Theological arguments can somewhat convincingly reason there could be a higher intent in the universe but it’s still easier to attribute everything around us to unguided natural forces.
I think guys like Spinoza approached this the best way: The universe is sacred because if there is a creative intent, everything that exists is a direct manifestation of God. This way, we can treat the universe and the natural forces that animate it as God itself. Laws of physics are the laws of God.
Christian learning inspired by the Ancient Greek philosophy led to science by espousing some attitudes very like this but remained bound to trying to reconcile this mode of reasoning with the teachings of Christ and the traditions of the church.
Since around the time of St. Paul, Christianity incorporated the pagan Greek idea of ideal forms to describe the perfection of heaven. This meant that everything we see on earth is a pale shadow of a higher reality. This concept was combined with the Zoroastrian cosmology of earth as a battleground between dualistic forces of good and evil. The material universe became an illusory and temporary testing ground for our souls. What started as a Greek-influenced offshoot of a Semitic world view evolved into an ethereal doctrine that possibly shared more in common with Buddhism than a Judaism or Islam that treated God as an unknowable abstraction while dealing with earthly life in legalistic detail. This made Christianity incompatible with a materialistic world view.
The result was that science coupled with revolutionary Enlightenment values ended up becoming its own nascent religion rather than developing as a school of theology within the church.
Western thought has been bizarrely split ever since, looking for the sacred in a heaven that cannot co-exist with a “dead” physical plane.
The way out of this trap of course is to simply see there is no conflict between the sacred and the material, natural world.
This is perhaps why science has not been as direct a challenge to Islam and Judaism that spend most of their energy dealing with life on earth. Even the Indian world views of Hinduism and Buddhism seem not to wilt so badly under the scrutiny of science because they do not require the natural world to be governed by supernatural forces. A Buddhist may see reality as an illusion, but is not beholden to an elaborate theoretical true reality as a matter of faith. The need for a legalistically defined ethereal realm creates a unique chemistry in Christianity.
Ironically, having reasons to apply legalistic reasoning outside of human social life may have led Christians to discover the laws of reality itself. The tragedy is they could not embrace the system of natural laws they discovered as the divine expression of God they were looking for all along. Christians could have developed science into a Sharia law of nature and avoided the great schism between flesh and spirit.
Environmentalism is a school of the Enlightenment science religion that attempts to treat the natural world as holy. It’s an attempt to move in the right direction, to assign sacred values to the natural world, but it proves inconsistent when one minute we’re told it’s a tragedy if the whales go extinct and the next that our world is an insignificant speck of dust in an enormous universe. Secular preachers like Carl Sagan could never resist showing off pictures of earth as a blue dot from afar to hammer in their point even as they simultaneously say how wonderful it all is. Try as they might secular doctrine just can’t quite move past “dead matter” Christian attitude towards the natural world.
The really fatal flaw though is the split between religion and science renders environmentalists unable to deal with human affairs. So environmentalism begins as a genuine attempt to capture the sacredness and wonder of nature, but ends up by portraying humans as the anti-natural force that must be countered. The hypocrisy of environmentalism is that it is anti-human because in the secular religion, humans are oddly considered apart from the natural world in stark defiance of their own scientific knowledge.
Even were environmentalism able to incorporate humans as a natural element, it would still mean embracing worship of nature for its own sake seeing meaning in everything. This would mean a throwback to animistic forms of spirituality typical of the stone age. As the shallow fads of “New Age” have revealed, this means wandering into yet another trap.
The key for a successful post-Secular religion is to adopt an attitude of a holy universe in the Spinozan sense but to do so with a purpose and a mission. The trouble with environmentalism is it proposes we should save the whales but offers no reason why it matters.
If we include humans with all the rest of nature we first have to ask, “What makes humans so special? Why is a human any different than a pebble on Mars or a floating micro-organism?” The answer is our conscious awareness. That’s why we’d rank a lizard over a mushroom and a dog over a lizard. Awareness is existence, without which the universe is empty. There may be whole planets of fantastic landscapes covered in gardens of iridescent lichen but nothing to “witness” them.
Environmentalists insist on the intrinsic beauty of nature but miss out on the need for beauty to be perceived, or else it is wasted.
Because we see the intrinsic value of conscious awareness itself, it makes a pretty good foundation. Furthermore it sets humans apart from inanimate matter or lesser living things without having to lie to ourselves that humans and human affairs are separate from the rest of nature. By the same principle we also reason smarter humans of higher consciousness are more valuable than simpletons. This paves the way for both eugenics and a meritocracy of intellect promoted by the state religion itself. We have a reason to try to preserve and spread the human species. It has potential to inspire us to be our best and then become better than we are.
Such doctrines would lead eventually to trans-humanism and practical immortality—to the rise of awareness that transcends humans as we transcend pets and livestock.
In a poetic way of thinking, those of awareness form the organ by which the universe knows itself, in other words—to become the mind God.