The Divinization of the Earth: A “Religion” Without a “God”

The direct connection between theories of earth primacy and brutal control of human beings through abortion, sterilization, and euthanasia simply cannot be avoided

(us.fotolia.com | Elena Ray)

(us.fotolia.com | Elena Ray)

“With cries that pierce me to the heart, / my enemies revile me, / saying to me all the day long: / ‘Where is your God?’” — Psalm 42.

“In paganism, the Divine is that to which sacrifices must be offered. This is almost a definition. In this recent movement, Man is something that should be sacrificed on behalf of the Earth. The divinization of the Earth is an extremely consequential move, since it is supposed to be higher than Man.” — Rêmi Brague, “Are There as Many Gods as Religions?” (Modern Age, Summer 2015)

I.

With so much current discussion in panic mode of “earth warming” and “environmental” issues, along with the selling of fetal parts and massive abortions, we need to ask ourselves: “What is going on here?” The popular view is that man, by his very presence on it, is “abusing” the earth. Earth is said to be “greater” than man. In the context of so many billion human beings, each life is insignificant and can be replaced. Thus, morality starts, not with man, but with the earth. Man is second, not first. This human “earth-exploitation” thesis seems to be in conflict with the biblical view that man has “dominion” over the goods of the earth. Those goods are there for man’s use to achieve his purposes, which are not primarily “earth” centered, even though they take place on this planet.

The earth itself, however, has no inner consciousness of itself. It does not behold itself. Unlike man, it has no possibility of being other than it is. There are those who want to hold both sides of this issue. That is, they do not want to “abuse” the earth, whatever that means, but they also want to use the goods available for human needs. This usage seems to be what they are for (that same approach seems also to be Aristotle’s position). But this view brings up the controverted issue: “Just what cohort of mankind are these given resources designed to support?” The current one? All those of past and future? The future but not the present? The entire human race is constantly replicating itself; this steady reproducing of itself is how mankind stays in existence on this planet. One way, no doubt unpopular, to stop human “pollution” would simply be to stop reproducing—a kind of universal vow of chastity. This is not a widely heard view!

The human race has already lived on this planet for thousands upon thousands of years. Man himself appears on the earth as a late-comer but still as both properly belonging to it and yet, because of his intelligence, transcendent to it. If we assume that some ninety to a hundred billion human beings have already lived on the earth, we see that they have been “sustained” more or less well by the earth’s abundance. Contrary to expectations, individual members of the species are generally much better off the later they appear on the planet, at least as far as their physical conditions. Few past eons realized how richly the earth was endowed from its beginning by whatever caused it to be rather than not be. And even today this abundance cannot be understood and used except by insightful human intelligence.

Thus, it is increasingly realized that what is available to man is itself a function of man’s knowledge and craft. When we piously talk of “preserving” resources for “future” generations, we encounter something of an enigma. We have no idea how many generations are ahead of us in coming centuries or millennia. To pretend that we do know is pure arrogance. Some thinkers seem to assume that a one-to-one correlation exists between the number of future generations and the diminishing available resources. This assumption estimates that man will end when resources are exhausted—unless he escapes to the cosmos someplace. The “real” human mission, it is said, is to keep us alive and comfortable on this planet as long as possible. This endeavor is the “serious” task that faces mankind against which all others purposes pale into insignificance. The alternative to heaven thus becomes either interstellar colonization or keeping the earth pristine.

Yer, there is no real reason to think this way. It is, as such, not science but a secular eschatological hypothesis designed to replace, as Benedict said in Spe Salvi, the Christian understanding of eternal life. It bears all the marks of a new or revitalized ancient worship of earth. In other words, its empirical basis is nothing but guess-work. The purpose of man on earth and the amount of resources in the earth, sun, and stars may have nothing to do with each other. Or the resources may be designed to support man for as long as man is intended to exist for purposes of his initial creation, which was not simply to keep him going for as long as possible.

The real end and purpose of man on earth are seldom seen in terms of resources but in terms of his own conduct and obedience to what is good. His existence is pictured as most precarious not because of resources but because of his belief and conduct. The Socratic principle that grounds our civilization, that it is “never right to do wrong,” is more likely to treat the planet as it was created than any wild speculations about resources availability in seven or seventeen hundred years hence to whoever is around at the time.

Thus, it is quite possible, and indeed likely, for God or nature to have provided more than enough to support the actual number of human persons who will live on this planet. The end of humankind on earth may or may not correspond with available resources. Resources probably do not, in fact, have much to do with man’s purpose in his coming to be. His end may come about by meteor collisions, sidereal explosions, human folly, or simply the end of a divine “plan”. The phrase “Ye know not the day or the hour” (Matt 25:13) rather suggests that the end times have little to do with whether resources are spare or abundant.

The fact is that mankind has been able to figure out what it needed only when the time came for man to need it. If we tried to keep alive and prosperous the seven billion people alive on the planet today with the technology and understanding available in 1700, the world would quickly collapse. Likewise, if we assume that the knowledge and know-how in three hundred years from now will be the same as today, there is no doubt that we would not be able to deal with the actual population that will exist at that time, whatever it may be.

What I want to look at here is the intellectual connection that exists between 1) the recurrent proposals of people like Johann Schellnhuber to reduce the present planetary population, in the name of ecology, to fewer than one billion, and 2) the anti-life means and assumptions that justify this reduction. In one sense, the “logic” is very clear. Resources are rapidly running out. They disappear because of existing human beings. Therefore, we must drastically reduce the number of consumers to fit a resource base that will last a long time—again, how long, no one knows. The saving of the earth justifies eliminating and controlling people. The counter-assumption that resources are plentiful and that man can figure out how to use them for his good and prosperity is rejected. It is rejected not on the basis of facts, at least proven ones, but on the basis of what can only be called a religious or ideological fervor that has elevated the earth itself to the center of reality.

What this thinking means is that something greater than individual human life and its transcendent end exists. This greater “being” is, evidently, not a “god” who has implanted a natural order in things, including human things. Rather it is the on-going cycles of the lives of the collectivity (less than one billion) chosen to continue in existence. To this remnant’s “survival” all other human life is subordinate. The “means” to achieve this end, whatever they prove to entail, are justified by the seriousness of crises like earth-warming and other impending dooms. The “ethic” of planetary preservation trumps any human ethic of virtue or human purpose. What we see here is a quasi-mystical “religion” without a “god”. What substitutes for “god” are the some billion human beings designated for survival by the theory and politics of limited earth capacity and over-usage by “too many” actual human beings.

II.

In Psalm 14 (and also Psalm 53), we find the famous passage that reads: “The fool says in his heart that ‘There is no god.’” Since it is the “fool” who maintains that there is no god, we can assume that this position is an erroneous judgment. God does exist. The “fool” evidently wants God “not” to be. He has to talk himself into this position. He speaks to his own “heart” as it ponders the information he does not want to hear. But no one, including the fool himself, really wants to be or thought to be a “fool”. We have the impression in this famous passage that the “fool” only needs to “wise up” and he will see that God exists. This “wising up” process is not, however, simply a matter of mind. This is why the issue is related to the “heart”, as if to say that one’s relation to God has something to do with one’s own choice about how he sees reality.

In Psalm 42, we have a slightly different prospectus. There it is the good man who is complaining to God about his mocking enemies. It seems as if God has abandoned him. He is “pierced to the heart”. His enemies “revile” him. They do not see any good consequences coming from his belief. They want to know: “Where is this so-called God of yours?” They disbelieve because they see no results from believing. Neither does the psalmist see any results, but at least he “cries out”. This very reaction implies that a universe exists in which someone capable of answering the Psalmist is out there. He may not answer, not because, as the atheist thinks, no god exists, but because one’s belief is not dependent on waiting for God to give us an incontrovertible sign of His existence. If we “had” to believe that God existed, with evidence impossible to deny placed before us, there would be no purpose in creating beings other than God in the first place.

III.

I bring up these reflections on the “fool” who says that there is no God in the light of Rémi Brague’s recent reflections in Modern Age on the relation between God and religion. Brague points out that many possibilities are open to us. We can have: 1) one religion with many gods, 2) a religion with no god, 3) many religions with the same god, 4) many religions with different gods, 5) many religions with no god, 6) a god with no religion, or 7) one religion which is itself a “god”. We thus must deal with the questions “What do we call ‘god’”? and “What is a religion?” Christians and Jews have the same God but only partly the same religion. The Muslim Allah is described in terms totally different from the Yahweh of the Jews and Christians.

The God of the Jews and Christians creates a world of which He is not a part. The world is not God. God is the same God even if the world does not exist. Creation is not a god, neither is the Sun, Earth, or entire Cosmos. Human beings, individually or collectively, are not and cannot be “gods”. If “god” is considered to be, not a “being” with its own autonomy, but “what I consider important”, we can conceive of “religions” that have no “gods”. All through the modern era, since the French Revolution, people, nation, state, humanity, race, class, even sex or gender, can be considered as candidates to substitute for “god”. The latest candidate to replace “god” is the “earth” itself. This “goddess” is not new, of course. A “Mother Earth” is understood as that which takes care of everything; she hovers over life and death, future and past.

As Brague pointed out, to make the on-going earth itself the central object of our concern and ethics is “extremely consequential”. Why? If the earth is “god”, why would it ever let man appear on it to foul it up? If we reverse the central axiom of our relation to the earth, namely, that the “Earth is for man” to read “Man is for Earth”, the whole of our modern justification for absolute control of man, long sought by all idealistic tyrants, unfolds logically. If we uncritically accept the thesis that world population should be reduced to less than one billion human beings, otherwise there will be disaster, we can see that the notions of human worth and the inviolability of the person must yield to a pressing “necessity”. And, in the minds of the advocates of this proposition, they do yield. Man is subordinate to earth, at least to its necessities as environmentalists envision them.

If, by hypothesis, we have too many people (and there is no proof that we do), we need to reduce our birth rate and population numbers. We need to institute widespread and inexpensive euthanasia, the principles of which are already in place in many countries and states, to rid ourselves of useless poor or people who are not otherwise perfect, We need to dismantle those technologies and structures (dams, ports, roads, machines) that were designed to support larger populations. We need to “plan” for the elimination of excessive human numbers. This rationale is why things such as contraception, sterilization, and gay-marriages, intrinsically sterile as they all are, have their appeal—“sex” without consequences. But sex without consequences leads to reproduction outside the womb, to the laboratories.

Indeed, it would be well to take the whole issue of children out of the personal context of mothers, fathers, and families. We should put it in the hands of “science” and the state, in baby farms, where it can be treated “rationally”. In this way, the numbers and types of children could be more easily regulated by the state. With in vitro and other extra womb technologies, this looks to be feasible. The poor, as Justice Ginsburg advocates, should be eliminated not by making them rich but by cutting their reproduction capacities and support for “unwanted” children. Abortion is not merely a “back-up contraception”, but a necessary operation to rid ourselves of every “unwanted” or ‘unlicensed” child. China and India have already pioneered this approach.

The direct connection between theories of earth primacy and brutal control of human beings through abortion, sterilization, and euthanasia simply cannot be avoided. If, as Brague says, that “religion” without “god” indicates that to which sacrifices should be demanded, the reduction of world population becomes a “bloody sacrifice” in the name of the earth and its preservation. Its enemy is man and his well-being as he can discover it for himself. Since 1980, the world has seen 1.3 billion abortions. We now see that aborted fetuses are used for commercial purposes.

How are we to look on this? These barbaric operations are now viewed as “necessary bloody sacrifices” to the “goddess” earth for its well-being. The notion that individual human persons of our kind have a transcendent dignity no longer holds. It is, indeed, the cause of our ecological problems. We have, as Brague says, something greater than man. It is not “God” or even a “god”. It is the earth itself seen to be our only end as it floats around the sun, with around a billion inhabitants, for no other purpose than to keep itself going on and on with limited “available resources”.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.