James Wood on Santorum’s Earth-wrecking theology

February 25, 2012 • 3:21 am

I’ve occasionally taken issue on this site with James Wood’s seeming friendliness to religion despite his own nonbelief, but have also praised him for his terrific literary criticism at The New Yorker (he’s their chief literary critic and a professor at Harvard).

Wood gets more kudos this week for a nice short piece at The New Yorker (free!), Senator Santorum’s Planet.  At issue is Santorum’s own phony theology (an accusation he leveled at Obama)—in Santorum’s case that humans can bloody well do with the Earth what they want.  As Wood notes:

“This idea that man is here to serve the earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth” is, he maintained on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “a phony ideal. I don’t believe that’s what we’re here to do. That man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the earth, to be a steward of the earth. But we’re not here to serve the earth. The earth is not the objective. Man is the objective, and I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.” That kind of ideology, he complained, “elevates the earth above man.”

. . . Hence a particular impatience with the values of environmental conservation. For the apocalyptic Christian, sights set firmly on heavenly life, the earth might indeed be a finite and transitory thing, what William Blake wonderfully called a “mundane egg.” Man is what needs to be protected, because each of us is a soul, whose eternal fate is up for grabs.

So when Santorum says that we must be good stewards of the earth, there is religious zealotry behind the sweet words. He is proposing, in effect, that the earth is dispensable but that our souls are not; that we will all outlive the earth, whether in heaven or hell. The point is not that he is elevating man above the earth; it is that he is separating man and earth. If President Obama really does elevate earth over man (accepting Santorum’s absurd premise for a moment), then at least he believes in keeping man and earth together. Santorum’s brand of elevation involves severing man from man’s earthly existence, which is why it is coherent only within a theological eschatology (a theology of the last days). And he may well believe that man cannot actually destroy the earth through such violence as global warming, for the perfectly orthodox theological reason that the earth will come to an end (or be renewed) only when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. In other words, global warming can’t exist because it is not in God’s providential plan: the Lord will decide when the earth expires. This is Santorum’s “theology,” phony or otherwise.

It’s this brand of invidious religion, of course, that makes many Republicans so indifferent to what we do to the environment. Lay on the pipelines, the strip-mining, the offshore drilling—it’s all in God’s hands, anyway!

This is just another reason why religion poisons everything—the very Earth, in this case—and why it cannot be a matter of indifference, as someone argued this week, what people believe so long as they don’t try to force creationism into our schools.  Even while we’re beating them back on the creationism front, they’re wrecking the planet on others, all in the name of God.

52 thoughts on “James Wood on Santorum’s Earth-wrecking theology

  1. I’ve been saying this for a very long time and Santorum illustrated it perfectly. The reason why atheists need to be militant, and a lot more militant than they have been so far is that the very future of the human species depends on religion being exterminated from the face of the planet since the single biggest obstacle to humanity tackling its sustainability crisis is religion. Santorum may seem extreme, and he is, but the same kind of thinking (humans are special and separate from the rest of the biosphere and we are here to rule over the planet) is much more widespread even if not explicitly stated, so widespread in fact that even many atheists and agnostics do not fully understand the dependence of human existence on the health of the ecosystems of the planet. Which is understandable because Christian theology has had (and still has) a firm grip on our culture for 17 centuries, and a lot of those ideas are core parts of that culture and their influence is hard to escape while growing up. Then you have to do a lot of unlearning and not everyone can do that.

    But that’s why we need to launch a organized attack against religion that is explicitly framed in such terms. It does not have much hope of succeeding but we’re pretty much out of time at this point so even if there is little hope, it has to be tried. This is also the major point where the accomodationists are completely out of touch with reality, BTW, and where their intellectual bankruptcy is most brightly revealed – even if we accept the idea that small victories here and there achieved by avoiding confrontation will eventually get us where we want to be, at that rate it will be centuries before that happens. We don’t have that kind of time, there probably won’t be a civilization to be saved from religion by the end of the century is BAU carries on…

  2. This is the major them of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, including a minor interloping “evangelical” character Linda who mouths Santorum’s theology:

    my children matter more to me than the children of some bird. God gave this world to human beings, and that’s the end of the story as far as I’m concerned.

    1. That kind of attitude only reveals the immense stupidity of people. Yes, of course your children matter to you more than the children of birds. The winners of the evolutionary game are those who manage to leave progeny and make sure that progeny also survives and reproduces and so on. But this is precisely the reason why you should try to protect the environment because if a few generations down the road the environment is so degraded that we end up with a mass extinction of the P-T kind or if we end up having a global nuclear war due to countries fighting over the scraps of resources still left, you, and every other human being on the planet, lose the evolutionary game.

      It is in our selfish evolutionary interest to preserve a healthy environment and not waste resources. We will be far from the first species that will have been so successful in the short terms that it will have doomed itself to extinction in the longer term. Pathogens do that all the time – a highly virulent, very deadly pathogen, appearing in certain area will kill off all its hosts and that will be it, it won’t spread, it won’t reproduce any more; the successful parasites are those who do not kill their host to quickly. It is the same with us, the difference is that we in principle have the intellectual capacity to understand that and change our behavior accordingly. However, just because we in principle have that capacity and a few of us have understood it, it does not mean we collectively will…

    2. Just curious, does she also say – or does she take great pains to avoid revealing – that her children matter more than the children of other human beings?

  3. Well said. In a democracy, “private” beliefs shape voter’s choices in the ballotbox, and shape politicians’ pandering behaviors, and that affects all of us (not just Americans). We must fight against religious stupidity everywhere, for the good of men and women everywhere, and for the good of the planet.

    1. I should add that it is not just religious stupidity we should fight—should be ANY stupidity. And the best tool to fight this is real education–brave, forthright, undiplomatic, unwavering in-your-face education.

      The next-best tool is Ricky Gervais, Dara O’Briain, etc…

  4. I don’t believe that man can (currently) destroy the earth.

    The problem is that while we may not be able to do that we are able to destroy the current ecological equilibrium which is quite favorable to us (us being not only humans but also the other species currently living).

    If we destroy that balance man may survive as a species but countless individual humans would suffer and die because of it. Animals and plant would probably fare worse with many species wiped out (already the case today but on a much larger scale) until a new equilibrium happens.

    So when we are against global warming and try to prevent it we are not doing it for the earth itself, which of course doesn’t care and would just go on with a different ecosystem (or even without life); we are doing it for ourselves as a species that is quite comfortable with the current ecosystem and we are doing it for us as a group of individuals, many (most?) of whom would die if we managed to destroy the current ecosystem.

    tl;dr: Santorum is wrong that environmentalism is putting the planet first. It is putting our interests first by preventing countless deaths and suffering and preserving an ecosystem that is quite hospitable to humans.

      1. I wasn’t really talking about who has what right, more about behaviour and what motivates them.

        Though rereading my post it is quite a bit muddled between environmentalism in general and its motivations, and preventing global warming in particular and its motivation, so it is probably better to replace all instances of “environmentalism” with “preventing global warming” in the preceding post, which does change its scope some.

        BTW, just to be clear, I am not saying that we should only preserve the environment when it is in our obvious interest, just that environmentalism, or at least preventing global warming, is not putting the planet first to the detriment of humans, which IMO means Santorum’s premise is flawed.

        1. That’s the difference between what a rational person would call a detriment and what a selfish moron would call a detriment. A cost in money and amenities compared to a cost of health, life and overall wellbeing. They think it’s about spotted owls and fuzzy-woodland creatures, when there is a real human impact, one that is taking place even now. Just because the Bible-belt is in a temperate area that isn’t immediately impacted, these people seem to think there won’t be a problem, and having to give up their lifted Hemi 4×4 is too much of a cost to avoid a barren desert Africa strewn with dessicated corpses too numerous to bury.

          Yet, at the same time they’re scoffing at environmentalists saving a few birds, they’ll scoff at wind turbines killing a few migrating birds.

  5. A friend of mine, smarter than I am, but an ecumenical Christian, wrote a long post on Facebook criticising Santorum’s professed faith, and ending with:

    Mr. Santorum, turn in your WWJD wrist band. You dishonor our common faith by exploiting it and misrepresenting it.

    He later posted the more pithy:

    The ironic thing about Santorum is that he’s a dinosaur, but he doesn’t actually believe in dinosaurs.


  6. …they’re wrecking the planet on others, all in the name of God.

    No, there is something higher than god in Republicans theology: money. God is just the justification.

    1. Wasn’t one of the proposed wordings for the American Declaration of Independence (or their Constitution ; I’ve probably never known which) that people have the right to “life. liberty and the pursuit of wealth”?

  7. Santorum is as logical as my young daughter when she protests that my having her clean her room is elevating the room above her. After all didn’t god set her room on this earth for her to rule over it?

      1. “Santorum is as logical as my young daughter when she protests that my having her clean her room is elevating the room above her. After all didn’t god set her room on this earth for her to rule over it?”

        Ask her who is supposed to pick up the litter she drops, accidentally or not?

        Ask her if she is entitled to drop trash and have someone else pick it up. After all, she is she.

          1. To clarify, if I myself drop trash on the floor, and know that I dropped it, and know that I ought to pick it up, then I can’t claim ignorance. My not picking it up has to be due to something else: laziness, hubris, sense of entitlement, sense of being “special” or “exceptional.” In other words, because “I Am Me.”

  8. I don’t have to elevate the floor of my top-floor apartment “above me” (whatever that means–more weird Medieval thinking based on the Great Chain of Being, I suppose) to understand that its continued structural integrity is also my continued structural integrity.

    This seems to be a key liberal concept that a lot of people don’t understand. I don’t help the poor, protect the environment, and thwart the continued attempts of the US’s most backward states to secede because I am Such A Great Guy (though compassion is part of it). I do it because it benefits me in the long run. I don’t want to live in a gated community with starving mobs outside the door under a burning sky. That Santorum does speaks equally to his cruelty and to his stupidity.

  9. Well, (hu)man(s) are the objective; at least part of it. We don’t have to choose between taking care of the Earth and taking care of ourselves. That’s a false dichotomy/dilemma.

    If we want ourselves to survive, we need to make sure our environment will support our survival. The “environmentalists” don’t have it upside down. If we take care if the Earth, it will take care of us.

  10. Great discussion. As George Lakoff says, environmentalists should watch their language. Humans do not “protect” the Earth, we depend on it. We also cannot destroy the Earth as it is simply a huge rock floating in space.

    The biosphere is what we’re worried about, and like it or not we depend on it. Humans, even secular, humanist, atheists, agnostics, all of us speak of “defending” the poor, helpless planet and animals. When in reality, we are at the mercy of our biosphere. We can pretend we’re not right up until our resources collapse. Every one of us has become a denier on some level.

    As one reporter said after the tsunami, there’s nothing like a good storm to remind us who’s really in charge.

    Well done, human race. We’ll see what happens.

  11. Santorum’s theology is a false theology, and it’s a false theology shared by a minority of Christians. To lambast all religions of all times based on his insanity is a bit of overkill. The Reformed faith, for example, does not hold such chiliastic views on the end of days, interpreting both Genesis and Revelation as apocalyptic genre, written to comfort people under persecution, rather than to provide a game plan for taking over the world. In the Reformed view, we don’t have a gnostic view of the need to separate our souls from our “sinful” bodies; we see them as deeply intertwined. In the same way, in the Reformed view, Earth is not something that’s done away with in the end, but it is restored, and we should seek its restoration even now.

    1. All religions are to be blamed for exactly the same reasons.

      Once you start talking about souls that only humans have and afterlife where, again, only humans go, you have created a firmly anthropocentric worldview that is blind to the reality of the interconnectedness of the Earth’s ecosystems and the way human existence depends on their health.

      Plus it is not as if the mainstream Christians do much better than Santorum on environmental issues – it does not get more mainstream that the Catholic church and the Catholic church is firmly opposed to any sort of birth control when there is no way we can tackle our sustainability crisis without some quite draconian birth control. It does not seem like the Catholic church will ever change its position so basically there will be no meaningful action until the Catholic church exists as serious factor in society.

      So much for proper theology and mainstream religion…

  12. +1 to all the other commenters, by the way, and to J.C.–I love your book, and I agree with the bulk of this post. Just think it would be better to start a war on dispensationalism rather than a war on all religions…

    1. Too late, Aaron, the war on all religions has been going on for a long time. For absolutely certain it’s been going on since the early 1980s (when I started fighting the good fight ; I can have absolute certainty on this, through knowing my own mind) ; possibly other people here have been fighting the good fight for longer ; reports I’ve read certainly have Charles Bradlaugh as an active athiest in the 1850s (and he managed to get himself repeatedly elected to the British Parliament later, a feat which my home county can take some pride in, though disturbingly few of the population know of it) ; probably other people were fighting the fight well before then.
      “dispensationalism” ? [Wikis … ] Meh, I think that Sokal adequately addressed that with his transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.

  13. All in the name of God which translated means all in the name of them, their power, their wealth, their arrogance, their narcissism, their way. I’ve never met a Christian who could separate God from those aspects of self.

  14. Some good points made there – especially the one about separating man and earth – but I don’t buy the conclusions. It’s all too simplistic. I know plenty of very religious people who fight for the planet with more religious zeal than they do for people’s souls. I reject the idea of an immortal soul myself but I most certainly don’t think that makes me any better disposed to care for the planet than a believer. A believer might feel accountability to God for creation while I might just say “stuff that, life is short.”

    One of the things that does motivate me is concern for my children and their children. I feel accountable to them. But then I have Richard Dawkins telling me that that whole thing of sins of the fathers being visited on the subsequent generations is just cruel and against our human rights, or something like that, so I say stuff that and go ahead with the Brazilian hardwood floors. God must change his attitude, fix it with a miracle or something. I mean, sheesh, how dare he visit MY sins on my poor innocent great-grand-children?! ( 😉 mischief intended )

  15. I think the religious ideal of large families is one of the most harmful products of theistic belief. Overpopulation is easily one of the biggest problems we face, and most people are too uncomfortable with the subject to even talk about it. People having more than one or two children in developed countries is itself part of the problem, and most mainstream religions actively encourage breeding. For most conservatives, it seems, a large family is a must; a way to keep up with the Joneses. However, children are resource drains when they’re born in the west. Part of our strategy for saving the planet for future generations should be to talk seriously about the repercussions of having more than one child. A single child born in a western middle-class family will, in the course of his or her long life, consume more resources than entire African villages. Reproductive rights is admittedly a very taboo subject, but we’re going to have to talk about it sooner or later. It’s true that religion is dangerous because it gets people to focus too much on the expectation of an afterlife, to the neglect of the here and now. But we need to admit that, for many (religious or not), this same religious impulse toward, and craving after, immortality is achieved through progeny. We feel a sense that we will live on after our deaths when we have children—the more the better.
    Isaac Asimov may have said it best: “Anyone who intentionally has more than two children commits a crime against humanity.”
    I’d add that anyone who builds or lives in a 2000 square foot house commits a crime against the earth and every living thing that calls it home. There’s way too much selfishness on this planet.

    1. I agree, this is one serious nettle that is going to have to be firmly grasped. The sheer numbers … there comes, there has come a point beyond which reducing, recycling, reusing, re-engineering, etc is not enough. The Catholic, the traditional Zulu attitudes are going to takes us down.

  16. Santorum will always be able to afford to live in a healthy neighborhood. He is out of touch with the rest of humanity that must breath dirty air and drink contaminated water. He will not be effected by climate change, but what about the poor of the world? After the worst has happened in the future, he will be retired and out of sight. I can imagine him seeing the mess before him and shrugging his shoulders saying “Well, I guess I was wrong. My advisors misled me, it’s not my fault.”

  17. Hmmm, let’s see…Either the earth can survive without humans, or humans can survive w/o the earth. Which can it be…?

    As a recent book discussed, imagine the trajectory of the biota sans humanity. Given enough time, think of all the unique endemics that would arise in the absence of our trans-continental contaminations.

  18. It seems to be true that for Santorum environmental concerns are secondary to human ones for religious reasons. However, I think for the bulk of Republicans the reason is purely economic. It is their oxen that will be gored if anything is done to protect the environment from human overexploitation.

    The basic problem is overpopulation. This is the result of decreased death rates made possible by human technology. We need to empower women to insist on birth control – which is in the interest of each woman who already has one or two children – and this will lead to an amelioration of global warming, extinction of species, and a host of other ills. It is the single most effective step we could take. Santorum is against this. Most other people are not. Therein lies some hope for the future.

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