For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.
Abortion and Environmentalism: the deeper currents at play
The biggest and most divisive ethical issues of our time involve abortion and the environment. Does a zygote or fetus have sufficient moral standing to put its interests above those of the pregnant woman carrying it? If so, how much? Does the other-than-human world have any moral standing able to override human interests? If so, how much?
Significantly, of those most opposing abortion, few have interest in or recognition of the other-than-human world’s moral standing. On the other hand, most supporting a woman’s right to choose will be sympathetic to and sometimes deeply committed to environmental concerns. Individuals in both camps are usually ethically motivated, but they live in different ethical worlds.
These contrasting moral visions reflect a schism going to the center of contemporary America, a genuine clash of cultures capable of tearing the country apart. One is ultimately rooted in an agricultural order, the other in our industrial one. After explaining why I think this is the case, I will explore how we NeoPagans fit into the picture.
Compared to the hunting and gathering cultures preceding them, agricultural civilizations mark both an increase in human power vis-à-vis Nature and an increase in individual vulnerability to Nature. When times were good far more food could be produced than before. Populations could grow. But in bad times farmers could not simply move to a new location. They had to sit and endure. Consequently, agricultural societies have a powerful interest in controlling nature. She is considered beneficent when the rain falls as it “should” and whimsical or malevolent when it does not. In such an environment any action that can bring Nature under better control is appealing.
Agricultural civilizations also generate enormous extremes between the poverty of serfs, slaves, and peasants, and those at the top who control land. Our country’s Founders were aware of this pattern. Jefferson explained one advantage of the Louisiana Purchase was to provide new land for supporting independent farmers, enabling additional generations of Americans to live in freedom before the old pattern caught up with the country.
Such a world teaches hierarchy is eternal and our place in life largely beyond our control. For many reasons this particularly affected women, whose status plummeted under agriculture. The modern ideal of universal personal empowerment is alien to such a world.
Finally, in agricultural societies children are needed to help in the fields and to support their parents’ survival when they become old. This desire is tragically double-edged because as more and more people cultivated the same quantity of land, in famines more people will die. But most of the time at the level of an individual family, people want kids.
Widespread poverty and suffering encourage people to seek escape from “this vale of tears,” through salvation, enlightenment, or at least getting a better incarnation the next time around. In other words, particularly when hierarchies are taken for granted, real value exists away from the world.
There is enormous room for cultural differences within my description, from ancient Greek polises to medieval serfdom, from Chinese despotism to the Declaration of Independence. But they share these broad biases in common, and their impact seems to strengthen over time.
As industrial civilization developed people increasingly left farms for cities where opportunities were seen as greater. In Europe rapid and inexpensive transportation ended once frequent local famines. People were less personally threatened by uncontrolled Nature.
They were also increasingly isolated from it in cities. For many Nature shifted from what needed to be tamed and controlled to what offered solace and perspective on life, an immersion in peace and beauty. From the very beginning cities were centers for conservation, as they later were for environmentalism.
In time even attitudes towards farming began to change. Today we see many people trying to return to farming, assisted by growing farmers’ markets. They regard agriculture as a choice, not a fate, and see it as ‘right livelihood,” an ethical as well as economic activity. Their attitudes towards their fields are different from that dominant within the mentality of agricultural civilization, particularly its corporate offshoot which recreates hierarchy and domination within an industrial context.
Compared to agricultural societies in cities poverty declined and a large urban middle class developed. The lives of most people began to be seen as getting progressively better. These changes ultimately influenced religion. Alexis de Tocqueville visited the new United States in 1831. In a revealing passage in Democracy in America, he wrote that democracies tended to move towards pantheism. Being Catholic, he strongly disapproved, but his experience in New England sensitized him to how shifts in a society encouraged shifts in how people interpreted the sacred.
If we want to find a time in American history similar to Tocqueville’s and subsequent decades leading to the Civil War, we need look to the 60s and 70s. Both had enormous peace movements. Both had experimental and utopian communities. Both witnessed a growing impact of Asian religions. Both saw the rise of new religions. Both saw the rise of feminism and of rising concern with wild nature. It is not by chance that Henry David Thoreau was a patron saint of the 60s, his On Civil Disobedience read widely in the civil rights and anti war movements and his Walden inspiring efforts to return to more authentic ways of life.
With growing urbanization and decreasing poverty childhood mortality declined and parents could expect all their children to outlive them. As many people no longer had fields, children were increasingly economic costs rather than assets. Literacy in particular widened women’s horizons beyond traditional roles. People needed fewer children to safeguard their older years, and today many need none at all. Like getting married, increasingly having children was based on love rather than economics. Women exercised more control over their sexuality, culminating with the pill in the 60s, followed by Roe vs. Wade.
Again I am using a broad brush to paint the cumulative effect of biases internal to two kinds of civilization. Many additional factors added variety to how these biases manifested.
Out of one, two
Transformations as deep as that from agricultural to industrial civilization rarely happen smoothly. (Sweden is a semi-exception- helped by enormous migrations during the early apart of that period.) Generally these changes emerged from creative urban centers and spread outwards, unevenly, as they continue to do. Countries ultimately find themselves with two cultures rooted in very different experiences of life.
Today Egypt exemplifies this dilemma. In Islam some Egyptians are ready to join the democratic urban industrial world, others are rooted in time honored traditions. Islam can adapt, as it already has for many Muslims, but many see no need to adapt.
The same thing is happening here with some Christians adapting to the new urban egalitarian society and others fighting it every step of the way. The former support respecting and living sustainably with the environment and by and large are pro-choice. The latter supports ‘traditional’ marriages of women kept in their place and subordinate to biology and with little if any concern for the natural world.
We frequently talk of blue and red states. In terms of elections this makes sense, but in terms of understanding the deeper patterns at work, it is misleading. Cities tend to be blue, and in general the farther from a city, the more red the region. Austin and Houston are blue. California’s central valley is red. Denver is blue and many in northwest Colorado hold such deep red values they want to form a new state. Here is a map that gives a better sense of what is happening.
Similarly, the issue is not “white males” against everyone else, as the media often suggests, but traditional agricultural values whose stronghold is the NeoConfederate South. There so many white males share this outlook so as to skew the gender when viewed nationally.
This distinction between attitudes rooted in agricultural societies compared to industrial societies is pretty clear when we look at election outcomes by county, although in this case the colors are also impacted by ethnicity: Indians, Hispanics and Blacks vote solidly Democratic.
My point is not to demonize white Southern men, (I myself was born in southwest Virginia and have many relatives in the Old Dominion) but to emphasize that we need to be aware of where America's divisions really lie and what is behind them. The issue is not good people vs bad people, although bad people then take advantage of the problem.
What this means in terms of abortion and Nature
Agricultural civilizations often see us as separate from the natural world, just passing through on our way to more important things. The natural world exists to serve us. Wild land should be cultivated, or it is good for nothing. Plants that get in our way are weeds, and animals in our way are vermin, terms unknown in most, perhaps all, hunter gatherer languages.Human interests always come first.
If people sharing this outlook believe the fetus is a human being they oppose women’s control over their bodies. Their judgment does not depend on any actual qualities of a fetus (or zygote) but on theological speculation growing from finding value only in the transcendental and the human.
With its emphasis on a middle class, opportunity, and growing human equality, industrial civilization tends to be far more respectful of choices made by women. It is their body and their lives. Because urban moderns find renewal in Nature they also are more sympathetic to environmental concerns, as so perceptively described by Richard Louv. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought this home to millions by arguing the misuse of DDT would destroy the song birds people loved so much. The chief abusers were farmers who used far too much, the more decisively to control their fields.
NeoPagans and all this
I believe the cultural transformation I described helps explain the rise of NeoPagan religions. NeoPaganism is a powerful and attractive expression of spirituality from within the context of industrial society.
NeoPaganism arose in Great Britain in the late 1950s. It emphasized empowering women, with High Priestesses being the leading authorities in traditional covens. It also emphasized the sacredness of natural cycles, as in the Wheel of the Year and lunar Esbats. Its initial American growth was in the 60s and 70s, accompanying the rise of environmentalism and rebirth of a powerful feminist movement. NeoPaganism later influenced religious feminists in many traditions to try and incorporate respect for the natural world more explicitly into their traditions. Conservative Christianity rooted in agricultural NeoConfederate cultures, rejected these changes.
Of course the cultural division I have described also exists within our community, and some debates here have illustrated it. Patterns are never simple when they involve human beings. But clearly, taken as a whole NeoPagan religions are strongly biased towards regarding Nature as morally significant on its own terms and support the empowerment of women, particularly over their own bodies. I am discussing the ethics of arguments against abortion in a series of posts over at Patheos. My first addresses what I regard as the strongest case against it. Others will follow.
In the great struggle over how the moral issues of our time should be addressed, NeoPagans overwhelmingly are allied with the world of the future, not the world of the past. If industrial civilization is to learn how to live sustainably with the world that supports it our Old Gods help point the way to the future.
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