Science, Religion, and Sustainable Development

Reflections on the 1900th Anniversary of the Book of Revelation for the Conference: Revelation and Environment, September,1995, Isle of Patmos

Herman E. Daly, School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland

The environment and the economy are in mortal combat. Sustainable development is an effort to resolve this conflict. But why does the effort to deal with this impending Armageddon inspire such a low sense of urgency and ethical motivation in major institutions like the University, the Church, and most national governments? These institutions are certainly not protecting the earth from destruction in the manner of the four angels in Rev. 7:1"holding back the four winds of the earth so that no wind could blow: on land or sea or against any treeŻ. Of course there are individual exceptions in each of these domains--prophetic voices that cry in the wilderness. But why are these cries evoking so little response in so much wilderness? What is required to break out of our default position of denial, and to face reality? Is the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine helpful in deeper ways than simply providing environmentalists with an ancient model for how to scare people into repentance with forecasts of doom? Is its message actually contrary to environmental preservation, as former US Secretary of the Interior, James Watt thought? His logical argument was that if the end of the world is near, then it makes no sense to save anything for a nonexistent beneficiary. Is there a more sane and hopeful message in Revelation ? I believe there is, and will return to it in closing. But first I want to consider in some detail why this message of hope is so little heard today, why our ears have become deaf to it.

Some very prominent scientists, working overtime as prophets calling for environmental repentance, have asked themselves a related question about religion in general. Some of them have decided that science has the techniques, but is unable to ignite sufficient moral fervor to induce the public to accept and finance policies that apply these techniques. They thought that it would be worth a try to appeal to religion to supply the missing moral fervor as a basis for political consensus and action. This resulted, in May of 1992, in the "Joint Appeal by Science and Religion on the Environment", led by the eminent scientists Carl Sagan, Edward 0. Wilson, and Stephen Jay Gould, along with a few religious leaders, and hosted by then Senator A1 Gore. The three scientists are quite well known not only for their highly informed and genuine concern about the environment, but also for their affirmations of scientific materialism and consequent renunciations of any religious interpretation of the cosmos. What then was their rationale for courting the religious community? It was that while science presumably had the understanding on which to act, it lacked the moral inspiration to act and to inspire others to act. Or, in a frequently used metaphor, religion was asked to supply the moral compass, and science would supply the vehicle.

I attended the conference, and was vaguely troubled at the time by what seemed to me a somewhat less than honest appeal by the scientists to a somewhat credulous group of religious leaders. A year or so later I read a book by a theologian, John F. Haught, who had also been present, and discovered that he had precisely articulated my vague doubts.

Haught wondered aloud,

Haught's point, of course, is that Sagan, Wilson, and Gould proclaim the cosmology of scientific materialism, which considers the cosmos an accident, and life within it to be no more than another accident, ultimately reducible to dead matter in motion. In their view there is no such thing as value in any objective sense, or purpose, beyond short term survival and reproduction which are purely instinctual, and thus ultimately mechanical. Calling for a moral compass in such a world is as absurd as calling for a magnetic compass in a world in which you proclaim that there is no such thing as magnetic north. A sensitive compass needle is worthless if there is no external lure toward which it is pulled. A morally sensitive person in a world in which there is no lure of objective value to pull and persuade this sensitized person toward itself, is like the compass needle with no external magnetic force to act on it.

One might reply that objective value does not exist externally, but is an internal affair created by humans (or by God in humans only) and projected or imposed by humans on the external world. This is the solution of dualism, and has been dominant since Descartes, both in science and theology. Purpose, mind, and value enter the world discontinuously in human beings; all the rest is mechanism. Such a view, however, is contrary to the evolutionary understanding of kinship of human beings with other forms of life that is affirmed by science. For mind, value and purpose to be real, they must, in an evolutionary perspective, be present to some degree in the world out of which humans evolved, or else be the object of a special creation, which of course is not acceptable to science and the theory of evolution. Scientific~c materialism resolves the dilemma by denying the reality of purpose, mind, and value in human beings as well as in the external world. The subjective feelings that we refer to as purpose or value are considered mere epiphenomena, ultimately explainable in terms of underlying physical structures and motions. The other resolution is to affirm purpose and value is not a human monopoly, but is the basis of real kinship among species.

This alternative to scientific materialism, one that still takes science seriously, is worked out in the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. This view is radically empirical. What we know most concretely and directly, unmediated by the sometimes deceptive senses or by abstract concepts, is our inner experience of purpose. That should be the starting point, the most well known thing in terms of which we try to explain less well known things. To begin with highly abstract concepts, such as electrons and photons, and explain the immediate experience of purpose as an "epiphenomenon" incidentally produced by the behavior of these abstractions, is an example of what Whitehead called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness". I do not wish to pretend that Whiteheadean philosophy is easy, or without difficulties of its own, but merely to say that for me it strains credulity a lot less than scientific materialism.

Gould himself has noted that: ".. we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well-- for we will not fight to save what we do not love (but only appreciate in some abstract sense) 2". But is it possible to love an accident? More to the point, is it possible for an accident to love an accident? For an accident to fight to save another accident? I doubt it, but I do not doubt that it is possible for human beings who call themselves scientific materialists to fall in love with the world they study and come to know intimately. God's world is lovable, and scientists often fall in love with it much more deeply than theologians! But should the scientists not confess that love, and ask themselves how it is that they could have fallen in love with something their science tells them is an accident? In their daily life are they particularly fond of other random events? There is something fundamentally silly about biologists teaching on MWF that everything, including our sense of value and reason, is a purposeless product only of genetic chance and environmental necessity and then on TT trying to convince the public that they, who are themselves accidents, should love some other accidental piece of this purposeless world enough to fight and sacrifice to save it.

The absurdity is confirmed by the scientists' apparent inability to find anything to appeal to in their effort to rouse public support for the environment other than religiously, based values that they themselves consider unfounded! Are they not trying to live by the fruit of the tree whose tap root they are cutting? Is not our entire society, including the scientists, living off the depleting moral capital of traditional religious belief, just as surely as it is living off the depleting natural capital of the ecosystem? As Haught puts it:

To call the scientists' proposal "quite ingenuous", as Haught does, is to be kind. It also should be surprising (and flattering beyond merit) to members of the religious community that the scientists should assume that the majority of today's religious people will in fact be led by their beliefs to care about the environment, when to date that has not happened. It is indeed a paradox that people whose professed beliefs give them no good reason to be environmentalists are usually trying harder to save the environment than are people whose beliefs give them every good reason to be environmentalists! The scientists are implicitly calling for a religious reformation, not just a moral compass that magically functions in an amoral universe--to point the scientists in the direction of public funds to save the environment.

As Alfred North Whitehead observed,

We might add that religious persons animated by belief in a Creator God, yet happily participating in the destruction of Creation, also constitute an interesting subject for study.

In the discussions during the meeting in Washington DC of the Joint Appeal, the void of purpose was frequently glossed over in discussions with the phrase "for our children". But of course if we are accidents then so are they, and the dilemma is not resolved by pushing it one generation forward. I recall that one lady was evidently so annoyed by the sentimentality of this often cloying invocation of "our children", that she took the microphone to say that she had no children, and was she to understand, therefore, that she had no reason to care about the future of God's Creation? I believe the lady was a reporter or photographer, not even an official participant, but I thought her intervention was one of the best. To read some biologists you would think that whoever does not manage to propel their genes into the next generation might as well never have lived.

Environmentalists and advocates of sustainable development really must face up to deep philosophical and religious questions about why their efforts ultimately make sense. Neither vague pantheistic sentimentality about Gaia, nor ad hoc wishful invention of instincts like "biophilia" can withstand much philosophical criticism. But they are welcome first steps away from pure scientific materialism. I find the ideas of a minority of Christian thinkers influenced by Whitehead, such as John B. Cobb, Jr., John F. Haught, and Charles Birch, to offer a much more solid base than either scientific materialism or traditional theology for loving nature enough to fight to save it (in the sense of not provoking its premature demise). Many other traditional religions share with Christianity a theology of creation (not the same as the literalist sect doctrine of "scientific creationism"), so the theological basis for something like "biophilia," as a persuasive virtue rather than a mechanical instinct, is by no means limited to Christianity. All traditional religions are enemies of the same modern idolatry-- that accidental man, through economic growth based on science and technology, is the true creator, and that the natural world is just a pile of instrumental building blocks to be used in furthering the arbitrary projects of one purposeless species. If we cannot assert a more coherent cosmology than that, then we might as well close the store and all go fishing--at least while the fish last.

The Revelation of St. John is an affirmation of cosmic purpose and the unfolding of a promise projected to the end of time. We need that affirmation today. We no longer understand the imagery of apocalyptic literature, and consequently the book has become the happy hunting ground for crazed, literalist, would-be messiahs of which David Koresh is only the most recent. I certainly sympathize with the Eastern Church's early reluctance to admit Revelation to the Canon. But its affirmation of cosmic purpose and of fulfillment of promise is crucial. In fact, it is the denial of purpose, explicit both in modern scientific materialism and deconstructionism, that drives people to look for purpose wherever they can find it, underground, as it were. They no longer find it in science, or even the humanities--indeed especially not in the humanities under the thrall of deconstructionist nihilism. Universities have totally abdicated on questions of meaning and purpose. Mainline Churches have not abdicated, but are often so identified with the dominant culture that their affirmation seems muted. This frequently leaves fundamentalist sects as the only alternative to secular meaninglessness, and by default the only public defenders of the irrepressible recognition that purpose is real, and that Creation carries with it a promise.

It is this message of hope in the purpose and promise of Creation that must be recaptured and proclaimed on the nineteen hundredth anniversary of the Book of Revelation. Both science and Christianity believe that the world will end--even Revelation's four angels at the four corners of the earth were only temporarily holding back the winds of destruction. Christianity affirms the hope and faith in God's promise that neither the world while it exists, nor its ultimate demise, are purposeless. Our main task is to reflect more deeply on our purposes and to align them with our best understanding of God's purposes. To end the world prematurely by our own actions, I submit, is to usurp God's prerogative as much as if we insisted on trying to make the world everlasting. To despair of making the world last as long as possible, because it will all end someday no matter what we do, is to lose faith both in God's promise and in our direct intimate experience of purpose as part of ourselves and therefore of the cosmos to which we belong. It is analogous to an individual commiting suicide rather than living life. To claim that the whole show is a purposeless exercise in random change leaves would-be environmentalists without a leg to stand on, and with a standing invitation to despair. In Revelation, after all the conflict, destruction, and decay, God's promise is affirmed in the final vision--that of the tree of life, as in Genesis, but this time instead of forbidden fruit it has healing leaves.


1 Haught, John F., 1993, The Promise of Nature: Ecology and Cosmic Purpose, the Paulist Press: Mahwah, N.J. See also, Charles Birch, 1980, On Purpose. New South Wales University Press, Ltd., Kensington, NSW, Australia.

2 S. J. Gould, 1991, "Unenchanted Evening", in (September) Natural History, p.14. For an insightful discussion see David Orr, Earth in Mind. Island Press, Washington D.C., 1994, Chapter 20.

3 A. N. Whitehead, The Function of Reason. 1929, Princeton University Press