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Misinterpretation of The Holy Book Is Destroying Our Natural World

05/20/2013 08:56 EDT | Updated 07/18/2013 05:12 EDT

"And God said let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."
This Biblical quote from Genesis 1:26 has sparked intense debates in the past, as it seems to insinuate that humans should dominate nature. In a published article, The Historical Roots of Ecological Crisis, Lynn White Jr., a prominent 20th century historian posits Judeo Christian theology has been fundamentally exploitative of the natural world, and the impact of this attitude lingers in an industrial, "post Christian" era. He says,
"Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions, not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends."

Although White may have a valid point, his extreme views that blame Christianity for our current environmental crisis have been criticized by many theologians who argue, contrary to such claims the Biblical Scriptures not only promote earth stewardship but also condemn lavish lifestyles that stem from greed and materialism.

Jer. 2:7. I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and you made my inheritance detestable.

Luke 12:15,23,34. And He said to them, "Beware and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does life consist of his possessions. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Christians make up nearly 32 per cent of the global population with more than two billion of them on earth as of 2010, according to the Pew Forum on Pubic Life. However, it's mostly right-wing conservative Christians who tend to ignore scriptures that promote stewardship, and embrace quotes that seem to permit human dominance over nature. So, instead of blaming Christianity for the ecological crisis, it may be more prudent to scrutinize the way in which the Biblical quotes are being interpreted and misused, presuming those who do so to be innocent.

As it turns out, humans automatically gravitate towards their inherent biases. Apparently a unit of cultural information passed on from generation to generation is stored in our brain, and manifests as cultural expressions in our society. Similar to the genetic expressions that we inherit through genes, the cultural information is stored as "Memes" - according to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. These memes, or "selfish genes" as Dawson calls them, manifest as mimetic expressions in schools, religious institutions, family, workplaces, and other social and cultural settings.

Furthermore these cultural norms, beliefs and values, become imprinted in human brain, as William Rees suggests in his article "What's blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition and the denial." According to Rees, repeated social, cultural and sensory inputs from the outside world become ingrained in the synaptic brain circuitry, which influences the individual's perception of subsequent experiences. People then tend to seek out things that reinforce their pre-set circuitries (or preconceived ideas), and when the information doesn't resonate with the internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or entirely forget them.

Perhaps this could explain how cultural and religious biases about our natural world may have become embedded in and interpreted by the brain, and eventually expressed as aggressive attitudes and detrimental behaviors that incite plundering of the earth.

Another inherent trait, tactical deception, passed down from the primates is also stored in human brain. In an article entitled The Social Brain Hypothesis, Robin Dunbar suggests, cognitively sophisticated mechanisms related to "mind reading" may be linked to social skills, whereas tactical deception is believed to enhance the ability to hold false beliefs. This attribute may be playing a subtle role in the way religious information about caring for our planet is being used.

Tactical deception can be traced back to World War II. In his book "Steps to an Ecology of Mind," Gregory Bateson, an English anthropologist, social scientist, and linguist, links human deception and the nature of mind to two key events (in his lifetime) -- the Treaty of Versailles and Cybernetics. Announced by the President Woodrow Wilson the treaty offered Germany "soft armistice terms" highlighting 14 points, for ceasing WWI. However, after the war ended, some of the allies refused to honour most of the key points, which enraged the Germans and led to an all-out WWII.

Such deceptive tactics caused by "errors in the thinking and attitudes of Occidental culture" are responsible for environmental degradation, decries Bateson.

"This massive aggregation of threats to man and his ecological systems arises out of errors in our habits of thought at deep and partly unconscious levels. As therapists, clearly we have a duty. First, to achieve clarity in ourselves; and then to look for every sign of clarity in others and to implement them and reinforce them in whatever is sane in them."

The good news is, we can achieve this "clarity" by connecting with our highly evolved neo-cortex, where empathy, compassion, and caring reside, so we can become more mindful of our attitudes towards the earth and make conscious choices. This in turn will hopefully manifest as positive mimetic expressions and change our cultural narratives for the greater good of our planet.

Religion can certainly play a key role in creating a groundswell of collective consciousness and addressing environmental challenges in areas that science may have neglected. Perhaps this unassuming quote from George Bernard Shaw's (1911) play Getting Married holds a secret to effective use of religion for global transformation.

"Religion is a great force: the only real motive force in the world; but what you fellows don't understand is that you must get at a man through his own religion and not through yours."