The religions of fury and hatred are here to stay. They include the radical right wing of Christianity and of Islam. They are certainly the most sensationalistic and obvious ones. The stunt pulled by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who threatened to burn Korans on September 11, 2010, made the news much more than the interfaith outreach of peaceful Christian groups. Islamist terrorists always make more news than the peaceful Muslim Sufis, so much so that most people do not even realize that there is a philosophical meditative branch of the Muslim religion. (Incidentally, the group that plans to build a mosque in lower Manhattan consists of Sufis.)
At first this seems strange, because the peaceful, constructive branches of Christianity and Islam seem so much more beneficial and reasonable. Why do the religions that want to build a better world fail to predominate over those that wish to destroy as much of the world that they can?
Religions consist of sets of ideas that spread through a process similar to natural selection in nature. In this sense, religions evolve. The religions that get themselves propagated most successfully from one human mind to another are the ones that predominate. As with the evolution of plants and animals, success depends not on long term quality but on immediate success. Plants and animals will do whatever they can, destructive or constructive, that allows them to have as many surviving offspring as possible: they can harm their fellow creatures, or benefit them, depending on the circumstances.
It is unfortunate that the religions of hatred are thriving at the expense of the religions of peace. The reasons are obvious. All that a religion of hatred has to do is to press a single button in the human psyche, releasing primal fury, fury that is powerful enough that the spouter of hatred contradicts him or herself and does not even notice it. (Example: the same people may claim that Obama is godless, and also a Muslim. What, pray tell, is a godless Muslim? Of course, he is neither.) In contrast, the religions of peace require people to stop and think. While some people are thinking, the spouters of hatred have already contaminated a dozen other people. Fundamentalist religions are simplistic: just give money to the preacher, go to church, vote Republican, and hate gays. Peaceful religions, in contrast, require a more thoughtful attitude about literally everything in the world.
But the spread of the religions of hatred is not automatic. It occurs mostly in disrupted social and political circumstances. People are already thinking only brief thoughts in the short term, since the economy and world events are in such turmoil. How do you think ahead when everything may change in a few weeks or years?
I study plant ecology. I could not help but notice that the religions of hatred resemble weeds. Weeds are plants that grow rapidly, produce a lot of seeds, then die. Before you know it, you have thousands of weeds. The religions of peace are more like trees, which grow slowly for many years. Weeds grow best in an open space that has been recently disturbed, often by human activity such as bulldozing. Eventually the trees will take over, unless the disturbance continues. In places where disturbances occur frequently, weeds can spread but trees never get a chance to grow big enough to produce their seeds. Natural selection has favored weeds that produce a lot of seeds and then die, in disturbed environments, and trees that produce fewer seeds and live for a long time, in stable environments.
The religions of hatred are weedy religions. They grow and spread rapidly. The tree-like religions of peace never get a chance to grow because disruptions and crises keep happening. This will only get worse in the “long emergency” of climate disruption, as described by David Orr (Down to the Wire) and Bill McKibben (Eaarth).
For a weed, there is no future. A weed is going to die soon anyway, and there is no point in preparing for the future. For a tree, the future is the environment in which it will spend centuries of its life. The parallel with religion is unmistakable. To a fundamentalist, there is no future; God is going to come right away and destroy everything. But to a peaceful religious person, the future is what is most important.
Unfortunately, it appears that the immediate future of the Earth is going to look like a continually ravaged and re-ravaged weed patch, both in terms of its physical appearance, the plants and animals and the places that people live, and in terms of its religious and social environment.
A version of this essay will also appear on my website.