they should be able to recognize the ways in which religious expressions are channeled and constrained by their habitats; and that they ought to be able to identify and interrogate the always political deployment of religious justifications for the use, abuse, and distribution of resources.

We began the course with a popular book, Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B. Some readers may be more familiar with his earlier book, Ishmael, wherein the emergence of human civilization and accompanying religious worldviews is recounted form the perspective of a telepathic gorilla. The history recounted in The Story of B is the same, but the story is less Socratic in its presentation, and has a more gripping plotline in which a priest is sent to investigate Ishmael’s protégé to discern whether he might be the anti-Christ. To put the thrust of the book in a nutshell, the reader is reminded that history is written by the victors, and that the history of both eastern and western civilization is at bottom characterized by the overexploitation of local environments which requires the importation, defense, and distribution of resources. Quinn traces the emergence of civilizations to a shift in the mode of production toward sedentary (or totalitarian, in Quinn’s verbiage) agriculture. The archaeological record clearly illustrates that with the emergence of sedentary agriculture we almost immediately see social stratification, population explosion, the specialization of labor, and within a fairly short span, large-scale warfare. In Quinn’s reading, all of the so-called world religions, which grew from these early civilizations, are fundamentally concerned with escaping this fallen world, whether by being reborn in another (as in most Abrahamic religions), or ceasing to be born in this one (in the case of the Dharmic religions). I coupled Quinn’s book with Lynn White Jr.’s well-known article “The Historical Roots of the Ecologic Crisis,” as well as chapters from the philosopher Frederic Bender detailing anthropocentrism in the Hebrew Bible and early Christian antinaturalism.

We then turned toward a more detailed investigation of how this new mode of production, including the domestication of both plants and animals, promoted the sort of human exceptionalism that remains prevalent today. But our typical narrative about domestication imagines humans as the only entities with any agency. So in an attempt to turn that narrative on its head, I also assigned a couple of articles from the Earth First! Journal (a radical environmental rag) and the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, which suggest that the perennial grasses and wolves (and other creatures) actually domesticated humans to advance their own fitness and persistence. Articles by the primatologist Jane Goodall on “Primate Spirituality,” and animal behaviorist Mark Bekoff on “Cognitive Ethology and Social Ethics” round out this module by investigating what we might imagine as proto-spirituality in other-than-human persons.

Next (and I should add very briefly) we tackle the ways in which many now global religions are addressing environmental issues, as well as the problematic ways in which such efforts become the subject of scholars’ attention. We explore the book Faith in Conservation, by Martin Palmer and Victoria Finlay, who run the UK-based Alliance of Religions and Conservation. The book includes a host of statements by leading figures of many religious groups, typically connecting core concepts, norms, and values to contemporary environmental concerns. We explored whether the individuals who penned these chapters could be imagined as authoritative for a whole world-wide religion, or whether their chapters were idiosyncratic perspectives related to their own interests, or those of the editors. For, despite a dizzying array of high profile statements by leaders of the so-called world religions, very little seems to be changing on the ground (or in the pews). Scholarly attention in the twentieth century focused largely on these world religions, and specifically on the liberal mainstreams of these traditions, assuming that they contained glimmers of green that once recognized, would precipitate large-scale behavioral shifts. Unfortunately for us (and for the non-human world), despite documents like the Earth Charter, and pronouncements by the Pope, monks, rabbis, imams (and so on), species are disappearing at a rate of at least 1,000 times greater than the background extinction rate. In addition, violent conflicts over increasingly scarce resources and demographic displacement are on the rise, and religion is increasingly deployed as an identity marker in such conflicts. Importantly, the most obvious and efficacious green spiritualities appear not within the mainstreams of the world religions, but rather on their margins, and within new movements, which evidence a reverence-for-life ethic and a critical acceptance of scientific consensus.

The course then pivoted toward the first wave of environmentalism in North America. Students encountered the nature writings of John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold before turning toward the ways in which they influenced twentieth and twenty-first century scientists and philosophers. Specifically, we investigated the religious dimensions of problem-based disciplinary developments, such as the emergence of the fields of ecological restoration and conservation biology. These are now burgeoning academic fields grounded in normative presuppositions, and individuals’ spiritual reverence for the objects of their study (whether landscapes or large carnivores) often runs deep. Indeed, some of the founders of these scholarly fields were themselves influenced by the nature spirituality of Muir, Thoreau, and Leopold, but also by more recent radical environmental sentiments espoused by Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Dave Foreman, and others. We analyzed the religious dimensions of their writings and movements associated with them as examples of what scholar of religions Bron Taylor termed “dark green religion.” There is little doubt that such dark green sensibilities have escaped their counter-cultural breeding grounds and have become influential in global environmental politics, and it is investigating these contemporary impacts that we conclude the course.

Terms related to “ecology,” like “sustainability” and “resilience,” are now crucial to international policy making, and have also become key identity markers in the twenty-first century, deployed both by those who seek to disrupt political and social arrangements, and by those who seek to preserve them. It is crucial that students understand the weight of such terms, and the ways in which they facilitate the formation of communities of individuals, focus desire, and channel social and exchange relations.

Lucas Johnston is Associate Professor of Religion and Environment at Wake Forest University. His research focuses on environmental and sustainability oriented social movements. His latest book project explores environmental behaviors among specific rock music and festival subcultures.

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