Face facts, George Monbiot. Our environmental catastrophe is partly your responsibility

[It goes without saying that I would only write such an article about someone I truly respected and admired. My line of reasoning in the heading is that George Monbiot the high-priest of agressive secularism and George Monbiot the environmental campaigner contains a fatal contradiction, a contradiction that is pervasive in the modern, industrial, Enlightened philosophy.]

Dear George Monbiot,

Last Tuesday’s article in the Guardian, Face facts, Cardinal. Our awful rate of abortion is partly your responsibility, made its central point very well, better far than I have seen it made elsewhere. However there was one telling sentence.

Murphy-O’Connor has denounced contraception and abortion many times. That’s what he is there for: the primary purpose of most religions is to control women.

This last sentence is of course a rhetorical assertion. It makes a mistake which is truly endemic in our culture, a bundling together of things that we resent and then projecting their causes onto religion. This habit is surprisingly pervasive, being widespread for example in Buddhist circles (I am a Buddhist), the assumption being that Buddhism is somehow different and authentic while Christianity is shallow and a kind of crude mind-control that we have out-grown. It really isn’t at all possible to parody this kind of thinking for the more crude you make it to try and make the point, the more you just find people nodding in agreement. It is a lazy kind of thinking and we are very fond of it.

I wouldn’t be bothering myself too much with it except I think it is pointing to a crucial factor driving humanity over the cliff that you have charted so clearly. We are manifestly destroying our environment, at least for our children, yet we can’t make the changes even though they are relatively easy to make, and this indicates there is something fundamentally wrong with our philosophy. The root of the problem is in our minds and it started with the Enlightenment when we discarded all the philosophy of our ancestors as outdated and declared ourselves as Enlightened. This great turning away from religion, started the trend for letting religion take responsibility for whatever ills were convenient. (This doesn’t mean that religion, like everything else, didn’t and doesn’t have problems, or that it wasn’t and isn’t going through a profound crisis.)

The key to all religious thought is an awareness of the problems and temptations of materialism, and there is no doubt that materialism is the root cause of our environmental crisis.

I have written about this in an article, Only a philosophical revolution can save us from climate catastrophe, where I take issue with an Observer article by John Gray (I think I forwarded it to you). I have the early draft of a book, In Search of Sense and Sensibility, that analyses Jane Austen’s novels (especially her first-published Sense and Sensibility), for she seemed to be highly aware of the mistake that was being made, and I know of no critique that is nearly as effective as hers. Having integrated the great Eighteenth century novelists to give us the modern novel, she is almost unique in being grounded in the old philosophy while making no inconsiderable contribution to the new. The preface to In Search of Sense and Sensibility tries to explain her relevance to the challenges facing us today.

At the risk of some repetition, I will finish by saying why I think your above statement about the ‘primary purpose of most religions’ or even Christianity is unhelpful to your cause.

  1. European (and many other cultures) managed to organise themselves in pan-European social structures that survived many centuries, living quite sustainably up until the late 18th century when we proclaimed ourselves Enlightened and started turning away from religion.
  2. Many great people—the likes of Shakespeare, Newton, Johnson and Austen (to mention a tiny sample)—found great meaning in their religion, certainly more than a mere vehicle for oppressing women, and these people have collectively provided the cultural foundations on which our modern civilization is based. It is not clear that we have shown ourselves to be so superior to them or that such sweeping condescending comments have much content beyond the merely rhetorical.
  3. The record of our increasingly secular civilization since that time has been truly dismal, probably the most greedy violent, confused, arrogant and collectively miserable civilization in history.
  4. One of the great advances of our civilisation has been a collective determination to dismantle the oppressive power structures. It should be noted that this followed an initially appalling record where the oppression of women became worse with the 18th century rise of legalism and individualism that concentrated power in the (male) head of the household and separated working-class women from the means of production with urbanisation. It is not clear that our ‘liberated’ contemporary social arrangements that sees so many working-class women rearing children with no support from father, extended family or community is such a marvellous advancement in practice.
  5. This movement to liberate women does not have to be confined to the secular sphere as we can see in the trend for religions to start ringing the changes. In Tibetan Buddhism this is quite marked. Although the religion does have great female practitioners they have been in practice few and far between because of traditional social restrictions. It is clear that the Tibetan masters are more than happy to take on Western cultural norms and this is reflected in their Western organisations (at least the ones I have seen) where women are entirely equal at all levels in the administrative and spiritual domains.
  6. Prior to the separation of Church and State religious organisations were intimately involved in the business of temporal power management. That they should get involved in the whole business of oppressing women should come as no surprise. It does not follow from this that their primary business was to oppress women.
  7. At least 80% of the world’s population see religion as a part of the way they structure their lives. One of the defining qualities of religion is to provide a meaningful existence that is not predicated on purely materialistic values. Yet we have good reason to believe that our modern materialism, our seeking of fulfilment through consumption is making us unhealthy, miserable and leading us into knowing destroying our children’s future—and there can hardly be worse indictment of a ‘civilization’ than that. For secularists to generically hammer away at religion is an entirely fruitless and counterproductive way of transforming the world for the better (even supposing it were at all desirable to discredit and so destroy all religion): there is simply too much cultural inertia; we will be toast long before this strategy could possibly succeed. On the contrary we in the secular West need to engage positively and rationally with religion and help transform it into a positive force for the world: our future almost certainly depends upon it.

For more details see the preface to In Search of Sense and Sensibility.

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