Where to meet?

Clarion Congress & Hotel, Luna


Michael Bell, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Topic: Pagan and Bourgeois: The Religious Origins of Rural-Urban Inequality – and What We Might Do About It


Rural-urban inequality has ancient roots in religion – roots that extend up to the present day. It is by now widely noted that the liturgies of the contemporary “world religions” such Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism have little to say about ecological matters. Many are now trying to rectify that silence through a worldwide effort to “green” religion, with some notable successes, such as Pope Francis’s recent environmental encyclical, Laudato Sí. But there has little attention paid to another silence: the muteness of world religions on issues of sustenance and the rural. Jesus may describe himself as a shepherd, and his followers as his flock, but this is metaphor only. He does not address issues of erosion, crop pests, rainfall, and thankfulness for the farmer’s success in wresting another year’s production from a resistant ecology. Alongside his silence on matters ecological, he proposes no agricultural or food practices nor harvest festivals.

And why? Because the world religions are bourgeois faiths that respond to the questions of their mainly urban followers, and are typically dismissive of the pagan beliefs of rural peoples and their enduring questions about the loyalty of kin in the continuous struggle to secure sustenance. Indeed, a bourgeois tradition such as Christianity has long constructed those who don’t follow it through rural metaphors. Pagan comes from the Latin for someone from the countryside. Heathen means someone from heath land. Savage means someone from forested land. Rude comes from the root word for wild land. These words are seldom meant kindly – at least in a bourgeois religious context.

In other words, in bourgeois religious traditions there is a rural silence together with a rural accusation: the accusation of moral “backwardness,” long utilized to justify colonialism, reservations for indigenous peoples, low wages for supposedly “unskilled” rural work, and more. Religion is of course not the whole story behind the spatial injustice of rural-urban inequality. But a parallel project of ruralizing religion alongside greening it would help counter the ancient religious denigration of the rural and its continued implications for legitimating rural exploitation.

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