The Nature of the Secular: Religious Orientations and Environmental Thought in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
MetadataShow full item record
My dissertation argues that changes in the structures and orientations of religious thought, changes commonly understood as secularization, have provided the intellectual underpinnings for the modern exploitation and ongoing destruction of the non-human world, which extend to the underwriting the devaluing and dehumanization of marginalized groups such as Native Americans. My work makes visible the secular assumptions of ecocriticism, which tends to blame Christianity for environmental problems. It also unwittingly relies on state-legitimating constructions of religion, simplistic religious-secular binaries, and outdated, false narratives of secularization. I theorize an ecocriticism “with/out the secular” to analyze secularity in both “secular” and “religious” settings, using the category of “religious orientation,” a tacit, pre-theoretical commitment that directs ultimate trust, structures meaning as it coheres in everyday life, and shapes ontological, epistemological, ethical, and other theories. I examine how certain nineteenth-century authors, including Henry Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and Pequot minister William Apess, resisted this secularization within contemporaneous American culture and Christianity because of its epistemic devaluing of the natural world. Each of these authors has been read as an exemplar of secularization, but such interpretations reveal more about the secular commitments of literary critics than about the authors and their contexts. I show instead how modern religious constructions do not necessarily correlate with the deeper religious orientation of an author or the secularity or non-secularity of his or her arguments. Dickinson’s poetry and Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers challenge dogmatic conceptions of heaven and Sabbath that are structured dualistically so as to devalue everyday earthly life. Yet they do so in non-dualistic ways that accord with a biblically rooted religious orientation of creation-fall-redemption-consummation. Their struggles against the church were against the church’s acceptance of dominant secularist ideologies that are ultimately at odds with Christianity and sustainable lifeways. Similarly, William Apess’ environmental justice work as a Native Christian against institutions dominated by white nationalist ideology demonstrate the how dualistic structures of secularity legitimate racism in conjunction with an anthropocentric that devalue the natural world.