I think it’s a well established with most people who know me that I am deeply non-religious, and while I am not as militant in my views as in the past, I have never shied away from expressing them when asked, nor have I hidden them in the presence of others. I feel that there is a lot to be said for a secular mindset in conservation, and that religion of any background can actually detract from the efforts of conservationists and ecologists. I shall outline my argument from 3 positions, namely the impact of religion on conservation, our understanding of our place in the universe, and our responsibility to the future of the planet.
Firstly, the common belief in most religions is that humankind is “special” and that this world belongs to us. Bequeathed unto us, to do with it as we will. We are its masters and inherent of all its bounties. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are the product of over 3.8 billion years of evolution, and are currently at the top of the food chain. We have large brains and brittle bodies. That large brain has entitled us with the ability to tame and break the environment around us. The environment is not designed, and it does not have a correct way of doing things, and nature certainly does not have a purpose. It responds and evolves accordingly to whatever may impact on it. To quote Richard Dawkins, Nature is neither kind nor cruel, merely indifferent. Religion detracts from this, and constantly reinforces the idea that nature is there for us, it is planned, and WE COME FIRST, and that none of this really matters, as this is a trial run and a test for the afterlife. Religion teaches us that we are the centre of the universe and that everything was made for us. It is perfect, infallible, and it is a gift to the most important creatures (us) in all “creation”. Again, the sad fact is that man is not the centre of the universe, and that nature is not perfect, and everything we do today will have dire consequences tomorrow. The arrogance of feeling having been chosen to rule this world is what has caused such harm in the first place.
Secondly, a non-secular view of ecology reinforces the idea of the fact that we are special. A religious view teaches us to ignore the facts that there is nothing special about us, and our existence is fleeting, and exceedingly lucky. The fact is that we are a bipedal ape that has mastered tool usage and memetic technology. We are 98% genetically similar to Chimpazees and Bonabos, and 97% similar to Orang-utans. Our fossil and genetic evidence shows that we have been around as upright primates for around 4 million years, less than 0.008% of the Earth’s history. Our planet is one of 3 rocky planets potentially capable of supporting life, Venus and Mars being the other 2. Venus suffers from a bad case of a runaway greenhouse effect, creating conditions far too hostile for any conceivable life to currently survive on it. However, Deep Sea extremophiles have shown that it is possible that bacterial life could possibly exist in such conditions. No evidence had been found so far though. Mars suffers another issue, an absence of a fuctional magnetosphere. Earth is lucky to have a functional magnetosphere, and its absence on Mars allows solar radiation to bombard the planet and would shred any DNA (or any imaginable equivalent) to ribbons. Earth is lucky. Earth has gone through 5 major extinction events, The Permian being the worst. The Permian extinction, 250 million years ago, was the closest complex life came to being annihilated. 95% of all marine life, and 70% of all terrestrial life went extinct in this time. Earth is lucky. The KT extinction saw a Meteor hitting the Earth 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs, allowing mammals the ecological vacuum to evolve to take their place. This ultimately led to us evolving 4 million years ago. We are lucky. We are currently orbiting a yellow dwarf star that we have dubbed the sun, or Sol. While it is uncommon, the sun is not unique, and there are numerous yellow dwarfs in our galaxy. The sun is middle aged, and will likely die in around 7-8 billion years. We will not be around to see this happen. The Sun is located in an arm of the Milky Way, completing one orbit around it every 220 million years. So far we have confirmed the existence of 4000 exoplanets in our galaxy, planets that orbit stars other than our own. We have no proof that any of these hold complex life like our own, but we haven’t proven that they don’t either. The fact is that we were not created for a special purpose, and our existence in the universe is small, and entirely lucky. Your mother will ovulate 300-400 eggs in her life, and your father produces millions of sperms cells in a day. Each of these has unique combinations of DNA, and your existence is a happy luck of the draw. You have 300-400 potential siblings that never existed. We must appreciate it, and not sit in smug hubris about some mythical creator anointing the universe with our existence. We have one life, and we are incredibly lucky to be here. We were not chosen.
The Last argument for a secular outlook to conservation is a big problem. The assumption that everything is going to be fine. The idea that there is a plan. The concept that everything is going the way that a god intended. We believe there is a plan, and the plan almost always involves the destruction of our world, and the ushering in of a paradise. Religion is almost always a death cult. It sits with bated breath for the end of days, the return of the Messiah, the beginning of Ragnarok, the arrival of Kalki. In almost every major religious belief, the attitude of this being a trial run is pervasive. Mankind believes that this is all temporary, and we don’t “really” have to preserve anything as the end times could begin at any time. There is no cult of preservation. We do not value what we have, as we see it as in the hands of a creator, and we are not accountable for what happens. If something happens, it’s because a god willed it so, and we should not seek to understand it, or question it. This is a dangerous mindset, and completely anti-science. The idea that there is a plan automatically leads to the next issue, the idea that “I am entitled”. The world was planned for me, and a god has a plan for me. Surely whatever I do was in the plan, so it can’t be that bad. This attitude is found throughout the world, the idea that the world owes us, not the other way around. The simple fact is that you cannot take accountability if you absolve yourself of it, and claim that it is planned. Nothing in nature is planned.
In summary, we cannot expect ourselves to understand and preserve what’s left of our floundering ecology without a secular mindset. We need to truly understand that we are alone, that we are not special, and that nothing is coming to save us. Maybe when we get this through our heads we can make this world a better place.