Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future / Edition 1

Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future / Edition 1

by Bron Taylor
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University of California Press


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Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future / Edition 1

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520237759
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/03/2009
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida. He is Editor-in-Chief of the multi-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature and the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, and Editor of Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism.

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Dark Green Religion

Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future

By Bron Taylor


Copyright © 2010 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94445-9


Introducing Religion and Dark Green Religion

This chapter explores terms that are central to this study: religion, spirituality, nature religion, green religion, and dark green religion. Although this sort of linguistic labor may seem most pertinent to those with backgrounds in anthropology and religious studies, it should be even more valuable to those with little background in the academic study of religion. The rationale for this starting point is simple: terminology matters. It shapes methods and focuses attention in illuminating ways. Terminology also carries assumptions that may occlude phenomena that might well be relevant to any given inquiry. It is important in this investigation, therefore, to reflect critically on the terms employed.

What, for example, is the difference between religion and the absence of religion—or between religion and spirituality—or between what I am calling nature religion, green religion, and dark green religion? Where are the boundaries between them? Do such distinctions illuminate or confuse our understanding of the world we inhabit?

Religion and Family Resemblance Analysis

There has been much debate, of course, about the origin, definition, and utility of the word religion. One of the reasons for this lack of consensus is the difficulty of agreeing on what characterizes "religious" phenomena. Does religion have a substantive essence? Or does it function typically or universally in certain ways? Since people began thinking analytically about religion, many competing definitions have been offered. No consensus has emerged, however, including as to whether any specific traits or characteristics are essential to the phenomena. Such questions are certainly relevant to discussions surrounding what I am calling dark green religion. Are specific things essential to it, such as beliefs about supernatural or nonmaterial beings, as some scholars contend? Or is a nebulous sense that "nature is sacred" sufficient to justify using the term religion?

Unfortunately, selecting the earliest uses of the word does not set us on uncontested terminological ground. In the last analysis, observers must choose the lenses, the definitions, that they think will best guide their inquiries and illuminate the phenomena they seek to understand. As good a starting place as any is the scholarly work that has traced early forms of the idea of religion to the Latin root leig, meaning "to bind" or "tie fast," or religare, which could be rendered "to reconnect"—from the Latin re (again) and ligare (to connect). Examining such roots in the context of contemporary understandings, we might conclude that religion has to do with that which connects and binds people to that which they most value, depend on, and consider sacred.

Yet there are dangers in specific definitions, especially for those who seek to understand the phenomena and compare different types of it in various times and places. As the anthropologist Benson Saler put it, "Explicit definitions are explicit heuristics: they guide or impel us in certain directions. By doing so they tend to divert our attention from information beyond the channels they cleave, and so choke off possibilities." It is important, therefore, both to recognize the danger of explicit definitions (they might lead us to ignore important phenomena or dynamics) as well as their value (they might focus analytic attention and yield insights).

Taking into account the dangers and value of definitions, Saler and others advocate looking at "family resemblances" or taking a "polyfocal approach" to the study of religion, exploring, analyzing, and comparing the widest possible variety of beliefs, behaviors, and functions that are typically associated with the term. The heart of such an approach is to (i) note the many dimensions and characteristics of religious beliefs and practices; (2) reject a presumption that any single trait or characteristic is essential to religious phenomena and refuse to become preoccupied with where the boundaries of religion lie; and (3) focus instead on whether an analysis of religion-resembling beliefs and practices has explanatory power.

Analyzing family resemblances is valuable despite the absence of any clear, essential, universal trait that everyone will agree constitutes religion's essence. Such an approach to conceptualizing religion leaves in play and open to contestation the definition of religion, and even challenges whether choosing a definition is important. Finally, it insists that the critical thing is to learn interesting things about human beings, their environments, and their earthly coinhabitants. With this strategy for analyzing religion (and religion-resembling phenomena) in place, a few other terms critical to this study require elaboration.


In contemporary parlance people increasingly speak of spirituality rather than religion when trying to express what moves them most deeply; and many consider the two to be distinctly different. Most of the characteristics scholars associate with religion, however, are found whether people consider themselves spiritual or religious. From a family resemblance perspective, therefore, there is little analytical reason to assume these are different kinds of social phenomena. It is important, however, to understand what most people understand the distinction to entail, especially because the term spirituality is more often than religion associated with nature and nature religions.

In common parlance, religion is often used to refer to organized and institutional religious belief and practice, while spirituality is held to involve one's deepest moral values and most profound religious experiences. But there are additional ideas that are more often associated with spirituality than religion. Spirituality is often thought to be about personal growth and gaining a proper understanding of one's place in the cosmos, and to be intertwined with environmentalist concern and action. This contrasts markedly with the world's predominant religions, which are generally concerned with transcending this world or obtaining divine rescue from it.

Although those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious generally consider spirituality to be superior to religion, spirituality is also a term increasingly used by traditionally religious people. They use it similarly to how the "spiritual but not religious" crowd speaks of the sacred importance of everyday life. Thus, spirituality can also be understood as a quest to deepen, renew, or tap into the most profound insights of traditional religions, as well as a word that consecrates otherwise secular endeavors such as psychotherapy, political and environmental activism, and one's lifestyle and vocational choices. Such understanding of the term fosters a "rethinking of religious boundaries."

Unless one considers belief in divine beings or forces to be essential to a definition of religion, most contemporary spirituality can easily be considered religious. Those who have studied contemporary spirituality find a common feature of it to be a sense that nature is sacred and that ethical responsibilities naturally follow such a realization. Who are the individuals and groups that have such perceptions? Anna King pointed in the right direction when she urged scholars to look for spirituality not only in small, marginalized religious sects but also in "movements such as Amnesty International [and] Greenpeace." Empirical studies have begun to demonstrate that many people in advanced industrial cultures resonate deeply with what could be called nature spirituality or nature religion. Some of these people view the world as full of spiritual intelligences with whom one can be in relationship (an animistic perception), while others among them perceive the earth to be alive or even divine (a more pantheistic belief).

In an analysis of a large social-science database generated in 2000, for example, James Proctor examined the relationship between religion and trust in various forms of authority. He found two sources of authority most prevalent: traditional religious authority (grounded in what he labeled theocracy) and religious ecology (which he called ecology, as shorthand). In both Europe and North America, large numbers of people express "deep trust in nature as inherently spiritual or sacred," Proctor discovered, and in many countries, such religiosity is even more prevalent than in the United States. He concluded, "Institutional religion is inextricably bound up with relations of trust in authority, and thus is functionally similar to [political] regimes rarely understood as religious. We should therefore be cautious in bounding the domain of religion too narrowly."

This assertion is pertinent to my current objective, which is to rattle assumptions as to what counts as religion in order to awaken new perceptions and insights. Are the people whose spirituality is intertwined with environmental concern, or who perceive and trust in nature and understand it to be sacred, engaged in nature religion?

Nature Religion

Nature religion is most commonly used as an umbrella term to mean religious perceptions and practices that are characterized by a reverence for nature and that consider its destruction a desecrating act. Adherents often describe feelings of belonging and connection to the earth—of being bound to and dependent upon the earth's living systems.

Over the last few centuries a number of phrases have been used to capture the family resemblance of nature religions, including natural religion, nature worship, nature mysticism, and earth religion. Meanwhile, words have been invented to reflect what is taken to be the universal essence of such religiosity, such as Paganism, Animism, and Pantheism. In both popular and scholarly venues the term nature religion, which began to be employed regularly at about the time of the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, is used increasingly to represent and debate such nature-as-sacred religions.

The idea of nature religion has a long history that parallels important watersheds in the study of religion. Indeed, the most common contemporary understanding of nature religion resembles the naturevenerating religiosity described in E. B. Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871), Max Müller's Natural Religion (1888), James G. Frazer's The Worship of Nature (1926), and Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958). Despite changes in scholarly fashions, there have been important continuities in both popular and scholarly contestations over nature religion. The most common debate has been between those who consider nature religions to be religiously or politically primitive, regressive, or dangerous, and those who laud such religions as spiritually perceptive and ecologically beneficent.

Negative views of nature religions likely originated with Abrahamic religious traditions, which have long had antipathy toward pagan and polytheistic religions. Throughout their histories, the Abrahamic religions often sought to force nature religions and the peoples who practiced them into decline or extinction through conversion, assimilation, and sometimes through threats and violence. Such persecution was often justified in religious terms, including through beliefs that assimilation was spiritually beneficial.

The tendency to view the practitioners of nature religions as primitive (though not always dangerous) intensified as Occidental culture placed increasing value on reason and as many thinkers became less religious. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), for example, advanced an idealistic philosophy that viewed nature religions as failing to perceive the divine spirit moving through the dialectical process of history.

More important for the historical study of religion in general and scholarly reflection on nature religion in particular was the influence of Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) theory of evolution. Generations of scholars came to view nature religions as grounded in primitive misperceptions that natural forces are animated or alive. John Lubbock cited as an example Darwin's observation that dogs mistake inanimate objects for living beings, and Lubbock surmised that religion had its origin in a similar misapprehension by primitive humans. E. B. Tylor, whom many consider to be the father of anthropology, would coin the term Animism for the attribution of consciousness to inanimate objects and natural forces, asserting that this misapprehension was grounded in the dream states and sneezing of "primitive" or "savage" peoples, and arguing that this kind of perception is the root of human religious consciousness. Not long afterward, Max Müller, considered by some to be the father of the academic study of religion, traced the origin of Indo-European religion to religious metaphors and symbolism grounded in the natural environment, especially the sky and sun.

Both classical Paganism and polytheistic religions involved supplication to or veneration of celestial bodies and other natural entities and forces. According to Sir James Frazer, belief and ritual related to the sun, the earth, and the dead were especially common in the worldwide emergence and ancient history of religion. The idea of religion as involving nature-related beliefs and practices became widely influential, as did Frazer's "worship of nature" rubric to describe such religions:

[By] the worship of nature, I mean ... the worship of natural phenomena conceived as animated, conscious, and endowed with both the power and the will to benefit or injure mankind. Conceived as such they are naturally objects of human awe and fear ... To the mind of primitive man these natural phenomena assume the character of formidable and dangerous spirits whose anger it is his wish to avoid, and whose favour it is his interest to conciliate. To attain these desirable ends he ... prays and sacrifices to them; in short, he worships them. Thus what we may call the worship of nature is based on the personification of natural phenomena.

This early nature religiosity, Frazer thought, was replaced first by polytheism and then by monotheism as part of a "slow and gradual" process that was leading inexorably among civilized peoples to the "despiritualization of the universe." Most scholarly observers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries agreed that monotheistic religions, or no religion, would eventually supplant nature religions. They assumed that although nature religions might be regressive, they were not dangerous, at least not to cultural and material progress.

More recently, however, a chorus of voices have suggested that some nature religions are indeed dangerous. In Nature Religion in America (1990), for example, Catherine Albanese broadly defined nature religion to include cases in which nature is an important symbolic resource but is not itself considered sacred. She argued that many forms of nature religion mask an impulse to dominate both people and nature, citing as evidence how the "religions of nature," which had prominent adherents among the most influential of figures during the formation of the United States, justified the subjugation of both the natural world and the continent's aboriginal peoples. Albanese's assertions caused consternation among many who had a positive attitude toward nature religions. She also blurred the boundaries as to what counts as religion by considering examples that did not always, at first glance, appear religious, such as the macrobiotic dietary movement.


Excerpted from Dark Green Religion by Bron Taylor. Copyright © 2010 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Readers' Guide

Introducing Religion and Dark Green Religion
2. Dark Green Religion
3. Dark Green Religion in North America
4. Radical Environmentalism
5. Surfing Spirituality
6. Globalization with Predators and Moving Pictures
7. Globalization in Arts, Sciences, and Letters
8. Terrapolitan Earth Religion
9 .Conclusion: Dark Green Religion and the Planetary Future

Afterword on Terminology
Appendix: Excerpts with Commentary on the Writings of Henry David Thoreau


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This ambitious work seeks to set forth a new religious tradition characterized by its central concern for the fate of the planet."—Nova Religio: the Journal of Alternative & Emergent Religions

"Dark Green Religion is intelligent, well-written, and very much worth reading."—Worldviews

"Names levels of spirituality that are often unacknowledged, unattended to, or rejected, and demonstrates how a new global spirituality (DGR) is becoming a force for positive change on our planet."—Isle:
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In Lit & Environ


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