Lesssons from Serpentor

5217362-serpentora[1]When I was a kid, I watched way too many cartoons: from after school to dinnertime and Saturday mornings too. But my absolute favorite was G.I. Joe. This cartoon, which was literally created to sell G.I. Joe action figures, had the good guys defeating the evil Cobra paramilitary organization every weekday—mainly because it was led by the semi-competent Cobra Commander. So in the second season, Cobra harvested the genetic material of the world’s most brutal military leaders, taking “the military genius of Napoleon, the ruthlessness of Julius Caesar, the daring of Hannibal, and the cunning of Attila the Hun” and combined them into one superleader, Serpentor. It was a clever idea for the 1980s and may offer a lesson to Gaians as well.

As Gaianism is a new philosophy, it is neither bound by tradition nor old prejudices—e.g. outdated beliefs around sex, gender, race, homosexuality, abortion, and science. These are flaws many ancient religions suffer from and cannot shed; they do not know how to reconcile ancient words with modern reality. But while Gaianism can avoid those ills and instead embrace equality and a scientific understanding of the world, it doesn’t mean we cannot recognize that certain religions have gotten some things really right, and adopt those traits as well. Not in a Unitarian-Universalist way—that is to say, draw attention to them as good but not internalize them—but truly adopt them.

So let’s get out our CRISPR* and get to work:

*That’s our: Clipper of Religion Inspired Systems Producing eco-Renaissance (not to be confused with the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats that Cobra probably used to make Serpentor and mad scientists are using today to genetically modify all sorts of life).

Naturally, let’s start with:

Indigenous religions

Nature is sacred. Embedded within many Indigenous belief systems is a deep and direct awareness that the adherents’ very lives depend on the land, the water, the air, the plants and animals that live there, and the broader Earth/nature. This is essential to embed in Gaianism at the very core—through verbal/written teaching as well as through experiential and social learning (practice of Indigenous skills, creation of an Earth Scouts youth program, even rites of passage where adolescents live off the land for a few days before becoming adults). This trait was mostly lost (or at least deeply subjugated) in missionary religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, but needs to be reintegrated.

Taoism

After that foundational piece, let’s take a snippet from Taoism. Literally translating to “The Way” this ancient religion also puts nature at the center, with the religion encouraging its adherents to be in harmony with the way of the universe. That’s a positive way to order things: follow the natural harmonies and rhythms (and the scientific realities and limits) of Gaia and the universe and action will be effortless (the Taoist concept of wu wei). Fight nature and it will not be—which we see as we fight pests in monocropped agriculture, as we try to hold back the seas from inundating coastal cities after having warmed the Earth with fossil fuel use and factory farming, and so on. No harmony with Gaia, no peace.

Islam

Islam, in its very definition, means submission or surrender to God. That is a beautiful framing for a religion and embeds deeply in us the recognition that we humans are not at the center. Good for Gaianism too, but with one specific recombination—our submission must be to Gaia. We must recognize that we follow Gaia’s way or we die. (And even if we follow Her way, we still die, but our children, our species, and the multitude of life get to continue.) In other words, peace, and the best life possible for all, comes when we submit to Gaia and Her (non-negotiable) laws, not ignore or attempt to rewrite or transcend them. And if we break those laws, Gaia will make us feel Her wrath.

I particularly like the fact that prayer (Ṣalāt) is so embedded into Islam. Stepping out of one’s routine five times a day to pray is difficult. But it reminds you of your submission and that your daily work and consume cycle is not what shapes you. Perhaps, the Gaian equivalent is to simply sit still in nature (even just a backyard or park) three times a day (morning, afternoon, evening) to commune with Gaia—whether through mind-clearing meditation or prayer—though that needs additional thinking through.

Buddhism

lotus-4312140_1280Non-attachment. That, perhaps, is Buddhism’s greatest offering. The idea that we should not get attached to life—in the good or the bad times—for it is that attachment, not what happens to you that brings suffering. This concept is difficult to fully comprehend—emotionally more than cerebrally—but I know this is an essential teaching, especially in the decades to come. Things are changing fast and we’re going to have to accept nothing is permanent—from our own lives, to entire cities, to our very way of life.

Buddhist meditation practices, too, are powerful and need to be spliced in—though again mutated. Meditation in nature/connecting to Gaia is essential. Perhaps selective breeding between this practice and Ṣalāt could result in an interesting new practice.

Christianity

Christian charity is legendary. Those who truly devote themselves to Jesus and serve others in His name have accomplished beautiful and remarkable feats. And while many Christians are more Christian in name than anything else (or frankly not at all), there are those that truly live Christian lives—making huge sacrifices to heal, care for, and love people—whether the poor, the sick, lepers, their communities, or whoever they are called to serve. That selflessness is truly the best code of Christianity and should be replicated.

Quakers

Quakers evolved that Christian charity and focused it on addressing systemic injustices. Quakers were a leading force in the abolition, civil rights, and international peace movements—all while their total adherents remained in just the low hundreds of thousands. I am not sure what has enabled their influence to so far transcend their numbers. Perhaps commitment, perhaps their ability to work with other faith traditions in alignment recognizing their shared goals (rather than seeing others as competitors). These are both certainly traits Gaians should cultivate as well. As well as their simplicity of services—nothing ornate in a Friend’s meeting house. Gaians can bring this simplicity to the next level by meeting primarily in the outdoors.

Mormonism

Mormons, too, need to be studied. They ask a lot from their adherents—going on two-year missions, a 10 percent tithe, daily ‘Sunday school’ for Mormon children. You could argue that this would depress their numbers. But instead Mormonism has long been one of the fastest growing religions in the world. Sociologist Rodney Stark actually suggests that traits like these strengthen religions as they weed out ‘free-riders’ (as long as the barriers are high but not too high).

Plus, mobilizing the faithful to knock on doors around the world to spread one’s philosophy works to educate and draw people in—obviously irrespective of how alien the belief system. As does providing social services in struggling areas where there are few other services. And providing mutual aid to one’s own community builds social capital and commitment to the faith. As I’ve written before, Gaianism must be missionary or it will not succeed. But it also needs to support its own community, and therefore figure out how to manage the free-rider problem.

The other element of Mormonism that I’ve mentioned before is the fact that they’ve built preparedness into their philosophy. That is wise and needs to be integrated into the Gaian way as well.

Satanism?!?

after school satanI recently watched a documentary on the Satanic Temple (which interestingly is an atheistic religious system that celebrates Satan as the ultimate rebel to tyranny). But it was clear in the film that adherents of the Satanic Temple truly own their belief system and are working hard to curb the influence of public religion. Like Humanists, a large focus of their activity is the defense of a secular society. Not the sequence I want to snip, but Satanists’ passion, creativity, and confidence is worth analyzing. As the documentary revealed, they added After School Satan Clubs in schools, set up an adopt-a-highway efforts, did beach cleanups, and quite boldly fought for religious equality at the state level (trying to force the government to put up a Satanic statue to complement the statue of the Ten Commandments). Quite innovative in their outreach and quite public. The adherents were not shy with their beliefs—a trait, perhaps, Gaians will have too—and surely with fewer ill effects than for the Satanists portrayed in the film, who, not surprisingly, were subjected to aggressive behavior from ‘Christians’ (instead of love, ironically).

***

Of course, there were many leaders Cobra couldn’t add to the code. Should I have added Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, and Shintoism, and many other religions to the discussion? Yes, but there’s only so much a metaphor can draw on before it gets boring to read.

Ultimately, we should borrow as much as we want and as makes sense—and nothing that doesn’t. But then make it our own. The goal, after all, is not to create a religious Frankenstein’s monster but to create a new species of religion—one that truly reveres the Earth while helping people and preparing our community and surrounding communities for the transition that’s coming. Far from what Cobra had in mind when designing Serpentor, but certainly far far better.

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7 Responses

  1. Tom Read

    Maybe Judaism could contribute traits such as the ability to endure persecution, love of learning, and matri-lineal succession?

    Lots of good stuff to think about in your essay, Erik. At this stage of design, anything goes, but eventually I would like to see a streamlined, blended model where the antecedents aren’t obvious. Of course, that will take a lot of work.

    Thank you for getting the thinking started!

    –Tom

    • Erik Assadourian

      Yes, definitely Tom. The next reflection will attempt that with one small element, building a piece of the Gaian practice. I hope you’ll try it out!
      As for Judaism, those are traits to explore–as is community cohesion, which is also deeply valuable (does that stem from shared rituals, history, and persecution, or is it cultivated in other ways)?

  2. Megan

    Wicca should have been added to the list! Wicca has become one of the fastest growing religions of our time. As a practising Wiccan, I should add that Gaia is recognized as one of the most important of goddesses. Wicca considers the Earth as Sacred, and we embody so many of the best traits you speak of drawn from the best of the worlds religions. The Wiccan Rede, that most Wiccans live by is, ‘An it harm none, do as thou wilt’. No harm to others, to self, to the Earth and all that inhabit it. It is a high bar to set, but we see ourselves as a vital part of the world in which we find ourselves.

  3. Erik Assadourian

    Adding this element of Sikhism to the list:
    “An essential part of Sikhism is langar, the practice of preparing and serving a free meal to promote the Sikh tenet of seva, or selfless service,” as this New York Times articles describes: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/dining/free-food-sikh-gundwara-langar.html

    Selfless service is absolutely a key element of the Gaian Way. Only by giving back to each other, and to Gaia do we have a chance to make it through the disruptions ahead.

  4. Erik Assadourian

    One other comment. I was asked a while back about what from Hinduism should be added. It took me a while to formulate, but here’s the answer:

    As for Hinduism, there are three elements I would have included, if I had not felt like that essay would have started to look like a checklist of all religions.

    First and foremost is Atman: the idea that we are all part of one great soul or being (Brahman). The Buddhists scrapped that and said there is no Atman, but I think that could be seen as another name for Gaia. We are all part of the same planetary being. We come into consciousness briefly and then return to the great soul and are ‘reborn'(ish) to some other new form of life. Though without memory or consciousness. Perhaps this actually marries Hindu and Buddhist thought to some degree.

    Second: karma. Of course. But planetary karma. When the Earth falls apart, I am afraid we’re going to blame the planet and try to subdue it even further (geoengineering, bioengineering, etc. all made ‘ok’ because we’re in crisis mode). But if we understand that this suffering comes not from an angry planet but from the choices we made (or even the sins we committed) the fault remains on us and perhaps humility will come rather than a heightened sense of mastery.

    And third: the yugas. I’ve always loved the cyclical nature of time in Hinduism. The western idea that progress is ever part of the movement toward the future is nonsense. I like that there are four yugas, a golden age then a slight decline, a further decline in virtue (probably where we are right now) and then the Kali yuga–the age of darkness. Reading the wiki description, one could probably argue we’re already there. But as this system falls that’ll probably usher in a a true age of darkness (especially as there are millions of guns, not to mention nuclear weapons, floating out there). Perhaps after the kali yuga there will be another golden age (with or without humans, with or without sentient life), in which the Earth thrives again (even if that’s millions of years from now). That is certainly my hope.

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