By Dr. Eilis Field, United Kingdom
Talking to the Dishcloth!
I CAUGHT myself the other day, silently apologizing to a dishcloth for my neglect of it. Yes, as far as I know, I am of sound mind! I was engaging in some deep therapeutic cleaning and became lost in the kind of thoughts one keeps typically to oneself. “And perhaps one ought!” I hear some readers say. I did see the funny side as I found myself mentally apologizing to the loyal and trusty plain cloth that had been side-lined in favor of one of the trendier types. It then occurred to me, however, that perhaps I was right to do so.
What mistake do environmentalists and leaders of religious faiths have in common?
I am guilty of not being the greatest recycler. I do put things in the correct bins, and have, at long last, replaced my small plastic disposable water bottles with a reusable one. Still, I am a very long way off attaining eco-warrior status. This momentary lapse into conversing with my dishcloth, however, caused me to ask why so many of us fail to move towards a greener lifestyle as quickly as we might. I found myself wondering if, at least in part, it is due to its exponents making the same error as some of our religious exponents.
The arguments for us to stop generating waste, though valid, tend to be centered around the fate that will befall us if we do not change our ways. In the same way, most religions sought to keep their flock on track by warning them of the fate that would befall them if they did not adhere to their rules. Fear can work for some of the people, some of the time, but as our empty churches and mountain of discarded plastic bear witness to, fear that something that may happen one day, does not work for a lot of the people, a lot of the time. So, what does change people’s attitudes?
How do attitudes change?
It would be delusory to say that racism or homophobia in Britain (where I live) is dead. When we recall, however, that not so long ago, blatant racism and homophobia was considered acceptable viewing on television, we can see that attitudes have moved on significantly. Most right-minded people, for example, would find the 1970s sitcom, “Love Thy Neighbours,” quite shocking and most unacceptable today. What was it that brought about this change in attitude?
By and large, such attitudes change when one group of people stop seeing others as belonging to a separate group or category from themselves. When we remove this invisible perimeter boundary that fences “them” off from “us,” we develop an understanding of the intrinsic worth of the other that is worthy of our respect and care. This principle is true not only in terms of other humans but also in animals. Again, it is not a completed journey, but generally, we are more mindful of animal cruelty than we have been in the past. This awareness has come about as a consequence not of fear, but of a changed mindset as to what an animal is and its value in comparison to our own worth.
Is it time to dispense with animate and inanimate as concepts?
Now that we have learned not to place people and animals in a completely different category to ourselves, is it time to breakdown the borders that separate animate and inanimate objects?
Global technology has heightened our awareness of this connectivity; it is all too obvious to see that what happens in one country has a direct impact on another. This is not only true of people but also things; again, we return to the infamous plastic bottle and its effect on wildlife across the globe.
Is a logical next step then, not to fear the plastic bottle (that has not worked, we still heavily rely on them) but, in the same way as we have with our fellow humans and animals, to change our mindset towards it? In so doing, we to learn to recognize and respect its inherent value. I then cease to thoughtlessly discard the plastic bottle as rubbish, not because I am afraid of the consequences if I do, but because I no longer see it as something inanimate and therefore decidedly inferior to me. In other words, we learn to recognize that the same thread that connects us to every other living thing is also correct of things we class as non-living or inanimate.
It is not beyond the realms of credulity that we will eventually reach a stage where we dispense with the concept of animate and inanimate objects. Too far-fetched? Consider the initial reaction to the idea of gender identity. Despite opposition, it is becoming very apparent that we are swiftly moving into a world whereby people will be allowed to choose their gender identity. It is also possible to think of examples where it is unclear whether or not we should classify particular objects as animate or inanimate. Take a bone, for example. Looking at a bone on the kitchen table, most of us would classify it as inanimate, but do we think of the bones in our own body as being inanimate? What about trees and plants? Is it evident to which category they belong?
Use and misuse of categorization
I’m not arguing that all classification is dispensable. The ability to categorize is essential to our understanding of our world. Imagine how limited our knowledge of the universe would be if taxonomists over the ages had not named, described, and classified the different organisms. However, like religious symbols, when categories come to be viewed as absolute truths in themselves and used to define what is of worth and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not, they become a hindrance rather than an aid to our understanding. Gender, for example, is essential to our understanding of things like procreation. On the other hand, when gender is used to dictate how a person should dress and behave, it serves no purpose other than to promote bigotry and prejudice.
In the same way, concepts of animate and inanimate can be useful. It is helpful for me to know that my dishcloth is not going to talk back to me, is not going to drown when I put it in water, etc. Using this classification, however, to decide that its existence is of a lesser consequence than my own leads, as it has done, to a lack of appreciation and waste.
Science and faith meet – A spirituality of everything
This blurring of boundaries between what we regard as animate and inanimate also works to the mutual benefit of religion and science. Take, for example, the tremendous advancement of artificial intelligence. Some take this as the final proof that there is no divine creative force, call it God or call it whatever you will. For all our advancement, however, we are still incapable of making something out of nothing. Everything, even the very latest technological design, has its origin in something that has already existed since the beginning of time. A common spirit, or call it what you will, connects everything and everybody. In other words, a spirituality of everything.
A spirituality of everything.
Seen from this perspective, why should a machine, developed to behave and think like a human, be any less divine than humans?
The understanding that everything interconnects at a deeper level is not only helpful but essential in preventing science and faith from continuing down their divergent paths to the detriment of both. An understanding of the spirituality of everything means that a belief in a divine force does not depend on a pretense that the rapid development of science and technology is not happening. At the same time, it frees science to be open to a universe that may be viewed from outside the predefined categories and unlocks the endless possibilities that such a view may offer.
Am I going to carry on talking to my dishcloth?
So, where does this leave me and my dishcloth? What of the plastic bottle that I have so carelessly discarded over the years? Well, no, I don’t anticipate that we will now be engaging in long, meaningful dialogue, and I agree, it is doubtful that the dishcloth was upset by being ousted by a newer model. Nevertheless, I do suspect that somehow me, the dishcloth and the plastic bottle have a lot more in common than I previously thought.