A Q&A with Alan Levinovitz
What exactly do we mean when we talk about eating naturally? Being naturally gifted? Curing what ails us with natural medicine? “Natural” is a loaded term that’s actually religious below the surface. Our belief that it means “good” spells trouble for science, economics, and other domains of our culture, because the myths wrapped up in it oversimplify our complex realities and spread misinformation. Take the condemnations of “unnatural” sexual activity. The guilt that attends not having a “natural” birth. Economic deregulation justified by the inherent goodness of “natural” markets.
Scholar of religion Alan Levinovitz picks apart our fantasy and worship of nature in Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science. And the result is a new perspective that shatters faith in Nature’s goodness and points to a better alternative. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Levinovitz to chat with him about it and what our fixation on living naturally bears on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Christian Coleman: What inspired you to write Natural?
Alan Levinovitz: While researching people’s attitudes towards food, I found that the idea of naturalness came up constantly. The “right” diet was a “natural” diet. And yet, despite widespread agreement on the goodness of what’s natural, there was complete disagreement about the meaning of the term. As I started paying more attention to the term, I realized that using “natural” as a vague synonym for “good” or “right” was omnipresent in virtually every aspect of human culture. It was clear that in order to really understand the meaning of “natural,” I would need to look not only at food, but also at everything from economics (“natural” markets) to sports (“natural” talent).
CC: You’re associate professor of religious studies at James Madison University. Tell us a little about your background and how it informed your writing.
AL: Although the words “natural” and “nature” look secular, it was immediately clear to me that they had the same kind of significance as “holy” and “God” in traditional religions. People ascribed intentionality and benevolence to Nature, with a capital N. This theological foundation is hidden by seemingly scientific explanations. “We evolved to do X” certainly sounds scientific, but often it’s a theological claim that uses Nature to bridge the gap between is and ought. If nature “made” us a certain way (that’s the is), then we should obey Nature (that’s the ought).
CC: You traveled to several locations to do research: the Peruvian rainforests on the topic of natural births, a Dutch research facility on natural vanilla, the backcountry in Yellowstone Park on natural conditions (genuine wilderness), to name a few. Did you have a favorite location or a favorite trip?
AL: Well, I have a favorite story about a trip that didn’t make it into the book. When I arrived in Montana, I had to take a cab to an equipment rental store before heading to Yellowstone. Looking down, I saw that the cab driver’s phone had a bunch of conservative apps on it: there was a Fox News app and an Infowars app. Along with the NRA sticker, this made me assume that he would be very anti-conservation, resentful of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone—that kind of thing. We made small talk, but I didn’t mention my research because I didn’t want to get into an argument. Then, as we neared the destination, he said to me, “You know, if you’re driving around the park, you might run into some bison on the road. You know what you should do?”
“What?” I answered, half-expecting him to say I should honk or shoot them or run them down.
He gave me a very serious look.
“You wait for them to cross. This is their home. Respect it.”
I felt terrible. I’d made an assumption based on politics that was completely off base. In fact, care for the natural world frequently transcends politics, which makes me very hopeful.
CC: Throughout the book, you explain the variety of dangers caused by faith in Nature’s goodness. But you also bring up the fact that we keep returning to this faith because it gives us a holistic, existential grasp of a complicated world, which is something modern science doesn’t do. Why was it important to include this argument?
AL: Too often, you’ll find beliefs like the “appeal to nature” dismissed as irrational or stupid. Only an idiot would fall for a “natural” cancer cure, or waste money on “natural” water, right? But that kind of dismissive attitude is unhelpful and inaccurate. We do not always choose our beliefs by collecting evidence and then sorting through it with dispassionate logic, like Spock—especially when those beliefs are theological. For many people, their concepts of nature and naturalness are shaped by the same kinds of questions that shape religious attitudes: Where did we come from? Why is the world so harmonious but also home to suffering? Without exploring how beliefs about nature answer these questions, it’s impossible to fully understand the meaning and power of the word “natural”.
CC: Do you think it’s possible for humankind to turn to other ideological frameworks rather than faith in nature’s goodness during pandemics like the COVID-19 outbreak we’re getting through now?
AL: I’ve been heartened by how I’ve seen people react to the pandemic. There have been some “humans are the virus” takes, which are both understandable and awful. Those are in a minority, though. Instead, I find that humanity—kindness, community, empathy—are the dominant ideals brought out right now. For me, that represents a great ideological framework: an emphasis on virtues in the face of uncertainty. The truth is that we don’t know exactly how to live in harmony with nature. We don’t have a set of transcendent rules about how to be “natural”. What we do have, though, is a sense of what it means to be good people on a very basic level.
About Alan Levinovitz
Alan Levinovitz is associate professor of religious studies at James Madison University. In addition to academic journals, his writing has appeared in Wired, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Aeon, Vox, Slate, and elsewhere. Connect with him at alanlevinovitz.com and on Twitter at @AlanLevinovitz.