Russell Brand is wrong about Western religions

Living tree

Connor Wood

Are you worried about the environment? I am. So is the British comedian Russell Brand, who’s been all over the internet, television, and magazines recently, proclaiming the need for the world’s people to revolt against an entrenched economic system that’s despoiling the planet and keeping billions in poverty. I share Brand’s abject horror at the ravenous destruction of the earth’s ecosystems (and I rather envy his wardrobe). But I think he’s off base when it comes to how to change our ways. Turning our backs on our religions and traditions, as Brand urges, isn’t going to fix our looming global problems. This is because traditions, as stultifying as they might seem, are humanity’s best tools for forging links between cultures, environments, and time.

I don’t want to misrepresent Brand. He professes to be a believer in God, so it’s not spiritual or transcendent beliefs that he wants to expunge (which differentiates him from, say, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or other anti-religion advocates). Instead, Brand – who served as flamboyant guest editor of the British newsmagazine The New Statesman last week, penning a 4,800-word manifesto on the coming revolution – thinks of formal religions, particularly Western ones, as “lumbering monotheistic faiths.” These outdated and clunky traditions, Brand concludes, “have have given us millennia of grief for a handful of prayers and some sparkly rituals.”

Those are pointed words. Brand sees Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as legalistic, repressive, and complicit in the environmental and economic violations that Western culture is carelessly visiting every day on the planet and its citizens. Now, in various places and various times, these accusations have quite a bit of truth to them – each of these faiths has turned up very some socially rigid manifestations, and each has at times been responsible for economic oppression, wars, and wild imbalances between culture and ecology.

But what Brand forgets – or, more likely, has never learned, because no one teaches this stuff in school – is that tradition, religion, and culture are humanity’s most basic biological and social tools for achieving balanced relationships between and within societies. As linguistic and cultural animals, we require conventions, continuity, and tradition in order not only to make sense of the world, but to to fine-tune all aspects of our relationship to it.

As I’ve written here before, we can think of religions as form of cybernetics – a (very) fancy term for the ways in which sensitive, complex systems maintain balance within their environments. One of the simplest examples of cybernetics is a thermostat: it detects when the air temperature in a room goes outside the programmed values, and then activates either the heat or the air conditioning. Once the air temperature reaches the right level, the thermostat registers the change and shuts off the heat or AC. This simple process maintains homeostasis, or balance, in the wee little system of the room and its thermostat.

Religions and cultures are approximately five gazillion times more complex, but many of the same basic principles apply: they use “programs” and feedback signals to make sure that things stay in balance, from simple community relationships to huge agricultural systems.

Want an example? In the 1980s, anthropologist J. Stephen Lansing published a fascinating paper on the religious beliefs of an island most of us associate with vacations (and tropical drinks with those little umbrellas in them): Bali.

For more than a thousand years, Bali’s agricultural economy has depended on rice irrigation. Water comes from a large crater lake at the summit of the island’s major volcano, and then flows in a series of canals, tunnels, and irrigation ditches to rice paddies all the way to the sea. Along the way, an extraordinarily complex system of religious temples determines how water is distributed across the island. Each temple distributes irrigation water to a small group of farmers, which is linked with other groups into a larger community – which, in turn, gets all its water from a larger temple higher up the mountain. This hierarchy continues until you reach the volcano’s summit, where the largest temple of all oversees water distribution for the entire island.

In this neat little video for PopTech, Lansing explains how this religio-economic system works. Not only have the temples organized social and agricultural life on Bali for more than a thousand years, but they also adaptively maintained ecological balance between farmers and the land. For instance, by coordinating island-wide cycles of simultaneous harvesting, the temple system radically reduced the damage that insects and other pests did to rice fields. Since every field is left fallow at the same time, there are long periods when there isn’t anything for pests to eat…so they die off or depart for other places. Importantly, it took the temple system to coordinate these harvest-sowing cycles, since each individual farmer is beholden to the ritual requirements of his temple – not to his own economic motivations.

According to Lansing, Balinese religion, far from being a passé bunch of arcane superstitions, is actually a self-organized, complex social system that evolved in response to the ecological pressures of life on the island. The ritual obligations that farmers carry out are an emergent feature of an organic system that encodes adaptive information – without necessarily explaining it. In other words, Balinese religion doesn’t tell farmers explicitly how to manage water resources and the ecology of their island. Instead, by participating in their religious system, the farmers automatically wind up engaging in practices that maintain balance in the local ecology.

There are plenty of other examples of this kind of cybernetic “religious encoding,” where seemingly random or absurd local rituals and beliefs actually contain hidden, adaptive information about the environment and how to maintain a balance with it.

For instance, in Guatemala, the lowland forest-dwelling Petén Itza Maya follow a convoluted system of rituals and taboos that look to the untrained eye pretty much like rank superstition. But in the 1990s the cognitive anthropologist Scott Atran found that these taboos led the Itza to make forest-management decisions that would make Western professionals trained in forestry look like bumbling fools. By not cutting a particular kind of tree at a particular time, or by harvesting certain plants only when the spirits said it was okay to do so, the Itza were literally keeping the forest healthy. The humble Itza elders would claim they were only doing what the spirits wanted. But from the standpoint of a Western environmental scientist, the spirits wanted some pretty ecologically responsible – and unnervingly well-informed – things.

So there’s some pretty darn good evidence out there that religions can play an important cybernetic role in human cultures: encoding extraordinarily adaptive norms that lead to balanced relationships among humans, and between societies and their environments.

But, like biological systems, evolved religions also aren’t perfect. Just as biological evolution can stabilize some pretty maladaptive things, the evolution of religion can lead cultures toward dead ends and mistakes. Evolution, after all, is a messy process. It tends to produce order and adaptation, but it also churns out a lot of bloopers.

Well, let’s return to Russell Brand. I suspect his response to everything I’ve just written would be something like, “Great. I agree with you. Many religions encode adaptive ecological and social cybernetic information. It’s just that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism don’t. They’re bloopers.”

I’d have to concede that Brand may have a bit of a point here – but not a full one. One of the best complaints we, as members of a global civilization that’s rapidly hurtling toward ecological overshoot, can make about Abrahamic religions is that, unlike Balinese or Itza religion, they evolved in contexts where humans dominated. In other words, Christianity (for instance) evolved in an urban setting. Its rituals, beliefs, and encoded behavioral programs have been shown to be quite well-adapted to life in complex civilizations; Christians came to dominate the Roman empire because, quite simply, they were way better than their imperial hosts at building functional, long-term, balanced communities in the Mediterranean’s crowded and stench-ridden cities.

But now, two thousand years later, this means that the world’s dominant monotheistic religions are descended from cultures that evolved almost exclusively in urban and commercial environments, not ecology-dominated ones. So their rituals and beliefs might encode lots of useful behaviors for maintaining social balance within urban and civilized contexts – but not for keeping balance between culture and environment. Just like a thermostat regulates the temperature inside of a house, but is blind to what’s going on outside the walls, the Western religions may, in fact, be cybernetic systems that are not set up to understand information about ecology.

Does this mean we should ditch them, as Brand suggests? No, absolutely not. We should adapt them. And the only way to adapt a tradition is to inhabit it – to work on its code from the inside.

The reason we can’t just scrap our inherited religious traditions – no matter how cool such an idea always appears to bohemians like Brand and the 21-year-old version of myself – is that religions and traditions don’t just encode adaptive (or maladaptive) behaviors. They also provide the continuity that makes it possible to envision a future, as well as the emotional resonance that ensures that we’re engaged by the idea of there even being a future.

I was at a Jewish Friday-night shabbat service last week, listening to the rabbi sing the parsha (Torah portion) in his rich baritone. With candles flickering behind him, and the voices of the gathered congregation mumbling along, I suddenly felt myself transported – not only to the dusty Palestine of 2,000 years ago, but also, unexpectedly, to the future, where promise and crises await. There really is something at stake, I realized, when we confront the very real possibility that our ecological sins will rebound on us cataclysmically. It’s not, as so many environmental writers have clumsily said in print, simply a matter of humanity being replaced by whatever comes next – a sort of neutral, biological succession that we might even welcome.

No, if humanity is reduced to ashes by ecological collapse, climate change, or whatever, it will be an unimaginable tragedy. Participation in a ritual community reminds us of this, because the flickering candles, the songs, the endless succession of generations that come alive in ritual are so very emotionally moving for us – if the rituals are working properly.

In other words, ritual and religion awaken in us an emotional attachment to the perpetuation of culture. We hear the Christmas carols of our youth and realize that we deeply want children who will someday hear them, and sing them. We hear the call to prayer echoing above our city and feel that it really matters whether the chain of inspired wisdom stretching back to the Prophet continues or not.

It’s a cliché to point out, but no matter: Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi, two of the greatest revolutionary shapers of culture the modern era has produced, did not achieve their great triumphs by turning their backs on their religious legacies. Christianity was clearly complicit in the oppression of black Americans throughout the United States; Hinduism’s entrenched aristocracy and caste system were the bane of millions. But if King and Gandhi had abandoned the traditions they were born into, they would have been leaders with no flocks. Instead, they lived into the traditions that meant so much to them, irrevocably changing those traditions in the process.

I think the case that Christianity and the other Western monotheisms are marching in the wrong direction, ecologically speaking, is a good one. And I think a great deal of the reason for this is that, unlike many small-scale religions and cultures, the Abrahamic faiths don’t have good systems in place for recognizing and integrating vital information about the ecological systems that support cultures. The product of complex urban societies, the Western monotheisms don’t maintain functioning ecologies. They assume them.

But in order for this to change, we can’t – as Brand and other fiery revolutionaries the world over urge us – simply turn our back on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and assume that we’ll come up with something better ad hoc. Cultures take centuries to build, just as organisms take countless generations to evolve. Rather than beginning the evolutionary process anew, we need to deftly weave new lines of code into the immense programs we call “religions.” If we can succeed at this, then our traditions will still connect us with the ages past and orient us toward the dawning future – two essential emotional functions of ritual – while also inspiring us to live in ways that keep a balance between culture and environment, between human and nature. In this way we can build inherited traditions that link us emotionally to our ecological settings – by having us participate in the rich, evocative practices of our cultures.

Currently, the Western monotheisms inspire emotional connections to culture, God, and history. They encode behaviors, such as caring for the poor, that are adaptive for their host cultures. But this is only as far as their cybernetic reach extends; like thermostats in houses, they can keep a balance internal to their own systems – but they can’t perceive that, beyond their walls, a wild hurricane brews. This is why we need religious motivators that include sensitive connections with ecological signals. And, yes – they must be religious. As one of Lansing’s Balinese informants said:

Everything is made by a Creator, and so by disturbing anything, by killing anything, you’re disturbing part of the Creation. So you have to pay attention to the whole picture.

To which I, as a citizen of Earth, can only say: Amen.

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