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Chapter 1

RELG 270 Chapter Notes - Chapter 1: Lynn Townsend White Jr., Ecotheology

Religious Studies
Course Code
RELG 270
Eliza Rosenberg

of 4
White vs. Whitney
Religion has always been an influential aspect in the lives of most individuals,
whether it is shaping their thoughts or guiding their behaviour. Although many of our
actions are conditioned by a given set of rules, can all of them be explained by our
beliefs? During the sixties, a professor by the name of Lynn White published a highly
controversial article entitled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” in which he
suggests that medieval Christianity is the cause of our ecological crisis. In response to his
thesis, Elspeth Whitney issued a critique called “Lynn White, Ecotheology, and History”
in which he claims “religious values cannot be treated independently of the political,
economic, and social conditions that sustain them” (Whitney 151).
In his article, White starts off by stating that our modern technology and our
modern science are Occidental, and since they “got their start, acquired their character
and achieved world dominance in the Middle Ages” (White 1205), one must look at
medieval assumptions and thoughts during that era to understand their impact on ecology.
Since Christianity regards mankind as the center of our existence, he asserts that human
beings exploit the environment because they consider themselves above all things, and to
understand God’s mind, they are ready to “use [nature] for [their] slightest whim” (White
1206). Therefore, Christian worldview of superiority and dominance over nature is
essentially how science was able to make progress. Since the root of our ecologic crisis is
religious, therefore the solution must be too (White 1206).
Whitney, on the other hand, states that White considers medieval Christian values
as an entity of its own and does not take into consideration that other changing factors
might influences them (Whitney 156). Also, although White manages to demonstrate an
existing link between religious beliefs and technological advances, he fails to prove the
causality in the connection (Whitney 157). If we compare the two points of view through
political, economical and social aspects, we can see that Whitney’s evaluation bears more
truth in it.
Seeking illumination might have been one of the reason individuals researched
their surroundings, but surely, it must not have been the only one. According to
Fudpucker, “technology […] is explicitly identified […] with Western political power”
(Whitney 159). If we apply this theory to Lynn’s thesis, we can deduct that spiritual
beliefs were not the only driving force of technological innovations. In order to keep
power of a kingdom, ingenuity was important because it offered them an advantage over
others. Even today, in our modern day society, it is clear that whoever has the latest
technology will benefit politically and economically because of the power it provides
them, and “few people […] seriously think that the transformation of religious values
[…] can” (Whitney 169) make them relinquish their authority in order to help the
ecological crisis.
White mentions in his article that land divisions were based on what an individual
needed to sustain life, but with the arrival of new technological innovations, land division
depended on how much product a particular tool can yield. He blamed this change on the
belief that mankind considers himself above nature and can therefore exploit it (White
1205). However, one must keep in mind that Western culture has been subjected to an
increase of population, and as a result, production levels have increased to meet with their
demands. New machines helped keep the population fed, and also allowed trades with
other nations, which in return helped the nation grow in wealth. Since White does not
take into consideration economic conditions in his thesis, he fails to make this
connection, and Whitney’s claim that religious values cannot be independent in
explaining technological advances triumphs.
“New technologies and new levels of technological development […] have, of
course, often resulted in more comfortable and better lives for many people” (Whitney
157). If we assume that White’s thesis is completely accurate and disregard Whitney’s
response, this positive outcome is only possible due to the religious beliefs that
Christianity holds, and if we were to change them, we might not have this scenario. Then,
not only would we have an ecological crisis in our hands, but we would also have social
one. Therefore, we can assume that there must be other factors that contribute to
technological innovations in the West. Moreover, in the Middle Ages, Christianity was a
dominant force and had a lot of influence in every aspect. Therefore, since White fails to
prove the causality between technological advances and medieval Christian values, one
will always wonder whether the breakthroughs made in science and technology was
really a product of religion, or were they simply masked to be one in order to be socially
In conclusion, both articles underline the importance of Christianity in the
medieval era, but White and Whitney disagree on the forces that led to new scientific and
technological discoveries. If we take into consideration other factors, we can conclude
that, although White’s thesis has a certain degree of truth in it, Whitney’s response to it is
more accurate. To solve the problem of our ecological crisis, changing Christian religious
values seems too one-dimensional; the problem is much more complex and evolving
political, economical and social aspects must be taken into consideration when coming up