How Christianity, Western Science & Technology Exploited Nature in America: Birth of the Environmental Movement

Y. Datta


The objective of this paper is to understand why the Western civilization had exploited nature so much that its own quality of life--even its survival--was now at stake. The answer is: the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A central belief of the Judeo-Christian theology has been dualism—that man is separate from nature—and anthropocentrism: that man is the master and the center of this universe, with a license to exploit nature.

Christianity prospered in the great cities of the time which were--like today--the centers of economic and cultural attraction. Therefore, a concentration of population in urban areas must have exerted a deep influence over the entire character of Christianity.

Victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of the Western culture.

Pre-Christian cultures believed in animism: that every part of the environment--living and non-living—had a consciousness. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. Severed from the human community and its ethical protection, nature was fully exposed to human greed.

The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly two millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, based on the idea that they are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.

St. Francis was the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history since Christ. He preached the notion of equality of all creatures—including man—in opposition to the idea of man’s unlimited rule over nature sanctioned by Christian theology. Unfortunately, he failed.

Aristotle’s scientific philosophy of nature—animate and alive—dominated Western thought for two thousand years after his death. However, thanks to the Scientific Revolution, a radical change occurred in scientific thought during the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result, this medieval worldview went through a fundamental change. The notion of an organic and spiritual universe was replaced by that of the world as a machine, and the word machine became a dominant metaphor of the modern era.

Around 1850, Western Europe and North America arranged a marriage between science and technology that signified the Baconian creed of power over nature. Its acceptance as a normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture.

While the Transcontinental Railroad connected East and West, yet, in its wake, lives of countless Native Americans were destroyed. In addition, tens of million buffalos were almost driven to extinction.

Pre-Christian societies believed that every part of the natural environment had a consciousness or spirit. The work of Suzanne Simard provides an excellent real-world example of the veracity of such belief. Her research shows that forests have a social life, and that trees talk to each other.

Sheldrake, based on his controversial theory of Morphic Resonance, says that natural systems inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind, no matter how faraway they were, nor how long ago they existed.

The Scientific Revolution’s theory of reductionism encourages an atomistic and disintegrated view of nature. However, Nature is through and through relational, and interference at one point, has interminable and unforeseeable results on the other.

The first occupants of North America—the Native Americans--were better custodians of the ecosystem than the subsequent tenants. Native Americans considered the rights of animals, plants—and even rocks—as sacred.

America is a leader in the creation of national parks and wilderness areas, and has served as a model for countries around the world.

Eastern religions--e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen Buddhism—totally reject the dualism and anthropocentrism of Christianity. By advocating the submersion of the human self in a larger organic whole, they cleared the intellectual way for environmental ethics.

An extraordinary transformation has taken place in America: one that has replaced fear and hatred of wilderness in the past, to appreciation—and even reverence.

Wilderness is not so much a place, but rather as a feeling about a place: a perceived reality, and a state of mind.

The image of the earth as Mother is found in traditional cultures all over the world. So, we feel uncomfortable when we realize that we are polluting our own Mother.

Finally, astronomer Carl Sagan--and 22 other well-known researchers--issued an appeal in 1990. Their message was:

  • The “efforts to safeguard and cherish the environment need to be infused with a vision of the sacred.”

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