Is Environmentalism a Religion? Sure, Why Not!

If the grim news about our slow-cooking world has got you down, you might be an environmentalist. Recycling bins, hiking boots, and that reusable grocery bag you got at the farmer's market are other signs that you may have ecological beliefs and concerns. To the industrial propagandists, even your awareness of the hotter temperatures and horrific storms is proof that your green behavior is actually a religion. So what would happen if 10 million or 50 million religious environmentalists suddenly appeared on the national scene?

There are many quasi-religious practices in our increasingly secular era: consumerism, drunkenly cheering the local sports franchise, playing Quidditch at Ivy League universities, the "Cult of Mac," etc. Unlike these ritualized amusements, environmentalism is actually spiritual. It combines the oldest forms of nature worship with the Good and Evil of monotheistic faiths and the transcendence of Buddhism, all leading to a utopian goal of an Earthly Paradise—a state of grace with creation, which is exactly what saints and seekers have always pursued.

"The tenets of environmentalism are all about belief," the hack writer Michael Crichton said during one of his speeches to right-wing groups that took up the last decade of his life. "It's about whether you are going to be a sinner, or saved. Whether you are going to be one of the people on the side of salvation, or on the side of doom. Whether you are going to be one of us, or one of them."

What's wrong with that? Who wants to be on the side of doom?

Corporatism is unconcerned with harmless faiths like American Christianity, which is now little more than a befuddled cheering squad for the very rich. Environmentalism, deeply felt and morally certain, is a massive threat to business as usual. This explains the simultaneous attack on the science of global warming and the supposed religion of ecology.

In Western Europe, where at least some of the hippies stuck to their beliefs and now have a legitimate and influential opposition movement, "Green" means environmentalism as a crucial part of social justice. The Green Party fizzled in America, where industrialists have too solid a hold on politics. A spiritual awakening is a far more realistic goal in the United States, which has always been a country of religious invention and zeal. America is also where pioneering environmentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Muir embraced the sacred in nature.

One way we identify something as a religion is by its rituals, and the critiques of environmentalism as a religion sneeringly note its sacred meals (local and sustainable food), village altars (recycling and compost bins), and Earth Day festivals. But to ramp it up to a true religion, environmentalists should also keep a day of the week for rest and renewal. When you spend a weekend morning doing something pleasant outside with your friends, and then go eat somewhere and talk around a big table for two hours, you're already doing what Christ and His disciples did, or Buddha and his monks. Maybe you'll even keep your phones turned off during your weekly church supper, who knows.

Do something like this on a regular basis and you've got a sabbath tradition that fits nicely alongside the small ceremonies we already perform: sharing a bottle of wine, lighting a candle, watching the sunset, or using a whole afternoon to cook a good homemade meal. These small acts alter our usual routines of chores and consumption. That's what religious rituals have always done.

That's what church is supposed to do, too. Church is, ideally, a regular neighborhood meeting of a non-profit community. I went to several Occupy Wall Street encampments in their waning days, from Zuccotti Park to Oakland, and it felt like everyone was waiting for a way to carry on, but nobody remembered a structure for building something like this, which is church community. Jonathan Franzen's lonely crusade against certain brands of computer and the existence of Twitter is easy to mock, but his impotent swipes at modern existence are really just his way of mourning the lack of meaningful ritual and occasional transcendence for the urban secularist.

You can't engage the soul with a hundred-dollar check to Defenders of Wildlife or a subscription to Adbusters, even if those groups do important work. The soul requires satisfying actions and habits to make up for those long stretches when nothing particular is going on. Sacred meals, meditation, time spent outside, and regular meetings with your like-minded friends and neighbors are all proven ways to keep a movement alive long after the big events that started it. Combined with charity and health care, this is how Christianity was victorious over the Roman Empire and became the world's largest faith.

It would be a welcome comfort during the changes of life and death to have people in your own religious community as part-time clergy, instead of rummaging through Craigslist ads or asking your friends to get ordained off a website or tracking down some half-forgotten distant cousin who used to be a rabbi in Maryland. As a longtime ordained Universal Life Church minister myself, I can say with full clerical authority that your friends who officiate at weddings are perfectly qualified for your new religion's local clergy. Make them organize hikes and picnics, wine tastings and garden parties, rent parties and monkey wrenching.

Holidays and festivals—holy days and feasts—keep time with the seasons and put temporary disappointments into perspective. All the big holidays already mesh with the original holy days, the winter and summer solstice and the spring and autumn equinox. There has never been a more ready-made religion with so many adherents.

A variety of spiritual expression is a sign of a healthy, living religion. Environmentalism offers a place for city families who like farmer's markets, college radicals who want to smash the system, millennials and Generation X'rs who love both ritual and irony, Detroit survivors turning a mostly abandoned metropolis into urban farms, aging baby boomers who now feel the vacuum of their abandoned traditions, tech utopians who build virtual worlds at work while gardening and composting at home, and the seekers and tribalists who swarm Burning Man and the Rainbow Gathering. There is plenty of space for religious orders in their green friar's robes, and for Occupy-style guerillas in green military pants and black clerical T-shirts. The casual ecologist will find her place among the LED lightbulbs and yoga mats, and the fire-and-brimstone prophet will cry out from (and for) the wilderness.

If they all say "environmentalist" when asked what religion they practice, things might just change as much as the evildoers fear. The details will work themselves out, as they have with all the world's big religions. People who want something formal can start a local 501(c)(3), America's non-profit designation that covers both science groups and religious organizations. Or just transform your neighborhood chapter of the Boy Scouts or bike-to-work group or child-care co-op. When Christianity was the universal religion of Europe, everything was touched by religion. What if everything was steered not by boardroom profit, but by environmental devotion?

There are climate scientists and proud secularists who will complain about the establishment of a spiritually motivated environmental community. "Equate 'greens' with this type of religion, with faith and deities, adherence and heresy," James Murray of The Guardian's GreenBusiness section wrote last year, "and it becomes all but impossible to prove or disprove the central tenets of environmentalism."

But religion isn't globally monotheistic or even necessarily theistic. Only half the world's population worships the Big Three of Yahweh, Allah and Jesus; the other half includes nearly a billion Hindu, 400 million followers of traditional Chinese religion, and 350 million Buddhists. There are a billion humans today who don't adhere to any religion, and they might just be Environmentalism's first billion adherents.

What makes environmentalism such an attractive spiritual practice is that it's all true, and it's based on both science fact and moral standards. You don't have to pretend to believe in ghosts or gods or women made from a dude's spare rib bone.

In a healthy society, old people plant trees they'll never live to see grow tall. That's what an environmental religion would do, as it looks to steer the world away from a future apocalypse while making life more satisfying and more fun right now.

And if you like the basic idea but scoff at huge numbers of people suddenly identifying as spiritual environmentalists, look at the example of the Jedi in the United Kingdom. A decade ago, the U.K. census found nearly 400,000 self-proclaimed Jedi. It remains the biggest "alternative religion," despite its origin as a fictional order of warrior-monks in the Star Wars movies. The U.S. Census doesn't ask about religion anymore, so we would use the all-powerful political pollsters and Pew surveyors the same way the Moral Majority did: as a show of force.

Try that with something you already believe, and the polluters and earth rapists will discover a reality very different from somber panels of ignored climate scientists and politicians who only answer to their paymasters.

Ken Layne writes his American Journal each week for Gawker. Illustration by Jim Cooke, source photos via Shutterstock.