Roundtable A Temple without Walls: Environmentalism as "Secular Religion"

AHA Session 119
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Exeter Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
John L. Larson, Purdue University
Thomas R. Havens, Northeastern Univ.

Session Abstract

In recent decades, the environmentalist movement has frequently been described as a "secular religion". Our panel will explore the history behind this framing of environmentalism and address the following questions, among others: First, to what extent is the label of "secular religion" merely a rhetorical device to undermine the scientific credibility of environmentalists, and to what extent is it an accurate description of the movement, or influential factions thereof? Second, what elements of religion, if any, are influential in environmental discourse, and what elements are not? And, third, are the religious dimensions of environmental thought and activism, if they are in fact significant, a liability or an asset in achieving the goals and objectives shared by most environmentalists? This panel will cover the history behind these questions by highlighting relevant examples from the early twentieth century to the present. Richard Samuel Deese will trace the origins of this framing as he analyzes the complex relationship between evolutionary biology, conservation, and spirituality in the environmental discourse of the biologist Julian Huxley and the writer Aldous Huxley. Michelle Mart will discuss the role that the concept of secular religion played in early criticisms of Rachel Carson, and the religious connotations of the way that Carson's work has been treated since her death. Bron Taylor will analyze how those engaged in ‘spiritualities of belonging and connection to nature' regularly use religious terminology to express what they find most meaningful about their relationship with nature. Finally, Thomas Dunlap will explore the religious dimensions of contemporary environmentalism as embodied in the local food movement with its emphasis on values such as sustainability, community, and local action for global ends.

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