Anthropocentrism: Relationship with Religion and Prejudice - Blog#2 - 21 January 2019


Death anxiety is probably the primary motive for religious belief, and is certainly the driving force behind immortality fantasies. A second primary motive for religious belief is anthropocentrism, which contributes mightily to our belief in God. Anthropocentrism is a perspective on reality that positions man as the most important entity in the universe (with the exception of God, who we invented to establish our own importance in the first place). Anthropocentrism is not often discussed, in part because it has an almost protoplasmic, axiomatic, invisible presence at the core of our thinking. Even more than death anxiety, it hides in plain sight. In some ways, religions have forsaken some of their core virtues, most notably humility, gratitude, and love. The denial of death and the invention of immortality (via the soul, which magically allows our consciousness to survive the death of our corporeal containers) reflect one sin, greed, while anthropocentrism reveals another, pride. The antidotes are the virtues of gratitude and humility, respectively. We can give thanks for our six or eight decades of life without greedily insisting on eternal life. And we can accept ourselves as a special entity in a remote corner of the universe, rather than insisting that we are the purpose and crown of creation. And we can not only tolerate, but cherish our diversity, loving our fellow humans and other creatures of all colors, faiths, partner preferences, and ethnic flavors, rather than playing divisive us vs. them, ingroup/outgroup games that characterize prejudice rather than love.

             Anthropocentrism can be viewed as an unspoken, hidden prejudice involving the valuing of humans over all other life forms. There is a cozy relationship between theism and anthropocentrism, because God was created, in part, to validate the narcissistic pride of mankind. We see ourselves as special, in part because God created the universe just for us. Or is God special because we created Him to make us special? It is ironic that some religious zealots accuse atheists of being narcissists, of usurping the place of God in the universe, without due humility. We can argue back that despite their posture of humility at the foot of God, it is quite narcissistic to view humanity, amongst all life forms, as God’s pet species, so special that our immediate universe, as well as a blissful afterlife were created by God, solely for our benefit. This is anthropocentrism cubed.

             Our narcissism as a species further requires us to view ourselves as superior to other creatures. To bolster our perceived superiority, we must devalue other species, creating a dualism in which we place ourselves separate from and above animals. In the process, we devalue the animal core of our nature, and develop disgust for our animal functions. We also fall prey to us-against-them thinking (man vs. animal, my God is better than your god) that fuels all prejudice. Such thinking is the antithesis of true spirituality, which celebrates our connectedness with other creatures, the diversity of life, and appreciation for the “All” of the universe, rather than focusing on differences and divisions. Coupled with theism, anthropocentrism simultaneously enhances and undercuts spirituality. It creates a spiritual connection with an imagined God, but undercuts our connections with our fellow creatures here in reality (at least those we see as “other’). Thus, while billions of the religious faithful benefit from religious values and demonstrate the virtues promoted by their faith, pride and greed are core components of our need to be at the center of God’s creation, while sharing His immortality. Ironically, the secular antidotes to this pride and greed involve reliance upon the traditional religious virtues of humility and gratitude (and the practice of love, involving full respect for the diversity of life).

Anthropocentrism can readily be found in astronomy, evolutionary biology and psychology as well as ecology and theology. A rather striking illustration of anthropocentrism can be found in the geocentric model of the universe, in which the earth was seen as the center of the universe. Alternative views were suggested as early as Aristarchus in 3rd century BCE Greece, and Copernicus delayed publication of his own heliocentric model in order to avoid the fate that Galileo later earned from the Catholic Church at Inquisition headquarters in 1633. We now know that our planet is not the center of our solar system, and our star is not even the center of our galaxy, much less the universe. But the anthropocentric individual can still cling to the fact that earth is the only known harbor of life in the universe. The discovery of any extraterrestrial life, if forthcoming, would far surpass even Darwin's theory of evolution in its impact upon the collective human self-image. In positing an evolutionary link between man and the "lower" forms of life, Darwin effectively bridged the chasm of dissimilarity that had previously separated man from other life forms. Evolutionary theory and science are not so much a threat to religion as they are a threat to anthropocentrism. Both astronomy and evolution can be reconciled with theology if you are willing to say that God created a Big Bang and set the evolutionary process in motion. But no, this is not good enough for anthropocentrics. Without creationism, man was not initially created by God as the center point and ultimate purpose of the universe. And with further millennia of evolution, we might end up in the dustbin of history, surpassed by the evolution of more advanced creatures (perhaps ones that don’t try to destroy each other).

Anthropocentrism can also be viewed as a form of prejudice, at the species level, and is therefore referred to as “speciesism” in some quarters. What justifies our use of the word "prejudice" when explaining anthropocentrism? In the aftermath of World War II and worldwide horror regarding the atrocities committed in Nazi death camps, a great deal of research emerged regarding the nature of prejudice. Ethnocentrism was viewed as a perspective on group relations, in which ingroups (those you identify with) are cherished, while outgroups (which you don’t belong to, and are seen as “other” and perhaps as enemies) are rejected. For the ethnocentric, the ingroup must be kept pure and strong; the outgroup must be segregated and subordinated. Such ingroup/outgroup thinking no doubt had some survival benefit in our early history, when hunter/gatherer groups competed for food, water, and other resources, though now, with nuclear arsenals, we may be better off focusing on our similarities and common interests. While the prejudiced individual tends to devalue diversity, and identifies with his ingroup rather than valuing humanity as a whole, we can see him shift to a prejudicial attitude if we contrast humanity with a suitable outgroup: other species. Thus, in my doctoral dissertation, a moderate positive correlation (r= +.358) was obtained between anthropocentrism and ethnocentrism. That is, individuals who espoused ethnic and religious prejudice tended to be anthropocentric as well. The ingroup always rules!

So we can view anthropocentrism as a form of prejudice, operating at the species level, supporting the exploitation of the nonhuman environment on earth, while motivating our intelligent design of a God who places us in our preferred position, as the center and purpose of the universe.

For an extended discussion and references for further reading, check out Chapter 4, “Anthropocentrism: Prejudice Hiding in Plain Sight,” in Edward Chandler’s Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available on Amazon on 2/14/2019.

If you have friends who check the box “spiritual but not religious,” please refer them to this website. And please, share your own perspective below, so we can get some discussion going.

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