Why Worldview Matters: A Response to Kimberly Kirner

Kimberly Kirner has written a thoughtful response to my essay at Gods & Radicals, “Escaping the Otherworld: The Reenchantment of Paganism.”  Kirner specifically took issue with the my assumption “that worldview is important because it drives actionable outcomes in the world” and that some worldviews lead to a disenchantment[1] of the world.

Kirner correctly observes that this assumption is not a new idea.  Lynn White’s 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” is a good example of this.  In it, White blames the triumph of Christianity over pagan animism for the modern ecological crisis.  (White’s essay may actually have played a critical role in launching the American Neo-Pagan movement, but that’s a discussion for another day.)  Kirner also observes that this assumption “underlies most educational-type social service programs, ranging from educating women about family planning to educating people about why it’s important to recycle and buy solar panels.”

Kirner, however, doesn’t think worldview is all that important.  For example, Kirner posits that women don’t have unwanted children because of lack of education, but because of “lack of affordable birth control, a lack of other opportunities to build wealth and social standing, or a lack of controlling their fertility (i.e., their husbands control the family’s fertility).”  Similarly, Kirner argues that the reason people don’t recycle or use non-renewable electricity isn’t because they are unaware of these alternatives, but because of lack of “personal motivation, time and resource investment, and broader structural issues such as the city’s solid waste programs and financing for solar.”

A Necessary, But Not Sufficient Condition

I agree with Kirner that the material conditions of people’s lives play a major and sometimes determinative role people’s actions.  As they say, you can give a person a fish and feed them for a day, or you can teach them to fish and feed them for a lifetime …. but still you also have to give them a fishing pole!

But I also think worldview matters.  I do think part of the reason some women have unwanted children and some people don’t recycle is because of a lack of education.  Perhaps education isn’t a cure-all.  But it is necessary.

As I see it, the question of worldview vs. material circumstances calls for a both/and rather than an either/or answer.  Yes, the right material circumstances are necessary for people to take positive social action–necessary, but not sufficient.  Just like education is necessary, but not sufficient.  People need the fishing pole and to be taught to fish.

I wrote about this a couple years ago in an essay entitled, “Putting Marx in his place: Why we need a change in spirit as much as a change in economics” (which was written in response to some criticism of part of the Pagan Community Statement on the Environment).

I used to be very much the idealist–not in the sense of being an optimist, but in the sense of believing that change begins with people’s minds.  Since becoming Pagan, I have drifted a more and more toward the materialist conception of the world, which has been informed in part by Pagan ritual.  Pagan ritual has has taught me, for example, how physical movement can alter my state of mind.

I now believe that mind and matter and social relations are all inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforcing.  Rather than an ontological hierarchy (whether Hegelian or Marxist), I see these forces in a cyclical relationship.  (See the image to the right.)

A Both/And Strategy

This has important implications for how we try to effect change in the world.  If consciousness, matter, and social relations exist on the same ontological level, then there is not just one, but multiple  “points of intervention” or “leverage points” from which we can effect change.

My wife, who is a marriage and family therapist,  has a quote hanging on her wall, which says,

“When you are stuck in a spiral, to change the aspects of the spin you only need to change one thing.”

If consciousness, matter, and social relations exist, not in a hierarchical relationship, but in a cyclical one, then change can be effected by changing any one of the three.  In fact, ideally, you would work on all three.

Let’s take planetary ecological crisis for example. We have an unsustainable system of resource extraction and consumption (matter), which is rapidly making the earth uninhabitable for human beings, as it has already been made uninhabitable for countless species.  That system is perpetuated by a particular economic model (social relation): global industrial capitalism.  And that economic model is perpetuated by a spiritual paradigm (consciousness) which alienates human beings from the material source of our being and from all life.  And of course the paradigm is reinforced by the economic model and the system of resource extraction.

I believe we must attack this cycle at all of these points.  We must intervene at the points of production and destruction (by protesting at a factory or blocking a logging road for example) and at the point of consumption (by changing our buying habits and convincing others to do the same), and at the point of decision (by petitioning our legislators or running for office). But we musty also intervene at the “point of assumption”, by working to change foundational narratives of Western culture.  It is to this last area that my article, “Escaping the Otherworld”, was addressed.

I agree with my Marxist friends that working toward a shift in consciousness is not sufficient by itself.  But likewise, neither do I believe that changing our economic system will be sufficient by itself.  A socialist economic system can be destructive to the ecosystem too, if there is not a corresponding change in consciousness.

Kirner correctly points out that people in all traditions (and no tradition at all) are doing the work of reenchantment.  But religious tradition is not equivalent to worldview.  There are Christians and atheists who have an immanence worldview and Pagans who have a transcendence worldview.  Kirner explains that she interns at an urban farm where Muslim, Christian, Hindu, agnostic, and non-religious people work together out of a shared ethic: that “the earth is sacred and worth humans’ efforts to relate to it and serve it better.”  I’m not surprised at all, as this reinforces my belief that belief matters.  The idea that the earth is a sacred is a belief.  It is part of a worldview, a worldview which exists (semi-)independently of religious tradition.

Motivations Matter

Kirner then makes her case for an “outcomes-oriented” approach to criticism of religions.  According to this approach, we should decide what outcomes we desire ans judge religious practitioners, not on their beliefs, but on their actions.  This sounds good.  But there’s two problems with it.

First, Kirner skips over the first step, deciding what outcomes are desirable.  How do we decide that?  The answer is that we decide what outcomes we want based on our worldview.  According to some worldviews, setting the world on fire is a desirable state of affairs, because it would accelerate our progress toward the Rapture or the End Times or whatever.  Focusing on outcomes is great, if we can agree on what outcomes we want.  But when we can’t we have to go back and look at worldviews.

Second, sometimes desirable actions, when done with the wrong motivation, can lead to undesirable results.  A friend recently drew my attention to this quote from Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren which resonated with me:

“There is nothing more radically activist than a truly spiritual life, and there is nothing more truly spiritual than a radically activist life. If you fight for peace with an unpeaceful spirit, you guarantee that unintended consequences will trump your intended ones. If you struggle for a sustainable economy with unsustainable effort, you guarantee your own failure.

The earth’s outer ecology will, inevitably, mirror our inner ecology. So there can be no lasting poverty reduction in society unless we grapple with greed reduction in the soul. If we want loving relationships, joyful communities, and peaceful nations in society, we must cultivate an inner fecundity of Spirit. That, of course, is no argument for passive pietism and quietism; it is, rather, a call to the most costly, radical activism, the one that calls us to be the change we want to see in the world.”

Sometimes, the reasons why you do something don’t matter.  But sometimes they do.

This is, admittedly, very touchy-feely.  And I be surprised if it satisfies Kirner, who is a social scientist.  Like a good social scientist, she urges us to consider only outcomes that can be “operationalized” and measured.  And she warns us away from considering “interior states”, because they can’t be measured accurately.

But I don’t think enchantment can be completely “operationalized”.  It’s not entirely an interior state, but it’s not objective either.  It’s an interior state and a relationship with others.  Enchantment does manifest in actions, but whether those actions are motivated by a state of enchantment or something else is not always readily apparent.  And, as I said above, sometimes motivations matter, because the wrong ones can end up corrupting your efforts in insidious ways.

We must beware of committing the category error which some people make when they confuse epistemological questions with causational ones.  Just because something can’t be measured (or is very difficult to measure) does not mean it isn’t playing a causal role.

Harm, on Many Levels

Finally, Kirner argues that should limit our criticism of religions to instances where there is “active harm” to other people, such as racism, ableism, transphobia, and abuse.  But the term “active harm” is vague, and it would seem to exclude many of the situations where racism, ableism, transphobia, and abuse exist, where they are more passive than active, more implicit than explicit, and more systemic than individualized.  We live within many systems which cause harm to other people, but where the connection to the harm might not qualify as “active.”  (This is why our legal system, which requires direct causation, does not provide remedies for many real harms.)

If a person’s religious belief causes them to be preoccupied with otherworldly matters and disregard social and economic injustice and environmental devastation, I don’t believe that qualifies as “active harm”.  But they are still passively participating a system which is harming other people, myriad other-than-human beings, and the planet itself.  We cannot therefore limit our critiques of religious belief to instances where the causal connection between the belief and the harm is direct and immediate.

To conclude, worldview matters.  It’s not all that matters.  But it is part of the dynamic which drives human action, which also includes our material conditions and our social relations.  If we want to effect radical change, then we must work to change all three of these, including those “interior states” like worldview or paradigm, spirituality and religious belief.


[1] “Enchantment” (and hence, “disenchantment” and “re-enchantment”) are challenging to define. For present purposes, I adopt Morris Berman’s description of an enchanted world as one in which we experience ourselves as an “integral part” of the world.  It is a “holistic, or participating, consciousness and a corresponding sociopolitical formation”. See. The Reenchantment of the World (1981). See also Sean Donahue’s “The Neurobiology of Re/enchantment”.

2 thoughts on “Why Worldview Matters: A Response to Kimberly Kirner

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  1. Excellent post. I’ve always thought that Marx’s and Hegel’s views should be taken in a complementary sense rather than a contradictory one. After all, where action and reform are concerned, both body and mind are equally and mutually necessary.

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