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Fighting the Climate Crisis Through a New Religious Left

J. W. Barlament is an author, blogger, and researcher of political, philosophical, and religious issues.

Alfred North Whitehead and Murray Bookchin

Alfred North Whitehead and Murray Bookchin

Further Reconciliation of Leftism and Spirituality

Perhaps one of the biggest setbacks for modern leftism is its lack of a spiritual or theological element. The Right has long held a monopoly over American Christianity, and recently, it’s gotten its fingers into alternative spirituality. The New Left of the 1960s flourished alongside New Age spirituality before the former went strictly secular and the latter went off the spiritual deep end. Since then, leftists have been champions of science, but for those searching for deeper meaning in a seemingly godless world, the Left has had little to offer.

To stop itself from losing all those desperate for religiosity, then, leftists have to offer an alternative. And, as the title suggests, an alternative is exactly what this article seeks to give, through the social ecology of Murray Bookchin and the world-loyalty of Alfred North Whitehead, which can pave the way for further reconciliation of leftism and spirituality.

Lest we delve into this uninitiated, though, we must understand from where the strict secularism of leftists like Bookchin arises, and conversely, how the Right has twisted religiosity for its own purposes. This will lead us not only to the oft-suppressed left-wing elements of major religious traditions but also straight to Whitehead and the leftist (communalist, in particular) implications of his theories. Such a syncretism will obviously have major implications of its own, though; thus, that will be adventured into last.

Let us begin.

The Left and Right on Religion

Leftism’s widespread secularism is largely a result of the strict atheism and materialism of Karl Marx and the other early socialists. Despite being a devotee of Hegel, a Christian theologian, Marx possessed a distinctively scientific worldview, even going so far as to famously declare religion to be the “opiate of the masses”. His atheism was echoed in nearly all later leftist thinkers, including Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Max Stirner, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and many more. Thus, state atheism became the norm in socialist countries in the Cold War, and even today, leftism and atheism have strong associations with each other.

Back when religious institutions wielded ridiculous influence over the lives of the masses, perhaps, atheism was the logical option for those seeking to break institutional power. Now, however, we in the West have experienced a precipitous drop in the power of our religious institutions. The problem has flip-flopped. People no longer need scientific atheism to escape from the clutches of religion. People need religion, or at least spirituality, to escape from the crushing scientific materialism of the modern day. Such a conundrum has made leftism an unappealing option to many seekers of spiritual meaning.

The Right, meanwhile, has taken the last century and a half or so to set itself up, not only as the home of Christian conservativism, but also of occultism and esoteric spirituality. The traditionalism deep-seeded in Christian (especially American Christian) conservatism is obvious in its associations with the right-wing. Occultism, then, might seem like an outrageous accusation, but right-wing occultism is a deep-seeded phenomenon. Its roots go back at least to the 1800s, in movements such as Theosophy, Ariosophy, the Traditionalist School (the school of Julius Evola, who had a profound influence in fascist Italy), and Nazism, with its many shadowy and occasionally contradictory occultist tendencies.

In recent years, too, the alt-right has had its share of debates over the merits of Christianity versus neo-paganism. In the end, though, as both seek to revive the traditionalism of old, they seem to be coexisting just fine. This, of course, doesn’t even mention the non-Christian spirituality the Right has seen in a rise in with the pop spirituality of right-wing self-help, including the dumbing down of thinkers like Marcus Aurelius, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, and the American Founding Fathers, as well as the quasi-religious attitude with which some right-wingers treat the nation-state.

Odin overlooking the alt-right, a movement eager to appropriate him

Odin overlooking the alt-right, a movement eager to appropriate him

Pagan and Christian Opposition to the Right

Now, having dashed through that, let us unravel why the Right is utterly wrong to claim any thinkers but fringe philosophers and discredited occultists as their own. Firstly, while there’s no shortage of diversity in the innumerous pagan traditions of the world, they’re largely united in their rejection of typical right-wing attitudes. Right-wingers are fanatical about competition and rugged individualism. Capitalist values run deep in their veins. These kinds of ideas, however – that mankind should incessantly struggle against itself in order to eventually create a future society of greater people – are utterly foreign to the old pagan traditions.

Cooperation and communalism were hallmarks of all pagan cultures. They had to be; communal values were what kept our ancestors alive. Hunter-gatherer societies the world over seem to have been much more egalitarian and much less proprietarian than our own. Furthermore, their overwhelmingly collectivist and occasionally matriarchal structures obviously wouldn’t sit well with the rabid Right. And this isn’t even to mention neopaganism. Neopaganism does, indeed, tend to attract some of the alt-right. Nonetheless, its biggest organizations (Wicca, Maavalla Koda, Dievturība, the ADF, the Native American Church, etc.) and most popular artists (Wardruna, Heilung, Omnia, etc.) tend to be very vocal anti-fascists, and most neopagans very fiercely defend their faiths from the far right.

Secondly, a simple skimming of the Bible will clearly inform the reader that, while the Old Testament is filled with what we might call the right-wing heavy-handedness of God, the New Testament is solidly leftist in its portrayal of Jesus. Now, it wouldn’t be fair to dismiss the entire Old Testament because of its heavy editing by possibly dozens of priests, scholars, and politicians over the centuries. It is, however, pretty much the whole point of Christianity to follow Jesus’ word as the word of the Lord, and it’s generally accepted that a Christian should value the teachings of Jesus and his disciplines over those of the contradictory and often anonymous authors of the Old Testament.

Now, while it's not universally agreed upon that Jesus would’ve been a leftist today, the fact that it’s hotly argued over in the first place does tell us something. Simply put, and without diving too deep into theological waters, there’s a reason the proto-socialist communities of the Radical Reformation, Quakerism, Christian communism, liberation theology, and (arguably) the Tolstoyan movement all existed. It is this that brings us right to Whitehead – not an explicitly political thinker, but one whose ideas have countless political implications.

"Christ Driving the Money Changers From the Temple" by El Greco

"Christ Driving the Money Changers From the Temple" by El Greco

Process Philosophy and Anti-Capitalism

Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was perhaps most famous for his Principia Mathematica, a seminal text on the philosophical problems surrounding logic and mathematics, which he wrote with his student Bertrand Russell. As one might expect, Whitehead started off his career as a mathematician, but after the publication of the Principia Mathematica, he turned his attention toward metaphysics. This led to a niche, but nonetheless important, school of thought known as process philosophy.

The metaphysical intricacies of process philosophy (exhilarating though they may be) aren’t what’s important here. What’s important is Whitehead’s general conception of the world as not a monarchical God’s big kingdom, nor as a wild world for humanity to tame, but instead, as an interconnected net of being. In process philosophy, nothing is solid and unchanging. Everything is fluid and in process – and, most importantly, everything is interconnected. Nothing makes sense on its own. Everything is what it is only in the context of its surroundings (both spatially and temporally). It is here that we see a clear connection between Whitehead and leftism; through the ecological implications of Whitehead’s theory, and the world-loyalty expanded on by the Whiteheadian scholar John C. Cobb.

Cobb is a progressive Protestant, so it should come as no surprise that he has quarrels with the conservatism rampant in contemporary American Christianity. Instead of upholding the existing capitalist power structure, Cobb argues (especially in his later works) that Christianity should actively be working to dismantle it. Whitehead’s philosophy views everything as existing in a network-like pattern – from individual animals, being networks of infinite individual proto-conscious bits interconnected to create conscious beings, to the creative energy underlying all smaller networks, or Whitehead’s God.

The Earth is no exception here, for it can only thrive when all of its individual actors work in harmony. And, since capitalism has long wreaked havoc on this harmony, the most pressing matter for all mankind should be to fight capitalism. It is this – the idea that our primary objective should be to protect our planet’s fragile interconnectedness – that Whitehead (though not explicitly politically) termed world-loyalty.

Capitalism sees the world in atomized terms; individual things are fundamentally on their own in the world, rather than being integral parts of a greater whole. Thus, capitalist society takes an individualist view of nature, where individual animals and their immediate families unendingly struggle for their survival against the rest of the world.

Now, if nature operates solely on a “survival of the fittest” basis, then it’s only natural for humanity to do so as well. If that sounds like Social Darwinism, it's because that’s exactly what it is, and although that name has gone out of fashion, the underlying attitude hasn’t gone away. This is why people say that capitalism is inherently racist and imperialist. The strong will survive, and if one country or race has conquered another, then that just means that the conquerors are superior to the conquered and have the right to call the shots. That’s how nature works; why shouldn’t it work that way for us brainy apes? Of course, racism and imperialism existed long before capitalism, but capitalism’s opinion of the natural order of things inevitably gets such evils entrenched in any capitalist society.

It is capitalism’s cancerous attitude toward nature – not just in the racism and imperialism, but also in the wanton wrecking of resources and ecosystems, as well as in the idea of nature as another domain for man to dominate – that must be combated. It’s a fight of immeasurable importance, and thus, every avenue and angle must be taken to assist it. Here will be where religion comes most clearly into play, but before we delve too deeply into the spiritual side of things, we must examine the secular ideas of Murray Bookchin. Secular and religious thinking can come together to combat the crises of capitalism, but only after a thorough understanding of both is reached.

The Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge

Social Ecology and Secular Religious Reverence

Now, naturally, overthrowing capitalism to save the planet is a little bit ambitious. Fortunately, the theories of Murray Bookchin (1921–2006) give us a sensible method of succeeding in this overthrow.

The totality of Bookchin’s theories is typically called social ecology, which includes both ways of understanding the world and ways of changing it. His dialectical naturalism, stemming from his many years as a Marxist, is strikingly similar to the Whiteheadian view of nature; that is, it says we should see nature as an interdependent network of life instead of a collection of competing individuals. Bookchin stressed the many cooperative elements of nature, in its countless symbiotic relationships and co-dependent ecosystems. Also, and of particular importance here, Bookchin placed a special emphasis on nature as an ever-evolving process, rather than some sort of static entity.

This ever-evolving aspect of the world in the philosophy of social ecology can be most accurately called evolutionary emergence. It’s an idea that finds striking similarities in the work of Lewis Mumford (1895–1990), an American historian who was both a reader of Whitehead and an influence on Bookchin. Mumford saw nature as constantly complexifying due to an innate creative tendency; a tendency to which he assigned divinity, and because of which he thought human harmony with nature to be paramount. In his own words, “the Earth is the Lord's fullness thereof: this is no longer a hollow dictum of religion, but a directive for economic action toward human brotherhood.”

Nature never reaches its final form. Instead, it continually grows in gorgeousness, maturing into ever-strengthening connectedness, and eventually, blossoming with consciousness. Thus, we see that Bookchin’s secular takes on nature, which form the basis of his libertarian municipalist strategies of anti-capitalism, are easily interpreted into religious terms.

The guiding mechanism behind all the grandiosity of nature is identified by Whitehead, albeit controversially, with God. Some may think it more appropriate to identify it with the Tao, thus leaving the option open for a different Demiurge. Regardless of one’s preferred theology, it’s obvious that Bookchin’s social ecology and Whitehead’s world-loyalty both lead to a view of nature radically more reverent than that of capitalism.

One could almost describe their attitudes toward nature as a sort of secular religious reverence, an attitude given to nature mirroring that of religions toward their gods. Whitehead often sang the praises of William James, who was famed for his view of religion as stemming from transcendent religious experiences, but Whitehead himself did not wholly embrace James’ views. He saw the individual religious experience as just the inception of the process of religion, the culmination of this process being the realization of the individual as an integral part of an interconnected world.

Such a realization will, in turn, lead the individual to a twofold realization: that they are nothing without the wider world, and that the wider world is nothing without them. The world is a mosaic, made up of infinitely many individual pieces, and thus, the individual’s ambition should be the immersion into the universal ambition. In other words, the end goal of all true religions should be world-loyalty. What’s good for you is what’s good for your world, and vice versa.

The consequences of the climate crisis are becoming more alarmingly apparent by the day. Some may call the crisis just one of the consequences of a larger event that has been disastrous for the human race. Very simply put, though, man does not need to return to monke. Nor, it should be said, do we need to turn to the inactivity of contemplative spirituality to reject the material world and find salvation in invisible spirits while society slips into freefall.

Instead, we need to radically alter our relationship with the world, which in turn will alter our social and technological relationships, and in this effort, religion can be a mighty ally. Whitehead’s take on the Christian God has yet to gain traction in mainstream Christianity. The pantheistic and panentheistic elements of neo-paganism and some strains of atheism (such as those of Einstein, Sagan, and Hawking) often incorporate environmentalism but rarely propagate real world-loyalty. Even not all Whiteheadians wholly embrace the political implications of Whitehead, and many Bookchinites want nothing to do with religion.

This is a sorry state of things. If the enriching effect each set of ideas has on the other were realized, perhaps politically-minded environmentalists and their more spiritual counterparts could work together more closely. The climate crisis requires more than political activists working in one corner and spiritual seekers wandering around another. It’s an issue of such magnitude that it requires these groups to unite to fight for a planet being laid to waste by capitalism. Perhaps in the process, some may even realize that religion can, indeed, have a productive place within the Left.

Fields in Northern Syria, repurposed as part of the Bookchinite Internationalist Commune of Rojava's "Make Rojava Green Again" campaign

Fields in Northern Syria, repurposed as part of the Bookchinite Internationalist Commune of Rojava's "Make Rojava Green Again" campaign


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 JW Barlament