A Confluence of Holidays

This year, there’s an interesting calendrical coincidence: Today is both Earth Day and Good Friday. That being so, I thought it would prove enlightening to compare these two holidays and the messages they respectively send to their practitioners.

One of the holidays on this date is to commemorate the gory death of a Jewish mystic some two thousand years ago, a dimly remembered event in an obscure corner of a long-vanished empire – an event which, we’re told, takes precedence over everything else that’s ever happened, and that people living today should feel personally responsible for. The other is to celebrate the Earth – our home, the cradle of our life – and to remind us of its vulnerability and our common responsibility to protect it.

In many ways, these holidays sum up the competing religious and secular views of our existence, and the contrast between them couldn’t be clearer. One celebrates parochial interests; the other is for the sake of common concerns that matter to all of us. One is to pay homage to superstition; the other is to raise awareness of the pressing realities we can’t afford to ignore. One holiday is meant to fill us with misery and lamentation; the other is meant to give us reason to hope. One holiday is meant to keep us dwelling on the past; the other encourages us to look to the future.

The overwhelming importance placed by Christians on Good Friday, its ad nauseam repetition and commemoration, shows the myopia of their religious viewpoint. Even if Jesus existed, his death was just one among many in a turbulent and violent era, yet believers continue to insist that this one death, out of billions of anonymous and forgotten others in human history, is freighted with cosmic significance. Some go so far as to call it the only truly important thing that’s ever happened in the entire lifetime of the cosmos, and its consequences the only thing worth concerning ourselves with.

Meanwhile, Earth Day calls our attention not to provincial religious mythologies, but to a broader, global perspective and to the things of true importance that are happening on our planet. In the real world, rainforest is being cut down to grow cash crops and graze cattle, and the green and living lungs of the planet are slowly turning to desert. In the real world, our reckless burning of fossil fuel continues to pump carbon into the atmosphere, and as the climate slowly warms in response, ice caps and glaciers are retreating, droughts are growing more severe and storms more powerful, and sea levels are rising, threatening island nations and coastal cities alike. In the real world, human overuse and sprawl is draining aquifers, drying up lakes and rivers, ransacking virgin habitat, and driving species to extinction, each one a unique, irreplaceable treasure trove of genetic diversity lost forever.

These realities press in on us, whether we want to admit it or not. Try as we might to adapt, they’re undermining the way of life our civilization has grown to depend on. If we continue on our unsustainable course, there will come a day when we’ll have to face a reckoning – and no ancient, crucified Jewish sage is going to return from the clouds to magically save us all by recreating the Earth as it once was. Hoping for a miracle is only going to distract us from the urgency of the course corrections we still have to make, while there’s time for them to do our descendants any good.

Not only does Good Friday value superstition over reality, its intent is to moor believers to the past, perpetually replaying a long-ago evil – and telling them that they are personally responsible for it. In the Roman Catholic tradition, Good Friday is a day of lamentation, penance and sorrow. Believers are encouraged to fast all day, to perform the Stations of the Cross (a series of images used to visualize and meditate on Jesus’ agonizing death), and to pray acts of reparation apologizing for the crucifixion. Church altars are covered with black cloth, and in some churches, images of the crucified Jesus or Jesus in the tomb are presented so that believers can kneel, weep and kiss them. Any display of happiness is frowned on. According to the official Catholic liturgy, even funerals held on this day should have no singing or music.

By contrast, Earth Day calls on us to acknowledge our responsibility in environmental destruction, yes, but not for the sake of self-flagellation. Rather, its purpose is to inspire us to mindfulness and action: to preserve what hasn’t been destroyed, to save what can still be saved, to avert what can still be averted, and most of all, to do this not out of guilt but because we recognize our world as a precious thing worthy of protection. Our planet is a vast, ineffably beautiful, majestic yet fragile place, unique (as far as we know) in all the immensity of the cosmos, and its riches and wonders are the common property of humankind. We should learn from it not to exalt one faith, one culture, or one life above all others, because we are all part of an interconnected whole, and it’s this recognition, and not baseless superstition, that should guide us to a more enlightened and moral view of our place in it all.

[Editor's Note: As an Earth Day treat, check out NASA's Eyes on the Earth website - a stunning multimedia display that lets you track, in real time, the scientific satellites orbiting our planet, see them up close, learn about their missions, and even see the data that they've collected!]

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Lena915

    I’m going to send a link to this article to a few friends and relatives. This is something I think they need to read.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t all that bad compared to what the Pharisees got about 100 years before he was born:

    Now as Alexander [Jannaeus] fled to the mountains, six thousand of the Jews hereupon came together [from Demetrius] to him out of pity at the change of his fortune; upon which Demetrius was afraid, and retired out of the country; after which the Jews fought against Alexander, and being beaten, were slain in great numbers in the several battles which they had; and when he had shut up the most powerful of them in the city Bethome, he besieged them therein; and when he had taken the city, and gotten the [Pharisees] into his power, he brought them to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. – Antiquities of the Jews 13.14.2

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Of course, it wouldn’t be Good Friday without some Filipinos getting themselves nailed to a cross!

    http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com/2011/04/whats-difference-between-religious.html

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    The key problem environmentalism faces is that it stands in opposition to the central prevailing economic doctrine: compounding and continuous growth. The economic system demands that year after year, yields continue to increase. More yields means more supply, and more supply inevitably requires increased resource collection — mostly consisting of mining, deforestation, and agriculture.

    There’s a severe disconnect here between many economists and politicians support of the policy of compounding growth and the realities of the Earth that are discovered by farmers, miners, geologists, biologists, climatologists, and others. The critical issue is this: what happens to the concept of increasing growth when the supply hits a physical limit? Any economist should be able to give a sound answer to the effect on price when supply is fixed but demand grows without bound.

    Fundamentally, the problems we face are neither new nor previously unknown. Despite having slowed substantially from previous periods of history, the population continues to grow at a fair pace. More people means more demand, almost by definition. The resources that feed the supply are not growing at the required pace to match the demand. For some, such as certain minerals, the issue is that new mining projects are not commencing at the necessary rate. (Who wants a mine opened on the hill behind the town?) For others, including oil, the resource is simply being depleted far faster than it can be replenished. (With oil, the rate of restoration is so slow as to be effectively zero on the time scale of individual human beings.)

    The inability of a key resource like oil to meet demand is dreadfully serious, but most Americans don’t seem to properly recognize it. At least, not recognize it sufficiently to demand their political and economic leadership do something meaningful about it.

    It’s not as though there isn’t enough energy available to supplant oil usage. Indeed, oil isn’t even an energy source. It’s energy storage, saved over many millions of years from prior lifeforms. Next to all of the energy in oil was derived from sunlight, minus the trivial contributions from the Earth’s geological heat and radioactive decay.

    Solar energy still isn’t quite a free ride (though some seem to think so). The oldest and most obvious way to gather solar energy is by growing plants. However, plants require both substantial land and fresh water, and depending on the quality of the soil possibly fertilization as well. There’s plenty of water on the Earth, certainly. Unfortunately, most of it is in one giant body contaminated with salts and undesirable lifeforms, unsuitable for drinking or growing. Solving that issue requires energy. The production of fertilizer suffers from that same bottleneck.

    There are more efficient ways to harness solar energy. Direct gathering technology falls into two classes: solar thermal and photovoltaics. The former is the use of a conducting medium, usually some form of metal, to collect heat from the absorption of sunlight. The metal is attached to a sink which drains the thermal energy (usually through conduction) and puts it to work for some other purpose. One obvious and common way to use solar thermal is to have a metal tank (potentially with extended plates to gather more sunlight) and fill it with water. Voila, ‘free’ hot water. Construct the system correctly and you can even boil water with what is essentially a purely passive process.

    Photovoltaics are what are commonly known as solar cells, and are much more complicated to build. They have the advantage of typically higher efficiency, and directly generate electricity which is useful for a variety of purposes. Unfortunately, the materials requirements are much higher and much more delicate, requiring industrial manufacturing processes to achieve relatively high efficiencies. Most semi-conducting materials can be used to build the photodiodes that drive the cells, but any particular kind of photodiode only captures photons belonging to a certain range of wavelengths. In order to achieve high efficiencies of 40 or 50%, several dense layers of different photodiodes are required.

    The high-efficiency designs have a materials issue for mass manufacturing, as several elements required for the supplemental photodiodes are not nearly as common as silicon. These elements include Germanium (abundance 53rd in Earth’s crust), Indium (abundance 69th), Gallium (abundance 35th), and Lead (abundance 37th). Silicon is the second most abundant element (after Oxygen), so looking for any of these others is much like searching for diamonds in the desert. Anything rarer than Copper at 50 parts per million (rank 26) is quite troublesome. For example, at 18 parts per million it requires over sixty tons of rock to provide one kilogram of Gallium.

    Each typical prepackaged solar cell only requires a few grams of the trace elements. However, the output of a single square meter module is typically well under one kilowatt, even on a very sunny day. One kilowatt is a decent estimate of what the best square meter high efficiency cells may accomplish in the near future. Given that, you’ll need one thousand of them to build a megawatt power station or a million for a gigawatt.

    The United States uses over a hundred exajoules of energy each year. Coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear fission provide well over half that energy. However, optimistically taking merely half, you still need fifty exajoules.

    Fifty exajoules is 50 x 10^18 joules, or 5 x 10^19 joules. A watt is one joule per second. There are (365*24*60*60) = 31,536,000 seconds in a year. The average required energy output is then (5 x 10^19) / 31536000 ~= 1.585 x 10^12 watts. Ten to the twelve is tera, so that’s 1.585 terawatts. That’s equivalent to over a thousand gigawatt power stations.

    I think we’d better get started, hmmm?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Sheesh, where is everyone today? Are you all at church or something?

    Of course, it wouldn’t be Good Friday without some Filipinos getting themselves nailed to a cross!

    Thanks for that Good Friday cringe, Tommykey. ;) Although I have a sneaking suspicion that I know already, I wonder what answer you would get if you asked fanatics like this: “Which one does the most good for humanity: buying carbon offsets or nailing yourself to a cross?”

    The high-efficiency designs have a materials issue for mass manufacturing, as several elements required for the supplemental photodiodes are not nearly as common as silicon.

    That’s true, kagerato, but is it really necessary to use those designs? After all, plants figured out long before we did how to generate a current of electrons from sunlight, and even if they’re not as efficient as our very best photovoltaic panels, they pull off the much more impressive feat of self-assembling from common elements under a wide variety of conditions.

    I suspect the future of solar power lies not in hard-to-manufacture, rare-earth-intensive designs, but in dirt-cheap, low-efficiency solar panels that can be churned out in mass quantities and deployed everywhere – like the MIT team’s new artificial leaf. (There are also clever tricks like making relatively small high-efficiency solar panels, then using mirrors to concentrate sunlight from a much greater area onto them.)

    Also, is it really necessary to convert sunlight directly to electricity? Couldn’t solar thermal, which needs no technology more advanced than a lens, serve our power needs just as well? After all, all our conventional electricity-generating strategies, from coal to geothermal to nuclear, are essentially just different ways to boil water in order to turn a turbine with the steam. Solar power can do that just as well. Granted, the diffuse nature of solar energy lends itself to a more distributed power system, rather than a few centralized plants, but I view that as a virtue and not a defect.

  • CharlesInSoCal

    Sheesh, where is everyone today?

    Ok, I’ll chime in. First of all, thanks for the nice essay. I think a lot of us had more or less the same thoughts when we noticed that ED and GF landed on the same day. Your excellent writing captures the differences eloquently.

    …to perform the Stations of the Cross…

    Second, growing up Catholic, and as an altar boy no less, I have vivid memories of the Stations of the Cross. Imagine a nerdy 8th grader wearing a cassock and surplice and carrying a gigantic crucifix around a huge church adorned with statues, stained glass, altars, candles, and so on, while the priest reads from a holy book about Jesus’ suffering and death. The amount of theatrical drama in Catholicism, seems in retrospect, almost comical. (Perhaps an essay idea for an ex-Catholic out there?)

    Finally – and this may have been covered in a previous DA post – do Christians have an explanation why the stone has to be rolled away in order for Jesus to escape? (Mark 16:4) Couldn’t an all-powerful deity simply pass through the walls of the tomb?

  • Doug Bancroft

    Just remember in this discussion that there doesn’t seem to be any good evidence that a Jewish mystic was crucified at all. This fertility holiday may represent many celebrating something that never happened. And the coming back to life bit, if the crucifixion did occur, is obviously untrue.

  • http://www.freethoughtbooks.org Jerryd

    This is a powerful and wonderful essay. I would have hope for humanity long-term if I had seen it being read on C-Span or as the Pope’s Good Friday message to his flock as he gave a centuries-overdue confession for all the harm that Catholicism has wrought on the planet and humanity. Alas, no such luck.

    Speaking of the environment, here in Texas we have a three-day prayer fest declared by our governor to try to save some of ours. God has watched Texas burn since January, but now we are going to all get together to beg him to put out the fire. Obviously the belief is that God doesn’t act because he has ethical standards, but because he responds only when there is some magical number of people begging him to do so. And, since it hasn’t rained in three months, the odds are pretty good we’ll get some soon. If that happens, it will be the same old story. All of the credit, none of the blame, how’d you like to be God and play that game?

  • John Nernoff

    On “Good” Friday (??Good) over 75 Syrian protesters (probably Sunni) were slaughtered in the streets by the thug, Bashar Assad (a Shiite), who inherited his position of luxury and absolute power from his daddy. Islam continues to reign as the State Religion, and people pray to the “God” Allah (which is radically different from the Christian “God”) for benefits, notwithstanding that death from the leader Assad which upholds this “God” may well kill them first.

    Every now and then, aliens visit us and look around. On the last trip, they determined that the peculiar earth creatures who puzzlingly called themselves Homo “sapiens sapiens” regularly engaged in some kind of bloody slaughter over whether a 6th century immam was the real leader among various relatives of a highwayman who had hallucinations of a winged member of Homo who transmitted writings from a floating space slab. After realizing this they quickly jumped into their space-ships and rocketed off to Zenkar-3, glad to have escaped with their lives.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    I suspect the future of solar power lies not in hard-to-manufacture, rare-earth-intensive designs, but in dirt-cheap, low-efficiency solar panels that can be churned out in mass quantities and deployed everywhere – like the MIT team’s new artificial leaf.

    I strongly share those suspicions. Mainly the issue is that low-intensity, low-efficiency designs are not seen as “serious” or “advanced” enough in some sectors of industry and academia. We ought to stop paying attention to what we can do through extensive use of the rare materials and the most elaborate designs, and get focused on building and deploying cheap, practical technology.

    People should also keep in mind that solar power can also be deployed upward in addition to outward. Taking advantage of the high surface area of skyscrapers and the otherwise unused roofs of buildings makes a great deal of sense.

    Then there are the really nutty ideas, like deploying solar collection devices into orbit and “beaming” the energy down to the Earth via microwaves.

    Also, is it really necessary to convert sunlight directly to electricity? Couldn’t solar thermal, which needs no technology more advanced than a lens, serve our power needs just as well?

    Absolutely, and there are mirror-based designs which can obtain pretty decent efficiency. The most elaborate schemes can even use underground caverns or reservoirs to hold insulated hot air or water, which is important for retaining energy during the night.

    The only disadvantage to the use of large mirrors or lenses is that when mis-aimed, they create a notable fire hazard. No energy source is entirely safe to harness.

    Granted, the diffuse nature of solar energy lends itself to a more distributed power system, rather than a few centralized plants, but I view that as a virtue and not a defect.

    It’s a huge virtue if you’re living out in the middle of nowhere, without even a grid connection. It’s a detriment to rapid deployment of huge concentrated installations, though. I don’t get the impression that power companies see substantial profit potential in solar, and that may help explain its lackluster uptake in the industrial market.

  • Jim Baerg

    Solar (& wind) have 2 major difficulties that limit their usefulness.

    1) they are diffuse so that they take a large area so collect a given amount of power. The large collector area needed makes it hard to get the cost down.

    2) they are intermittent so their use requires either i) living with the energy being available only part time, ii) the extra expense of some sort of back up power or iii) the extra expense of energy storage.

    The intermittency also increases the diffuseness problem. If the solar collector gets 1/4 the energy it would get if it was pointed directly at the sun full time, 4x the collector area is needed to get a given average power.

    Water heating is one of the few application where solar has actually been useful. The 1st problem is reduced in this case since most of the sunlight falling on a collector is turned into heat while photovoltiacs are doing very well to get 20% efficiency. The 2nd problem isn’t so bad because an insulated water tank is much cheaper than a rechargable electric battery.

    I don’t know if these 2 problems can be dealt with for other applications of solar, but they will need to be if solar is to be anything more than a pipedream.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Sheesh, where is everyone today?

    I’ve had the same question. I guess a lot of people have family stuff this weekend. I’ll be out with mine tonight (a birthday celebration, nothing religious).

  • kennypo65

    Sorry, I was working all day, because I don’t go to church.

    All the environmental shit is useless if we don’t control the out of control birthrate.

  • http://blog.oldnewatheist.com/ jim coufal

    As a reminder that trees and forests are renewable resources, I’m posting an article written for my weekly column in our county newspaper.

    I Speak for The Trees

    In my column, I have spoken little about my chosen profession. I’m a forester. The profession I chose because I love trees, the forest, the clean water and clean air, the fish and wildlife, and the generosity of nature. Like Dr. Seuss Lorax, I like to think that I speak for the trees, but I also speak for people. There are others who speak for the trees out of their own beliefs and values and with vastly differing voices this can be confusing to the public. So I’m going to tell a story about how this country was built on wood, which could perhaps be an alternative title for this column. And by the way, let’s be clear, with respectful regard for loggers, I am a forester, not a logger.

    In December 1997, a 23-year old environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill started her trek to fame. Butterfly was her nickname growing up, but she took it as her regular name, Julia Butterfly. She climbed into a giant redwood and settled in 180 feet above ground. In an act of civil disobedience she lived for the next 738 days on two 6’x6’ platforms, with help from ground-based activists. Ms. Butterfly was trying to prevent the tree—she named it Luna—from being cut in part of a logging operation. Anthropomorphizing animals and inanimate objectives makes them more personal. It’s hard not to respect Julia Butterfly’s courage and devotion, just as it’s hard not to love and respect a living fellow traveler like Luna that may have been born at about the same time as Christ. Did Julia succeed in saving Luna? Read on.

    Environmental activists have made tree cutting a bad thing, and Disney and Dr. Seuss and others have joined in spreading such ideas. They make it sound as if we have no wilderness, and every last parcel of wilderness is “the last” and must be saved. Witness what happens in our Adirondack Park. How did we get to this point when the fact is this country was built on wood?

    When colonialists came to our continent, it was not an unpopulated wilderness since an estimated 10 to 18 million Native Americans lived here. Nor was it an unbroken forest, but rather natural and human made clearings, grasslands, brush lands, agricultural lands, and desserts were interspersed throughout. We used these lands extensively in our drive to “manifest destiny,” seeing the resources as endless, forgetting we had nothing to do with putting them in place. Today we still have about 95 million acres of wilderness—land undeveloped and hardly feeling the touch of humans—an area 3X the size of New York State. We also have about 171 million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges, and other designated lands, which are not to be developed. Finally, though not wilderness, we have another 266 million acres of wild land closed to timber and wood production. In other words, we can be proud that we have saved much truly wild, undeveloped forest and other lands. Our national parks were the first in the world.

    As our country developed, wood was one of the main foundations. By 1850 there were 3.2 million miles of wooden fences. Now we look at such fences as ornamental but then they were absolutely necessary. At that time 2/3 of wood that was taken from cut trees was for energy, with approximately 4.5 full cords per year per capita used for it. From 1850—1910 farmers in America cleared an average of 13.5 square miles/day for conversion to agriculture, true deforestation done in order to survive and expand.

    Steamboats were one of the earliest means of long-distance transportation. They were built of wood, and in the 1840s they used 900,000 cords of wood for fuel/year. As iron manufacturing progressed and became more important, wood played its part. By 1910 charcoal use for iron production required cutting 20-30 million acres of forests/year to produce 1,000 tons of iron. Many current eastern hardwood forests are the regeneration following clear cuts of those days.

    Iron led to the iron horse, and by 1910 there were 350,000 miles of railroad tracks, using over 2,500 wooden crossties/mile. Before modern treatments, these ties rotted out and had to be replaced every 4-5 years. Miles of wooden telegraph poles stretched alongside the railroad tracks.

    Today, tropical deforestation is a big issue. Tropical forests are cleared at about 16 square miles per day, mostly for conversion to agriculture. Sound familiar? Wood seems old-fashioned compared to concrete, steel, plastics, etc. but Americans use an average of 749 pounds of paper products/year (1994 data) and paper is the #1 solid landfill material. No wonder recycling is so important. We also use an average of 18 cubic feet of lumber and structural products per person/per year, the equivalent of a 100” tall tree, 16” in diameter. We live in houses made of wood, sit on wooden chairs eating off wooden tables. Some of us may still use wooden pencils and write on ruled tables (made from paper, a wood product). Many of us still read newspapers and books, even as that changes to electronics. Packaging is a major use of paper and other wood products. Many plastics come from wood and there even many pharmaceuticals derived from trees and wood. Biofuels are becoming increasingly important. And don’t forget the tree borne fruits and nuts we enjoy so much.

    Many people see cutting trees as “bad,” and I was even told by a minister that it was a sin. As the wild lands and true wilderness shrunk, and as our society grew more urbanized, the so-called scarceness of these places became romanticized as they also became more, not less, important (think now of global carbon sequestration) and these concerns brought about the notion that cutting trees is bad.

    At the same time, we don’t appreciate that the energy costs of producing wood substitutes (metals, plastics, concrete, etc.) are greater than those of producing wood products, or that wood products, like your end table, are carbon storage devices. In the United States, many laws have been passed prohibiting or restricting timber harvest on millions of American forest acres. Yet, there has been little drop off in consumption. Ethically, that means we must ask where does our wood come from? And, is it ethical to save our timber while shifting our source to other countries of the world? Related to that, is calling for an end to tropical deforestation a case of “Don’t do as we did, do as we want?” Do I think we must be concerned about tropical deforestation and saving wilderness? Certainly, but we must do so in the context of our own needs and the possibilities of forest management.

    There are a number of lessons here. Deforestation means converting forestlands to some other use, historically often agricultural but today often to developments like roads, sub-developments, malls, airstrips, and other built things. Cutting trees, or better harvesting trees, does not necessarily lead to deforestation, With all deference to hard-working loggers, logging isn’t forestry. Good forestry practice means harvesting trees at a time and in a way that a new forest is established, as well as looking to optimize the benefits of water, fish and wildlife, recreation, and aesthetics, Forestry is managing forests for human benefit. Most important, trees and forests are renewable natural resources, managed sustainably into the future.

    I, like the great majority of foresters, chose forestry as my vocation, not just an avocation, out of love for the forests. Given the opportunity, foresters can manage forests for wilderness values as well as for wood utilization and environmental values, including wilderness.