Nature as Sacred

The pentagon representing Nature as Sacred consists of a background image taken from cave art (this one from Lascaux cave in France), which often depicted animals both as sustenance and as possessing sacred qualities. Scholars of culture have long studied totemic images—the foreground adapted from a totem located at Stanley Park in Vancouver BC—as representing the realm of the sacred drawn from both nature and human society.

In contrast to the notion of biophysical and human nature as thoroughly material entities distinct from the sacred realm of God or spirit, a more theological vision of external and internal nature has recently arisen in both scholarly and popular circles. This vision of nature, with variants running from theistic ecospirituality to agnostic religious naturalism, may serve as an important metaphysical basis governing ethical behavior, yet raises major challenges for reconciliation with both transcendent religion and scientific rationality.

Scholarly attention has been empirical (involving historical and contemporary studies of concepts of sacredness in nature and sacred space) and philosophical and theological (attempting to systematize this empirical information and understand it in light of religious teachings and sacred texts). As an example of the latter, Ian Barbour has included themes of stewardship, celebration, sacrament, and the Holy Spirit into a theology of nature (Barbour 1997, 102-103). An example of the former is the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Harvard University, a major cross-cultural project involving a multiyear series of conferences and related publications.

In the American context, UCSB scholar Catherine Albanese has identified a perennial “nature religion” in the United States stretching from early settlement to contemporary spirituality (Albanese 1990; 1993; 2002). To Albanese, the Western religious tradition “…has placed nature near the top of its short list of major categories by which to make sense of religion. God and humanity [as expressed in organized religion and civil religion] comprise the first two categories. Nature, however culturally diffuse and evanescent, forms the third” (Albanese 2002, 3). Albanese notes four expressions of nature religion in American history: the Transcendentalist legacy inherited by contemporary environmentalism, metaphysical forms of spiritualism (e.g., Theosophy) reaching to contemporary New Age practices, a revitalized emphasis on bodily healing and well-being grounded in nature, and Enlightenment-style natural religion and natural theology, expressed in peculiarly American forms such as pragmatism (Albanese 2002, 11-24). Thus both biophysical and human nature fall under this broad rubric.

Albanese’s historical work is validated by contemporary social science research. In a three-year research project exploring the scientific and religious dimensions of contemporary American environmentalism, UCSB professor Jim Proctor followed up on preliminary findings from the 1993 U.S. General Social Survey, in which nearly one in four Americans preferred the statement “Nature is spiritual or sacred in itself” (immanent sacredness) as compared to “Nature is sacred because it is created by God” (transcendent sacredness, a position with strong affinities to western religion) and “Nature is important, but not spiritual or sacred” (nonsacredness, a position bearing affinities to the recent scientific worldview). Proctor developed a two-item scale of attitudes regarding sacredness in nature based on six statements derived by factor analysis from a pilot survey including fifteen candidate statements. Results of a survey completed by over one thousand adult American respondents in 2002 suggests that American attitudes of transcendent sacredness and nonsacredness are in opposition to each other, but statistically separate from immanent sacredness, which enjoyed relatively strong support from a diverse group. The vision of nature as inherently sacred thus cuts across many of the more traditional scientific and religious boundaries in contemporary American attitudes toward nature. Preliminary results from a 2000 International Social Survey Programme module which included the 1993 statements, administered to thirty-eight countries worldwide, suggest significant country-specific patterns of support for transcendent sacredness versus nonsacredness, but generally strong support for immanent sacredness.

A much more voluminous literature has been devoted to philosophical and theological dimensions of the vision of nature as sacred (Barnes 1994; Gottlieb 1996; Nasr 1996; Cooper and Palmer 1998; Hessel and Ruether 2000; Tucker and Grim 2001; Crosby 2002; Fern 2002; Kellert and Farnham 2002; Matthews, Tucker, and Hefner 2002; Peters 2002). This literature is quite diverse, mixing immanent and transcendent sacredness and exploring related practices in multiple religious traditions. Much of it constitutes a continuing response to Lynn White’s famous thesis that the roots of environmental crisis lie in Judeo-Christian attitudes of domination over nature (White 1967), but some of this literature traces implications for human as well as biophysical nature.

What are the implications of the vision of nature as sacred for science and scientific rationality? Scientific opinion is apparently mixed: some have strongly supported this vision as a mode of reenchantment of the natural sciences (Barlow 1997; Goodenough 1998), whereas others have charged that it constitutes a “betrayal of science and reason” (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1996), an “assault on reason” (Lewis 1996), or “nature worship” (Budiansky 1995). This discussion suggests different positions on the boundary between science and religion; and many of these contradictions have yet to be resolved by scholars. The vision of nature as sacred is thus quite culturally diffuse and important among theologians, humanists, and social scientists; it will surely play an important role in science-religion dialogue in future. But more scholarly attention is needed to systematize and join its empirical and philosophical/theological dimensions, and to rectify potential contradictions with science.

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——— . 2002. Reconsidering nature religion. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International.
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Matthews, Clifford N., Mary Evelyn Tucker, and Philip J. Hefner, eds. 2002. When worlds converge: What science and religion tell us about the story of the universe and our place in it. Chicago, Ill.: Open Court.
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