Friday, January 22, 2010

Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future

An article in Religion Dispatches made me aware of a book that should be on the reading list for those interested in contemporary religious movements. The article involves responses by Bron Taylor to questions on his book Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (University of California Press, 2009). The book's description:
"In this innovative and deeply felt work, Bron Taylor examines the evolution of "green religions" in North America and beyond: spiritual practices that hold nature as sacred and have in many cases replaced traditional religions. Tracing a wide range of groups--radical environmental activists, lifestyle-focused bioregionalists, surfers, new-agers involved in "ecopsychology," and groups that hold scientific narratives as sacred--Taylor addresses a central theoretical question: How can environmentally oriented, spiritually motivated individuals and movements be understood as religious when many of them reject religious and supernatural worldviews? The "dark" of the title further expands this idea by emphasizing the depth of believers' passion and also suggesting a potential shadow side: besides uplifting and inspiring, such religion might mislead, deceive, or in some cases precipitate violence. This book provides a fascinating global tour of the green religious phenomenon, enabling readers to evaluate its worldwide emergence and to assess its role in a critically important religious revolution."
In answering the question in the interview as to what sparked his interest in the topic for this book Taylor writes:
"I have long been interested in grassroots social and environmental movements, and whether and to what extent religious perceptions and moral values motivates their participants. When working on an earlier book, Ecological Resistance Movements, I began to see that ideas that found fertile ground within grassroots environmental movements around the world were becoming increasingly influential. As I traveled around the world in the subsequent years, I encountered a fascinating and diverse set of examples that convinced me that something new and critically important was emerging that could decisively reshape the political, environmental, and religious landscape. I called this phenomena Dark Green Religion, and by this I mean religious (or religion-resembling) beliefs and practices that consider nature to be sacred and worthy of reverent care, and non-human organisms to be kin and as having intrinsic value."
When Taylor is asked what he wants his readers to take away from the book, in part he says:
"Religion and environmental ethics were transformed forever when on November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. It shattered traditional religious explanations for the fecundity and diversity of the biosphere. Where this cognitive shift has been made, traditional religions with their beliefs in non-material divine beings are in decline. The desire for a spiritually meaningful understanding of the cosmos, however, did not wither away, and new forms of spirituality have been filling the cultural niches previously occupied by conventional religions. I argue that the forms I document in Dark Green Religion are much more likely to survive than longstanding religions, which involved beliefs in invisible, non-material beings. This is because most contemporary nature spiritualities are sensory (based on what we perceive with our senses, sometimes enhanced by clever gadgets), and thus sensible. They also tend to promote ecologically adaptive behaviors, which enhances the survival prospects of their carriers, and thus their own long-term survival prospects."
A few observations are in order for contemporary students of religion.

First, as Taylor reminds us, religion is not always defined by belief in a divine being.

Second, this Dark Green Religion dovetails with Gordon Lynch's discussion about progressive spirituality in his book The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-first Century (I.B. Tauris, 2007).

Third, the discussion of this religious nature spirituality lends credibility to conservatives who have argued there is often a religious dimension to many facets of the environmental movement.

Fourth, in terms of popular culture, such sentiments may also be seen underlying the science fiction/fantasy film Avatar, which has resonated with audiences for this and other reasons.

Dark Green Religion will help readers understand such sentiments, and gain a greater sense of a movement that will likely continue to exert broad influence. Chapter one can be read here as a preview.


Fangorn said...

Many thanks, John, for the interest and thoughtful response to the Religion Dispatches interview. The day before, there was also a Public Public Radio with the program Here On Earth, Radio Without Borders, and the interview can be downloaded as an mp3/podcast via, then 'about' then 'interviews'; additional information about the book, including its preface, are also available at that website.

More substantively, my priority was to 'go global' and bring fresh material into this book, and this is why explicity paganism, New Age, and Native American spirituality got relatively short shrift. The end of the book, in an terminological afterward, I wrestle with whether the phenomena in the book is actually better termed 'Paganism,' 'nature religion,' deep ecology,' or something else other than 'dark green religion.' I expect you and your readers would find it all quite interesting. I learned of your bog, btw, via Adrian Ivakhiv, whose own blog, immanence,' is worth regular reading, as yours obviously is, too. It is at

John W. Morehead said...

It amazes me at times how people find each other on the Internet. I am flattered that you found my comments about your work worthwhile. Thank you for the link to the podcast. I'll have to take a look at Ivakhiv's blog. I have a good relationship with the online Pagan community and would be happy to learn of another contact. By the way, you might be interested in the book I edited, Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue by Gus diZerega and Philip Johnson (Lion, 2009), which includes some discussion on environmental issues. Thanks again for your comments.