How do we respect materialistic/mechanistic science – the myth of our time – when it continues to use non-human sentient beings for it’s own gain?
How do we respect religions for the harm or damage that these beliefs may cause for animals, plants and people who live on the Earth?
These are important questions, and for me the two are intimately related. Science and religion are two lenses humans use to perceive the world.
The other night I watched a brief video on mushrooms and how they could be grown to serve as a substitute for leather hides stripped from the backs of animals. How wonderful for animals, I thought instantly, privileging animals over plants and temporarily, and forgetting that Fungi are fantastic and ancient life forms that appeared on this planet with plants about 450.million years ago. Even then mycorrhizal fungi had a relationship with plants that scientists call mutualism, a kind of symbiosis in which both benefit from their association. They may be some of or perhaps even our most ancient teachers. Fungi have characteristics of both plants and animals and even have a kind of external skin made of chitlin that is insect-like. (They are also phenomenal underground communicators in the plant world, another fact I forgot in my enthusiasm during this video). I allowed myself to be seduced by western science until my friend Iren made a comment that startled me.
She queried, “I wonder how the mushrooms feel about it.” This question caught me unawares in my own snare, because once again I had strayed into the mind of science without my feeling body attached.
How do these beings feel about being stuffed into plastic bags and grown under artificial conditions? They are probably deeply distressed I concluded ruefully, sadden by my own insensitivity and grateful to my friend for “Earthing” me in such a respectful way.
Recently I had a dream that told me “there is no religious way through, there are just people’s opinions.” In the dream I was somewhat startled when the dream maker finished by stating “the way is not choosing a way.” Puzzling over this apparent paradox I came to the realization that staying open to possibilities was the position I now hold with respect to both science and religion. It is clear that I still get caught by my western conditioning, a position that privileges “the god of science” without appropriate questioning, as so many people do with organized religion.
And yet with this much said, I believe my relationship with Nature has opened a door to Universality in a way that science, religion, philosophy scholarship etc. could never do on its own. Nature just is, and at 73 I give the Earth and non-human sentient species full credit for teaching me how to become a loving and compassionate human being.
Is animism a religion? I don’t believe so. There are no rules, no practices, no injunctions… there is only what is… I may be in love with the wilderness, each stone and sunrise, each dove coo and loving look from my dearest canine companions, each bear, owl, deer, and elk, and yet I fall into the same traps that other humans do. Sadly, none of us are immune to “privilege” of one kind or another.
I accord Nature my deepest respect acknowledging that most of the world does not see/feel what I do. In Nature I find countless mirrors for what I see and feel and like the trees that are now heavy with spring buds but present to the threat of frost, I stay as much in the present as I can.
Both science and religion are limited by the belief systems that people develop within these disciplines and traditions. I find that I can respect people who are genuine seekers that attempt to question and work within their respective religions and scientific paradigms although I do not agree, support or accept those practices that harm others or continue to support a patriarchal system that is hell bent on destroying us or the planet when I see what is happening. Human visioning is so limited.
Today I do hold other people accountable for the harm they do/have done to themselves/others/the planet, myself, about just as I hold myself accountable; we are all participants.
What helps me the most is returning to my Naturalist self, the part of me that keeps me grounded in a present that allows me to find peace in the present moment. Perhaps this “no way” is some way after all.
Sara is a naturalist, writer, a Jungian pattern analyst, ethologist ( person who studies animals in the their natural habitat) who is currently splitting her time between living in her home in Maine and residing here in Northern New Mexico. She has Passamaquoddy/Maliseet Indigenous roots which many be why she has dedicated her life to writing stories about animals and the Earth. Her work is regularly published.
23 thoughts on “Querying in the Context of Religion and Science by Sara Wright”
Science is definitely an ideological worldview and in some ways worse than those of patriarchal religions.
I think it is very hard to truly appreciate the value and rights of other forms of life, given the way we have been shaped by religion and science.
At the same time, I am not so sure that not choosing a way is the solution.
The egalitarian matriarchal Minangkabau state that they take what is good in nature and throw away the bad. Their worldview is based in animism, but also on “favoring” the principle of growth, which includes nurturing that which is vulnerable. They do not focus on violence and domination which also occur within nature. In other words they have chosen a way to think about the lessons they will learn from nature.
Carol, I responded to your comment but notice that the response occurs further on without a reference to you… don’t know why that is.
Thank you for your beautifully expressed queries. I love your friend’s question, I wonder how the mushrooms feel, and your engagement with it. Here is another conundrum I ponder: as much as our species has made harmful choices, we are just that, another life form. We are born, reproduce, die. We eat, excrete, breathe, depend on water. We are nature as much as an earthworm or a tree….How did we forget and wreak so much havoc?
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How did we forget? That’s my question too. One answer: We have distanced ourselves from Nature by privileging our human brains over that of other species. I too was educated out of the idea that we were simply a part of nature. Fortunately for me, my love for animals interrupted that destructive cycle forcing me to acknowledge sentience first in animals and then later all living life forms..
Indigenous cultures also chose to let Nature be “teachers” and managed to live in harmony with their respective habitats. There is a direct relationship between allowing nature to become a teacher and developing humility and a deep respect for all life forms…
Just think – plants have been around for 450 million years, animals for 350 million years – humans for 200 thousand years – don’t you think they might know more than we do about how to live than we do? Without cooperation life on earth could not have survived.
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Brava! Yes, I too have wondered about how vegetables feel about being picked and cooked and eaten. How “wild” vegetation (grass, weeds) feels about being walked on. How trees feel about being climbed or chopped down or even more or less worshiped. Do scientists even discover or even intuit the feelings of the subjects of their studies? We live in a living world on a living planet.
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Oh I am so happy to hear you ask the question about plants…because this is exactly how we start to change our world views. There is a lot of research going on now around the possibility/probability of plant sentience and I am happy to say that there are scientists out there who are asking this very question.
Biologist Rupert Sheldrake wrote a book called “A New Science of Life” in 1981 that helped change my life because this was the first scientist who was able to validate my intuitive sense that all Nature was alive and sentient.
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I have had several vegetarian and vegan friends (I’m neither). One friend refused to eat anything that had ever had a nervous system (which I interpreted as consciousness). When I told her that trees seem to talk to each other, she gave that a whole lot of thought. Another vegetarian friend refused to eat anything that had ever had eyes. And then I reminded her of potatoes………
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This is an intriguing point. We cannot avoid consuming life in some for or another, be it plants, fungi, or animals, but we can, I think, change the manner of our consumption and the respect we afford these creatures.
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Ah, I like this a lot Jaqueline. There is no way we can live without consuming life in some form. Respect is key to consuming – if we accord respect to the animal or plant we are eating it makes a huge difference – there is this awareness that we develop with this attitude – or at least that’s been my personal experience.
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I have heard of so-called holy men in India who somehow learn to live on air. And maybe they drink water. I’m not altogether sure I believe this, however. Does anybody else know about these guys?
Thanks, Sara Wright, I love where you say: “I believe my relationship with Nature has opened a door to Universality in a way that science, religion, philosophy scholarship etc. could never do on its own.”
There is a gorgeous webpage at wikipedia.org which defines “Nature” — and with incredibly beautiful nature photos.
But then the article surprised me, because it included a photo of an aerial view of the city of Chicago, as nature. And for the first time, I realized human built cities are part of nature. What? I said to myself, that’s not nature, but then again thinking it through, I realized, yes, a human built city is indeed part of nature, wow.
Interesting comment about cities. Are they part of Nature? I think cities are human constructions and not a natural part of Nature.
I think science as it is practiced today is patriarchal.
I also agree that it is very hard to appreciate the value and rights of other forms of life given the way we are socialized.
Choosing to focus on Life is an attitude I developed as a result of being a naturalist. I did not make that clear in this essay.
If one engages intimately with Nature as I do it becomes clear that Nature favors Life in all aspects- everything in Nature occurs in service to the Whole. Although my heart breaks every time I witness a hawk taking a bird for example, I remind myself that in the bigger picture that small bird became food for life and that I can’t separate the two. We all participate in this great round. However, animals (with notable exceptions of a few species like cats) kill only for food and most avoid confrontation whenever possible.
Nature has taught me about the importance of maintaining a “both and” perspective – that I simply can’t through out what I don’t like because of my limited human vision.
Cooperation and compassion are evident everywhere in Nature but I think we humans have lost the ability to perceive what is.
The “man against nature” paradigm still rules.
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The above comment was made in response to what Carol said. I am not sure why it appears here!
Unfortunately, there is no way for us to live without killing something, but we can try to consider carefully what we kill. I love to garden, but in doing so, I decide what is a “weed” and what isn’t, I inevitably cut poor worms in half, and I pull/cut things I want to eat. Nature is long in tooth and claw, and we are part of nature. It’s hard to make decisions when we humans have such limited brains!
Agreed. This is where respecting the animal and plants we eat becomes important. That “tooth and claw” bit comes directly out of the outdated man against nature paradigm. We were taught that Nature is somehow threatening and dangerous, not the “mother of us all.”
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I’m fascinated by your statement about mushrooms being ‘phenomenal underground communicators’. What on earth does this mean? Also that they have characteristics of insects, i.e. their outer layer (skin)? I’ll be spending time finding articles about this, for sure!
I stopped and stared at your dream statement ‘ … startled when the dream maker finished by stating “the way is not choosing a way.” ‘ Wonderful!
Yes! I am fascinated by this communication aspect too. For more information go to to biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s site and read the article in The New Yorker about his son. Merlin Sheldrake has done groundbreaking scientific work with fungi.
Fungi/mushrooms are now believed to have been around for about 450 million years and they do amazing things underground. They have characteristics that blur the edges between being a plant and an insect – the most important might be their skin – which is more like an insect than a plant. Please take a look at the book “The Hidden Life of Trees” – if you are interested in learning how trees communicate.
Yes, I too was fascinated by this paradoxical dream statement. I had an ah ha moment without being able to articulate the insight but it smacked of some kind of truth.
I have just read your post with some fascination and I have to say it did open my channels of thinking. I have been a practicing Buddhist for as long as I can remember and as many people know, we are an inquisitive analytical lot. You ask How do we respect materialistic/mechanistic science – the myth of our time – when it continues to use non-human sentient beings for it’s own gain? and I think this is a really important point. From a Buddhist perspective, each of us reincarnates many times in our lifetime and so we will all have been human and none human sentient beings in our journey. We will all have inherited positive and negative karma so when either sentient being is harmed in any way it is due to it’s, his, her past karma. As humans however, we have the capacity to know right from wrong and that harming another living thing will cause pain. We have the consciousness to consider these things whereas an animal does not. A great example of this is the family pet who’s loving and affectionate to its owner. But if it’s owner dies and is no longer around to give food – the dog will eat him.
Animals hunt for food to satisfy their primal needs, they don’y consider the pain they inflict upon their prey as they bite into it and when they’ve finished they sleep peacefully until the next time.
I was also fascinated about the mushrooms but I’m not sure they’d have the capacity to experience or acknowledge emotions such as distress, pain etc. I’m thinking they would first have to connect with that feeling, understand what it is and without a nervous system of higher level of consciousness would they be able to do that? who knows? its a very interesting post though and I look forward to seeing more of them
Thank you so much
People will eat people too in extreme circumstance. I once adopted a dog who cried in his owner’s garden for 3 days until people checked and found the owner had died. The dog then slept on the owner’s grave for at least 3 days, if this is not feeling, if this is not love, sorry, I don’t know what is.
Thanks Carol… I had exactly the same thought about animals. Animals embody conscious awareness – all you have to do is engage with them with an open mind to experience this truth. Animals have a capacity to feel things that continues to astonish me with their depth. I have come to believe that animals have a capacity to feel that is deeper than that of humans. They don’t rationalize/analyze – they feel. We now know that plants feel too (as a plant/ flower lover I knew this as a child) . Unfortunately this kind of scientific research does not make the front pages… If it did – if we were forced to confront the truth that animals and plants are sentient, can reflect upon their past, and plan for the future then we would be forced to change our attitudes towards them.
As for people eating people – they/we do.
Do humans consider the pain they routinely inflict upon each other? In my opinion most do not.
Please read scientist/ ethologist Marc Bekoff’s work – start with “Wild Justice” if you want another view.
I thought this poem might interest you. I thought of it as soon as I read your article, but have been on the road for a few days.
when I was a mushroom
when I was a mushroom
life was simple
the world was dark and warm
and very safe
around me were fungal rhizomes
sprinklings of spores
the odd hard rock and root
and pliable soil
but I was offered advancement
progress, they said
to human form, and now in the light
I feel lost in darkness
so many troubles, wars, torture
I long for regress, to slip back
into the silence of the mushroom
© Susan Hawthorne, 2007
Strange… at the atomic level the humans, plants, and animals are the same. Just 3 particles getting together from time to time.