By Ross Douthat
If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”
Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.
It's ironic that he defends traditional religions such as Christianity. With its holy trinity; angels, seraphim, and cherubim; and thousands of saints, Christianity is a lot closer to pantheism than godless "nature worship" is.
Indigenous life is worse?
The "human societies that hew closest to the natural order" are indigenous societies. Douthat is claiming that "primitive" people who worship a pantheon of gods and spirits are worse off than "advanced" people who worship a single god--e.g., Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
For starters, I'm glad to see a conservative such as Douthat has a high opinion of Allah-worshiping Muslims. Most conservatives stupidly brand all 1.3 billion of them as terrorist wannabes who hate the West and want to conquer the world. That isn't true, but if it were true, Douthat's lofty monotheism would largely be to blame for it.
No doubt Douthat has fabricated his claim about "uncivilized" vs. "civilized" people without a shred of evidence. But he referred to "nasty, brutish and short" lives, so he's apparently thinking of a measure such as life expectancy. I don't know if such data exists, but let's imagine how the analysis would go.
Here are several civilizations or cultures and their religious beliefs. Can anyone tell us if there's a correlation between life expectancy rates and monotheistic beliefs?
Apparently Douthat believes that life in most of the founding civilizations--China, India, Greece, Rome--was "nasty, brutish and short." He thinks people in medieval Europe led longer and fuller lives than their pantheistic contemporaries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. I haven't seen the stats, but I'm guessing he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.
The most significant changes in life expectancy came with the Industrial Revolution, which brought an increase in urban sanitation and the eventual understanding of disease. These developments happened mainly from the 17th century to the present. They happened worldwide, in pantheistic as well as monotheistic cultures. They have nothing to do with religious beliefs.
I suspect life expectancy rates have a lot more to do with one's economic class than one's religious beliefs. People in agrarian societies around the world probably had similar life expectancies, as did people in urban societies. I'd be surprised if the pantheistic lords of Cahokia or Tenochtitlán lived shorter lives than the monotheistic peasants in Europe's feudal system.
In 1850, the life expectancy for white males in the US was 38.5. I can't imagine that pantheistic Asians had much of a lower life expectancy than that. In the modern era, Asians have routinely come out on top in life-expectancy rankings. Perhaps not coincidentally, they've continued to practice their traditional "pantheistic" religions.
Asian urbanization and pantheism
Undoubtedly Douthat equates the monotheistic West with civilization and the pantheistic rest of the world with barbarism. Here's some evidence of how ignorant this belief is:
Top 10 Cities of the Year 1500
1. Beijing, China 672,000
2. Vijayanagar, India 500,000
3. Cairo, Egypt 400,000
4. Hangzhou, China 250,000
5. Tabriz, Iran 250,000
6. Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey 200,000
7. Gaur, India 200,000
8. Paris, France 185,000
9. Guangzhou, China 150,000
10. Nanjing, China 147,000
Oops. Seven of the top 10 cities at the time of the Renaissance practiced some form of "pantheism." Two cities practiced Islam and only one practiced Christianity.
For the most part, monotheistic Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in humble towns and villages. They were physically closer to nature than the pantheistic Asians who filled the urban centers of their great civilizations. So where's the evidence that monotheism has anything to do with a longer or better life?
Incidentally, the results wouldn't change significantly if we chose almost any year before 1900. Until the 20th century, the world's greatest population centers were in the pantheistic East, not the monotheistic West. The only thing we can conclude from this is that pantheism correlates strongly with civilization.
For more on the differences between civilizations, see Multicultural Origins of Civilization and The Myth of Western Superiority. For more on Avatar, see White Guilt in Avatar and Army vs. Indians in Avatar.
Below: Primitive, superstitious Europeans get close to nature during a Saturnalia rite.