Ken Burns documents the rise of neo-pantheism

Famous documentary film producer Ken Burns has a new series being shown on Public Broadcasting, “The National Parks: Americas Best Idea”:http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/. I have been watching with interest. The series is more about the history of the Parks than what is in them. There are clips of fabulous park scenery, but far more historical black and white images. What strikes me are the frequent explicit references to nature worship as a moving force among park advocates.

Nature worship abounds these days. One may ask, for example: Why should we import foreign carbon rather than exploit our own coal, oil, and oil shale? There is no less carbon in foreign fuels than in our own, yet strong measures are taken to restrict domestic production, with the consequent loss of a trillion dollars or more in trade deficits and not the slightest reduction in carbon emissions. Drilling in the western half of the Gulf of Mexico has not produced any significant environmental damage, so why is eastern half off limits? Caribou have been prospering in Alaska since the North Slope was developed, so what is the problem with developing the barren plains?

The answer is religious. The act of recovering carbon is deemed fundamentally profane. It some cultures, slaughtering animals and burying the dead have been relegated to inferior castes. There were the “burakumin”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burakumin in Japan and the “Dalit”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalit in India and central Asia. The “decent” people in those societies ate meat and died, but nonetheless the necessary supporting activities were avoided to the extent possible. So it is with carbon. We are not going to stop using carbon any time soon, but it is okay if we pay someone else for it. The sacrilege of carbon recovery must be deduced as being fundamentally a religious act, because there is no rational explanation for it.

The history of the National Parks is full of people who find their _true_ God in high mountain scenery, and are not afraid of saying so forthrightly. I don’t believe Mr. Burns is embellishing the point. The casting of nature as religion is a persistent theme in the documentary because that is what the advocates indeed believed.

Key Park advocates were opposed to development of the Parks. Having no roads was thought best, but if there must be some roads then they should be as wretched as possible. If God is to be found in the mountains, then wouldn’t it follow that as many people ought to make the acquaintance? Why should only vigorous wilderness hikers meet God, and not the young or the old or the disabled? Well, it makes sense in the context of the very holy places of religion, where infidels must not be allowed to affront God by their presence. the holy places should only be available to those who complete the pilgrimage.

Religions have truth in them, and I give pantheism its due. There is something deep in the human spirit that is moved by starry nights, grand vistas, and the workings of the natural environment. It derives from the nature of mankind, as does conventional non-pantheistic religious tenets like the Golden Rule. I’ll go further and claim that the Abrahamic religions are perhaps a bit light on nature worship.

Religious excess is the consequence of believing the gods one worships demands irrational acts to please them. Having parks but excluding people from them is bad thinking not because it is religious, but because it is religious excess. It’s reasonable to keep people from despoiling the environment, but it is unreasonable to turn against people so as to please one’s god of nature.

Some who watch Mr. Burns documentary will slide past the religious references by assuming that the God referenced is always a manifestation of the Christian God. That’s possible sometimes, perhaps, but what is said is much more easily related to pantheism. It helped set the stage for the modern rise of neo-pantheism, and its excesses.

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2 Comments on “Ken Burns documents the rise of neo-pantheism”


  1. I think you misunderstand the nature (hah! a pun) of pantheistic thought. Nature includes everything. So, if you want to get in touch with the Way, it’s wherever you are. You don’t need to go to a “park” to find it.

  2. roylatham Says:

    Sure, and every Christian will tell you that there is no need for cathedrals to celebrate God, because their God is everywhere. That common wisdom does not prevent worshipers from building grand houses of worship and attempting to keep them sacred. It is in human nature, not God’s.


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