Well over a hundred years ago (in 1902), the philosopher William James wrote a book called “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”
The thing that struck him the most was that all the different religions he studied had a number of elements in common. When you think about it this should not be surprising since the religious impulse has been present in every culture and in every era, even when it has appeared in the guise of a philosophy defined by its hostility to traditional religious belief (i.e., Marxism and its dialectical materialism).
Is this still true, though?
Isn’t American society increasingly secular? Isn’t the rising generation of 18 to 35 year olds (“Millennial’s”) especially skeptical on matters of religious faith, with a poll this week saying that only 17% identified themselves as believers in Christianity or Judaism?
I would say that there is a growing faith based movement that has captured the hearts and minds of America’s younger generation, though they would be outraged if you called it a religion.
It’s called the environmental movement.
And if you have any doubts, consider the case of two young people who were profiled in the Kansas City Star a little over a year and a half ago (12-30-11). In an admiring piece by Star writer Cindy Hoedel, “Clean living: In a wasteful world, one KC couple tries to live a ‘zero-trash’ lifestyle,” we learn about a local couple, Zach Noland and Meghan Sundermeier.
From their photograph on the cover of the Star Sunday Magazine, the two appear to be a normal enough young man and woman in their late twenties, with no hint at the zealotry that burns within.
“Those looking to understand religion generally will learn plenty about why so many religions tend toward strictness, or withdrawing from pleasure, or asceticism; why the newly converted behave that way; why some people seem to walk through life intoxicated by Jesus, smiling their way from sunrise to sunset, and frowning only when someone dwells upon sickness or uses bad language.”
May 13, 2013, Review by Paul Cockeram
Substitute “Recycling” for “Jesus” and “plastic packaging” for “bad language” and you have the Green Movement catechism of Ms. Sundermeir and Mr. Noland.
I’m not sure who is more clueless; Star writer Hoedel, or “the waifish communications specialist for Kansas City Public Schools” (Meghan S) and her “thin, sharp-featured” boyfriend, a “benefits analyst for the Social Security Administration” (Zach N).
How could you be any greater walking cultural stereotypes than that, government bureaucrats with vague sounding jobs to no apparent purpose?
(Please tell me what a “communications specialist” does for the KCMO Public School District or what necessary function a “benefits analyst” performs for the Social Security Administration because I honestly don’t know.)
Having unwittingly reduced the couple to clichés of political correctness in the first page of the article, Hoedel takes them right to the lowest concentric circle of inanity and self-absorption, Kansas City-style, i.e., the Whole Foods at 91st and Metcalf in Overland Park.
The article describes how Noland and Sundermeir regularly visit the store with “glass-lidded jars, cotton bags, canvas totes and a chrome compost pail.” By using these re-usable containers, the two avoid packaging and wrapping, which is the key to a “zero-waste” lifestyle.
However, when ordering turkey bacon, Noland suffers the first “defeat” of the day, i.e., the meat clerk prints out a paper label with barcode and price. Noland’s self-disgust is palpable as he sighs; “I just produced this trash.”
Not to worry, though, Hoedel assures us, “They are not zealots; they still use toilet paper. But they feel bad about it and look forward to the day they can afford a bidet and toss the last empty cardboard roll in the recycling bin.”
What about the conversion experience that is an integral part of religion?
For Sundermeir it was when she decided; “to turn vegetarian at age 12.” Hoedel explains the process was completed by “commitments to eating organic foods, studying Buddhism, and avoiding plastics made with chemical BPA.” For Noland, it was when he read about Bea Johnson, a Marin County, California woman (Natch!), who started the Zero Waste Home Blog in an attempt to “stem the mindless stream of trash that flows from most homes.” Again, the Star writer assures us, there is nothing stridently puritanical here.
Noland notes; “You can’t care too much. (Otherwise) your heart drops every time you see someone with a plastic bottle of water.” (Who hasn’t had that sinking feeling?)
Frowning only when someone “dwells on sickness?” How about when someone comes in carrying a plastic water bottle? Is that the “moral equivalent”? (To borrow another phrase from Professor James!)
Withdrawing from pleasure, or asceticism? Both Noland and Sundermeir devote a lot of their comments to all that their trash-free lifestyle has made them give up. They don’t eat candy, snack foods, chips, salsa, and orange juice (among other things!). They will routinely refuse foods offered them by family or friends at a party or as gifts if they are wrapped or packaged in a way the two think is environmentally insensitive. They have stopped giving gifts for Christmas, opting instead for providing services (e.g. “fun” museum classes) or making donations in a relative’s name to a company that mediates micro-loans to entrepreneurial projects in developing countries.
How about a reward in the after-life for a virtuous life lived here on earth? Hoedel tells us that; “It’s a lonely pursuit trying to live a zero-waste lifestyle in Kansas City, but Noland and Sundermeir are content to go it alone and try to eliminate all waste (including recyclables) from their lives. At least until they can move to California, where they hope to find a greater bounty of like-minded souls and packaging-free commodities.”
If anyone is suitable for canonization by the “Religion of Healthy Mindedness” (in William James words), it’s these two. However, would you want to live with them, work with them, or have them as a friend or family member? No, because like most religious fanatics, they have become humorless bores.
If you think that is a little strong, consider the following apercu from the article; “She (Sundermeir) has eliminated trash from feminine hygiene products by using a Diva cup made of silicone.” In the movie The Aviator, the habit of keeping bodily wastes in jars by Howard Hughes was shown as proof positive of severe mental illness. Why is this any less damning? (Aside from being TMI!)
In conclusion, that Old Time Religion is alive and well right here in River City. It’s now the Church of Sustainability but the Bible-thumpers are still with us. The insights in William James’ classic are still as valid and as compelling as they were when it was written. The next time someone attacks “organized religion” point out the striking parallels to their own politically correct world view. You won’t make any friends but you will shut them up (and maybe have a chuckle at their expense!).