All posts by ericsaumur

I am a Dedicant of SolSeed ( https://solseed.org ) and Gaia's People (https://gaiaspeopleottawa.wordpress.com/") and a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Ottawa. For a member of three religions, it may seem odd, but I am a naturalist; I believe that any phenomenon that we eventually discover to exist but which is currently considered supernatural, will then be considered natural. I don`t believe in any phenomenon that mainstream science has not reached a positive consensus on the existence of. I am also a social naturist but that is another matter!

Into a New Cage

Adversity and the upward spiral in “Flight in a Cage”

My friend Ben is writing a novel.  He is seven chapters in (although he is considering shortening it) and it pains me that I can’t share them with anyone.  It is also painful to have to wait for an author to write each chapter as I want so much to follow the adventure.  The novel is about the adventure I yearn for.  The adventure of setting out with Life toward other suns.  The novel drives the adventure with the motivation that I find so inspiring.  Commonly, fiction drives interstellar adventure with a desperate search for a place to survive.  Instead here we find characters driven by the beauty of the fruit of such a journey; the spreading of Life to a trillion barren worlds.  

Yet the story is more complicated than that.  There are characters with all different motivations.  Those who seek survival in the face of persecution.  Those who care more about human history and myth than the Great Story of Life in the Universe.  Those who fear difference and diversity.  Those who worship technology.  Those who desire money and power.  Those who desire only safety and freedom from fear.  Through all of these differently motivated and conflicting characters and their interactions, the story pushes forth Life toward the stars.  I love the way that the story uses common enemies as a catalyst for alliance, repurposing adversity toward the emergence of allies.  Without enemies there is no motivation for alliance and no possibility for the greater accomplishment that alliance brings.buttress-1573795_960_720

It reminds me of trees, able to grow taller because of buttress roots that grow in reaction to the adversity of wind.  It reminds me of fire which destroys diversity and then opens small patches of forests to new growth, increasing overall diversity.  It reminds me of predators which push prey into developing defenses, maybe armour, which also becomes structure and allow for bigger, more powerful animals.  It reminds me of creatures falling from trees to their deaths, pushing the adaptation of gliding membranes, and then wings emerging and resulting in true flight.  polatouche-estonienThe cycle is adversity, adaptation, repurposing of adaptation to new abilities, creating new adversities for other species.  This cycle repeats and drives Life continuously out of one cage and into another. But each cage is different and each new cage provides the opportunity to escape into yet more cages in an upward spiral of ever growing possibilities.

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Utopia

Rosetta's_Philae_touchdownI recently heard that Philae recharged its batteries and reconnected with its creators here on Earth. It reminded me that I listened a few months ago to a radio call-in show about the Rosetta-Philae mission. Many people were upset that 1.6 billion dollars had been spent on such a mission when that money could have been used to solve problems here on Earth. I wondered, “Did these people really believe that all of the problems on Earth could be solved soon and that then we would be ready to begin our trip to the stars?” Did they believe that Utopia, here on Earth, was so close at hand?

Utopia is an intensely religious concept. That is to say, what makes an envisioned society into a utopia is that it matches your values and vision. I consider values and vision to be religious choices. If one says that in Utopia there will be no violence, then it is because one does not value violence. But, because values are choices or instinctive reactions, each person will envision a slightly different utopia. This contradicts the very nature of utopias which are societies where many people live together happily. The contradiction might be solved by imagining each person finding others who share their values and visions and gathering together to create their Utopia. This is why Utopia is a religious concept rather than a philosophical one. Philosophy is universal in nature. Philosophy can envision people with like values and visions gathering together to form utopias. But only religions are arbitrary enough to create a specific Utopia that matches the specific values and visions of any particular group of people.

But this leads to a meta-vision of multiple societies living in parallel, each utopic to the citizens who chose it but not to the citizens of its neighbouring societies. These various utopias, no matter how well they are designed internally, may come into conflict with each other over the very values that make them utopic for those who inhabit them. For instance, one utopia, let’s call it Libertariania, may value freedom over all else. Its citizens may use that freedom to pollute the air. Another utopia downwind of Libertariania, might value clean air above all else. Let’s call this second utopia, Puritania. Puritania would be forced to ask Libertariania to restrict Libertarians from polluting the air. If the Puritan government failed to do this, it would no longer be upholding the values of its citizens; it would no longer be a utopia for them. But if the Libertarian government agreed to the Puritan request, then they would no longer be upholding the value of freedom of its citizens; it would no longer be a utopia for them. If the two utopias went to war over the issue, neither would likely remain utopic for long. Freedom would be restricted in order to win the war and air would be polluted by the war.

So the very concept of utopia is an unattainable vision. This is one reason why many religions have placed utopias in the unverifiable world of life after death. As a naturalistic religion, SolSeed cannot place its utopia in such a supernatural place. Instead, we accept that a real utopia must, by its very nature, be at best an approximate fulfillment of our values and visions. Our values include empathy for others, life lived with passion, a wise mindful approach to problem solving, and an ever increasing diversity of Life. We don’t even pretend to have a solution to the internal conflicts between these values. Increased diversity of Life will create more conflict between Life forms; more predation, more parasitism, more competition and none of these relationships leave much room for empathy. Living your Life passionately does not always lead to mindful consideration of problems. We recognize these contradictions and seek no solutions to them. We have faith that solutions will be found that work locally for some period of time and then collapse to later reform into some new construct that again works only locally and only for a limited period of time.

600px-Ammonia_WorldIn essence we consider that we already live in such an approximate Utopia. The variety and grandeur of the Life that surrounds us is proof of this. It matters not that we are intermittently struck with grief and loss as our loved ones die and even as whole species go extinct. We experience these feelings of grief and loss as deeply as anyone. But we also know that they are expressions of the conflict between our values. Immortality would be immoral because it denies the evolution of diversity but empathy demands grief in the face of the loss of loved ones. Feelings of grief and loss are part of the diversity that we consider so valuable.

The part of our vision that seems to make us most unique is the part that calls for the expansion of Sol’s Seed (life on Earth) into space, to create an ever-growing family of living worlds. Sometimes, when we talk about this we are told by others, that rather than spending money on space, shouldn’t we solve the problems on Earth first. It is the same argument that many callers made on the call-in show about Rosetta-Philae. But problems are caused by conflict and as long as various people are working toward different utopias here on Earth, there will be conflict between them. Therefore, we will never solve all of the problems on Earth until the Sun expands into a red giant and burns away all Life on Earth. Only then will there be no conflict and no problems here on Earth.

Others say that until humanity achieves moral perfection it should not spread its dirty self to the stars. To this I say that the dream of moral perfection is an illusion. Morality is like utopia. It is an expression of choices of values. There is no such thing as moral perfection any more than there is such a thing as the perfect flavour of ice cream. If Life spreads to other worlds, and whether or not humanity goes with it, then yes, there will be wars on those other worlds. Yes, there will be atrocities committed in the name of king and country, religion and ideology. And there will be grief and aching feelings of loss. But there will be living creatures there to suffer through those feelings, to console one another and to rebuild and build anew. There will also be living creatures there to love and feel awe and perhaps feel new and wondrous emotions that have yet to evolve.

If we stay here on Earth, self-flagellating and mired in guilt over our “moral imperfection”, we deny all those living creatures the chance to love and feel awe and evolve those new and wondrous emotions which we cannot yet imagine. The Rosetta-Philae mission is just one of the first steps we need to take if we are to give those diverse creatures a chance at Life. If your utopia is one where there is nothing alive to feel grief, then I am sorry but I do not share your vision at all. My utopia is a universe filled with riotous Life passionately living out its conflicts and perhaps learning over trillions of years as stars come and go amongst the riot, to mindfully and wisely solve its problems as best can be. I hope that many more billions of dollars can be found to work toward that utopia.

Eddie’s Holonic Contribution

Let’s talk about holonic relationships. A holonic relationship is the relationship between a part and the whole. It is the way that Life is organized. Organs are made up of cells. In this holonic relationship, cells are the parts and organs are the whole. The relationships are nested; organs make up creatures, creatures make up communities, communities make up the biosphere. To be in right relationship, parts contribute to the whole and the whole nurtures its parts.

For instance, I rearrange electrons inside computers. This seems to be my contribution to society. To me, standing back, it doesn’t seem like much of a contribution. The other parts of society don’t seem to benefit much; they can’t eat the electrons, or drink them; electrons do not protect them from the cold or from storms. Yet, when I wanted to make my contribution to society, the building of things, society didn’t care for me as much. If I wanted to contribute beds and tables and chairs to society, society didn’t give me much for it. Society seemed to say, “Please just rearrange electrons in computers; that is what society really needs.” And so I started rearranging electrons inside computers and society gave me a home, and food, and clothing.

But a relative of mine, he didn’t listen to society; he decided to contribute to society by maintaining windows. The windows protect people from the cold and let light into their homes and so, to me, that seems like a big contribution. But society eventually said to this relative. Your contribution hasn’t been that much; you can have a healthy wife or you can have a home but you can’t have both. He chose to have a healthy wife, which was a pretty wise choice when you think about it. But then society started hinting that it was time to give up his home. But I said that I thought he should have a home. And society said, well your contribution to society, in rearranging elections inside computers, has been so huge that if you think this person should have a home, well that changes everything and here is a new home for him to live in. I don’t get it really.

The Home that Society Provided for Eddie; a frozen sidewalk

Anyway, in the first few minutes after the moment of Equinox yesterday, I came across a guy named Eddie. Society felt that Eddie’s contribution was so little that all that society felt Eddie should have was an ice-cold mud puddle to lie in and a bottle of poison to drink. I know this was the judgement of society and not just Eddie’s choice, because the footprints of many members of society gave him a wide berth and trampled around him where he lay in the freezing mud. Now I don’t know what Eddie’s contribution to society was, but I doubted it was so low as to deserve only what society was giving him. So I helped him up out of the mud. But the poison he had drunk was interfering with his muscle control and he couldn’t stand on his own. So I held him and I used my skills in rearranging electrons in a computer on a little portable computer I was carrying. It did something useful and it connected me to a woman who asked me if I wanted a Police Car, an Ambulance or a Fire Truck. I told her that I wanted an Ambulance for Eddie. She asked me about Eddie … and sent two police cars.

Two strong, young, healthy police officers got out of those cars. I asked one of them if they were going to take good care of Eddie and she said yes. And so I left Eddie in their care. And I hope they took good care of him because I have no faith that Eddie’s contribution to society was less than mine.

Multifaith Housing Initiative Logo

Now, I think back to one of my last acts of the winter of 2015, just a few hours before I met Eddie. I was negotiating the cost of creating a database for the Multifaith Housing Initiative to use to keep track of its donations and donors and fundraising and volunteers and committees and employee’s leave. I told them I would build it and transfer their data over to it from the various spreadsheets they were using. And I gave them a price that was way too low. I am glad I did, because it is really just more rearranging of electrons inside a computer. And their mission is to help people like Eddie. If they aren’t spending too much money on moving electrons around then they will have more money to protect Eddie from the cold. It is the least I can do.

Why I’m Religious but not Spiritual

I was raised an atheist. My parents were careful to explain the importance of respecting other people’s religious beliefs but they didn’t see the point in us knowing anything about religious practice. Certainly we never celebrated or ritualized our beliefs.

But the idea of religious practice fascinated me. I had beliefs that were important to me: evolution, environmentalism, love, respect for all individuals in their glorious diversity. I wanted to share those beliefs, I wanted to celebrate them with a community.

Over the years I have met many people who described themselves as spiritual but not religious. When I describe this desire to them, they get excited and say that I should do like they do. But generally what they mean by “not religious” is that they prefer to practice alone. And usually what they mean by spiritual is that they have invented their own supernatural entities to worship or commune with.

This is usually why they practice alone ; they want to claim their right to imagine the supernatural in their own way. That is exactly the opposite of what I have always wanted. To me a community of practice is central to my desire. But it is the supernatural that I don’t need.

I wanted a community of practice which would help me stay focused on living my values. I wanted a community of practice with which I could collaborate on projects which were meaningful to me. I wanted a community which would celebrate Life because we have so much to be thankful for. I didn’t want a community which would extole suffering in the natural world. I find dreaming about a better supernatural world to be an ugly ungrateful attitude.

The community that I longed for is exactly what I eventually found in the SolSeed Movement. When I found them shortly after Imbolc 2012, they had already developed a rich practice completely grounded in the natural. The practice was participatory, what Unitarians might call lay-led, and so before long I found myself leading services. I felt welcomed to suggest new practices. Together we continue to create a rich calendar of practices.

Our practices are designed to help us viscerally connect with the values we have chosen together. We needed a clear statement of our values so we wrote a creed. We settled on a call and response form which creates a feeling of social transaction, something our species responds to with loyalty. It begins with our most fundamental tenet, “Life is precious.” Often I have whispered that to myself when I have felt angry at some money grubbing power ; it reminds me to value the Life in them and to offer them a new path rather than oppose them with hatred.

We believe that “Life is precious” is a principle that can be applied at every scale. At the personal scale, it calls us to live a healthy, joyous Life. So as I write this I am also riding my stationary bike, training for the Yay Life Tri, a triathlon we run together to celebrate the Summer Solstice. Taking advantage of economy of scope we gave the Yay Life Tri a second purpose, to remind us of the preciousness of Life at the other end of the scale ; we arranged the events in an order reminiscent of evolutionary history. Swimming then running then bicycling reminds us of Life originating in the sea, emerging onto land and then inventing technology. We, humanity, are part of the body of all Life and so Life invented technology through us.

We needed to build a tightly bound community so we meet every Sabbath for a service. We involve all ages together from our youngest 2 year old member to our oldest, approaching 50. We have an opening ritual that varies through the seasons as we follow our Cosmic Calendar. Some of the actions that go with the words are designed to be meaningful to the youngest among us. But as the oldest member, I enjoy flapping my arms to celebrate the birth of flight. It feels like being a kid again and I can use the excuse that I’m only doing it for the kids.

We wanted our modern naturalistic traditions to taste of ancient tradition so we incorporated the best of other traditions into our practices. Our service is celebrated on the Jewish Sabbath. We encourage each other to practice daily meditation as in the Buddhist tradition. Our holy days fall on the same dates as the pagan holy days reminding us both of ancient tradition and modern astronomy as we travel through space on the Earthship. We use religious terminology with guilty pleasure to describe our naturalistic liturgy.

We didn’t want a religion that only looked to the past. We wanted a religion that dreamed and strived for a better future. We looked for the biggest difference we could make in the universe. We saw a universe where living worlds were rare and special amidst myriad barren worlds of ice and rock. We have created a vision together of bringing Life to those worlds. We don’t have the deep pockets or know-how of NASA yet but we are searching for little ways in which we can contribute to the larger space movement. Our practice includes that search.

A decade ago, the facilitator of a time management course encouraged me to look deep inside myself for my core-values. When I did, I found that I had a set of values distinct from those of my colleagues and friends. I found that with thought and time, I was able to create a logical whole out of the diverse values inside me. Then by stepping forward and talking about those values to strangers, I was able to find my way to a community that shared my values.

So I encourage everyone to look deeply inside yourselves and discover what it is that you value. Then do the work to find others who share those values and join with them to form a community of religious practice. As a naturalist, seek to be religious not spiritual!

Author

Eric

 

Eric Saumur is a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement with a deep love for Life but especially for trees. He writes science fiction (mostly about forests) which he posts on the SolSeed wiki. He spends as much time as possible admiring wilderness and dreaming about the stars. He also helps coordinate a community garden and enjoys dreaming up rituals to celebrate the SolSeed liturgical calendar.