Normally there would be little reason to compare and contrast Karen Armstrong, a wildly popular writer on religion and Tim Flannery, the Australian palaeontologist and author. The random occasion to do so was their appearance within half an hour of each other recently at the Ottawa WritersFestival. Armstrong is a rarity, someone who has actually gained celebrity status by writing more than 20 books about religion. But from my seat in the house Flannery had the far more compelling message. The writers festival occurs during the height of the promotional season for fall books and both Armstrong and Flannery were on the tour circuit. She was promoting her latest book, called The Case for God. Flannery was touting a short book called Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable Future.
The Case for God
Jim Creskey, the publisher of Ottawa-based Embassy magazine, introduced Armstrong and interviewed her as they sat on a raised dais that formerly contained the altar.
Armstrong told her audience that in The Case for God she is attempting to reframe how people understand and experience God. We cannot do that using post-Enlightenment rationality as our only tool, she said, because no human has seen or can adequately describe God. As Armstrong told journalist Michael Valpy in a Globe and Mail interview, “We can’t say there’s a God, as though he’s an item in a species. God is the all. God is being itself, St. Thomas Aquinas says.”
In that interview and her Ottawa appearance, Armstrong expressed her frustration with the unpleasant arguments between a group of militantly atheist writers — including Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who deride anyone who has religious faith, and Christian fundamentalists, who think they know exactly what and who God is and will accept only a narrow creed. It is a tedious and infantile debate, she told her audience, in which people want to defeat and crush their opponents.
I liked her insistence that religious belief is not about debate but is about a way of living. She said that the doctrines of churches are a call to action. Religion is about practice and about compassion. Every world religion, she said, is anchored in the golden rule that you must not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. She said that unless that golden rule is applied globally we are not going to have a viable world. She mentioned the environment only in passing, saying that we have to rethink many things that have failed us, including the economy and the environment. She was received well by her audience and received a standing ovation.
Now or Never
The event featuring Tim Flannery began half an hour later and the audience was about half to two-thirds of what it had been for Armstrong and was, generally a younger group of people. Flannery’s previous book, The Weather Makers, was a best seller. Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. described it was: “The finest account of the overwhelming science behind global warming . . . a terrifying glimpsed of the future.”
What I particularly enjoyed about Flannery’s appearance at the festival was its informality, its lack of pomposity and its practical aspects. Jay Ingram, a science journalist and the former host of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, interviewed Flannery and one had the sense that it was a genuine conversation. Flannery answered Ingram’s questions briefly and conversationally, and when he did not have an answer to a question he said so. His responses to audience questions were also brief and that allowed for a good dialogue, particularly with questioners frustrated with Canada’s growing reputation as an international laggard on policy and action related to climate change.
Carbon dioxide and other gases being pumped into the atmosphere as a by-product of our burning fossil are heating up the planet. In his book Flannery provides information from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicting temperature increases of between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Celsius in the 21st century. He says the IPCC estimates have proven to be too conservative and are already being overtaken. He says, too, that the difference between the low and high estimate for warming temperatures is profound. Humanity can probably cope with a warming of less than 3 degrees, but a 10.4 degree warming would be truly catastrophic.
Flannery goes on to write, “With global food security at an all-time low, and greenhouse gases so choking our atmosphere as to threaten a global climatic catastrophe, the signs of what may come are all around us.”
He did not once mention God in his interview with Ingram, but upon purchasing and reading his book I was surprised by how clear he is that our scientific crises are at base deeply moral crises. Any meaningful inquiry into sustainability, he said, be as much a philosophical and moral discussion as a scientific one.
But what, exactly, do we do? Briefly, Flannery believes that there is a future for electric cars and points to their rapid development in Denmark. He argues that we should not exclude grass fed beef as a source of food in a hungry world, but says that feeding grain to cattle in industrial feedlots, as we do in North America, is an unsustainable and indefensible waste of resources.
Flannery said that Canada’s announced intention to focus on unproven research that would store carbon underground rather than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere is not a substitute for policy that would cap carbon emissions, then begin to lower them quickly and in absolute terms. Carbon sequestration, if it works, will be needed more in places such as China and India rather than in Canada, Flannery says, because those countries are building hundreds of coal-fired electrical power plants.
Talking about the unknowable
Perhaps it is unfair to compare two authors who just happened to appear in the same venue on the same evening, but Armstrong’s presentation and its reception reminded me that many people seem drawn to talking endlessly about the unknowable. Yet no church that I have ever attended has placed an emphasis upon the urgent need for environmental stewardship. We appear largely uninterested in discovering how our various religious traditions might speak to practical, but profoundly moral questions that could save millions of people from an existence that may well become ever more nasty, brutish and short.