God and Gaia; or, the difference between a religion that serves man and one that serves Nature

I went to church yesterday, as I periodically do when one of my children performs at a church service.  Since I don’t take communion, I can sit in the pew and watch people as they file back from the experience.  Some look businesslike, some contemplative, some uplifted and some, interestingly, look self-righteous.  It’s the latter who interest me today.  These are people who, at that precise moment in time, the moment of communion, feel that they are a better person than those who haven’t taken communion.  Hold that thought, because I want to talk about other worshipers and self-righteousness.

There was an article last week about the fact that people who go green are more likely to cheat and steal.  Thus, a couple of studies have shown that, while people who merely look at green products feel ethically inclined, people who finally commit to the extra expense and buy those same products suffered a huge moral decline:

Buying green products—some of the volunteers were given $25 to spend in the green store, while others were given $25 to spend in the conventional store—had an entirely different effect. Volunteers who bought up to $25 worth of ecofriendly stuff from the green store shared less money ($1.76) than those who purchased from the conventional store ($2.18). (Just to be clear, the volunteers were not given a choice about which online store to patronize.) For the green buyers, altruism in the dictator game decreased. More alarming, when the green buyers were then given a chance to cheat on a computer game, and lie about it to the scientists in order to win more money—basically, to steal—they did. Buyers of conventional products did not. And in an honor system in which they took money from an envelope to pay themselves their winnings, the green buyers stole six times more than the conventional buyers did.

“In line with the halo associated with green consumerism…people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green products,” Mazar and Zhong write in their upcoming paper. But they “act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products than after purchasing conventional products.” Or, as Mazar put it to me, “we are more likely to transgress morally after we have bought ourselves some moral offsets” (analogous to carbon offsets: buy enough so you can drive that Hummer). It was especially striking that the moral balancing occurred in an area of life—being generous with money, cheating on a computer game—that has nothing to do with green behavior. “This suggests that if we want to change people’s behavior for the better, we have to be sure it doesn’t backfire,” says Mazar—starting, perhaps, by eliminating the halo of self-congratulatory, smug virtuousness that surrounds green behavior.

I think Mazar and Zhong are a little too simplistic in blithely saying that people who engage in some self-righteous virtue think they’re buying the right to transgress.  I suspect that the answer to greenies’ dishonesty lies in the nature of their faith, rather than in just buying green indulgences.  I say this because I don’t believe the people who left church yesterday, bathed in the self-righteousness of communion, were more, rather than less, likely to steal or cheat.  In fact, I believe the opposite is true:  imbued with the word (and body) of God, I think they were more likely to treat their fellow man well.

And it’s that “fellow man” thing that makes the difference.  Even though both Judaism and Christianity are deo-centric religions, the lessons that God imparts to man have little to do with how to treat God and much to do with how to treat ones fellow man.  Look at the Ten Commandments in Exodus and you’ll realize that, but for the first few commandments regarding God’s supremacy and the prohibition against idol worship, they all deal with human-to-human interactions, rather than human-to-God:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

Do not have any other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,

but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

For six days you shall labour and do all your work.

But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

As much as anything, the righteousness in God’s “big” rules derives from ethical and just behavior to ones fellow man.  Think too of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount which, again, is rich with lessons about kindness from one person to another:

1And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

2And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

3Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

5Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

6Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

7Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

8Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

9Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Following the word of God, being bathed in self-righteousness, means treating ones fellow man well, not badly.  Someone leaving church with the taste of communion wafer in his mouth is more likely to fill the beggar’s cup, than steal it.

Gaia-worship, by contrast, is devoid of any ethical rules regarding humans.  Indeed, pure Gaia worship views humans as parasitical destroyers who, ideally, should be stamped out.   The only moral code in Gaia worship is to reduce ones carbon footprint.  Having purchased a green car, or detergent, or heating system, one gilds the Gaia lily by making a fellow-human less happy.  After all, a less happy fellow human might be more willing to do away with himself (Gaia-purging?) or to stop having those damned carbon devouring children.  The moral imperative, if there is one, is to make ones fellow man less, rather than more happy.  A starving beggar might soon be a dead beggar, and that’s a good thing for Mother Earth.

By the way, I am 100% certain that 90% of Gaia worshipers do not have such explicit evil, genocidal thoughts about their fellow humans.  (Although Bart Stupak’s comments about the ugly utilitarianism behind his fellow Democrats’ push for abortion funding — more abortions means cheaper health care — does give one pause.)  I’m also certain, however, that these worshipers, buoyed by the heady feeling of virtue of being green, leave the green shrine at their local store, feeling not only powerful, but also unfettered by any anthropocentric morality.  They have become green demigods and can act with impunity.  Their fellow citizens, who are despoiling Gaia, do not deserve the demigod’s compassion.  This is not a conscious thought; it is, instead, an unconscious absence of traditional morality that affects feelings and conduct.

I’ve always been a huge fan of traditional religion because, despite its overt deism, it is fundamentally anthropocentric.  I find frightening the rise of a religion devoid of compassion, justice and morality.

I think I’ll leave the last word on compassion faith to Leigh Hunt’s Abou ben Adam:

Abou ben Adam (may his tribe increase!)

awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw, within the moonlight of his room,

Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

an angel, writing in a book of of gold.

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adam bold,

And to the Prescence in the room he said:

“What writest thou?” The vision raised its head,

And, with a look made of all sweet accord,

Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”

“And is mine one?”said Abou, “Nay, not so,”

Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,

But cheerily still, and said, “I pray thee, then,

Write me as one who loves his fellow men.”

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night

It came again, with a great awakening light,

And showed the names whom love of God had blest,

And lo! Ben Adam’s name led all the rest.