Is Greta Thunberg Muslim

Neo-Gnostic Religious patterns of interpretation and rituals of the climate movement

In this essay, the ethnologist Karl-Heinz Kohl sharpens our eye for the many surprising parallels between the climate movement and ancient religious rituals and concepts: whether it is about public demonstrations, the refusal to attend school or nutrition trends - there are always deep historical layers with clear similarities. This even applies to CO2 compensation for air travel or doubts as to whether it is moral to father children in this threatened world with an uncertain future.

Dossier: Climate Crisis (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

And the leader, Greta Thunberg? Karl-Heinz Kohl shows that she is a typical prophetic figure around which narratives are grouped, similar to those around Jesus or Johanna von Orléans. Even the slander of Greta Thunberg as an insane, externally controlled, unfair leadership figure follows the historical dirty campaigns against many a prophet. Apart from the fact that the fundamental dualism of "we" and "they" is also taken up here again.

It's not climate hysteria

Strictly speaking, it is irrelevant whether the content of the historical and current movements are really related. Because the more recent ethnological research shows, as Karl-Heinz Kohl argues with recourse to Frits Staal and Claude Lévi-Strauss at the same time, that the content of rituals can be almost interchangeable. It is no coincidence that even decidedly atheistic communism was able to resort to Catholic procession rituals, whether consciously or unconsciously.

However, all of this does not mean that the content of the climate movement should be neglected or even be dubbed as climate hysteria, argues Karl-Heinz Kohl. Because the goals of the movement are rational and correspond to the state of scientific research. Karl-Heinz Kohl is only skeptical as to whether one moves people to rational argumentation and commitment by arguing on the basis of old dualistic models and creating an apocalyptic mood.

Karl-Heinz Kohl is an ethnologist and religious scholar. From 1996 to 2016 he was a professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, where he also headed the Frobenius Institute for cultural anthropological research. He also taught at the Free University of Berlin, at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, at the New School for Social Research in New York and at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich.



Anyone who directs the ethnologist's gaze to one's own society and attempts to examine the rituals and future fears of the climate movement in terms of their historical depths is running a risk. The accusation should quickly be at hand that it is reducing the content of the demands that young people make to politics or degrading them to meaningless, secular levels of decline in religious rituals and beliefs. That would of course be wrong. The messages of the climate movement are quite rational in themselves and correspond to the current state of knowledge of scientific research. And yet religious rituals live on in the public events of the climate movement without both systems of thought having to pursue the same purposes. This is shown by a look at the history and theory of ritual research.

Rituals follow a strict set of rules

In 1979 the Dutch Indologist Frits Staal published an article entitled "The meaninglessness of rituals" in the international religious studies journal "Numen", which revolutionized ritual research: Staal had documented a Vedic fire ritual in an Indian village in 1975, which has hardly existed for 3,000 years had changed, as he could prove on the basis of Sanskrit sources from the eighth century BC. This was all the more astonishing as the ritual originally referred to a cattle sacrifice, although the killing of these animals, which the Hindus held sacred, has long been prohibited there. Rituals could not be defined based on their respective purpose or their function, so was the conclusion of Frits Staal. Rituals are rigid, unchangeable and characterized by constant repetitions of actions that follow a strict set of rules, but are meaningless in themselves.

His claim that the ritual is fundamentally "insignificant" has nonetheless been criticized. It was countered that rituals also had a syntax that was comparable to linguistic grammar. It makes it possible to create alternating meanings by rearranging and shifting individual elements without having to make changes to the entire body of ritual acts. However, it is largely up to the actors what type these meanings are. They can be religious as well as non-religious in nature.

Reinterpretation of rituals

How fluid these transitions can be can be seen in the great political and social movements of the early 20th century. One of the centuries-old traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church was and is still counting today that the icons of Christian saints and martyrs are removed from the churches at the main festivals of the church year and carried through the streets in processions. After the victorious October Revolution of 1917, the Communist Party adopted this ritual. During the public marches to commemorate this political event, the oversized portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin took the place of the old images of saints. The leaders of the communist party had strayed far less from the old belief than one might think.

Fridays for Future movement - a generational phenomenon

The climate movement cannot and does not want to do without the community experience that processions, marches and demonstrations create. Portraits of people have only seldom been carried along during the parades of the Fridays for Future movement, but the demonstrators hold up signs with slogans and drawings that are deliberately childlike. Critics have spoken of a new children's crusade. However, the reference is not entirely accurate. Because it was fanatical preachers who in the 13th century called on children to liberate the Holy Sepulcher, after the knight armies had failed to do so, and who in fact drove tens of thousands of young people to their deaths. The Fridays for Future movement, on the other hand, actually seems to be a generational phenomenon. Her followers derive a significant part of their sense of belonging from the fact that they ostentatiously distance themselves from the generation of their parents and that of their grandparents.

"Holy" days of the week are a religious phenomenon

This also includes the refusal to attend school on the day of the week from which the movement owes its name. However, the strikers are unlikely to be aware that they are tying into a different religious tradition. In each of the three world religions that refer back to the Hebrew Bible, one of the seven days of the week is sanctified in memory of God's act of creation and declared a day of rest and reflection. In Judaism it is the Sabbath, in Christianity it is Sunday and in Islam it is Friday. Since the Fridays for Future movement came into being, its supporters have been sharing this day with Muslims around the world. But they do not spend it with prayers to their creator, but rather with appealing together to the mighty powers of the world to counteract the impending catastrophe.

In terms of religious history, the suspension of everyday business at such small periodic intervals is, moreover, relatively new. In Greece, as in ancient Rome, there were innumerable holidays that were dedicated to individual gods, but no other religious community insisted on strict observance of a weekly day of rest as the Jewish communities scattered across the empire. The religious philosopher Franz Rosenzweig once suggested that the strict self-delimitation of the Jewish diaspores from their social environment associated with the Sabbath celebration contributed significantly to the emergence of anti-Judaism - the ancient forerunner of modern anti-Semitism.

Food regulation as a religious principle - symbolic limits also with vegetarianism and veganism

In a similar way to common feasts and public holidays, food regulations also serve to reinforce group identity in religious communities. Among the most radical of this kind are those of the Indian Jainas. With their help, they also try to show outwardly how different they are from all other Hindu communities. Since their religious principles include respect for and protection of all animal life, they not only eat a strictly vegetarian diet, but also avoid the consumption of plants that grow underground, because cultivating them could kill worms and other small animals. Judaism also has an extensive catalog of religious food orders and prohibitions. In the book of Leviticus - the 3rd book of Moses of the Old Testament of the Christians - they occupy about 20 chapters together with the ritual purity laws and other regulations. The extent to which they determined everyday life is shown by the immediately emotionally plausible prohibition of boiling a kid in one's mother's milk. His rabbinical interpretations have led to the fact that in the households of Orthodox families two types of cooking and eating utensils must be kept and neatly separated from one another: those intended for the preparation and consumption of meat and those intended for the consumption of dairy products.

Affiliations to groups of us are increasingly expressed by what we eat and what we forbid ourselves to eat. In addition to the love of animals, the renouncement of meat dishes is mainly justified today with the environmental damage caused by the mass keeping of animals. An even more radical variant is the complete abstention from food products of animal origin. But vegetarianism and veganism are at the same time social markers that help to draw symbolic boundaries. Inwardly, the food commandments correspond to the common meal, which as a community act also plays a central role in many religions. In Catholic Christianity, the exclusion from the common Lord's Supper is still one of the highest church punishments.

Renunciation has a new, collective status

The transition from ritual without certain foods to asceticism is fluid. As an act of abstinence, fasting is found in many religions. These can be seasonal bans that relate to certain foods, or even a ban on food that extends for many days or sometimes even weeks. As a means of maintaining individual health, fasting has become so common in modern consumer society that the church's liturgical calendar from which it once emerged has largely been forgotten. With a view to environmental damage, however, this form of renunciation is now assigned a new, collective status. It becomes a kind of penitential act to calm the guilty conscience. This tendency is also expressed in the fact that numerous supporters of the climate protection movement now purchase their clothing needs in second-hand shops. In the history of Christianity, religious renunciation, expressed in hairy robes and dirty frocks, tangled hair and flowing beards, was one of the external characteristics of hermits and monks who set themselves the goal of the godly mortification of all sensual instincts through flagellancy and sometimes self-mutilation had.

Binary basic oppositions in the history of religion - and the present

Similar properties to the purposeless and self-referential ritual acts investigated by Frits Staal show some thought patterns that are in principle very simple and structured in such a way that they can also be given a wide variety of religious and non-religious meanings. As a rule, they build on basic binary oppositions, with the help of which complementary pairs of opposites and dynamic contradiction models can be constructed, the individual parts of which relate dialectically to one another. It is one of the great merits of the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss to have pointed out the universal occurrence of these thought patterns. They can not only be found in the totemic classification systems, mythical traditions and cosmologies of indigenous peoples, but have also played a central role in the history of religion in the Near East and Europe. In the considerations and arguments of the representatives of the climate movement, they are experiencing a return today.

Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest dualistic religious systems that has been handed down to us in writing. Its namesake is said to have spread its teachings around 560 BC in what is now Afghanistan and Iran as an itinerant preacher. At its center is the struggle of the creator god Ahura Mazda, who embodies the principle of the good and pure, against his adversary Ahriman, who stands for all bad and unclean. As soon as the power of Ahriman is broken, Zarathustra announced, there will be a great judgment of the world and a new age of truth and righteous order will dawn. This dualistic worldview, which has been preserved in Parsism to this day, was also to shape many of the orientations of early Christianity that were heretically rejected by the Church Fathers.

The dualisms of the Gnostic view of the world also include the opposition of the feminine connotated, impure matter with the masculine connotated, pure spirit. Only when this is freed from its mingling with the material, humanity would also be redeemed from suffering and mortality. For example, in the second century AD, the Gnostic Marcion called the womb a "cesspool" and regarded the "disgusting" circumstances of conception, pregnancy and birth as evidence of the "inferiority of the creator of the world". He forbade his followers from eating meat and ordered them absolute sexual abstinence. They were also prohibited from entering into marriage. In order not to continue the corrupted creation, people should no longer reproduce. Other groups such as the Simonians or the Barbelo Gnostics, on the other hand, preached the opposite way. They indulged in orgies and other ostracized sexual practices in order to loosen the sperm, which is equated with the divine spirit, from its grip by matter and to feed it back to the heavenly original source. But they were also forbidden to reproduce.

The worldview of parts of the current climate movement shows a similar dualism. He differs from that of the Gnostics only in that he distributes the categories of good and bad differently. The climate movement is concerned with the continued existence of the material-organic substance of our planet. This continued existence is threatened today by humanity itself. The tangible and visible living matter is contrasted with the invisible toxic greenhouse gases, of which every human being produces a certain amount in the course of his existence. The enormous increase in the world population, which has doubled since 1970 alone and is still a long way from reaching its zenith, is therefore seen as one of the greatest threats to life. From this point of view, it is only logical that there is an increasingly large fraction within the climate movement that sees the refusal to produce its own offspring as a means, even a necessity, to limit climate damage.

Trading in indulgences as a model for compensating for a negative ecological balance

The consequences of global warming, which have become more and more noticeable in recent years, have increased the fear that the major catastrophes predicted by scientists could occur during one's own lifetime. If, according to the first prognoses of the Club of Rome in the early 1970s, the efforts of the individual states and the United Nations were still being relied on, today every citizen in the affluent states of the northern hemisphere is called upon to make his contribution to reducing greenhouse gases Afford. The personal CO2 footprint is used as the benchmark. Everyone can now calculate it for themselves according to certain parameters. The comparison with the register of sins of the Catholic Church is obvious here, in the modernized version of which "crimes against the environment" have also found their way since 2008. Even if the institution of confession and absolution is not available to the majority of people, they can still keep records of their transgressions. However, it is difficult for many to forego vacation air travel to distant countries or even to have their own car. But there are now some ways of offsetting a negative ecological balance. These include, for example, donations to organizations that are dedicated to major environmental projects, such as the reforestation of tropical rainforests.The success of companies such as myclimate or atmosfair, which have specialized in collecting and redistributing such compensation payments, shows how popular this option to compensate for a guilty conscience has become.

The great sale of indulgences that the Catholic Church operated throughout Europe at the beginning of the 16th century to finance the ambitious project of the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome can certainly be seen as a historical model for this. Those who were willing to pay the representatives of the clergy a certain amount of money could be forgiven for their minor sins immediately. The system of the payment of fines soon assumed such proportions that even the dead who were still burning in purgatory could be ransomed from their sins for money. As is well known, it was the excesses of the church's alms and indulgences trade that became one of the triggers of the Reformation movements of the 16th century.

Charismatic personalities at the forefront of movements - like Greta Thunberg

Max Weber already pointed out that charismatic personalities are necessary for the success of religious and political movements that aim at a radical upheaval of existing conditions. These consider themselves sent by God or otherwise chosen, while their followers believe that they are endowed with special powers and free from all selfish interests. Often revered as saviors or saviors, they embodied the "extraordinary" in every respect. Max Weber regarded the Old Testament prophets as prototypes of such "purely personal charismatic bearers". Weber also mentions shamans, magicians and modern politicians.

The climate movement has found such a charismatic figure in the young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Their "out of the ordinary" in the sense of Weber’s theory also consists in the fact that they do not correspond to any of the images that one would actually make of the leader of such a movement. However, the characteristics and airs of girls of her age are just as alien to her. Who would have ever seen her giggle? Instead, she shows a rigid, mostly angry expression when she announces the impending disaster with the seriousness of a biblical prophet. And she gives the impression that she is downright obsessed with her message. One almost thinks one is reminded of speaking in foreign tongues during their appearances, which is one of the hallmarks of ecstatic prophecy worldwide.

The child's innocence and the seriousness of the adult are united

This is not the only role that Greta Thunberg takes on, dictated by religious tradition. Some commentators have compared her to Joan of Arc, France's national heroine canonized exactly 100 years ago. In fact, they were both nearly the same age when they saw their calling and began to preach their message. Jeanne d‘Arc knew how to convince those around her that even tough warriors joined her. The innocence and purity of the seventeen-year-olds were taken as evidence of the truth of their visions. In addition, Jeanne d’Arc appeared confidently at the court of the Dauphins and announced in a letter to the English king that she would drive him out of France. Both are very reminiscent of the Swedish environmental activist's dealings with the mighty of the world, whom she invites over to let her read the riot act.

Greta Thunberg also shows self-confidence and prophetic persuasiveness when she appeals to the results and prognoses of scientific research on climate change in public. In doing so, she ascribes a power of interpretation to her interpretation that recalls the appearance of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. He spent three days there in dispute with the scribes, who listened attentively to him and wondered about his understanding and his answers, while his parents looked for him in vain in the city. The episode reproduced in the Gospel of Luke is itself in the much older tradition of "puer senex": the "old boy" who combines the innocence of the child with the seriousness of the adult and the wisdom of old age.

Convinced of yourself and the show

The unconditional "I" with which Greta Thunberg addresses her listeners also seems to be drawn from the corpus of tradition of the New Testament. The frequently quoted words with which she accused the leading politicians of the world at the New York UN climate summit in September 2019 have a similar style to the speeches of Jesus in the Gospels, which are introduced with an apodictic "I tell you" which is often followed by a "woe". But Greta Thunberg's message is different. There is no talk of the coming kingdom of God, but of the imminent apocalpysis, when she says with tears and a swollen frown:

"We are at the beginning of mass extinction and all you can talk about is the money and the fairy tale of perpetual economic growth. How dare you? If you choose to abandon us, say." me: We will never forgive you! "

To be convinced of yourself and your own mission is one of the hallmarks of charismatic personalities. Because only those who are convinced of themselves can also convince others. The fact that Greta Thunberg possesses this special gift in excess has been associated with her alleged or real autistic disease on various occasions. Here, too, references to the history of religion could be made, namely to the figure of the holy fool who is allowed to tell the rulers the truth with impunity in God's name. "We are fools for Christ's sake," says Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, taking up an ancient tradition that goes back to the pre-Socratics. Of course, he only wanted to express that Christians had to behave like fools in order to be heard by others with their warnings.

However, those who suspect that Greta Thunberg's message was a mental illness should not have thought of this. Others go further when they accuse their parents of a plot or even believe in a global conspiracy. But such insinuations and other hostility also count towards the appearance of the prophetic revival preacher and his devoted followers. Far from arousing doubts in them, they only weld his followers closer together. At the sociological level, the dualistic thinking comes into play here again, which strictly distinguishes between "us" and "them", our own we-group and all other groups. This in turn arouses increased resistance from the other side, which under certain circumstances can turn into violence. All the major religious and political movements that centered on millenarian expectations and gathered around a charismatic personality have therefore also produced their martyrs.

Differentiated thinking and acting is required

End-of-time expectations and apocalyptic fears about the future are widespread around the world today. They are not solely due to climate change. They are also a reaction to the great upheavals we are currently experiencing; the digital revolution with its economic and social consequences, the shift in the global balance of power, the crisis of western democracies and the streams of migrants from Africa, Asia and South America perceived as a threat by the citizens of the rich countries.

"I want you to panic" is the title of the German edition of Greta Thunberg's speeches on climate protection. But fear is known to be a bad advisor. And if it threatens to panic, one likes to fall back on the tried and tested means to cope with it. The simpler they are, the more attractive they appear. Religious traditions, both one's own and foreign, provide a large repertoire of such behavior and thought patterns. According to a formula of the Berlin religious philosopher Klaus Heinrich, religions have always used the dialectic of fear generation to cope with fear. It is doubtful, however, whether the evocation of the imminent apocalypses is the right means of developing rational strategies to remedy the causes of the current crises. Differentiated thinking and acting are required, but not arguing along the old dualisms that are experiencing a resurrection in the climate movement today.