I [Brendan O'Neill] am avowedly atheist. But listening to the bishops' drab, eco-pious Christmas sermons, I couldn’t help thinking: ‘Bring back God!’
He might be the Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus guardian of the Anglican faith. But every time I see Dr Rowan Williams’ smug face or hear his social-worker voice, I feel like breaking at least one of the Ten Commandments (I’ll leave it to readers’ febrile imaginations to guess which one).
They say we get the leaders we deserve. We also get the bishops we deserve. And in an age of petty piety, where relativistic non-judgementalism coexists with new codes of personal morality, giving rise to a Mary Poppins State more than a Nanny State, it’s fitting that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a trendy schoolteacher type who dispenses hectoring ethical advice with a smarmy grin rather than with fire-and-brimstone relish.
In his Christmas sermon, delivered at Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Williams finally completed his journey from old-world Christianity to trendy New Ageism. His sermon was indistinguishable from those delivered (not just at Christmas but for life) by the heads of Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. Williams did not speak about Christian morality; in fact, he didn’t utter the m-word at all. He said little about men’s responsibility to love one another and God, the two Commandments Jesus Christ said we should live by. Instead he talked about our role as janitors on planet Earth, who must stop plundering the ‘warehouse of natural resources’ and ensure that we clean up after ourselves.
Williams has clearly been reading the Good Books – not the Bible, but those Carbon Calculator tomes that are clogging up bookshop shelves around the country, and which instruct people on how to live so meekly that they leave no imprint whatsoever on the planet or human history. He said that Earth does not exist only for ‘humanity’s sake’; it also exists ‘in its own independence and beauty… not as a warehouse of resources to serve humanity’s selfishness’.
Williams warned that our greed – presumably our insatiable lust for warm homes, cars, cookers and other outrageous luxuries – is killing the planet. He welcomed the fact that mankind is ‘growing in awareness of how fragile [the planet] is, how fragile is the balance of species and environments in the world and how easily our greed distorts it’. In 2008, we must take more seriously our ‘guardianship’ of the Earth, he declared (1).
Williams isn’t the only leading Christian who has sold his soul to Gaia and traded in Christian morality for the pieties of environmentalism. The Reverend John Owen, leader of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, said in his Christmas sermon that everyone should remember his or her ‘duty to the planet’. He urged people to recycle leftover food, and ‘redouble [your] efforts to take action and campaign against climate change’ in the coming year (2). Meanwhile, the Vatican is taking steps to become the world’s first carbon-neutral sovereign state by planting trees in a Hungarian national park to offset the CO2 emissions of the Holy See. Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, says that in 2008 there should be the ‘dawn of a new culture, of new attitudes and a new mode of living that makes man aware of his place as caretaker of the earth’ (3).
The reduction of man to an eco-janitor, a being who creates waste and thus must clear it up, is more than a cynical attempt by isolated Christian leaders to connect with the public. Yes, Williams, Owen, the Holy See and Co. no doubt hope and believe (mistakenly, I’m sure) that adopting trendy Greenspeak will entice people to return to the church. But the move from focusing on love for God and one’s neighbour to focusing on ‘respect for the planet’ represents more than a rebranding exercise: it signals a complete abandonment by the Christian churches of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. And in this sense, it is not only God that is being downgraded by the new nature-worshipping priests; so is humanity itself. And that’s enough to make even a committed atheist like me worry about the current direction of the Christian churches.
Christian teaching was once concerned with man, meaning and morality, with questions of free will, inner life and human destiny. As it happens, atheists, at least progressive ones, were concerned with exactly the same things. The chasm-sized difference between atheists and Christians occurred over the question of whether the moral meaning of man came from within or without; whether, as some atheists believed, the purpose of humanity was to be found within humanity itself; or, as Christians believed, humanity achieved meaning only through an external deity, God.
Where Christian morality granted man a diluted form of free will – underpinned by the idea that, yes, we make free choices, but God is the ultimate arbiter of our destiny – progressive atheists emphasised complete free will, arguing that only through full freedom of thought and a human-centred morality could humans remake the world in their own image and according to their own needs and desires.
Christians and atheists may have spent much of the past 200 years at each other’s throats, but they inhabited the same moral plane. Theirs was literally a struggle for the soul of humanity. Today, by contrast, Christian leaders have abandoned questions of morality and free will. They now view people as little more than waste managers, ‘caretakers’, eco-binmen, whose job is to sweep up after themselves and keep the planet in good nick. Instead of remaking the world in anybody’s image – whether it be God’s, man’s, Buddha’s or L Ron Hubbard’s – man must simply adapt to his surroundings like an amoeba; indeed, he must minimise as much as possible his impact on the planet. Old Christians taught us that ‘the Kingdom of God is within you’ (4), which was their flawed way of saying that man is a sovereign being, free and morally responsible. Today Christians say: ‘You are merely guests in the Warehouse of Resources. So be quiet, don’t get any ideas above your station, and please shut the door when you leave.’
The cult of environmentalism embraced by the Christian churches does away with morality altogether. Some sceptics claim that environmentalism is a new form of moralistic hectoring; it is better to see it as amoralistic hectoring. In judging everything by how much CO2 or pollution it creates, environmentalism dispenses with questions of moral worth and judgement. So a flight to visit a newborn nephew in Australia (5.61 tonnes of CO2) is as wicked as taking a flight to Barbados to lounge in the sun; and the transportation of delicious food from Africa to Britain is as unforgivable as the transportation of weapons and drugs from Latin America to Los Angeles: after all, both involve exploiting the ‘warehouse of resources’ and upsetting the ‘fragile balance of species and environments’, as Williams put it (5). When human actions are judged by their levels of pollution alone, the issue of meaning – of why we do things, who we do them for, and how we might do them better – is implicitly downgraded.
This is why in his Christmas sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury quoted extensively, not from the Bible, but from Richard Dawkins, who is considered by many to be the Rottweiler of the New Atheism. What today’s eco-Christians and New Atheists share in common is a view of man as animalistic and degraded, as a ‘mammal’ (as Christopher Hitchens describes us in his book God is Not Great) which ought to take its place alongside other mammals on this mortal coil. On the way in which religion distorts people’s minds, Hitchens writes: ‘What else was to be expected of something that was produced by the close cousins of chimpanzees?’ (6) Where Williams and other eco-Christians see mankind as merely a cog in the planetary wheel, Hitchens and other New Atheists see mankind as only the sum of his genes, still, in essence, a monkey.
If yesterday’s Christians and atheists inhabited the same moral plane, fighting tooth and nail over the purpose of mankind, today’s eco-Christians and New Atheists inhabit the same amoral plane, bickering with each other but also frequently agreeing that man is a bit of a shit.
‘Religion is only the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve around himself’, said Marx (7). Many of the great atheists of old were concerned with making man the centre of his moral universe; with freeing him up to become the ‘superhuman’ that he aspired to be, but which he could only glimpse in an illusory God (8). Today, by contrast, both eco-Christians and New Atheists want to bring man and God crashing back down to Earth… so that we can set about cleaning it up like the good little earthly janitors we are. At a time of such low horizons, is it any wonder that some people still do cling on to God, and seek transcendence from mundane everyday life through a belief in divinity? There is more humanity in their ‘superhuman’ delusions than there is in the monkeyman realism of eco-Christians and New Atheists.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.
Previously on spiked
Frank Furedi said many religions are now in search of eco-salvation. Dolan Cummings wanted to be counted out of atheism’s creed. Michael Fitzpatrick criticised the anti-God squad and asked whether Jesus was a revolutionary. Or read more at spiked issue Religion.
(1) In full: Archbishop’s Christmas sermon, BBC News, 25 December 2007
(2) Human greed is a threat to the planet, warns Williams, Independent, 26 December 2007
(3) Turning green – Vatican takes step to become world’s first carbon neutral sovereignty, Catholic Online, 13 July 2007
(4) Luke, 17:21
(5) In full: Archbishop’s Christmas sermon, BBC News, 25 December 2007
(6) God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 2007
(7) Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right, Marx, 1844
(8) Contribution To The Critique Of Hegel’s Philosophy Of Right, Marx, 1844 Spiked