A program of the Center for Inquiry
In his book Christianity without God, Marquette University professor Daniel C. Maguire challenges Christianity’s belief in (1) a personal deity and (2) an incarnate divine Jesus who existed before his birth (as one of a trinity of divine persons) and who (3) continued living after death in some alternative invisible universe. Maguire argues that these beliefs rest on a fatal fault line of cognitive instability and are not tenable. He then looks in the tradition for what he sees as a genuine contribution to the creation of a global ethic for this battered Earth.—The Editors
This is an eerie moment in human history, a moment when fear might be humanity’s greatest need. Fear has big eyes, according to an old proverb. It is also a cure for distraction. We are so ominously distracted that it could signal that we are a failed species, destined for a short stay (in cosmic time) in this privileged corner of the universe. We can only look at the sun for an instant, and then we look away. We similarly shrink from the disasters we are setting in place, so the need is to “look at the sun” and then commence an epochal ethical pause to go searching for the ingredients of a global ethic that just might give us grounds for realistic hope.
Theistic religions have not distinguished themselves at this time of planetary peril. They have taken Hamlet too seriously: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” That’s the “let God do it” copout. Meanwhile, it is precisely our rough-hewing that is subverting nature, and there is no divinity out there to reshape our ways. Forget Hamlet; listen to Gandhi: “As human beings our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world—that is the myth of the Atomic Age—as in being able to remake ourselves.” It is past time to look at any insights into our weird but magnificent species, whether those insights come from science, social science, philosophy, or, yes, even religion. Regarding religions, forget their deity and afterlife creations and recognize that they are at root poetry-rich philosophies that have hit on things that are stunningly relevant, with no authority behind them other than good sense.
Scientists and social scientists have superseded religious zealots in apocalyptic warnings. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond points out that all societies face ups and downs, but some of them absolutely and totally collapse, leaving behind monumental ruins that we visit as tourists. We marvel at the scale of these wondrous ruins and try to imagine the wealth and power that built them. Still, as Diamond says: “Lurking behind this romantic mystery is the nagging thought: might such a fate eventually befall our own wealthy society? Will tourists someday stare mystified at the rusting hulks of New York’s skyscrapers much as we stare today at the jungle-overgrown ruins of Mayan cities?”
The oceans grow heftier by the day, fed by waters from melting glaciers and ice caps. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was one more canary dropping. Offended nature is striking back at us. It can scorch as well as inundate. An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linked the record-breaking heat wave that hit Moscow in 2010 with global warming. So, too, the deadly European heat wave in 2003 and droughts such as the one in Oklahoma and Texas in 2011.
What is at once encouraging and discouraging is that the causes of this have been analyzed and we may still have time to set reversals in motion. Archaeologists, climatologists, historians, and paleontologists spell out the eight ways in which societies have undermined themselves: by wrecking their oikos—deforestation and habitat destruction, soil erosion and salinization, water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, foreign species affecting native species, human population growth, and increased per capita impact of people. If you want to devastate planetary life, that’s the script to follow, and we are following it to the letter like simpleminded disciples of doom. Science has mapped out the road to hell, and we, in an epic of distractedness with only intermittent corrective wiggles and tentative nods toward sanity, are plowing ahead on that road to hell, ignoring all the “Bridge Out Ahead” signs.
In 2009, I was invited to participate in a debate on abortion at University College, Dublin. I opened by scolding my Irish audience: “You have packed the house tonight to discuss abortion. If you want to be pro-life, try to remember that you are an island nation, with few highlands, and the oceans are coming.” My scold was ignored, and we got right down to the current Catholic obsession with pelvic-zone issues, fiddling with sex while the oceans swell and choke on our poisons.
Edward O. Wilson wonders, “How will we be remembered a thousand years from now when we are as remote as Charlemagne?” Carl Sagan also looks a thousand years ahead, but he is sure that at that time “historians, if there are any, will look back on our time as being . . . a turning point, a branch point in human history.” If we survive, “this time will be remembered as the time when we could have destroyed ourselves and came to our senses and did not.” With even more sureness, he says that in a thousand years or even a million years, the Earth will be here. “The question, the key question, the central question—in a certain sense, the only question—is, will we?”
The answer is: If current trends continue, we will not.
With a kind of chilling calmness, Swedish scientist George Henrik von Wright says: “One perspective, which I do not find unrealistic, is of humanity as approaching its extinction as a zoological species. The idea has often disturbed people. . . . For my part I cannot find it especially disturbing. Humanity as a species will at some time with certainty cease to exist; whether it happens after hundreds of thousands of years or after a few centuries is trifling in the cosmic perspective. When one considers how many species humans have made an end of, then such a natural nemesis can perhaps seem justified.”
Other dismal choristers join in this fearsome pathetique. Vaclav Havel warns that the battered Earth might dispense with us in the interest of a higher value, that is, life itself. Biologist Lynn Margulis observes that the rest of Earth’s life did very well without us in the past, and it will do very well without us in the future. And New York University physics professor Marty Hoffert adds: “It may be that we are not going to solve global warming, the earth is going to become an ecological disaster, and somebody will visit in a few hundred million years and find there were some intelligent beings who lived here for a while, but they just could not handle the transition from being hunter-gatherers to high technology. It’s entirely possible.”
Of the eight causes leading to societal collapse, overpopulation is prime. A formula might sum it up. H + A + A = A: Hyperfertility + Affluence + Appetite = Apocalypse. Affluence breeds appetite. Increasing numbers plus growing appetite crashes apocalyptically against Earth’s limits. Biologist Harold F. Dorn says with elemental logic: “No species has ever been able to multiply without limit. There are two biological checks upon a rapid increase in numbers—a high mortality and a low fertility. Unlike other biological organisms [humans] can choose which of these checks shall be applied, but one of them must be.” Nature is already applying this stern law. Some forty million people die every year from hunger and poverty-related causes—the equivalent of three hundred jumbo-jet crashes daily, with half of the passengers being children. Twenty-five thousand people die every day from drinking contaminated water. “Official estimates suggest that 70 percent of India’s water is polluted and forty-one of the forty-four largest cities in China have polluted groundwater.” It has been said that if one glass of clean water were a cure for AIDS, most of the world’s people would have no access to it.
A further frightening statistic: half the world’s residents are under twenty-five; there are one billion adolescents. The reproductive behavior of the young is unpredictable. Young men have sperm that can leap over tall buildings in a single bound, and we do not know what these young fertiles will do. Hence, the future estimate of human numbers vary, peaking at nine, ten, or eleven billion people on a planet where no more than three billion of us could live and consume as the affluent do.
Thomas Aquinas is the super-saint when it comes to Catholic theology. At the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, two books were placed on the altar: the Bible and the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas. Therefore, it is surprising and little noted that Aquinas saw the need for birth control and even said it should be enforced by law if need be. Ironically, he is the hero of conservative Catholics who have not read his works.
Commenting on Aristotle’s Second Book of Politics, Aquinas agreed with Aristotle that excessive population growth would promote poverty, conflict, and social chaos as demand exceeds resources. Population must not be permitted to grow beyond a determined number. As Catholic author Johannes Messner comments in his magnum opus on natural law, Aquinas insists that we cannot have peace and equity in our society “and at the same time allow an infinite growth of the population.” Aquinas does not get into the thorny issues of just how a just state will manage this fertility limitation, but he stands with Aristotle in seeing its necessity. He does break with Aristotle when Aristotle speaks of the idea of encouraging men to have sex with men to avoid the generation of children. Aquinas condemns this “turpem masculorum coitum” (Lectio 15), but he does not condemn the need for population management.
The hard fact that did not penetrate into classical economics is that the resources of Earth are finite. Growth, therefore, cannot be infinite. Neither can waste. Earth is a closed system, and nothing gets out. Unless we start shipping our waste into space, it’s piling up here, polluting land and sea. But the infinity illusion has deep roots. Starting in the eighteenth century, exuberant optimism became the prevailing myth. This was a major shift. Ancient writers such as Xenophon, Hesiod, and Empedocles believed that human society was decaying away from the “golden age” of yesteryear. Pessimism was king. The idea of a lost aetas aurea shows up in societies as diverse as China and the Cherokee Indians. But as science got smart, we got cocky and high on infinity illusions. A new myth toppled the old.
It is a rule of life that as we demythologize we remythologize. In the new myth, progress, not decay, is our destiny. This juvenile optimism found influential expression in the Bretton Woods agreement of July 1944. In the opening session, Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and president of the conference, read a welcoming message from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He set the fatal tone of the gathering. He predicted the “creation of a dynamic world economy in which the people of every nation will be able to realize their potentialities in peace and enjoy increasingly the fruits of material progress on an earth infinitely blessed with natural resources” (emphasis added). This was the group that was fashioning the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and laying the groundwork for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades, that is, the foundations of the postwar world. And it was their faith “that prosperity has no fixed limits. It is not a finite substance to be diminished by division.” This is fictive dogma, a feat of transubstantiation hocus-pocus where the finite is pronounced infinite. This oxymoronic and moronic dogma of infinite growth on a finite Earth became the ruling assumption in the mythology of economics. Environmental concerns became “externalities,” a put-down if ever there was one. This ignores the fact, as Al Gore said, that the economy is the wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. Those meeting at Bretton Woods were not cold-hearted schemers. They hoped to end poverty and its resultant chaos, but their panacea was growth. Growth is the new divinity that shapes our ways. It is a new kind of fundamentalism. Instead of “let God do it,” this is “let growth do it.” Corporations became the high priests of growth. (In the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, these entities were elevated to persons—demigods, actually.) The result of this modern apotheosis is what David Korten calls “a global financial system that has become the world’s most powerful governance institution.” National governments are demoted to minions, liege to the market. And this newly created “governance institution” is not “of the people, for the people, by the people”—much less for the environment.
Homo sacralis (aka Homo sapiens) will not be without gods. Religion is a response to the sacred, and as one sacred being is removed, another steps in. Buddhist philosopher David R. Loy says that the capitalist market is functioning like a religion, issuing its commandments from its own Olympus and its own Sinai, superseding the increasingly dysfunctional major religious traditions. God used to be seen as disponens omnia fortiter and suaviter, managing everything with sweet gentleness and strength. Such a god merited absolute trust. With this god deposed, the market ascends the throne fortiter et suaviter disponens omnia. The market religion is booming, binding all corners of the globe into a worldview and a set of values that we think is secular but is functioning with religious fervor. Traditional religions, eat your hearts out; you have never matched the missionary zeal and success of this divine pretender.
In the book from which this article is taken, I argue that there are brilliant insights in the world’s religions that secular minds tut-tuttingly eschew. But first let us join many secular minds in admitting the messes that religions have made and fomented. Not to be forgotten is the stinging and telling indictment leveled by Lynn White Jr. in his famous 1967 essay charging that Christianity “bears a huge burden of guilt” for the ecocrisis. It helped to set us above—and thus against—the rest of nature.
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer points to another crucial sin of the major Western religions. In his book Is Religion Killing Us?, he cites the “violence-of-God traditions that are the heart of the Bible and the Qur’an. This is the elephant in the room of which nobody speaks.” Both religious traditions promote the idea of power as dominion over—power as dominance and violence as salvific. The crusaders didn’t have to make it up. It was there for the plucking. The error, however, is not isolated in the religions. As Nelson-Pallmeyer says, it is part of the unifying faith of most moderns, including atheists, Marxists, politicians, revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, communists, capitalists, anarchists, and government leaders who bankrupt their nations buying kill-power. “If religion and faith are about ultimate allegiance, then it can be said that violence is the world’s principal religion,” he writes.
Ecocide is the fatal mission on which our species has carelessly embarked, employing only ineffectual beaux gestes to brake our momentum. The more hopeful scientists tell us that we have a generation at most to bring about a radical change in our production/consumption habits and our relationship to Earth. After that we will face a major tipping point, a “point of no return,” when devastating changes will be beyond our capacity to reverse and will be irreversible. Worldwatch magazine once headlined an editorial: “It May Not Be Too Late.” That is as reassuring as a pilot announcing on takeoff, “This plane may not crash.” What’s worse—or better, if you have hope—scientists, unlike religious apocalyptics, talk numbers and even dates. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark offer dates on the falling of the sky: “The point of irreversible climate change is usually thought of as a 2 degree Centigrade (3.60 F) increase in global average temperature, which has been described as equivalent at the planetary level to the ‘cutting down of the last palm tree’ on Easter Island.” Climate scientists at Oxford University put this “planetary point of no return” at the year 2043, when cumulative carbon emissions may reach one trillion metric tons.
As Foster and Clark point out, “climate science is not exact enough to pinpoint precisely how much warming will push us past a planetary tipping point. But all the recent indications are that if we want to avoid planetary disaster we need to stay considerably below 2 degrees Centigrade.” It is at that point, as climatologist James Hansen states, we face a “planetary emergency since we will have started a process that is out of humanity’s control.”
That’s the sun from whose glare we seek shade.
When ultimate push comes to ultimate shove, we stretch. Crises, after all, did push the human brain to grow. Part of ethics involves choking. The hope is that our ethical choke reflex will happen when we face and experience the horrors we are wreaking. It could lead us to reject the cosmologies that the prevalent ethic underwrites and calls normal. The environmental doomsday date listed earlier is beginning to trigger the ethical choke reflex. The old normal must be buried.
The Greeks had two words for time: chronos, which is the time measured on clocks, and kairos, which signals opportune time, a moment when many possibilities converge. Ecologically, economically, and politically, the inundation of failures and the embarrassment of regnant paradigms might make this a kairos moment. Time to think new thoughts but also to salvage old wisdom—from every possible source—to save us from making history a repetition of errors and a cascade of disasters.
Daniel C. Maguire is a professor at Marquette University. His article “Humanism, Religion, and Authority” appeared in Free Inquiry’s Winter 1987/88 issue. This article is adapted from his new book, Christianity without God: Moving Beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative (SUNY Press, 2014).