Will Salvationist and Cartesian Thinking Be Our Doom?

We must abandon our simplistic worldview and stop thinking that somebody or something (or as-yet-undeveloped technology) will save us


There are two thought poisons embedded deeply in western culture, and together they threaten to kill us all, or at least turn the world into a hellscape we’d never wish on our grandchildren or anybody else, even Republicans.

They’re the collision of salvationist christianity and Cartesian thinking. In a way, these philosophical contemporaries brought us our modern conception of hell, as characterized in the third triptych by Hironymous Bosch on which Leonardo DiCaprio based a documentary about global warming.

Cartesian thought isn’t entirely the “fault” of René Descartes, but he certainly popularized the notion with his idea that the entire universe could be likened to a giant machine. 

Everything runs according to certain laws, he suggested, and if you can just figure out the laws and find the right levers and switches, you can alter the course of nature to your liking in scales from the micro to the massive.

In many ways, this is at the core of the “Scientific Method,” once referred to as the “Descartes Method” because it was first laid out to Europe in a clear, cogent way in Descartes’ 1637 Discourse on the Method for Rightly Directing One’s Reason and Searching for Truth in the Sciences.

And, while the Cartesian method is extraordinarily useful for understanding and describing a whole variety of natural processes, it breaks down (at least in practical terms) when we try to use it to describe life.

Yes, removing a diseased appendix or replacing a clogged cardiac artery validate Descartes’ way of understanding much of science (in this case, mechanical medicine), and certainly make sense when your car starts backfiring and you stop it by dialing back the gas/air mixture in the carburetor. But when we push the system beyond the limits of our knowledge it ceases to be practical.

I can take my car apart in my driveway, spread the parts all over the lawn, then carefully reassemble it, flip the key, turn it on and take a ride. 

Try that same trick, however, with your dog or a cow.  Life is so extraordinarily complex that we’re not even close to having computers that can model everything necessary to put that dog back together and have it say, “Woof!” Were such a thing even possible.

And extreme Cartesian thinking not only fails to acknowledge that difference, but ultimately amplifies a variety of types of extreme salvationist thinking.

Salvationist thinking derives both from our culturally-embedded religions and from our experience as babies and small children. 

When you were little and skinned your knee, you went to a bigger, older, wiser and more omnipotent force — Mom, Dad or the Doctor — to make it stop hurting and begin to heal.

We’re programmed from childhood by our very human experiences to look to a larger, more powerful external force to “save us” from things we find ourselves powerless to stop, understand or repair. As Thomas Paine pointed it out in The Age of Reason, it’s why salvationistic thanking is so seductive and so widespread.

Whether it’s a cancer diagnosis or a roaring tornado bearing down on your home, a first instinct even for people who proclaim their atheism is usually to pray to a deity (or life and nature around them) for safety and salvation.

The old cliché, “There aren’t any atheists in a foxhole“ is more real than often realized, as any combat veteran or war-zone relief worker can tell you. Most of our religions have picked up on this basic and common childhood programming to offer their own version of an omnipotent god, ritual, or savior figure who will rescue us from crises. 

Cultural programming usually wins. And satisfies our deep needs and desires for safety and security.

Christianity, in particular, puts the idea of salvation front-and-center, arguing that because of a mistake a woman made 3000 years ago we’re all doomed to be punished for all eternity by a vengeful god if we fail to say the right words in the right way to the Guy who this god had killed to calm his own wrath and ensure our salvation. 

In some iterations of Christianity and other religions the words are replaced by, or supplemented with, deeds. Doing (or “paying for”: see The Borgias) a particular and prescribed ritual to achieve salvation is, however, still always at the core of Salvationist belief systems because one must put forth an effort to achieve salvation.

Together, these ways of thinking are so deeply embedded in our culture that we’re largely unaware of how they work together to make our efforts to prevent our destruction by climate change — or even the corruption of our political system by the morbidly rich — infinitely more difficult.

Salvationist thinking can be boiled down to one general sentence: “Somebody will save us in the nick of time!” 

After all, isn’t that how it always works in the movies?  Isn’t that the story, told over and over again, in the bibles and literature of the world’s great religions?  Isn’t that the story we tell ourselves about the people who invented polio or smallpox vaccines or came up with heart-lung machines? That they saved us?

Cartesian thinking makes it even more difficult to break out of salvationist thinking loops by adding, “And they’ll save us through science, which can do anything!” And then we see the evidence of the extraordinary things science can do right in front of our own eyes, further priming us.

As a result, we read about new forms of nuclear power that will save the world from fossil fuels, or wild schemes to seed the atmosphere with zinc, titanium dioxide or other white particulate matter to reflect radiation from the sun, “fixing” our problem caused by fossil-fuel-poisoning-caused global warming.

When James Lovelock popularized his Gaia theory of the world as a living organism, he was onto something.  (I’d personally extend that logic to the entire known and unknown universe, but that’s another rant.)  The world is clearly one giant, conscious living thing — even the seemingly inorganic parts of it like water, gaseous elements and rocks — and disruptions to the patterns of that life produce perturbations that can echo across the world and down through generations of human life.

Nonetheless, those who make money despoiling the world continue to assure us that we don’t really need to stop using fossil fuels right away; we’ll come up with something that will save us from the worst consequences. 

Or at least will save some of us, like the wealthiest and thus “most deserving” among us: billionaires are, at this moment, turning abandoned missile silos in the Midwest into underground mansions and mini-cities for the Blade Runner future they may have helped create for the rest of us.

But that’s an anecdote, not a solution.

This isn’t to say that we don’t need technological solutions to the crises we’ve created with our 18th and 19th century fossil fuel technologies.  Technology is absolutely essential if we’re to continue having an advanced society; we most urgently need to start making use, for example, of the nuclear fusion power available to us in almost infinite quantities from that massive fusion reactor 93 million miles away that we call the Sun.

But to avoid the worst of the the crisis we’ve brought upon ourselves, before the Great Conveyor Belt (Gulf Stream) collapses and the Jet Stream goes from “drunk” to “dead” and renders most of Europe and eastern North America uninhabitable for humans, we must reimagine and reexamine our core cultural assumptions.

Like the dog or cow of my earlier example, we can’t “fix” the planet with simplistic technological patches. 

Gaia does have the ability to heal, but it will require us to step back in a radical way, from stopping the use of fossil fuels to changing the way we feed ourselves to reducing our population worldwide over the next generation or two.

All of these are important, but none are, to use the language of our culture, “the things that will save us.” 

To find that, we must stop, rather than start.

We must abandon our simplistic Cartesian worldview and stop thinking that somebody or something (or some as-yet-undeveloped technology) will save us. 

We must instead leave large parts of Nature alone, trusting that She knows best how to appropriately regenerate.

Humanity must recognize the fire of life in all of creation; stand in awe of its power and extraordinary complexity; and reorder our society, religions and science to care for and nurture creation instead of trying to control or crush it.

Failing that, the ghost of René Descartes — and the rest of us — will soon run head-on into the hell of his contemporary, Hieronymus Bosch.