US historian Lynn White has argued that Judeo-Christianity led to the “Disenchantment of Nature”. But, asks Harry Greenfield, is this really so?

Harry Greenfield for several years helped to organize the Oxford Real Farming Conference and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology and now works for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. This essay is derived from an essay he wrote while at the University of Essex, examining the extent to which nature is in some way “expressive” of something beyond its mere material self. A fully referenced version of this paper is available on request.

 In 1967 UCLA history professor Lynn White Jr. published an article in Science called “The historical roots of our ecologic crisis”. The article popularized the thesis that the Judeo-Christian tradition is responsible for the ‘disenchantment’ of nature and that this caused the ecological crisis. But what is “the disenchantment of nature”? Did such a process take place? If it did, to what extent was the Judeo-Christian tradition responsible?

1. What is enchanted nature and did it ever exist?

To understand what is meant by disenchantment, it is first necessary to examine what White means when he claims nature was previously ‘enchanted’. According to White, nature was worshiped in various pagan cultures which attributed a “guardian spirit” to objects such as trees, rivers and mountains. This meant that nature was respected and that various rituals were performed before it was harmed. Unfortunately White does not take the time to examine in much detail what is meant by an enchanted nature. Nature could be thought of either as being identical with the divine (pantheism) or as containing a spirit or life-force (animism). Alternatively, enchantment could be taken to mean something more nebulous, such as being expressive of God. Disenchantment is claimed to be the modern assumption that “nature is not holy, not divine, not living, not intelligent and not moral”, as Cameron Wybrow puts it.

In fact the question of the moral worth of nature is another part of White’s argument, one that will not be examined here in detail. White argued that both disenchantment, which concerns the metaphysical make-up of nature, and a corresponding thesis of dominion over nature, which concerns the relative moral worth of humans and nature, were necessary before humans could conceive of the advanced science and technology that led, among other things, to the current ecological crisis. The dominion thesis is also seen to stem directly from the biblical desacralization of nature – that is, any sense that nature is in any way divine. White sees anthropocentrism as responsible both for giving humanity dominion over nature and for destroying pagan animism. White is not alone in suggesting that the Bible implies an aggressive and exploitative relationship with nature, beginning in Genesis:

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

There are, however, exegetical arguments for a more moderate interpretation, which emphasize stewardship rather than dominion.

White’s article can be criticized for a shallow or misguided conception of Christianity. He draws a sharp distinction between pre-Christian and Christian religions, calling the victory of Christianity over paganism the “greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture”. In his book The Bible, Baconianism, and Mastery over Nature, Cameron Wybrow criticised this as “an over-simplistic dualism”. The history of religious thought and practice appears to be more complex than this. Neither pagan culture nor the Judeo-Christian tradition can adequately be encapsulated within a single unified set of beliefs.

There are various problems with talking about the ‘pagan’ tradition as a single entity. An important assumption for White’s argument is that prior to Christianity the enchantment of nature was widespread – but can this assumption be justified? There is some doubt about whether this is true and whether it can be justified, for example whether the prominence of nature within ancient mythologies necessarily coincided with a specific way in which ancient peoples perceived nature. Supporters of the disenchantment thesis have tended to define pagans negatively, as anyone who is not a follower of one of the main monotheistic religions. This includes a wide variety of different cultures, some of which are clearly not pagan in the way this divide implies. They are not all animistic or nature-worshiping cultures. A more thorough examination shows that it is impossible to point to a universally enchanted nature that existed before the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Wybrow explains, “pagan antiquity may be handier as a weapon for both polemicists and apologists if it is romanticized, idealized, or otherwise superficially considered.”

2. The concept of nature in the Judeo-Christian tradition

Clearly, too, there is not a single Judeo-Christian tradition. There are multiple strands and theological interpretations and within all of them there has been debate over the relations between God, humanity and nature. What is more, as John Passmore points out in his 1974 book Man’s Responsibility for Nature, the attitudes of the general population may not have reflected those of the philosophers and theologians of the time, but it is the thinking of this intellectual elite that survives into the modern era.

Another line of argument is that nature retained some vestige of ‘enchantedness’ until the dawn of Protestantism. Catholicism, it is claimed, is “inherently half-pagan” and it was not until the Reformation that the confusion of the synthesis of Greek and Christian thinking carried out in the Middle Ages was swept away. While Catholicism maintained various channels between heaven and earth, “Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality.”

A unique and central aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition, also present in Islamic theology, is that there is one God alone, and that worship of anything else is idolatry. This means that nature can no longer be “suffused with the divine”. Wybrow criticizes White for confusing three distinct terms that can be applied to nature: ‘desacralized’, ‘de-divinized’ and ‘de-animated’. To argue, as White and others do, that the price for monotheism was that the Hebrews cut themselves off from the “mysterious life” of nature, is to confuse the attributes of divinity, vitality and holiness which are separate and independent concepts. The divinity of nature, said to be a tenet of paganism, is explicitly denied by the Bible. Sacredness, on the other hand, means that something is marked out as particularly holy, and was only ever applied to certain parts of nature. In both the pagan and biblical traditions, many things were sacred, such as ceremonies and traditions, not just nature. Finally, an “animated” nature is the least clear of the three concepts and so where much of the argument about the disenchantment of nature takes place. Christianity is said to have denied nature a particular type of animation that existed in classical and pagan belief as a result of nature’s divinity. This lifelessness was later taken up by Descartes and others in the seventeenth century who viewed even organic matter as essentially inert or mechanistic. This step from ‘de-divinization’ to ‘de-animation’ was an important one for modern scientific progress. While the Bible clearly distinguishes between humans on the one hand and animals and the rest of nature on the other, it is not clear that this is achieved by de-animating all of nature.

While nature may not be divine, it is as much part of God’s creation as humanity and in fact non-human nature was created before Man, and appeared to please the Creator:

 “And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:21)

There is a strong argument, in fact, that creation takes place not to please humanity but to please God, “creation is not anthropocentric, it is theocentric”, as Steve Bishop puts it, in his article ‘Green theology and deep ecology: New Age or new creation?’. This explains various passages in the Bible that exhort the whole of nature to praise God. More importantly, humans are actually connected to nature, they are made from the earth and will return to it. In ‘The disenchantment of nature and Christianity’s “burden of guilt”’ David J. Hawkin says, “The earth is not mere impersonal matter, but rather in some sense responsible for humans and responsive to them.

The idea that nature, as a whole, may be in some way expressive of something, shines through in the works of Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. His poem ‘God’s Grandeur’ offers a visceral description of humanity’s desecrations of the earth, which still remains fresh, unspent and animated, due to the Holy Ghost:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil 
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? 
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil 
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘God’s Grandeur’)

The poem also raises the interesting question of whether the Fall affected man alone or the whole of creation. If the Fall was cosmic in scale then it could be that such animation as nature had at the time of the creation has disappeared, leaving the world now “withered and exhausted” as Terry Eagleton puts it. Parts of the Bible support this notion that nature is tarnished by man’s sin, for example:

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:20–22)

This passage, however, also depicts nature as very much animated: groaning and labouring while it waits for redemption.

The idea of a fallen nature has led to the controversial idea that humanity has a part to play in its redemption. Not only did Francis Bacon believe that the role of science was in part to restore a damaged nature, but in a different interpretation, Jesuit priest and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin criticized the presumption that humanity’s redemption would come through liberating itself from the world. Instead he argued humans should work with nature to help it on its path towards final redemption. He believed this redemption is the final goal towards which evolution is aimed and will constitute a kind of supreme consciousness. Perhaps what is revealed to us in nature is the expression of this grand, cosmic goal?

Christianity has long used the metaphor of creation as a book that when correctly interpreted reveals something about the creator. In this view, humans are able to appreciate nature because of the connection between God, humanity and nature; the key is humanity’s God-given rationality, which allows us to appreciate nature. In his book The Re-enchantment of Nature, Alister McGrath questioned whether this connection may in fact be too subtle for some to appreciate. Instead of seeing nature as a signpost towards a creator, we see it as an end in itself, worthy of awe, but not worship or deeper spiritual meaning. He refers to this as “the paradox of creation” – the very beauty of nature distracts us from seeing beyond it.

This rejection of a creator fits into a philosophical tradition that claims that to understand the world all one needs is a mind through which to experience the world and the scientific method to explain it. Taken to extremes, however, both of these ways of interpreting the world can be problematic. Philosophers have long had to sail between the Scylla of idealism (which sees the human mind as the only source of reality) and the Charybdis of scientism (the “naive realism” which rejects any explanation of reality not stemming from science). Adding divine creation to the mix, alongside the cosmos and human consciousness, manages to avoid both of these by claiming that both the universe and the human mind point to something beyond themselves.

Put another way, the fact that nature not only exists, but that we can understand and interpret it, could express a deeper reality. Could God have created both nature and human rationality to work in tandem so that we could understand and appreciate Him? Langdon Gilkey, in Nature, Reality and the Sacred: The Nexus of Science and Religion addresses this issue of our understanding and appreciation of reality. Whenever we observe the world we do so through the lens of our own, subjective, perception, however objective we may try to be. Scientists have long laboured to try and phase out this subjectivity (which is seen as fallibility of observation), but perhaps something is lost when this happens? Can we achieve a “richer and more mysterious” understanding of the world through a renewed focus on what it means to be a person observing the world, rather than looking solely at the anonymous observations, as they are written in graphs and textbooks?

This question of the role of humanity as a mediator or interpreter of nature’s expressiveness is key to the Hopkins poem mentioned above. Terry Eagleton argues that Hopkins wishes to reconcile Christian anthropocentrism with an awareness that man has become separated from nature and is degrading it. Poetry critic Michael Lackey sums up Hopkins’ argument thus:

“…fallen humanity, with its propensity for death and destruction, ravages the land; within nature, there is a living force that results in a resurrection, a triumph over the destructive impulse of fallen humanity.”

The dilemma Hopkins faces is how to allow for human experience of nature, a vital step for us to recognize nature’s grace and in turn God’s grandeur, but without this very experience leading to disenchantment and destruction. Nature must be protected from human harm, but not to such an extent that we become separate from it and do not appreciate the lessons it can teach us about creation.

Hopkins’ solution to this problem is in the form of the Holy Spirit, which allows humanity to recognize nature’s grace, encouraging and nurturing that part of God that dwells within nature. The Holy Spirit thus allows nature to be other than inert, to be in some sense animated, and yet at the same time for God to remain wholly separate from nature. The doctrine of the Trinity offers a way of combining God’s transcendence and immanence while avoiding deism and pantheism respectively. The Holy Spirit indwells creation: this is a way of retaining some of nature’s enchantment but it is ignored by White and others.

As the discussion so far has shown, there is a strong strand of Christian thought which holds that while nature is no longer sacred, it remains in some sense enchanted because it was created by and for God. Nature points to something other than itself, and it does so in an animated or expressive manner. White moves from the conception of nature as no longer holy or divine, which is set out in Genesis, to the idea that nature is lifeless and inert, which is contradicted throughout both the Old Testament and in much Christian theology.

3. Other sources of disenchantment with nature

There is not necessarily a logical link between the fact of nature’s disenchantment and the results stemming from it; between the idea of an inert, inanimate nature and the fact that modern science and technology exploited nature to the extent that we are now in the midst of an ecological crisis. White’s thesis has been criticized on the grounds that the connection it finds between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the damaging rise of human technology simply does not exist. Instead of being caused by biblical disenchantment, modern science itself could be responsible for both the ecological crisis and for a kind of retrospective disenchantment. This hinges largely on whether religion influenced the direction of science or whether other factors such as the influence of Greek philosophy, decline in religious belief or simply the inevitability of human progress let loose the driving forces of modern science and technology.

Modern science

White has been criticized for placing too much emphasis on the Middle Ages as the beginning of the rift between man and nature. Not only does this present “an exaggerated view of the moral and metaphysical significance of new ploughs and new calendars”, as Robin Attfield put it, but it fails to explain how this was suddenly caused by a religious tradition that had been around for centuries already. Hawkin argues that instead it was the scientific revolution, starting with Francis Bacon in the 16th century, that was the source of disenchantment, and that this had a limited connexion to religious ideas. The promise of understanding nature, while at times connected to theological aspirations to understand the mind of God, was surely far more attractive because of the material benefits it promised humanity. Bacon was also responsible for explicitly saying that nature is inert and not made in the image of God, an interpretation of Christianity which was not previously widespread.

There is reason to doubt whether religion held sway over science, or whether in fact science reshaped religion to suit its own ambitions. The fact that advances in scientific knowledge led to changes in theology would suggest the latter. Given the variety and divergence of theological traditions, it would be possible that science shaped religion at least to the same extent as religion shaped science. This would belie White’s claim that “modern Western science was cast in a matrix of Christian theology. The dynamism of religious devotion, shaped by the Judeo-Christian dogma of creation gave it impetus”. In fact, White’s claim can be reversed: instead of disenchantment, caused by religion, paving the way for domination and then crisis, it could be argued that physical damage to the natural world, encouraged by scientific developments, had the effect of disenchanting nature.

We might also question the motivation of scientists during the scientific revolution. White believes that we should take at face value the claims of the majority of scientists from the 13th to the 18th century to be motivated by religion. Hawkin says that in Bacon’s case, although he supports his arguments for nature’s inertness with Biblical quotation, this is more due to the power of the church, and because the idea supported his ambitions, than a genuine theological argument: “The fact that he uses the Bible to support his views does not mean that it was the Bible which provided their inspiration.” To Bacon it was self-evident that humanity should attempt to improve the world: “man is lord of nature in virtue of his rationality”. Notably Bacon believed that the great potential of combining science and technology lay in creating a paradise on earth, in returning humanity to its prelapsarian state. Any conception of nature as sacred was denounced as a remnant from pre-Christian times and rejected so as to allow for human progress and the advance of science.

There is also a suggestion that it was Greek philosophy, not the Judeo-Christian heritage, that allowed for this fundamental change in attitude towards nature in Christian theologians, with some pointing to the Stoics as the original source for the idea that nature was created entirely for human benefit. Hawkin argues that Bacon’s “real inspiration came from Greek atomists such as Democritus”. He then deliberately propagated a disenchanted view of nature in opposition to a pagan animated one, even though the Bible does not insist on this.

“The issue is not Christianity against paganism. Within both Christianity and paganism there are disenchanted and enchanted views of nature. Christianity as well as paganism has the resources to offer a way of looking at nature which is different from the impersonal one which prevails in the modern world.” (David Hawkin)

As this quotation shows, the Judeo-Christian tradition is supremely adaptable to the intellectual currents of the time. So it is that many scientists were able to retain their faith even as their discoveries revolutionized the prevailing worldview. It remains unanswered what the extent of this flexibility is and where its outer parameters lie. It may seem commendable that the ideas of modern science were able to be incorporated into the tradition. At least, this is a problem only for the defenders of orthodoxy. On the other hand it could be that the idea of the disenchantment of nature was accepted due to an inherent tendency within a religion that favoured such ideas. The latter is the claim of White, John Passmore, and others, who argue that it is no coincidence that this intellectual transition occurred. The Judeo-Christian tradition laid the foundations on which other stronger, and more destructive, aspects of disenchantment could subsequently be placed.

An important clarification is that for the thesis to be powerful, such an openness must not be present in any other tradition, what Barr calls the negative argument. The claim is that although the Judeo-Christian tradition was not solely responsible for the disenchantment of nature, such disenchantment could not have occurred to such an extent within any other religious or spiritual tradition.

Role of ideas

The disenchantment thesis puts a lot of faith in the power of religious ideas to influence the way cultures develop in their relationship to the environment. As White puts it, “Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny, that is by religion”. Critics have argued that ideas do not explain social phenomena to such an extent. Instead ideas arise to legitimize actions that arise from material considerations. The idea of a rift between humans and nature is not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition but can be found in Taoist and classical ideas of a lost Golden Age in which man and nature lived in harmony. Although such a period may never have existed, most ancient cultures believed it to have occurred in the distant past beyond recovery. Passmore argues that the Hebrews “were puzzled and disturbed about their relationship with nature … in need of explanation and justification” and that the passages in Genesis were written after “man had already embarked on the task of transforming nature. In the Genesis stories man justifies his actions.” The counter to this claim is that socio-economic factors alone do not adequately explain why technology developed to such an extent in the West and not elsewhere, as Attfield puts it, “short of some other explanation of the distinctive progress of technology in the West, ideas may play an indispensable role in the explanation.”


Alister McGrath agrees that science is more to blame than religion, but goes further in actually blaming the absence of religion for the disenchantment of nature. He does not completely spare Christianity though, saying, “the grounds of our ecological crisis lie in the emergence of a worldview that proclaimed human autonomy and viewed nature as a mechanism subordinated to humanity. Christianity may well be implicated in the emergence of this worldview … Yet once it had emerged this worldview declared its independence of any intellectual or moral constraints and set out to go its own way.”

Secular humanism, McGrath claims, is the most anthropocentric religion ever, not Christianity. He reiterates the argument that it was Greek philosophy that produced this radical anthropocentrism but that although to begin with this was integrated into Christianity, the real damage came when the Judeo-Christian tradition, which had held the worst aspects in check, was discarded. Protagoras’ statement that “man is the measure of all things” implanted an idea that has dominated secular Western society ever since. In fact the initial movement in the Middle Ages towards a utilitarian conception of nature still allowed for harmony between humans and nature while it was coupled with some vestiges of the concept of Christian stewardship. Religion set up boundaries or limits, which even Bacon and his peers respected during the scientific revolution. It was only during the Enlightenment and then the industrial revolution that the idea of limits was abandoned as religion was abandoned.

There are several criticisms to be made of this idea that religion imposed limits, the main one being that it is nowhere made clear where such limits are drawn. The limit was presented as the will of God, beyond which humanity cannot go without being punished for its hubris, but it is not clear how humans are meant to know when they have crossed the line. Furthermore even if this idea is correct it seems to provide little opposition to the disenchantment thesis, as it essentially admits that Christianity disenchants nature but adds limits so as to prevent a complete destruction of nature. Finally, Christianity is not alone in this; paganism too, which White argues imposed limits on how nature was treated, does not do so clearly. The fact is that any religious notion of limits is almost bound to be unclear if the religion survives through periods of dramatic human progress, during which the idea of what is or is not permissible will either change or the religion will have to be abandoned.

Human nature

A key aspect of the disenchantment thesis is that it is unique to the West and was demonstrated by the uniquely Western advance of technology. It could be argued, though, that technology did in fact develop outside the West, something we would be more sensitive to if this debate had not originated in the 20th century, at the peak of the West’s intellectual domination. White’s argument depends to some extent on the idea that no significant technology developed prior to Christianity and that any technology that is developed in the future will still be the result of Christian attitudes. An alternative to this would be to see humanity as in a constant state of progress, of which the current stage just happens to coincide with (the end of) the dominance of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This explanation would cast doubt on whether humans ever believed nature was enchanted except in a superficial sense. Instead religion and belief change to fit with the nature of society at the time. While progress was still faltering and on a small scale, the illusion of harmony with nature could be maintained, but there has always been an element of violence within nature.

Support for this idea comes from looking at the way humans differ from the rest of nature. Unlike other species, humans changed the way they live from generation to generation. The use of language and memory means that humans as a species can constantly improve and adapt, in other words we can progress. This progress entails transforming the struggle between species, which is normally relegated to fights between individuals or groups, into a struggle of one species spread across history against all other species that are stuck in a continuous present. The upshot of this is that humanity, as a result of its unique intelligence, would inevitably take on and triumph over the rest of nature. Thus it is not the Judeo-Christian tradition, or any other intellectual current, but human rationality itself that is responsible for the disenchantment of nature. Given that no other part of nature refrains from using competitive advantage to outcompete other species, it is unreasonable to posit that humans either did once or should do so themselves.


While White’s contention that the Judeo-Christian tradition is responsible for the disenchantment of nature appears superficially attractive, it has several weak points. It is far from clear that such a disenchantment occurred in the way described and even where it did, the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition was not paramount. The vision that White sets out of a rupture with the harmonious pagan era where nature was sacred is too simplistic and such an era probably never existed.

The relation between disenchantment and domination of nature is more complex, with disenchantment a slow process that peaked in the conceptions of nature proposed by Bacon and Descartes which were directly concerned with the advance of science and technology.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is varied and changeable. It includes a conception of nature as enchanted or expressive, helping to provide a connexion between humans and God.

Fundamentally, White’s argument puts too much faith in the power of ideas and the rigidity of theology. The idea that the people responsible for the rapid development of science, technology and ultimately human progress would have been held back if only the religious context had been different seems far-fetched. It seems more likely that theological justification for dominion over nature was a convenient cover rather than a prime cause.

Do we – human beings – really want to establish a more harmonious relationship with nature, or are we content to spread destruction so long as this doesn’t damage our own prospects? Clearly, if we do want a better relationship, then we need seriously to modify our own material ambitions and our technologies. Whether the re-enchantment of nature would help to achieve such a shift remains an open question.


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