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“The Production of Post-Supernaturalistic Mythopoesis in Contemporary Nature Religion”

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image of Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology

Are there new, emerging forms of nature reverencing religion? If so, what might these look like? This paper seeks to answer this question by drawing on both Bron Taylor's Dark Green Religion (and especially his nature religion schema found therein that includes the category of “Gaian Earth Religion”) and the work of environmental philosopher Donald Crosby (and his category of “religion of nature”). I argue that science writers like Edward Wilson and Carl Sagan, along with ecopoets like Mary Oliver, are creating a new mythopoesis of post-supernaturalistic nature religion. I also look at the complex interaction of religion/science and the role reverence for nature plays in this dialogue. I argue that the nature religion schema put forth by Taylor and the “physisology” put forth by Crosby can help us better theorize emerging strands of post-supernaturalistic religious-like sentiments and narratives that continue to grow 150 years after Darwin's theory revolutionized both science and religion.

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31. fn1 1) The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers who offered insights about and constructive criticisms of this submission. Any remaining errors are of course my own.
32. fn2 2) Glacken (1967: 285).
33. fn3 3) I use the term post-supernaturalistic nature religion to highlight that such an emerging religious worldview regarding nature is influenced by evolutionary insights and the environmental sciences. This terminology is in contrast to nature religions/religious views of nature that are embedded in already existing supernaturalistic religions and/or that posit some supernaturalistic energy/deity/life force that is within/the creator of nature, evolution, and ecosystemic processes (see below, next page). As such, the development of post-supernaturalistic nature religion is not the same as the existence of non-supernaturalistic religious belief systems, which have a longer history within human cultures. I thank Lucas Johnston for helping me differentiate these two tropes.
34. fn4 4) Taylor (2010: 5) (author's italics). He also points out that “It is important to distinguish between green religion (which posits that environmentally friendly behavior is a religious obligation) and dark green religion (in which nature is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is therefore due reverent care). These two forms are often in tension and sometimes in direct conflict” (ibid.: 10). My argument focuses on what Taylor is calling dark green religion; or what Roger Gottlieb argues is the “oldest and the newest of world religions” (2001: 31). For a further exploration of nature religion in North America, see Albanese (2002; including especially pp. 21–22, which address evolutionary thinking and natural religion) and Zaleha (2010). See also Thomas Dunlap's work that looks at environmentalism--especially in an American context--as a religion (2004); and more recently, Lucas Johnston's work that investigates how holistic interpretations of physical and life sciences impact the sustainability milieu and carry out religious-like work (2010).
35. fn5 5) Ibid.: 16.
36. fn6 6) Ibid.: 16.
37. fn7 7) Ibid.: 16.
38. fn8 8) If pressed to look at their theories in a religious light, some evolutionary biologists, astrophysicists, and other scientists would say their eschatological views are simply that the universe will continue to unfold ad infinitum; that eventually the sun will grow so large that its radiant heat will kill all life on Earth. In other words, natural processes will continue on this planet, and some day—who knows when—will do so without the presence of humans. Furthermore, these processes, as will be explored below, require no belief in a deity and can be seen as sacred in and of themselves.
39. fn9 9) Crosby (2007: 490).
40. fn10 10) Ibid.
41. fn11 11) Ibid.: 491.
42. fn12 12) Notice the aforementioned feelings of awe tend to be expressed using poetic language. One reason is that states of religious awe, terror, and/or union tend to be ineffable, but humans attempt nonetheless to share these experiences with other humans. Most do so using poetic language. Equally, many sacred texts found across the globe have sections and/or passages that are at their core mythopoetic. Lastly, many autobiographies of spiritual and/or religious leaders use mythopoetic metaphor and poetry to convey their felt sense of the divine and experiences they had that led them to become a person of faith (or that strengthened their pre-existing faith)—the popular poetry of the Sufi mystic Rumi is a prime example. These examples of mythopoetics are legion and constitute a significant part of “insider” religious discourse. William James was in this territory when he wrote, “there thus seems to be no one elementary religious emotion, but only a common storehouse of emotions upon which religious objects may draw, so there might conceivably also prove to be no one specific and essential kind of religious object, and no one specific and essential kind of religious act” James (1982: 28). His “storehouse of emotions” is in part referring to what I am calling mythopoetics. Note, too, that James is open to the possibility of multiple religious “objects,” and thus “acts” that can trigger such religious-like emotions. From this perspective, nature, ecosystem functions, and/or the evolved universe are rightly seen as religious “objects,” capable of producing religious feelings and emotions. Lastly, mythopoetic passages and the feelings that inspire them invariably tend to border on, and at times directly pass into, the realm of religiously sanctioned ethical actions and behaviors. In other words, mythopoetics can also be used to dictate proper ethical actions toward the divine and its creation/s (see footnote 19, below, regarding David Takacs).
43. fn13 13) McIntosh (2004: 45).
44. fn14 14) See, for example, Worster (1996) and Gatta (2004).
45. fn15 15) See Chidester and Linenthal (1995) Introduction. Interestingly, the debate between science and religion, as well as the current dispute of viewing this world as sacred for its own non-supernaturalistic intrinsic meaning versus seeing this type of worldview about the world as being atheism/not religious, is also evidence that supports Chidester's and Linenthal's central thesis that religion, and the production of religious space and meanings, is an inherently political act and struggle.
46. fn16 16) Harrison (2006: 87–88).
47. fn17 17) The scientific method—generating hypotheses and then testing them for “truth,” while leaving open the possibility for further refinement of the original hypotheses (or their disapproval) so that we can learn more facts about the universe—is in and of itself a process that generates a cosmogony and can lead to the creation of a cosmology. This process can also be “worshipped.” In this respect, I am not referring in this paper to science and scientists who could be labeled as following “scientism,” the reification and worship of science as a method and discipline in and of itself that is capable of generating all truth claims about reality. I also recognize that science is a problematic category, as Harrison argues. One aspect of science that has been criticized is that, etymologically speaking, science means splitting off from reality (Draffan and Jensen 2004: 25). By conducting controlled scientific experiments, the scientist is actually cutting her/himself off from reality while also producing knowledge and technology that can be used to further harm, change, and exploit natural processes. In one respect, scientists who could be considered to fall within the religious categories explored in this paper can be seen as attempting to correct this “value-free” on one side, or hegemonic, self-righteous power hungry legacy of science (as outlined by Harrison) on the other. For further critiques of science, its technologies, the scientific method, and a response to the view that science is “value-free,” see Merchant (1980) and also Levins and Lewontin (1985).
48. fn18 18) Scott (1971: 8).
49. fn19 19) The biologist and philosopher of science David Takacs problematizes this ascription of sacrality to biodiversity and ecosystemic processes, noting especially the political repercussions of such a move: “By activism on behalf of what they call biodiversity, conservation biologists [he devotes numerous pages to Edward O. Wilson] seek to redefine the boundaries of science and politics, ethics and religion, nature and our ideas about it. They believe that humans and the other species with which we share the Earth are imperiled by an unparalleled ecological crisis, whose roots lie in an unheeded ethical crisis. Biodiversityis the rallying cry currently used by biologists to draw attention to this crisis and to encapsulate the Earth's myriad species and biological processes, as well as a host of values ascribed to the natural world. An elite group of biologists aims to forge a new ethic, in which biodiversity's multiplicity of values will be respected, appreciated, and perhaps even worshiped” (Takacs 1996: 9).
50. fn20 20) Ibid.: 491.
51. fn21 21) Scott (1971: 25–26).
52. fn22 22) Writing more recently, Christian apologetic and poet Paul Mariani claims that, “Given Western culture's preoccupation with the secular and its sentimental clamoring after the new, there's only a slim chance that a sacramental perspective will even be recognized” in this culture (Mariani 2002: 224). Given our preconceived cultural notions about what is religion/religious, and what can be considered to be sacred, it is of no surprise that many scholars and lay practitioners alike do not see the poetics of ecoliterature and science writing as being religious or that exemplars of a post-supernaturalistic nature religiosity do not have a sacramental perspective of life. Granted, “religion” is still grappling with the repercussions of Darwin/evolution, so that post-supernaturalistic sensibilities tend to currently reside on the margins of the contemporary religious landscape. Furthermore, Taylor's Gaian Naturalism and Crosby's religion of nature are recently constructed categories that have yet to enter into mainstream or academic discourse, which currently makes it hard for (a) people to self-identify as Gaian Naturalists or to hold to a physisology [Crosby's term, vs. theology (ibid.: 490)] (including those being studied in this paper), or some other relevant and like-minded trope (for example, an “evolutionary nature worshipper;” or seen as a bumper sticker on the occasional vehicle: “tree hugging dirt worshipper”), and (b) for other people to know such a trope and religion exists. However, the characteristics that constitute a post-supernaturalistic nature religiosity exist in the public domain, and therefore a criticism such as Mariani's misses out on the strong, efficacious belief many hold towards evolutionary processes and the diverse life forms that exist on the planet, which they consider to be sacramental in various ways.
53. fn23 23) I am utilizing the voice of the collective “we” here in the sense that I am assuming an exploration of religious terminology and subsequent process of religious theorizing that the reader is equally engaged with in their own academic career. Also, as this is new ground for the field of religious studies generally, a collective spirit of mutual engagement with and curiosity about the subject matter is further assumed.
54. fn24 24) Biophilia is the “inborn attraction to the natural world [that] has provided individuals and tribes an adaptive edge throughout evolutionary history” (Wilson 2006: 141).
55. fn25 25) Wilson (2006: 123).
56. fn26 26) In the parlance of religious studies, Wilson's cosmogonic “myth” is as follows: “Life was self-assembled by random mutation and natural selection of the codifying molecules. As radical as such an explanation may seem, it is supported by an overwhelming body of interlocking evidence. It might yet prove wrong, but year by year that seems less probable. And it raises this theological question: Would God have been so deceptive as to salt the earth with so much misleading evidence?” (Wilson 2006: 166). He continues, explaining how there is no proof for Intelligent Design, which is what some people of faith posit as a rebuttal to evolution. What is important to notice in this aside is that a significant number of people who can be labeled as followers of post-supernaturalistic nature religion have spent a considerable amount of time grappling with issues of faith and religion. Many have come to accept the sacrality of the Earth as complete and religiously moving in and of itself with no need of or evidence of a “God.” Furthermore, they vociferously support their beliefs using poetic language, as seen above. In fact, Wilson closes the book by writing to the Pastor: “I hope you will not have taken offense when I spoke of ascending to Nature instead of ascending away from it. It would give me deep satisfaction to find that expression as I have explained it compatible with your own beliefs. For however the tensions eventually play out between our opposing worldviews, however science and religion wax and wane in the minds of men, there remains the earthborn, yet transcendental, obligation we are both morally bound to share” (Wilson 2006: 168). This obligation of course is the caring for Creation—the biodiversity and life processes of the planet—and is transcendental in that it supersedes generational and ideological disputes.
57. fn27 27) Wilson (2006: 161, 119).
58. fn28 28) Published posthumously by his wife in the book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God(Sagan 2006). Again, like with Wilson's book, notice the subversive choice of title. William James gave an early Gifford Lectures presentation that subsequently became a bestselling book in religious studies, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Sagan, on one level, is giving honor to James and that book; on another level, he is using the same occasion of the Gifford Lectures to offer a counter-argument (albeit from the point of view of this paper one that is still religious).
59. fn29 29) Ibid.: 493. To offer an example, and to show that exemplars of post-supernaturalistic nature religion adherents like Wilson and Sagan have thought deeply about religion, Sagan shares that “The number of external galaxies beyond the Milky Way is at least in the thousands of millions and perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of millions, each of which contains a number of stars more or less comparable to that in our own galaxy. So if you multiply out how many stars that means, it is some number … something like one followed by twenty-three zeroes, of which our Sun is but one. It is a useful calibration of our place in the universe. And this vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has not been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religions … a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe” (Sagan 2006: 27–30).
60. fn30 30) Sagan (2006: 30–31).
61. fn31 31) I am limited in conveying just how strong this aspect of his presentation/book truly is, for I am unable to replicate here any of the pictures of stars, galaxies, and planets that he showed during his speech to help bring about a more expressive and poignant feeling of induced awe.
62. fn32 32) The postulates of evolution do not require the belief in or existence of supernaturalistic beings, an insight that is a result of first the Copernican revolution but more importantly, Darwin's theory of evolution. In terms of what is considered sacred, as pointed out earlier in the paper, Darwin's scientific insight of genetic evolution was needed so that the current emergence of post-supernaturalistic nature religion was made possible; if what is sacred is culture-dependent, then cultural concepts such as those under discussion need to have developed so that the teachings of science and evolution (and products of technologies like the Hubble Telescope, which Sagan utilizes in his mythopoesis) are accessible to the population at large, allowing the concepts to subsequently enter into a cultural discourse of sacrality.
63. fn33 33) Sagan (2006: 195). To further underscore comparisons with Wilson and Sagan, Sagan too does not see humanity as being separate from, flawed, or above the rest of life in any way. This is a common theme in both Gaian Naturalism and religion of nature, and post-supernaturalistic nature religion in general. Significantly, this connection with the rest of life carries with it ethical norms: we must do what we can do protect the rest of life, for all of it (human and non-human) is intrinsically sacred and worthy of respect and reverence. As Sagan responded during the Question and Answer section of his lectures, “I would say that purpose is not imposed from the outside; it is generated from the inside. We makeour purpose. And there is a kind of dereliction of duty of us humans when we say that the purpose is to be imposed on the outside or found in some book written thousands of years ago. We live in a very different world than we lived in thousands of years ago. There is no question that we have many obligations to guarantee our purposes, one of which is to survive. And thatwe have to work out for ourselves” (Sagan 2006: 227). Lastly, Sagan was asked if science would one day “come upon the demonstration of the existence of God?” to which he answered, “The answer depends very much on what we mean by God … let me give a sense of two poles of the definition of God. One is the view of, say, Spinoza or Einstein, which is more or less God as the sum total of the laws of physics. Now, it would be foolish to deny that there are laws of physics. If that's what we mean by God, then surely God exists. All we have to do is watch apples drop …. So that itself is a deep and extraordinary fact: that the laws of nature exist and that they are the same everywhere [in the universe]. So if that is what you mean by God, then I would say that we already have excellent evidence that God exists” (Sagan 2006: 223–4).
64. fn34 34) Oliver (1992: 10–11).
65. fn35 35) Oliver (1979: 13).
66. fn36 36) Oliver (1983: 45).
67. fn37 37) Oliver (1995: 58).

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Affiliations: 1: <institution xmlns:xlink="">College of Charleston</institution>, Department of Religion, <addr-line>66 George Street Charleston, SC 29424</addr-line>, <country>USA</country>, Email:, URL:


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