How should we react to an existential crisis? The first reaction of many religious people is to pray, an action that is unhelpful at best and dysfunctions at worst. Our ecological crisis requires very serious and thoughtful analysis, not comforting self-delusions.
Some years ago a scientific friend, Irene, from Britain was engaged in a research project on the spread of leprosy in Nigeria. Coming home from one of several trips there she had commissioned a taxi to drive her to the airport in Lagos, several hours from where she had been working. Sharing the ride were two missionaries, also returning home to Britain.
Part way along the drive to the airport they passed through a village where there were children playing by the road. One of them dashed out in front of the taxi, was hit and instantly killed. Immediately villagers began to pour out to the accident scene, joining the occupants of the taxi, including the driver, who had all got out to see if they could help. But the child was dead.
Quickly the travellers realized that they were in grave danger themselves. They all had heard stories about similar accidents where a growing rage amongst the townspeople had led to the murder of the travellers – not just the driver, but all of them. Irene assessed the situation and quickly determined what had to be done. They had to get away from there or there was a good chance that they would all be killed.
The scene was chaotic, for the moment, but was likely to turn more focussed and violent, particularly when the child’s parents arrived, something that could happen any moment.
As Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Although it seemed callous, they had to get out of there. Irene found the two missionaries, hoping they would help formulate a plan to escape. But they were of no such help. They were too busy praying. They would not be deterred from what they thought was the appropriate response to the situation. By this time the driver was already apprehended by the villagers, so he could be of no more help than the missionaries.
Irene was on her own in this precarious circumstance. What to do? Taking the initiative, she found another taxi nearby and persuaded the driver to take them (missionaries included) to safety.
Facing an existential crisis, like Irene did, like the whole world does with our wanton destruction of our natural world, where should we seek help? God, whether you believe in him or not, will pretty clearly not help us. Praying, whether you do so or not, will affect only you and your own personal feelings; It will have absolutely no impact beyond that.
The answer, if there is one, must be found in humanistic thinking – that the fate of the world will be determined by humans, not some benevolent supernatural power. We must look to ourselves to fix the environmental chaos we have created. We are no longer children who can thoughtlessly make messes that will be cleaned up by indulgent parents. As Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” And he alone can fix things.
Humanism is about environmentalism. Believing that there is no benevolent supernatural power that will bail us out from the mess we have created upon our earth, humanists say we must look to ourselves, not some god, to fix things. The task is so enormous that it may well be impossible, but the humanist idea about this gives us our only hope.
Not that we all must become humanists – the powerful attraction of organized religions is far too great for that. But the idea that we are on our own must prevail. People can still think there may be a god, so long as they accept that such a god will not rescue us. It is like a form of Pascal’s wager: one might believe there is a god but act as though there is not, just in case there is not. Pascal of course argued the opposite – that one should instead assume there is a god, just in case there really is one, and that one’s faith would stand one in good stead should the day of reckoning ever come. But even if rewards are in the offing, would not any reasonable god be inclined to look with favour upon a soul who had respected and husbanded the world’s resources (God’s green earth) rather than exploited them in a profligate way?
Whether or not you agree with humanists about the absence of supernatural forces, you really ought to agree with them on taking responsibility, ourselves, for saving the world
There‘s so much to do. Ancient forests are receding as lumber companies make large profits from them; extinctions are occurring at an alarming rate; trophy hunting is allowed in those places where big game still exists; fresh water sources are dwindling and the oceans are becoming polluted. Sharks, an essential component of the ocean’s eco system, are declining an alarming rate – it is estimated that in 2019, 63 million sharks were killed in fisheries. No creature, aside maybe from beetles, can sustain this sort of devastation. Animals evolved to survive in natural conditions. Guns have changed all of that. Now a 12-year -old boy can bring down an elephant weighing several tons.
So pray if you must, but do not neglect the real responsibility each of us has to build a better world.