Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Indigenous Religions as Antidote to the Environmental Crisis: Surveying a Decade of Reflection

Written By

Anthony Oswald Balcomb

Submitted: 03 April 2022 Reviewed: 06 May 2022 Published: 19 July 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.105209

From the Edited Volume

Ecotheology - Sustainability and Religions of the World

Edited by Levente Hufnagel

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While it is generally accepted that the environmental crisis that the world is experiencing is a direct result of human activity, what is less obvious is that this depends on the nature of the relationship between human beings and the natural environment. This, in turn, is shaped by how human beings mentally construct the relationship between themselves and the world. I have been reflecting on this phenomenon for more than a decade, paying particular attention to the dynamics around an enchanted way of being in the world, typical of indigenous communities, compared with those of a disenchanted way of being in the world, typical of modernity. This essay attempts to summarize and condense some of these reflections. Enchantment brings with it the experience of an intersubjective, personal world with porous boundaries in the relationship between beings, and is typically characterized by interdependence and vulnerability. Disenchantment objectifies this world, disengages the self from it, and rids it of any agency other than that exercised by the autonomous self, thus gearing it toward mastery and control. This increases exponentially the ability of human beings to impact and change the world around them in ways that are eventually destructive for the environment.


  • enchantment/disenchantment
  • worldview
  • epistemology
  • agency
  • control
  • power
  • vulnerability
  • habitus
  • interdependence

1. Introduction

At the heart of the debate around the environmental crisis is the extent to which human activity is responsible for it. The overwhelming consensus is that if it were not for human activity, we would not be facing the crisis that we are at the moment, including that of climate change. What is seldom considered is the profoundly important epistemological question of how human beings understand the relationship between themselves and the world around them because it is this that shapes the way we live in the world and change it. Of the 62 articles and book chapters that I have published in peer-reviewed journals and books over the past two decades, 26 have traversed this topic—how the habitus, the mental universe in which we live and move and have our being, impacts the habitat, the physical world in which we live and move and have our being.1 The journey began with a spiritual mission of reconciliation between the races in apartheid South Africa and rapidly developed into an examination of the epistemological crises and consequences that can occur at the interface of opposing cultures. In the past decade, this journey has focused more specifically on the ecological implications of the encounter and more specifically still on how religion and spirituality shape the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the natural environment in contrast to Westerners whose worldview, generally speaking, has become exorcized of spirituality or, in Weberian terms, disenchanted. Understanding this phenomenon, that is the phenomenon of disenchantment, is crucial to understanding the relationship between a Western worldview and the environmental crisis. The question that needs to be asked is: what has happened in the relationship between human beings and the natural environment that has put us on the path of alienation and destruction in which we find ourselves globally, and what is it about indigenous religions that can help to put us back on the right path?

Figure 1.

Bushman art in a cave in the Matopos Mountains Zimbabwe.


2. Two ways of being in the world2

Two of the most fundamental ways in which human beings mentally construct the world around them and place themselves within it have been called, following Max Weber, the enchanted and the disenchanted. It is this particular binary that has fascinated and absorbed me for the past two decades and that I have reflected on and written about extensively. I am well aware that the advent of postmodernity has led to the rejection of such binary and essentialist interpretations of reality. At best, people say, such thinking serves as a heuristic device. My argument, however, is precisely that worldviews are heuristic devices that we all have and cannot do without. These two particular characterizations, while originating with Max Weber, have resonated throughout ethnographic history ever since the encounter between the “west” and the “south” or the “modern” and the “pre-modern.” That there is no one single worldview in the West and that worldviews change and evolve is undeniable. That there are numerous shades of gray in terms of levels of enchantment/disenchantment in between the two poles, especially in pre-modern or so-called “developing” societies, and that the post-modern condition has made space in modern societies for forms of enchantment, is also accepted. It is how the processes of disenchantment work, what happens to our understanding of the world as they evolve, and what we do or do not do to the world around us because of them, that matters.

So what are the enchanted and disenchanted worlds.


3. Enchantment: what it is and what it does

One of the memorable moments of my life was an afternoon spent, after hours of trekking into the Matopos mountains of Zimbabwe, in a cave ([1], p. 67). My wife and I were treated to a panoramic display of layers and layers of art on the face of the cave wall cut by nature in the form of a horizontal wedge into a mountain side. The cave was about 10 meters across, 5 meters deep, and 4 meters high, and the main wall was completely covered with the most exquisite depictions of animal, insect, and human life. I did not need to be an expert in rock art to realize that the people who painted these images were not only extraordinarily gifted from a technical and artistic point of view, but that they understood the world around them in a way quite different from the way I understood the world. I had the distinct impression that what I was witnessing was not simply art but cosmology. The cave wall became a membrane upon which appeared the significations of a world experienced through senses that clearly did not perceive things in terms of the dichotomies of subject and object, time and space, material, and spiritual (see Figure 1). The inclusion of the artist in the picture, running, jumping, being with, the animals, birds, and insects, suggested intimate participation between painter and painted, self and not self, world and being in the world. Figures resembling human beings looming in the background suggested that the entire scene was presenced with spiritual beings that could not be seen but were clearly there; in other words, the blurring of boundaries between the seen and the unseen. I was reminded of J.V. Taylor’s extraordinary description of what he called the “primal” worldview:

Not only is there less separation between subject and object, between self and not-self, but fundamentally all things share the same nature and the same interaction one upon another - rocks and forest trees, beasts and serpents, the power of the wind and waves upon a ship, the power of a drum over a dancers body, the power in the mysterious caves of Kokola, the living, the dead and the first ancestors, from the stone to the divinities an hierarchy of power but not of being, for all are one, all are here, all are now ([2], p. 56) (Figure 1).

These existential descriptions from those of us living outside of the primal world and looking in are tinged with a kind of romantic Thoreauian magicalism and need to be described in more precise philosophical terms. Harold Turner helps us by identifying six distinct features: first, a sense of kinship with nature in which animals and plants have their own spiritual existence and place in the universe; second, a deep sense that humankind is weak and vulnerable and in need of a power greater than itself; third, that humankind is not alone in the universe but lives in a spiritual universe that consists of beings greater than itself; fourth, that humankind can enter into a relationship with these beings; fifth, that there is an acute sense of the afterlife and therefore an important place is given to ancestors; and sixth, that the universe is sacramental—that is, there is no sharp distinction between the spiritual and the physical ([3], p. 93).


4. Disenchantment: what it is and what it does

One of the most insightful philosophical examinations of the concepts of enchantment and disenchantment comes from the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. In A Secular Age [4], Taylor asks a simple question—How was it that in sixteenth century Europe, it was almost impossible not to believe in God, whereas by the twentieth century, it is at best difficult and at worst impossible to believe in God? This question could well be applied to Africa except in reverse form—How is it that in Africa it is almost impossible, to this day, not to believe in God? What happened in Europe that changed the habitus of Europeans, and what is it about the habitus of Africans that makes it impossible not to believe not only in God but in spirits, ancestors, and an animate universe. Taylor answers the question by posing the idea of the porous and the buffered self, with the porous self- inhabiting an enchanted world and the buffered self a disenchanted world [5].

Between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, the European habitus became disenchanted through the complex processes of secularization. The enchanted world, says Taylor, is the pre-modern world of spirits, demons, and moral forces. The everyday experience of people in such a world is one in which interaction constantly takes place between the seen and the unseen world, and spirit possession is a frequent occurrence. Taylor explains the differences between the porous and the buffered self through the rubrics of meaning, agency, boundaries, and vulnerability ([5], pp. 236–239).

In the enchanted world, meaning exists in the thing itself, not in the mind of the observer. A thing “can communicate this meaning to us, impose it on us … by bringing us as it were into its field of force” ([4], p. 30). Meaning, therefore,

[C]an no longer be placed simply within; but nor can it be located exclusively without. Rather it is in a kind of interspace which straddles what for us [“moderns”] is a clear boundary. Or the boundary is, in an image I want to use here, porous ([4], p. 33).

Because meanings are attached to things outside the mind in the enchanted world, they can have agency, they can impose themselves on us, be communicated to us, bring us into their field of force, penetrate us in some kind of way. The deepest feelings within us can be perceived as being under the control of an outside force to which we may succumb. This force may be associated with a spiritual being because the enchanted world is filled with such beings. In the disenchanted world, on the other hand, there can be no “charged” objects outside the mind and “causal relations between things cannot in anyway be dependent on their meanings which must be projected on them from our minds” ([4], p. 35). If the source of the feelings and thoughts that we have are simply in the mind, then their influence can be restricted and controlled. If they originate outside of us, then our control of them is limited. They can weaken us or invigorate us, depending on their origin. If they are negative, then to counteract them we will need to use other positively charged objects to counteract their force and protect, heal, or deliver us from them.

A crucial feature of the enchanted world is “a perplexing absence of certain boundaries which seem to us essential” ([4], p. 33). There is an apparent absence of boundary between personal agency and impersonal force, between mind and meaning, individual and community, person and world, experience and belief. If the enchanted world is defined by the absence of boundaries, the disenchanted world is defined by their presence. There are clear boundaries between the material and spiritual worlds, the self and others, individuals and society, causes and effects, mind and body, subjects and objects, religion and society. The separation within being, between beings, and between beings and the world around them, exists at the profoundest of levels. “There is,” says Taylor, “something in the move to the mind-centred view [where thoughts only exist in individual minds] which has given us a fatal sensitivity to atomistic theories” ([4], p. 34). This is partly because the buffered self is able to disengage from things across the boundaries it has created between itself and the world in order to take itself out of the world and objectify it, giving the world, and the self, its own autonomous order.

On the other hand, the porous self is profoundly vulnerable to the surrounding world. You are vulnerable to the thoughts and feelings of others who might want to harm you; you are vulnerable to the forces attached to the meanings of things that you have limited or no control over; you are vulnerable to possession by the spiritual beings that roam the cosmos; you are vulnerable to substances that are charged with causal forces. Vulnerability, says Taylor, “extends to more than just spirits which are malevolent … it goes beyond them to things which have no wills, but are nevertheless redolent with evil meanings” ([4], p. 37). It goes without saying that the disenchanted condition brings to the buffered self a far greater sense of invulnerability and power. Disengaging oneself from anything that exists outside of the mind and imposing on reality your own order of things creates at least the illusion of invulnerability if not the reality. The point that Taylor emphasizes here is that a set of conditions that places all reality outside of oneself effectively objectifies reality puts one in a situation of control over reality and allows one the possibility of defining everything in terms of how one can use reality to one’s own advantage. As a buffered self, I have the feeling of being able to dictate the terms of the relationship with the world outside, whereas the porous self cannot do this because meanings, objects, etc., have their own agency. And since you cannot impose your will on them, the best thing to do is negotiate with them. Indeed the spatial geography of things, that which is on the inside of the self and that which is on the outside, is by definition a matter of uncertainty in the enchanted world [5].

The emergence of the buffered self, according to Taylor, took place over several hundred years, produced profound changes on psychological, spiritual, sociological, economic, esthetic, and political levels, and resulted in a substantially transformed person living in a substantially transformed world that we call modernity. Taylor’s use of the expression “to seize the self” probably best epitomizes this process since it denotes the central, existential shift of agency that is at its heart—where the decisive locus of influence, the command center, as it were, no longer exists outside the self but inside the self. Taylor describes the various processes of transformation as taking place interactively and simultaneously, each reinforcing the other in the journey toward secularism. His description of three of these processes encapsulates the shift that took place—“the rise of the disciplinary society,” “the great disembedding,” and the formation of “the immanent frame.” The disciplinary society, among other things, was associated with the autonomization and disciplining of the self, the autonomization and domestication of nature, and a new emphasis on human agency in the world. There was a move away from ritualized toward more personalized religion, and a manipulable universe could now, with the help of a transcendent and disengaged deity, become ordered.

To understand what Taylor means by the great disembedding one has to be reminded that in the enchanted universe, there could be no separation of the individual from the socio-spiritual matrix and religion from the whole of life. There was not even the possibility of the notion of such separation. The “great disembedding” involved, among other things, the removal of the individual from the socio-spiritual matrix, deity from the world, and religion from the whole of life. The immanent frame speaks to the emergence of a self-sufficient immanent order or constellation of orders in the cosmic, social, and moral universes that has sloughed off the need for an imminent God and prepares nature for exploitation in the Baconian mold and therefore for the scientific revolution that was to follow. The enchanted world without becomes the enchanted world within in the Jungian and Freudian sense. Where there was possession by spirits, there are now psychological symbols.


5. The environmental consequences of the enchanted vs. disenchanted worldviews and the role of religion

Profound vulnerability at every level—epistemologically, ontologically, and existentially means that living in an enchanted universe is not for the faint-hearted. It is an animate universe charged with spiritual agency that, if tampered with in the wrong way, could have dire consequences. On the other hand, disenchantment objectifies the world, rids it of the numinous, exorcizes it of spiritual agency, and puts the autonomous human being in charge. It brings about the feeling of an invulnerability unprecedented in the history of humankind and, in the process, gives humans carte blanche to exploit the world without paying attention to the consequences. But it must be stressed, once again, that such invulnerability is an illusion. When Weber first came up with the idea of disenchantment to describe the new set of relationships that would emerge in a modern world, he warned that it would lead to the “iron cage” of bureaucracy, but he did not anticipate the iron cage of environmental destruction that would ensue [6].

Science has largely replaced religion in our understanding of how the world works and what our role in it is, but that does not mean that religion has disappeared. It is just that religion can now be appropriated into the arsenal of weaponry, along with a transformed epistemology, to further reinforce the human tendency toward the will to power. Gregory Bateson stated this in no uncertain terms.

If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables … If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you invent an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite. If I am right, the whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured ([7], p. 472).

Bateson’s argument, while stated in rather hyperbolic terms, has been validated by a number of other scholars. A watershed moment in the realization of Christianity’s complicity in environmental destruction, for example, came with the publication of an article by the medieval historian Lynn White. White’s thesis in his landmark publication paved the way for much of the present debate among scholars about the negative role of Christianity in the environment. The domination of nature in Christianity, argued White, finds its roots in the Genesis creation narrative itself. The import of Gen. 1:26–28 is that dominion over creation is a characteristic of God and because humankind is made in the image of God humans too have dominion, with the creator, over the creation. In White’s terms:

Man shares, in great measure, God’s transcendence of nature. Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions … not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends ([8], p. 105).

It is important to note first of all that White frames his critique of Christianity by way of a comparison with paganism, setting the tone for the debate that was to ensue. He stated his case in rather radical terms, arguing firstly that the “widespread practice of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature ….. mark[s] the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well” ([8], p. 185), and secondly that “the victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture” ([8], p. 188). The first fundamentally shifted the relationship between human beings and nature from interdependence to dominance, and the second led to the removal of all restraints already spoken about. This was in accordance with the Christian doctrine of the natural world being given to humankind to use and exploit for its own purposes.3

Kinsley summarizes the tradition of antipathy between Christianity and nature under three headings—desacralization, domination, and degradation ([9], p. 103). Desacralization, disenchantment, or demystification takes place when nature is emptied of spirituality, domination occurs when humans get the idea (from the Bible) that this is the command of God, and degradation follows through overexploitation. Kinsley picks up the point strongly made by White that in the popular religion of antiquity “every stream, every tree, every mountain contained a guardian spirit who had to be carefully propitiated before one put a mill in a stream, or cut the tree, or mined the mountain” ([9], p. 103). On the other hand,

To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly two millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature ([9], p. 104).

Such an attitude finds its roots in the Hebrew Bible with the attitude of Israel to the Baal cult, which was the indigenous religion of Canaan. This cult was based on “rapport with, reverence for, and propitiation of the powers latent in the land” ([9], p. 106). In this kind of religion, spirituality has nothing to do with the presence of the divine in the environment but with the transcendence of God outside of it, over it, and above it. The environment is only sacred in that it is the creation of God and therefore indirectly bears the mark of God. The move from the indigenous belief that the environment itself is personal and has spiritual agency, to monotheistic religion where spiritual agency lies only with the transcendent deity constitutes, for White, the central radical shift that revolutionized the attitude of humankind to the environment and opened the way for exploitation and abuse.

In spite of his devastating critique of Christianity, however, he finds a single prophetic voice within the tradition, St Francis of Assisi.

The greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history, St. Francis, proposed what he thought was an alternative Christian view of nature and man’s relation to it: he tried to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures, including man, for the idea of man’s limitless rule of creation. He failed. Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our écological crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and re-feel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists ([8], p. 193).


6. Theistic religion vs. indigenous religion in the exploitation of nature: what is the empirical evidence?

The idea that indigenous religion is non-exploitative of the environment and theistic religion is has been thoroughly debated. I have attempted to summarize this debate [10] and support the argument that there is “voluminous ethnographic literature filled with carefully detailed examples of conservation practices, land stewardship, and religiously based environmental ethics among traditional peoples all over the world” ([11], p. lxii). This does not mean that indigenous communities are faultless when it comes to environmental care. All human communities exploit nature to one extent or another. It is only a question of how much and with what effects. One of the theories that have emerged concerning indigenous exploitation is what has been called “Pleistocene Overkill” in which Native Americans allegedly brought about widespread mammalian extinction. The theory seems to be highly contested and rubbished by some scholars [12]. A counter argument maintains that the norms and regulations that establish responsible harvesting levels, discourage waste, and prevent ecological damage prevail among these communities and are common to most of them. The reason for this, in Africa at least, is likely to do with taboos around the enchanted nature of the environment put forward in the White argument. Blasu, for example, argues that what he calls “eco-virtuous” character is a lifelong experience in primal (read “indigenous”) African communities. This is based on the vulnerability to spiritual entities other than God in the precarious ecosystems and is, according to him, “the main reason why our ancestors establish both elaborate religious procedures (eg rituals) to manipulate the spirit forces and ethical rules (eg taboos) for prohibiting and inhibiting human conduct in the holistic eco-community” ([12], p. 107).

Romantic notions of harmony between humans and nature in indigenous worldviews largely miss this element. Attentiveness toward the environment that grows out of an esthetic or spiritual appreciation is one thing, that based on a mixture of “numinous dread,” respect, and a sense of profound dependence on it is another altogether. Such a view of the environment has little or nothing to do with the romantic notions of nature held by some of the more famous lovers of nature in the West such as Thoreau, Muir, and Leopold, who argued that nature met the spiritual needs of humankind which modernity had robbed it of.4 Indigenous people go much further than this as they “try to understand nature exactly as how it is so they can figure out how to survive and prosper within its changeable actions” ([12], p. 6). Catherine Tucker’s observation nicely summarizes the reason for the pro-environment position of Indigenous cultures.

Traditional peoples live within animate worlds of mutual obligations with spirits or nonhuman beings, and their beliefs constrain the behavior of members of the communities, ideally limiting their environmentally destructive behavior. Modernization processes, on the other hand, disenchant and despiritualize those worlds to enable life without the constraints and obligations ([13], p. 14).

The idea that modern, theistic forms of religion are prone toward environmental destruction and pre-modern forms is not was further interrogated in a research project in which I participated as principal researcher in 2017 on the topic of African spirituality [14]. Two hundred and fifty (250) people from a cross section of the population and a diversity of religions, including African Religion, Christianity, and Islam, in five African countries, were interviewed on a wide range of topics, including the issue of the sacred environment. The countries where the research took place were Ghana, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Burkina-Faso, and Zimbabwe. The informants were distributed throughout the religious, denominational, educational, and age spectrums. Topics included marriage, customary tradition, relationships with spiritual beings, dreams, spirit possession, gender, success and failure in business, and corruption. The particular question relating to environmental care was: “If you or someone else wanted to cut down a tree (e.g. on your property) that was considered sacred, what would you do?” All of the respondents who were adherents of indigenous religions said they would not cut it down except one who said that it depended on whether or not the land itself was sacred. Most of the Christian respondents, on the other hand, said that they would cut it down, although they would have been afraid to before their conversion to Christianity. The following response from one person was typical of many of the Christian respondents.

I will have it cut down. In fact, there were two such trees in the garden of my parents. A diviner said that they were not to cut them lest bad things would happen to the family. I had it cut down after I came to Christ as a teenager. My mother and grandmother feared for my life, but nothing happened. These things are from the devil [Female 35–44, Married, University / Tertiary, Christian, Charismatic] ([14], p. 30).

While the evidence is clear from this particular piece of research that the disenchantment thesis is at play in the contemporary African scene, there are also indications that there continues to exist a measure of mitigating restraint in the attitude of many of the respondents. A number of them did not believe they had carte blanche to do whatever they pleased with the environment. For example, they would pray about cutting the tree down, or they would consult others before they did so.


7. Philosophical, anthropological, theological, and scientific trends in mitigation of the Western contribution to the environmental crisis

The recognition that modernity has brought with it forces that are destructive to the environment has led to what I have called a counter modernist trend across academic disciplines. I have published several essays around this theme [15, 16, 17].

The influences shaping counter-modernism have the following guiding motifs in common: the recognition of the earth as a living organism; the removal of human beings as the apex agent, and the recognition of multiplicities of agencies; a cluster of values frequently described in terms of relationism, holism, and interconnectivity; and the recognition of the intrinsic worth of the other-than-human world. These motifs are discernible in religion, anthropology, and science theory and can be found in process thinking (both in science and theology), cybernetics, the Gaia hypothesis, eco-feminism, the rediscovery of indigenous worldviews and methodologies, the shift from theism to panentheism, and the “greening” of religion.

7.1 Counter-modernism in philosophy

Postmodernism has brought about a distinct reaction to the idea that the best way we can understand something is to disengage ourselves from it. The implication of this is the realization that it is impossible to apprehend the world in a way that does not involve some level of participation within it. At a minimal level, this has meant a far greater emphasis on the need to recognize the role of the participant observer who cannot escape influencing the object of observation rather than the detached observer who examines in order to classify, use, and control it. At a far more radical level, however, is the belief in the intersubjective nature of the whole of reality. The world is in constant process of formation and must therefore be understood as being “alive.” This has brought into question the fundamental nature of the universe as conceived by Newton and other early scientists as holding together by a set of immutable laws. The theory of relativity put paid to this notion, and the door has been opened for consideration to be given to other constructs of reality that make sense of a universe that is more dynamic than static and more alive than dead. The world of Descartes and Newton has had to give way to that of Einstein and Whitehead. The metaphysics of participation has replaced the metaphysics of separation. This has raised the question of what it means existentially to live in such a world; of whether this would make any difference to our attitude to the environment, and whether we can learn from cultures that relate to the world in a way that perceives it as animate. A new emphasis is being placed on the body’s presence in a more-than-human and more-than-material world, which is imbued with multiple forms of agency, the existence of organisms in relation to other organisms and not as autonomous units, the interaction between organisms and the environment in a profoundly interconnected way, and the role of the human being not as engineer or architect, imposing shape, pattern, and form on a hapless environment, but as one agent amidst many whose very agency is itself being shaped by many other forces in existence.

This kind of thinking is well illustrated in the work of contemporary anthropologist Tim Ingold.

7.2 Counter-modernism in anthropology

Ingold poses the following conundrum: from an evolutionary point of view, all organisms are essentially the same; that is, they derive from, and are made up of, the same matter. This means that humans are constituted with the same basic matter as all other things. From this point of view, “we” are one of “them” when it comes to comparing stones, clouds, chimpanzees, and humans, though obviously with varying degrees of complexity. But human beings have added a further element to themselves which they call mind or self-awareness. We are the same as all other things except, apparently, in this respect: we are creatures.

[F]or whom being is knowing, [who] can so detach [our] consciousness from the traffic of [our] bodily interactions in the environment as to treat the latter as our object of concern. To be human in this sense - to exist as a knowing subject - is, we commonly say, to be a person ([18], p. 90).

Ingold rejects this fundamentally dualistic ontology and attempts, in his own thinking, to “restore human beings to the organic lifeworld in a way that does not reduce them to mere objects of nature” ([18], p. 90).

Three things stand out in Ingold’s work—his rejection of mainstream Cartesian thinking in the human sciences; his embrace of Phenomenological methodology; and his use of indigenous culture as paradigmatic of an alternative way of being in the world. This is no better illustrated than in his discussion of the propensity in primal cultures to accept as normative the fact that all things are potentially animate. Stones, clouds, and trees may have the same kind of life as otters, elephants, and human beings, depending on the circumstances in which they participate in the life of other beings in the world. All organisms, including human ones, are not lifeless things but beings. As beings, persons are organisms, and, being organisms, they, or rather we, are not impartial observers of nature but participate from within in the continuum of organic life. It is not what goes on within things that cause them to have life and being but what goes on between them. I emphasize this because it underscores Taylor’s notion of the porous self and the issue of relationality that is at the heart of the indigenous worldview. Because such a worldview is so foreign to the Western rational mind, the stereotype of the primitive savage is reinforced. Reality as posed by primal cultures, in the Western schema, is no reality at all. Reality is not what our experience tells us but what our [scientific] minds tell us. And our scientific minds must operate not on the basis of involvement in the world, where such “confusion” as we see among primal culture reigns, but on the basis of detachment from the world. Only thus can we get some kind of certainty of our relationship with the world around us. But what happens to personhood in such a process? Ingold poses the (il)logic of the argument for disengaged reflection thus:

The notion that persons, as beings in the world, can appear in both human and other-than-human forms may sound strange, but it is not half as strange as the notion that to become a person - to be in a position to know and reflect upon the nature of existence - means taking oneself out of the world ([18], p. 90).

7.3 Counter-modernism in theology

If separation between being and world is the key motif of a Cartesian philosophy and the separation between the animate and inanimate the key motif of Cartesian anthropology, then separation between God and world is the key motif of Cartesian theology. Shifting to a participatory paradigm in philosophy, as discussed above, means bringing being and world back together in dynamic relation. In anthropology it means understanding life as a function of the relation between beings. In theology it is to do with understanding God’s Being-in-the-world and the world’s being-in-God.5 The separation of God from world is as fundamental to Cartesian epistemology as the separation of mind and body. Descartes did not deny the existence of God. On the contrary, the notion of God featured quite largely in his philosophy. But he identified God with the idea of an Infinite Mind. The influence of such thinking in the creation of a separate, secular realm, the realm of this world, cannot be underestimated. The typical form of God conceived of in the Cartesian framework is Deism—the notion of a distant Originator that has no direct involvement in the world. Where there exists a concept of God in modem science and philosophy it has, until recently, always been this notion. To conceive of God as participant in the world, one has once again to turn to a worldview that does not have the Cartesian influence. Theologically this means turning to the sacramental theology of Eastern Orthodoxy, the mystical traditions, Process Thought, and Panentheism.

Panentheism is basically a compromise between pantheism, where God is completely, without remainder, in the world, and theism where God totally transcends the world. The former sacrifices transcendence for immanence and the latter immanence for transcendence. Panentheism attempts to restore to the world God’s immanent presence and expose God to a vulnerable relationship within it. It rejects the notion of aseity, the denial that God responds to events outside of Godself, and emphasizes a mutuality between God and world. Consistent themes in Panentheism are the cosmos as God’s body and as sacrament; the language of “in and through,” denoting the idea of inextricable intertwining, rather than “above and beyond,” denoting the language of transcendence; the dependence of God on the cosmos; the intrinsic, positive value of the cosmos; and the possibility and ability of God to suffer.

7.4 Counter-modernism in science

Process thinking has also influenced the counter-modernist trend in science. It has become a unifying force between science and religion, which is one of the guiding aims of the Center for Process Studies under the leadership of scholars such as John Cobb Jnr and David Ray Griffin [20]. However, a prominent scholar in the field of science studies, Bruno Latour, stands out as one of the most vociferous and articulate contemporary proponents of the Gaia hypothesis, which proposes the earth as a living organism interacting with other living organisms to help maintain conditions for life on the planet. In essence, the Gaia hypothesis not only reestablishes the notion of interdependence but also opens the way for us to understand the earth as a being with whom we have to relate, populated by other beings, only some of whom are human. Latour has produced a spectacular body of work that challenges many of the axiomatic assumptions of Western modernity. In his early book with the provocative title We Have Never Been Modern [21], he argues that the cleavages that modernity has brought to our way of understanding the world are artificial, and we need to experience our world in the way that our “primitive” ancestors did, that is as a seamless and interdependent whole. He is also one of the inventors of Actor Network Theory, a tool for scientific analysis that takes into consideration the potential for the action of the entire panoply of entities that are assembled in the field of study—both animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman.6


8. Indigenous lifeways and the environmental crisis—limits and conundrums

In this essay, I have presented indigenous and modern epistemologies, for heuristic purposes, as opposite ends of a spectrum. It bears reminding, however, that dynamic interaction has taken place between these ever since the inhabitants of these two worlds met and continue to meet. The very nature of the habitus is that it is continually changing as interactions take place between peoples inhabiting different cultures traveling at different stages of a journey. This raises the question of how far modern and postmodern travelers are prepared to go down the road with their pre-modern fellow travelers and, indeed, how far indigenous people are prepared to go down the road with their modern fellow travelers. In the above discussion, for example, while it is clear that there are numerous areas in which the counter modernist trend learns from indigenous religion, especially in terms of its monistic ontology, it has not, indeed arguably cannot, go the way of complete re-enchantment. Not even in the most radical of postmodern worlds is there the belief in spirits or spirit possession. Though this does exist in various forms of contemporary Christianity. Many African Christians, for example, have no doubt at all that spirits, and spirit possession, exist, as do many Pentecostal Christians. This demonstrates that the pre-modern, modern, and postmodern conditions continue to exist as coeval realities in the contemporary world and should not be categorized in evolutionary or developmental terms.

So here is the conundrum: If, as it has been argued by many others besides myself, that Christianity, at least in sub-Saharan Africa, has become so insinuated into the African habitus, cannot it also be argued that it has become indigenized? [22]. Many of its Western adherents would be hard pressed to recognize some of its African forms as the same religion that they belong to. This has profound significance for an African eco-theology. If, as I have argued, indigenous religion is exhibit A when it comes to environmental care and Christianity is exhibit A when it comes to environmental destruction, then what happens when Christianity becomes the most popular religion in Africa? This is one of the crucial questions that scholars of ecological religion need to face. I have made the argument that ecological theology in the West attempts to emulate some of the basic elements of Indigenous Religion. These are the numinous presence of the divine, the enchantment of nature, and the recognition that humans are vulnerable and interdependent beings among other beings who are not human. Now if all of these are characteristic of Indigenous Religion, which continues to exist in various forms in Africa at least, then why can they not simply be appropriated into an African theology of the environment? Unfortunately it is not that easy. The Western theological project is largely taking place against the backdrop of secularism and the practical obliteration of the original indigenous religions. Emulating Indigenous Religion where it poses no threat whatsoever to one’s essential (secular) beliefs is quite different from a situation where indigenous beliefs are an ever-present reality, where the lines are continually being drawn and where contestations continue to take place between it and Christianity. The worldview shared by these religions in an African context is fundamentally the same. God, the devil, and the supernatural, are existential realities, and theology is to do with understanding them and negotiating with them in a way that concretely affects the way people live their lives.7 There is no place for the kind of intellectual “play” with different, interesting theological ideas that might be useful for particular purposes that characterizes theology in the West. This became clear in the Templeton funded research mentioned above. When there is the widespread belief, for example, in the notion of spiritual marriage where people may enter, often against their will, into relationships with spiritual beings, the option of recognizing enchantment as a possible way to protect the environment becomes a little more consequential than in a context where such a notion is ludicrous. More specifically, to reintroduce as a theological necessity the notion of a spirituality of nature to someone who has recently been “saved” from a situation of “spiritual bondage” (that is the belief that they were subject to spiritual forces that were part of the panoply of spiritual powers against which they have been struggling) is clearly a risky proposition.

Blasu’s work, cited above, is illuminating in this regard. He argues that the holistic but precarious nature of African cosmology means that multifarious spirits vivify the cosmos, but malevolent ones may discourage belief in Christ and prevent people from living the fulfilled Christian life. Hence, salvation is understood as redemption from sin and evil forces, transformation into a new person, and turning away from creation by waging war against the evil forces. If the taboos and rituals that lead to the protection of nature are motivated by fear of punishment from spiritual entities residing in nature and conversion amounts to freedom from such entities, then further consort with them through some kind of “re-enchantment” project in order to recreate a scenario where nature can be protected will surely not be an option.

This, then, is the essence of the conundrum that is at the heart of the African religious world: while Indigenous Religion offers an example of best attitude when it comes to the environment and many Western thinkers recognize this, it does not remain an option for converts from African Religion to Christianity who consider it an existential threat in their lives.

This begs the question of what an African Christian theology of the environment might look like. Blasu’s is the best text on this topic that I have come across. He argues, as it turns out rather ironically in the light of Western eco-theologies that attempt to mitigate the transcendent nature of theism in the panentheist turn, that what he calls African “theocology” will be more orthodox in nature with a strong emphasis on theo-centrism and the vice-regency of God, while appropriating certain aspects of African culture that are friendly to the environment.


9. Conclusion

This essay has attempted to summarize some of the writings I have published over the past 10 years or so that are relevant to the topic of indigenous beliefs and environmental crisis. It is impossible to cover all the topics that I have addressed in these writings but rather to highlight some of the essential themes that have shown up during the course of my peregrinations around the topic. These mainly revolve around the notions of enchantment and disenchantment, which constitute the core characteristics of the indigenous and modern worldviews, respectively. Using a variety of sources I have attempted to unpack what these mean for those who live within the worlds that they create and how this shapes certain behaviors that impact the environment. I have also suggested that the epistemological shift in the West in reaction to alienating and destructive relationships with the environment have given way to postmodernist attitudes, which indicate a move in the direction consistent with the values and epistemologies of Indigenous Religions. This is indicative of a recognition that we need to learn from indigenous ways of being in the world. However, from a Western perspective, there are intellectual limits to this journey into an enchanted world. Recognition, for example, of the validity of ontological oneness is one thing, acceptance of the existence of spiritual beings is another. However, I have also pointed out that in Africa there is no such intellectual aversion to spiritual beings and a full-on belief in an enchanted world continues to exist in many ways and in many places. This is particularly the case concerning the most popular religion in sub-Saharan Africa—Christianity. This has posed a conundrum in the light of the critique that Christianity has given legitimacy to alienating and destructive attitudes to the environment and such attitudes are discernible in converts to Christianity from African Religion. This necessitates a different approach to an African Christian theology of the environment than a Western Christian approach.

If an ecosystem is a biological community of entities that live in an interdependent relationship with each other, each affecting the integrity of the life of the other, then it must surely be clear, from the above discussion, that indigenous people understood this concept long before the advent of postmodernity. The notion of the ecosystem is now commonplace in our everyday parlance. We use the word to describe a host of communities that interact with each other in order to survive and flourish, in all areas of life, including the political, the economic, the social, and the religious. We need to remind ourselves that Indigenous communities have known about it, even if they have not used the word that we use, from time immemorial.

Finally, we need to be reminded that this whole discussion takes place against the backdrop of the pending state of disaster for the world due to environmental destruction. This in turn demands that we fundamentally interrogate the value systems and the epistemologies that lead to the unrestrained exploitation of the earth’s resources. The question of how this destruction can be avoided is constantly bedeviled by the fact that we (that is, Westerners) seem not to be able to live in this world other than in such a way that is hardwired to conquer and control it. We demand that the earth and all its resources meet the ever-increasing voraciousness of our need for ever increasing levels of ease, comfort, and longevity, not realizing that in the process we are putting impossible pressure on these resources. The indigenous way will never be able to “develop” the world and meet these increasing levels of demand because it does not create the needs that create the demand in the first place. This is because it understands the world and relates with it differently to us. When the world is a person who you have to listen to and negotiate with and not an object that you can manipulate and control, this makes a universe of difference to the way you treat it. To a Western mind, this fairy tale talk. To an indigenous mind, it is the way of survival.

Key texts

Re-Enchanting a dis-enchanted universe – Postmodern projects in Theologies of Space. Religion and Theology. 2009; 16:67–77.

The Metaphysics of Participation – Exploring an Idea whose time has returned. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 2013;145:18–34.

Of Iron Cages, Double Binds, and Environmental Destruction – the fragmentation of the Western Worldview and gestures towards another way of being in the world. Religion and Theology. 2014; 21:358–379.

Indigenous Worldviews and Environmental Footprints: The case of Prometheus vs Hermes. In: Devy G, Davis G, Chakravarty K. editors. Knowing Differently – the Challenge of the Indigenous. New Delhi: Routledge; 2014. p. 158–167.

Christianity in Africa – watchdog of Imperialism or ‘drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth’? Alternation – Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of the Arts and humanities in Southern Africa. 2015;14: 8–21.

The War of the Trees – Analysing the Rise and Fall of an Indigenous Mass Greening Movement amongst the Shona in Southern Zimbabwe using Actor Network Theory (ANT). Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 2016; 154:28–42

Spirituality and Hope in Africa: A Study in Five Countries, International Bulletin of Mission Research. 2017; 41:336–348.

The Porous and the Buffered Self – the relevance of Charles Taylor’s characterizations for the African context. Religion and Theology. 2019; 26: 233–254.

African Christianity and the Ecological Crisis – tracing the contours of a conundrum. Scriptura. 2019; 118: 1–14.

Counter-modernism, the Primal Imagination and Development Theory – Shifting the paradigm. Journal of theology for Southern Africa. 2017;157: 44–58


  1. 1. Balcomb A. Re-Enchanting a dis-enchanted universe – Postmodern projects in Theologies of Space. Religion and Theology. 2009;16:67-77
  2. 2. Taylor JV. The Primal Vision: Christian Presence amid African Religion. London: SCM Press; 1963
  3. 3. Bediako K. Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; 1995
  4. 4. Taylor C. A Secular Age. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press; 2007
  5. 5. Balcomb A. The Porous and the Buffered Self – the relevance of Charles Taylor’s characterizations for the African context. Religion and Theology. 2019;26:233-254
  6. 6. Balcomb A. Of iron cages, double binds, and environmental destruction – the fragmentation of the Western Worldview and gestures towards another way of being in the world. Religion and Theology. 2014;21:358-379
  7. 7. Bateson G. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2000
  8. 8. The WL. Historical roots of our ecological crisis. In: Gottleib R, editor. This Sacred Earth – Religion, Nature, Environment. New York: Routledge; 1996. pp. 184-193
  9. 9. Kinsley D. Ecology and Religion – Ecological Spirituality in Cross-cultural Perspective. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall; 1995
  10. 10. Balcomb A. African Christianity and the Ecological Crisis – tracing the contours of a conundrum. Scriptura. 2019;118:1-14
  11. 11. Grim J, editor. Indigenous Traditions and Ecology – the Interbeing of Cosmology and Community. Harvard: Harvard University Press; 2001
  12. 12. Blasu E. Christian Higher Education as holistic mission and moral transformation: An assessment of studying environmental science at the Presbyterian University College, Ghana, and the development of an African Theological Curriculum [PhD thesis]. Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission, and Culture; 2018. This thesis was published by Wipf and Stock in 2019 with the title African Theocology - studies in African Religious Creation Care
  13. 13. Tucker C. Nature, Science, and Religion: Intersections Shaping Society and the Environment. Santa Fe: SAR Press; 2012
  14. 14. Balcomb A et al. Spirituality and hope in Africa: A study in five countries. International Bulletin of Mission Research. 2017;41:336-348
  15. 15. Balcomb A. Indigenous worldviews and environmental footprints: The case of Prometheus vs Hermes. In: Devy G, Davis G, Chakravarty K, editors. Knowing Differently – The Challenge of the Indigenous. New Delhi: Routledge; 2014. pp. 158-167
  16. 16. Balcomb A. The metaphysics of participation – Exploring an idea whose time has returned. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa. 2013;145:18-34
  17. 17. Balcomb A. Counter-modernism, the primal imagination and development theory – Shifting the paradigm. Journal of theology for Southern Africa. 2017;157:44-58
  18. 18. Ingold T. The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill. London and New York: Routledge; 2000
  19. 19. Clayton P, Peacocke A. In Whom we Live and Move and Have our Being – Panentheistic Reflections on God in a Scientific world. Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdmans; 2004
  20. 20. Griffin D. The Reenchantment of Science – Postmodern Proposals. New York: State University of New York Press; 1988
  21. 21. Latour B. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1993
  22. 22. Balcomb A. Christianity in Africa – watchdog of Imperialism or ‘drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth’? Alternation – Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of the Arts and humanities in Southern Africa. 2015;14:8-21


  • The word "habitus" was coined originally by Aristotle and subsequently adopted by Bourdieu whose name is associated with the empiricist school of philosophy. The habitus is a repository of values and dispositions within the individual that he or she has learned from society, which predisposes him or her to act and react in certain ways to external phenomena. The subconscious nature of the habitus means that social rules, laws, systems, structures, and categories of meaning can only function effectively when they submerge into the habitus, which becomes a template by which everything is filtered and interpreted. The expression "in whom we live and move and have our being" is taken from the book of Acts 17:28 where Paul is describing the relationship with the "unknown God." I use this expression because it emphasizes an epistemology of intersubjective involvement rather than the detachment that is typical of the Cartesian paradigm.
  • I am using the expression "being in the world" instead of the word "worldview" here because it better expresses what I am trying to convey. "Worldview" implies an objective observer, standing outside the world and looking at it from a distance. This, in turn, is suggestive of Cartesian separateness, which is precisely the paradigm that I am wanting to contrast with its opposite, which is an immersion in and participation with the world. The expression I am using is almost a direct translation of the word Heidegger uses—dasein, in his articulation of a phenomenological approach to philosophy. I say almost because in fact the English translation of dasein is usually hyphenated as in "being-in-the-world" so that the idea of immersion is further emphasized. These two approaches, being out of the world in order to understand it (Descartes) and being in the world in order to understand it (Heidegger), broadly resonate with a Western as opposed to an indigenous epistemology. For the purposes of this essay, I will be using the terms worldview, lifeway, habitus, being in the world, cosmology, belief, and epistemology interchangeably.
  • In some ways, it could be said that the entire system of private property in the West finds its inspiration in the Genesis narrative. This because John Locke, whose philosophy laid the foundation for the private ownership of land, justified his position from Genesis 1:28, following in the footsteps of Francis Bacon, who was the first to articulate the need for an aggressive exploitation of nature.
  • See David Kinsley [9] for a good summary of the Romanticist position on the environment.
  • An excellent articulation of this notion is to be found in the work of Phillip Clayton and Arthur Peacock [19].
  • For an example of the use of Latour’s Actor Network Theory as an analytical tool, see my article on an indigenous mass greening movement in southern Zimbabwe. In this essay, I argue that the dynamic relationship that existed between all the entities in the field of study, including the religious practitioners, the rituals that were being performed, the beliefs that were behind these rituals, the trees themselves, and the money that was being put into it from overseas funders, were all part of the panoply of forces that were behind its rise as well as its fall. The movement could be best understood only when these relationships acting together in a meshwork were taken into account [22]
  • Birgit Meyer’s work among the Ewe of Ghana illustrates this very well [22].

Written By

Anthony Oswald Balcomb

Submitted: 03 April 2022 Reviewed: 06 May 2022 Published: 19 July 2022