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 These outdated and clunky traditions, Brand concludes, “have have given us millennia of grief for a handful of prayers and some sparkly rituals.”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.

  • Sabio Lantz

    Brand sounds muddled to me.

    I haven’t read Harris. Is he anti-religious or anti-theist. I thought he was fond of Buddhism or mediation or ….

    You said,

    tradition, religion, and culture are humanity’s most basic biological and cultural tools for achieving balanced relationships between and within societies.

    You could have left “religion” out of the sentence and it may have made more sense. Notice that in that sentence you have culture as a basic cultural tool. Little muddled there too. That is what happens when you put a whole bunch of fuzzy, abstract words in a sentence and pretend to make sense.

    You are confusing “religion” for “traditions” — sure, traditions are inevitable and helpful but religions don’t have to be, we’ve already proven you can do fine without them. No one (well except wacky Brand) would contend that traditions, conventions and culture are useless or dangerous. It just seemed like you wanted to throw in your favorite pet, religion, with those three (tradition, convention, culture).

    But I agree that religions can be useful, helpful and stuff. They just ain’t necessary — we can build nonreligious traditions, conventions and cultures.

  • robert

    Very interesting view of religion and its role in maintaining a balanced societal ecosystem. I wonder, then, why religion has largely lost that role in the Western role, if it played such a vital part in the past at keeping civilizations together. Is it because we as a society are in a kind of “future-shock”–subject to such fast-moving changes that religion just can’t keep up? As you note, religious traditions have evolved over centuries. Perhaps all the changes in the last 40 years–the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, the great discoveries in science, the technological advances that allow us to chat with those across the globe–have been too much for religion to assimilate?

    Religion used to be front-and-center in US society, and now it is perceived as a strange presence that people don’t know what to do with.

    (As a recent example, I had the occasion to pick up an old New York newspaper, the Journal American, dated 1938. On the masthead of the opinion page was a quote from Ecclesiastes followed by a related quote from a minister. Certainly not something we’d ever see today.)

    I think Brand represents what is a mainstream view today: people believe in G-d, but not “organized religion,” which is looked upon largely as a source of closed-mindedness, prejudice, and irrelevance. While your response is a very good response to Brand, you do not address the question of why religion is today largely seen as an outdated relic, if in fact it has always taken on the critical role of mediating the disparate aspects of society. Have we, as Brand suggests, outgrown religion, or are Brand and the rest of modern society leading us dangerously away to chaos and self-destruction?

    As always, I’d welcome your thoughts.

    • connorwood

      Thanks for the questions, Robert. I think there are a few reasons why religion is largely seen today “as an outdated relic:”

      1. First and foremost, Western religions have not proved themselves able to integrate and motivate proper responses to ecological and large-scale contextual information. Christianity as a social phenomenon grew and persisted for the same reason that any other product of iterated selective processes persists: it somehow encoded behaviors and forms that allowed it to prosper in a competitive environment. People running on the “Christian” social program were able to advantageously propagate and survive in contexts where other social programs were declining (like Rome). But since Christianity and other monotheisms are products of ancient cosmopolitan societies, they’ve never been as ecologically sensitive as, say, Balinese religion – which is rooted to a particular PLACE, with its own contingencies, constraints, and cycles. Christianity has never been rooted to a particular place, and so the behaviors it motivates and the knowledge it encodes have almost exclusively to do with social exigencies, not ecological ones. A growing awareness of the systemic imbalances and inequities that Western religions engender but lack the protocols to deal with has stripped away quite a lot of the legitimacy of those religions in many people’s eyes.

      2. Science, as a professionalized sphere of human endeavor, has since at least the mid-19th century achieved its cultural prominence explicitly by attacking and conquering the space of legitimacy and respect previously occupied by religion in Europe and North America. Ernst Haeckel, T.H. Huxley, and others specifically set out to carve out a place for professional science in the public sphere; before then, science was largely conducted by men of leisure as a consuming pastime. Around the time the new term “scientist” was coined, people like Huxley started a dedicated, fairly calculated public assault on the place of religion in European (specifically British) public life FOR THE PURPOSE OF gaining a greater share of the seats in the Royal Academy for the new professionals of science – at the expense of clergy, who had previously held the lion’s share of the seats. Huxley’s campaign was mostly about gaining financing and dedicated career tracks for scientists, not about exploring the truth claims of science and religion (in my opinion and the opinion of at least a couple big-name historians of science). In other words, there didn’t NEED to have been such a great division between religion and science. But such a division served the interests of the new class of professionals, scientists, who were looking for some sort of recognized public status in what they assumed was a zero-sum competition. But this competitiveness between professional science and institutional religion has been carried over in each successive generation, so that now it is simply part of the basic behavioral expectations of public scientists to make digs at religion fairly often. They don’t know it, but they’re operating on a program initiated 130 years ago which assumed that public esteem was a zero-sum object and that in order to gain some of for itself, science needed to take it from somewhere else. Today, because of the massive success of science in terms of technology and new knowledge, many educated people who believe that this zero-sum tension is an actual fact of reality rather than a social artifact choose to side with science, at the expense of religion.

      3. It is easier and more fun to reject tradition than it is to engage with it, and Brand and his followers are all about fun. It is not sexy to live into a tradition, and it never will be. “Sexy” as a social concept (in the sense of “cool,” “hip,” “trendy,” “edgy,” and so forth) in our current environment is tautologically derived in opposition to establishment norms and tradition. People who wish to be cool MUST reject tradition, because “cool” IS the rejection of tradition. In a culture which has co-opted and valorized the counterculture, a great number of people are motivated by basic social processes to reject tradition simply for the societal approval they will win by doing so.

      4. Pastors and clergy are utterly, utterly remiss in their jobs. These are the people who ought to be deeply plumbing and then translating the depths of their wisdom traditions, making them applicable to real life in the temporal now, and explaining them to young people who have questions. Most questions young people (or any people, for that matter) have are insightful and legitimate. I’ve known too many people who rejected religion because some lazy clergyperson or another told them, “Stop asking so many questions.” There is a time and place to request or demand trust (your kid can’t always know WHY you’re not letting her play with those M-80 fireworks your cousin left at your house), but there is entirely too much of this lazy, destructive dereliction of duty in our current institutional religions. This is why I don’t blame (most) atheists for giving up on or being disgusted with religion or with God; you can’t see the worthwhileness of a thing if a:) that thing requires significant, massive interpretive engagement and investment over many years to learn to understand, and b:) no one is willing or able to show you why such an investment would be warranted.

      5. Not to get all revolutionary, but it suits the material interests of many of the power institutions in our culture for religion to be marginalized. Religious traditions tend to valorize family, community, continuity, tradition, and a non-materialist view on what’s good in life. A truly religious community is, it would seem, a terrible capitalist one. And many small-scale religious cultures have deeply embedded codes and imperatives that resist the overexploitation of natural resources, because such encoding is clearly adaptive in any ecological context where resource overshoot is liable to lead to social dysfunction or collapse – which is all of them (it’s just that the large-scale cultures are too removed from ecological processes to perceive this). So if your livelihood depends on serial resource exploitation and transactions in superfluous material goods motivated by advertising that programs your customers to believe that their social peers are perfect others who exist in material superabundance, religion is quite plainly your enemy.

      • Robert


        Thanks for this. Very interesting about Huxley and the others marginalizing religion for political purposes and how that plays out today.

        All your points are great food for thought, but I’ll just comment about #4 and ask about #1.

        Your 4th point reminds me of something Gordon Allport stated in his classic book, The Individual and his Religion. Many people remain stuck for their entire levels at a elementary schooler’s level of understanding G-d and religion, even while they attain high levels of achievement in other spheres of their lives. These individuals stuck at an “immature” (Allport’s words) religious faith are those portray religion in an unfavorable light, turning off others.

        Your first point makes me wonder again what the future of religious faith is, if it, in your words, lacks “the protocols to deal with” ecological imbalances. Most young people I’ve met (on the east coast of the US) view religion at best as an oddity or something quaint that they “respect” but feel has no bearing on their own lives. I guess I wonder about how this chasm can be bridged, and which side needs to make more of an effort.

  • Gena

    I disagree with Connor Wood because religion and traditions are social glue for an isolated group of people. As we globalize, the top obstacle for marketers is overcoming the differences between markets—cultural receptivity. For humans on a global Earth to form meaningful bonds, we actually have to ignore religion and traditions in order to find basic love and respect for vastly different creatures. I all the time am grateful for having no affiliation nor tradition because I feel so free. Many people defend religion and traditions as a “social glue” but that’s not true. They enjoy and hold dear their traditions so it feels like it holds them together—–but they wouldn’t fall apart without them. The basic principles of love and respect are not expressed solely through religion and traditions! In fact, religion and traditions do propagate war wherein the only way to stop war is to change one’s beliefs and traditions. So, I disagree with Connor Wood’s criticism about Russell Brand’s religious views and I disagree with Connor Wood’s idealism about religion being a social glue. People are social creatures and religion is just one of many possible ways for people to come together in a happy, productive state. In fact, the more people lose tradition, the more people from around the entire planet can become proactive and intitiate global remedies for global issues. Traditions and religions would only hold us back if we must talk only about Jesus Christ to someone who is Buddhist. There’s just a million other socialization skills which are much more effective at bringing together people rather than segregating them from eachother. I don’t know how he can see religion and traditions as a superior glue. That’s not true in many cases.

    • Sabio Lantz

      I agree with a large part of your analysis. I have a circle of 10 very close families all tied together through shared school projects of our kids at one point. The friends are from several diverse racial and religious traditions which we do not share at all. Those families say, that their ties to our circles are more meaningful and supportive then their ties to their religions or ethnic groups.
      Religion is not necessary, and even traditions (in one sense of the word). Both can be useful and both can be divisive. But, as you hint, Relationships matter.
      We don’t need religions to teach us that in any way!

    • Robert


      While I hear what you are saying about there being many options for socialization in today’s world, especially with globalization, I think you pass over the qualitative difference between socialization in a sports club, hobby group, or even social action or political committee and that in a religious setting. So when you write, “[p]eople are social creatures and religion is just one of many possible ways for people to come together in a happy, productive state,” I would argue that it is, when done right, a fundamentally better way.

      As Connor notes, religions are centuries’ old adaptations to a peoples’ environment, evoking a sense of history and emotional connection to the past, present, and the future. A tennis club, a movie night, a meeting of Greenpeace, or even the Democratic Convention may be fun, engaging or inspiring, but they do not envelop the whole person the way religion can. All of these meetings may unite people in a common interest or cause, but one generally does not feel a sense of grounding in the treasures of the past, an engagement with one’s innermost emotions, and a shared vision of the future that includes the individual, family and community the way a Catholic Mass, a Jewish Yom Kippur service or a haj to Mecca can. And none of them call upon the individual to make sacrifices of time, possessions and sometimes even life the way religion can and does.

      Of course, this begs the question that plagues many moderns, such as Brand, and maybe yourself, which is what happens when these religions and their traditions no longer speak to the individual. If I am a Catholic and am unmoved by the Mass and the Church or a Jew who feels no connection to a Sabbath service or the study of Jewish ancient texts, then what do I do?

      I don’t have an answer except that it depends upon how much you want to connect in that deeper way that transcends time and place. I have known people who have glimpsed something of religion’s “oceanic feeling” (in the words of Freud, who promptly reduced it to an illusion) and a small thread led them back to the whole. But my only point is that one must acknowledge that for practitioners, religion offers–at least theoretically–a kind of bonding that they cannot experience elsewhere.

  • Grotoff

    It’s important to divide “ritual systems” from “religious belief”. One doesn’t require the other, and vice versa. There are plenty of “spiritual but not religious people” in the West like Brand who decry all systems of ritual and religion while holding to some sort of supernaturalist belief, even if it is just homeopathy.

    By the same token, there are many people who appreciate ritual, institutions, or community who hold no such beliefs. Democratic socialist Scandinavia is full of them. Need I point out that there is an atheist church?

  • Dave Rohr

    “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.”
    “And the only way to adapt a tradition is to inhabit it – to work on its code from the inside.”
    Brilliant article Connor! You’ve really pulled a lot together here – a synthesis not only of a lot of different types of understanding, but more importantly of both critical and constructive perspectives on Western religion. Love the two quotes above!

    • CJ99

      The problem with that whole concept is that Russel Brand is corrupt, whats described as western religions are so hoplelessly corrupted that its impossible to repair them to the point they could ever be trusted again much like a car that’s been pushed off the cliffs of dover and left to rust in the ocean for a few decades.

  • Collin237

    The only way religions like Balinese and Guatemalan could have developed their ecological strategies is through centuries of mixing their faith with doubt and investigation. In societies like these, there is no split between religion and science. However, their leaders apparently don’t share their research with their public.

    There’s still a lot of secrecy to complain about; but on a scale of all human history, the deregulation of knowledge in the current era is enormous. It’s natural that those tasked with maintaining the infrastructure for sharing this knowledge would worship only one God and assume It knows everything. But as the saying goes, power corrupts. The Unifier was recast as a Divider. All the prophets that have arisen to preach peace, tolerance, and respect for a shared reality have had half their message edited out of existence, and the other half maliciously twisted.

    In the 21st century, the walls are finally falling. Not because of preachers, not because of new atheists, not because of new-age mystics, but because of a growing class of disenfranchised amateur philosophers joining in civil debates to build a new all-inclusive rationality. One that disavows concepts like the First Commandment, hell, saving grace, predestination, occasionalism, etc. that disrupt our ability to be decent people.