Michael Barnes Norton – “Comparative Philosophy of Religion and Climate Change”

Michael Barnes Norton is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the School of Human Inquiry at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As others in this series have already pointed out, there are several different ways of understanding what comparative philosophy of religion is and in what ways it may be useful. A comparative approach may shed light on the difference between the philosophical problems that have emerged between different traditions or schools of thought, or on different ways of approaching similar problems. A comparative approach is also particularly useful in addressing the more fundamental question of what, exactly, constitutes a “religion” or a “religious” concept or practice. Given that this term has a specifically European provenance, and that its meaning has historically tended to be overdetermined by Christian theological commitments, it always behooves contemporary philosophers of religion to consider how and to what extent “religion” adequately describes traditions outside the Abrahamic umbrella.1 Assuming for practical purposes that we can meaningfully talk about religion in widely cross-cultural contexts, though, the question remains as to what issues properly belong to the category of comparative philosophy of religion. While questions about the existence and nature of souls, suprahuman beings and forces, or an afterlife are evident choices, I would like to suggest the problem of climate change as an issue that comparative philosophy of religion has unique resources to address.

The present crises associated with anthropogenic climate change, as well as those forecasted in both the near and distant future, may typically be understood as issues more appropriate for environmental, socio-political, and moral philosophy. Besides the general problem of theodicy related to the suffering involved in climate catastrophes, the ways in which such catastrophes are problems for consideration specifically within the context of philosophy of religion is perhaps not immediately apparent. Yet, confronting the advent of the so-called Anthropocene epoch, which brings with it a continually increasing threat to the continued existence of most or all of human life (not to mention the hundreds of other species already going extinct every day), raises questions about a possible end of our world that philosophy of religion ought to be well equipped to address. Climate apocalypse is not an article of faith posited by a particular religious tradition but rather an existential threat predicted on the basis of observations of the earth on which we all live. Because it is an urgent issue affecting practitioners of all religious traditions, I would contend that an approach to climate change from philosophy of religion demands a comparative approach.

Lynn White’s well-known 1967 Science article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” posits that our contemporary climate crises are the result not just of rampant industrialization, overreliance on fossil fuels, deforestation, etc., but more fundamentally of the influence of a particular Christian theological view of the relationship between humans and nature on the West.2 This view holds that humans stand in a privileged position in nature, at the center of a world created by God for our use and placed under our more or less absolute authority. White argues that confronting climate change necessarily involves confronting the problematic legacy of this view and replacing it with a more ecological perspective, such as that offered by Francis of Assisi. In the years since its publication, White’s article has received both positive and negative reactions, with many of the latter claiming (correctly, I believe) that it offers an overly simplistic account of a much more complex issue.

I do think White’s core point is undeniable: there is a religious dimension to the historical and social forces that have led the world into the Anthropocene. White’s call to reevaluate the legacy of Christian anthropocentrism in the West in light of climate change, and to look for alternatives both within and outside of the history of Christian thought, can serve as a call for a comparative philosophy of religion approach to this crucial issue. In both religious studies and theology, comparative treatments of “religion and ecology” as a topic have abounded in the last couple of decades, yet there has been less such work within the boundaries of philosophy of religion.3 I suggest that this is fertile ground from which new comparative philosophy can emerge. For instance: one point for which White’s essay has been criticized is its claims that non-Western traditions are inherently more ecologically-minded than Western Christianity. Soon after the essay’s publication, Yi-Fu Tuan challenged this by pointing to China’s industrialization practices in the mid-twentieth century and comparing it to those of Europe.4 A comparative approach to philosophy of religion and the environment might take the critical position of work like Tuan’s and interweave it with constructive accounts of more ecologically friendly religious resources in both Christianity and Chinese culture.5

As another example, using comparative philosophy of religion to respond to climate crises also creates an opportunity to engage with indigenous thought about both environmental and religious concepts. Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro contrast indigenous American and European views on both the limits of the world (past and future) and the place of humans within nature, showing how eschatological, metaphysical, and ecological concerns are inextricably intertwined within the horizon of the Anthropocene.6 The possible end of human life on earth is clearly a matter at the center of the thought of many religious traditions, and as such philosophical considerations of such a topic qua religious would do well to proceed comparatively just as philosophical approaches that are already comparative would do well do recognize the religious aspects of the matter.

The earth is of course finite, and no point on it is merely local. Climate, by definition, is global, and what occurs in one area will in some way or other affect us all. Climate change thus serves as a context within which the diversity of religious thought and practice around the world becomes a crucial consideration. The practical demands of our present climate crises make comparative work in philosophy of religion all the more important.

1. On this point, see for example Richard King: “Philosophy of Religion as Border Control: Globalization and the Decolonization of the ‘Love of Wisdom’ (philosophia).” In Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion, edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and Andrew B. Irvine (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), 35-53.

2. White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 10, 1967): 1203–7. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.155.3767.1203.

3. I recognize this raises the question of the proper distinctions between philosophy of religion, religious philosophy, and theology. The contributions to a volume such as Ecospirit (edited by Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller, New York: Fordham University Press, 2007) – coming from perspectives that are clearly theological, clearly philosophical, and somewhere in between – make this question even more difficult, as perhaps it should be.

4. Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Discrepancies Between Environmental Attitude and Behaviour: Examples from Europe and China.” The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien 12, no. 3 (September 1968): 176–91. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1541-0064.1968.tb00764.x.

5. An example of the latter is: James Miller. China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

6. Danowski, Déborah, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. The Ends of the World. Malden, MA: Polity, 2017.

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