The Reverence towards Nature and the Fate of the Earth

Image for post
Image for post

Photo by Kayla Maurais on Unsplash

God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, “Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.”

— Ann Coulter, Hannity & Colmes, June 20, 2001

The invading civilization confused ecology with idolatry. Communion with nature was a sin worthy of punishment… Nature was a fierce beast that had to be tamed and punished so that it could work as a machine, placed at our service for ever and ever. Nature, which was eternal, owned us slavery.

— Eduardo Galeano

Earth Day this year is April 22, 2020. In the midst of our Coronavirus crisis, it is high time for us to do some soul searching and examine our relationship with Earth. The emergence of this new pandemic is not an accident. It has much to do with our attitude towards nature — the animals, the plants and everything else on this planet. Ann Coulter’s attitude is consistent with that of the colonialists, the capitalists and many evangelical Christians. She sees the world is out there for us to conquer, exploit and plunder. She even believes that God condones it. It is a sharp contrast with the indigenous peoples’ attitude towards nature, which is that of reverence. It is also very different from that of the Taoists, which treats nature not as something external or alien. Rather, Taoism sees humans as an integral and intimate part of nature. Chuang Tzu said, “Heaven and earth and I were born together. The ten thousand things and I are one.” Clearly, there is a wide gulf between the East and the West in this matter. The only question is why the Eastern understanding and the Western understanding are so discrepant.

Earth Day is a relatively new invention. It has only fifty years of history. It seems to beckon back to our pagan past. A Greek journalist, Joanna Varikos, wrote this about Earth Day in 2013:

Today, April 22, Earth Day is celebrating its 43rd year as over one billion people in countries around the world help make the world a little “greener.” The very first Earth Day in 1970 led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. Founded by Gaylord Nelson, who then was a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Earth Day resulted from his witnessing the massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California in 1969. Now, from Greece to the USA, volunteers in over 192 countries dedicate their time to support Mother Earth, or as she was known in Greek mythology, Gaia.

Strangely, even though we live in the 21st century now, the ancient myths and religions still have a strong influence on how we live our lives. Certainly, myths are works of our imagination and collective consciousness. But the fact that they are fictions does not mean that they can be dismissed. Mythologist, Joseph Campbell, wrote a series of books on myths which demonstrate the continuing power of myths on modern life. I have read The Power of Myth and Myths We Live By. Myths are not just fairy tales for entertaining children. They often convey great wisdom.

We live in an age of pandemic and climate change. How do we inspire people to live in a way that is harmonious with nature, protective of the Earth, and compassionate towards other life forms? For many people, just presenting the scientific facts are not enough. As a writer, I know a general pattern about my readership. My writings on human interest, religion, sexuality and spirituality are widely read. But my writings on science, medicine or economics are not quite as interesting to my audience. At best, the readership on scientific topics is only half of the readership on religious or spiritual topics. The message of science, in order to inspire and motivate, needs to be humanized. A narrative or story is helpful, especially presented in the form of a sacred myth. This is one of the reasons why Earth Day makes reference to the Greek goddess Gaia.

A big problem with the monotheistic religions of the West is that they are all heavily patriarchal, with a pathologically lack of balance between the yin and the yang. The West, dominated by Christianity, has little notion of the Divine Feminine. There is archaeological evidence that Yahweh of the Old Testament was originally a war god. Should it be a surprise that the history of monotheism is so bloody? In this context, the resurgence of the Goddess myth and neopaganism in the West is noteworthy. The Wikipedia has an entry on the Goddess Movement. It begins with this brief introduction: “The Goddess movement includes spiritual beliefs or practices (chiefly neopagan) which emerged predominantly in North America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand in the 1970s. The movement grew as a reaction to perceptions of predominant organized religion as male-dominated, and makes use of goddess worship and a focus on gender and femininity.”

The Goddess Movement reached its peak in the Seventies. Then, as the Conservative Movement emerged in the U.S. and evangelical Christianity comes to dominate the political and cultural scene, the movement seems to have lost some steam. The backlash against the Goddess also took place in the academic sphere. While the Goddess enthusiasts in the West recall a distant matriarchal or matrifocal past in prehistory, the conservative forces in academia try to deny its existence. I personally find such denial quite incredible. There is an ethnic minority in China — the Mosuo people — who preserve the basic structure of a matriarchy. The Chinese language is also very revealing. Even the Chinese word for surname consists of two radicals or word parts — one for “woman” and another one for “birth.” Thus, a Chinese person is constantly reminded of the importance of the mother. This is evidence of a time in the past when a person’s paternity was unknown, but a person was identified by his/her mother. This is not all. Remnants of our matrifocal past can be readily found in Taoist classics. The Tao Te Ching, for example, can be seen as ancient feminist literature. Laozi said, “Know the masculine, but keep to the feminine. Be willing to be the lowly stream.” He also said, “Superior good is like water.” Water is a symbol for the feminine. It is adaptive and yields to its environment. It does not seek the high place. More importantly, water does not resort to brute force. Its effect on the world is subtle, but it has the power to polish rough rocks. That is Taoist philosophy in a nutshell.

Let us now return to the Goddess Movement in the West because it offers some clues on why the West is so hostile to nature. Note that the movement has adherents not only in the spiritual circles and the feminist circles. Some of the prominent figures in this movement are feminist scholars, philosophers and archaeologists. Of the archaeologists who have great influence on this movement, none is more important than the late Lithuanian archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas of UCLA. She is known for her research into the Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of “Old Europe” and for her Kurgan hypothesis, which located the Proto-Indo-European homeland in the Pontic Steppe.

Marija Gimbutas is a controversial scholar. According to journalist Jacques Leslie, Gimbutas’ rise in the academic world is due to her illuminating research on the Indo-Europeans. But it is her study of the Old Europeans, whom the Indo-Europeans supposedly ravaged, that caused her academic standing to decline. What exactly did Gimbutas propose that is so controversial? Jacques Leslie summarized in the Los Angeles Times:

Simply put, “The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe” argues that the original settlers of southeastern Europe lived in societies that were ideal in many respects. Men and women lived in harmony, Gimbutas says; women ran the temples and in doing so held predominant positions, while men performed such physical chores as hunting, building and navigating. The deities these people worshiped were overwhelmingly female, and their values, emphasizing nonviolence and reverence for nature, came from the feminine realm. It was marauding Indo-Europeans, the forerunners of Western civilization, who destroyed these societies, Gimbutas says. Making incursions from the Russian steppes starting in 4400 BC, the Indo-Europeans were violent, indifferent to nature and dominated by men. Those features, she says, have been part of Western civilization ever since and account for the political and environmental crises that now threaten the planet.

Jacques Leslie reported that many of Marija Gimbutas’ own colleagues have been skeptical or critical of her research. It is quite possible that such a feminist theory draws the ire of the patriarchy. Much of the criticism of her work has to do with interpretation of artifacts. Ian Hodder, a Cambridge archaeologist, said, “She looks at female figurines and says they’re mother goddesses. I don’t really think there’s an awful lot of evidence to support that level of interpretation.” I agree that there is ambiguity in making interpretations and drawing conclusions out of such prehistoric artifacts. Most of us are familiar with the Venus of Willendorf figurine, estimated to have been made 30,000 BCE. How can we tell that it represents the Mother Goddess? Certainly, there has to be some level of speculation and subjectivity involved. But such figurines typically have exaggerated feminine features — big breasts and buttocks, pregnant-looking with prominent vulva, etc. Is it such a stretch to believe that they are fertility symbols? Also, why are male figurines absent? If the sexes were considered equal during that time period, we should also expect the discovery of male figurines or statues. The fact is that there were fertility cults all over the world. Our ancestors worshiped fertility for a good reason. And in the pre-modern age, people did not understand the science of human reproduction and the role of the father. But they saw how mothers birthed children. It is reasonable to hypothesize that this is why the Goddess was worshiped in prehistoric times.

I think Marija Gimbutas’s narrative about a warlike, weaponry-rich, male-dominant people invading a peaceful, egalitarian and nature-loving indigenous people is credible. This is so because it is a recurring theme throughout human history. Isn’t it the story of colonialism, which started with Christopher Columbus’s plundering of the New World? It also ties with the Aryan invasion theory — the story of how the horseback-riding Aryans conquered the Indian continent, originally inhabited by dark-skinned Dravidians who were farmers. The same drama keeps repeating until today. It was the Europeans who colonized the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The Europeans are more technologically advanced. But they have an antagonistic attitude towards nature. To them, nature is something to be conquered and exploited. The Native Americans, Africans and Asians are quite the opposite. Largely speaking, they live in harmony with nature and have a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle. We have to be blind to history to ignore this general pattern of a peaceful and nature-friendly people losing out to a violent, nature-hostile but technologically-advanced people.

Today, as we prepare to celebrate Earth Day 2020, let us ponder on its great significance. The emergence of this new pandemic has much to do with our great disrespect and murderous attitude towards Mother Earth, the animals and the peoples who have a close relationship with the Great Mother. Modern research has found that colonialism and environmental degradation are tightly linked. At the same time, international teams of scientists have discovered the environmental wisdom of indigenous peoples and come to realize that we need to seek guidance from them for sustainable living. I have been an atheist for the bulk of my life. As I get older, however, I come to realize that the Earth is sacred and we desecrate her sanctity at our own risk. Yes, the notion of Gaia as Earth Goddess is metaphorical. But as we are reaping the karmic effects of our abuse of the environment, what we urgently need is a theology of nature. We need to restore our long-lost sense of reverence. I believe that Taoism and the Native American religions can show us the way.

Written by

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store