This week, Bart Everson explores the definition of religion and shares his own spiritual path, including engaging—and I might add helping to shape—the Gaian community, a “spiritual community of practice,” of those who recognize Gaia as a living being, of which we are both part of and utterly dependent on. This is a particularly timely reflection, as this Tuesday at 7pm Eastern, for our February Gaian Conversation, we’ll be discussing how to grow the Gaian Community. All are welcome!
Go with Gaia,
The philosopher Alain de Botton once noted that, “religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition.” But what is a religion anyhow? We all seem to have different ideas. I was raised in a doctrinally and politically conservative denomination of Christianity. This basic worldview informed the earliest formative years of my life, and that’s what I understood religion to be.
I was fascinated by the idea that other religions would necessitate other worldviews, that the world might look very different if I’d been raised in a different tradition, and this simple truism proved the undoing of my childhood faith. After that, I considered myself to be an atheist; I had no religion, because of course atheists aren’t religious. Right?
I persisted in this conception despite a powerful spiritual ecstasy at age 22, in which I recognized my “union with the godhead,” to use a phrase that abounds in mystical literature. It’s funny when that happens to an atheist!1 At the time, I didn’t have much of a community to help interpret that experience. If I’d had a religion, that might have provided a framework for me to make sense of it, but then again possibly a religion would have quashed the whole thing. Most religious traditions have a tense relationship with their mystical wings.
So it went for a good quarter of a century, during which I understood myself as an atheist, a skeptic, a person without religion. Framed in the negative, I rejected supernatural conceptions. Framed in the positive, I called myself a humanist. It would also have been accurate to say that I embraced a naturalistic worldview, but that wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time.
In my 40s I had a second awakening of sorts, a resonance and revival of my experience at age 22, triggered by some events that disrupted my life: the flooding of New Orleans (bad) and the birth of my daughter (good). It felt like an opening to possibilities, an expansion of the self. In the simplest possible terms, I realized that I was a part of something bigger than myself. Yet this was much gentler, more like a slow-motion unfolding rather than a soul-shaking explosion. I didn’t know the term at the time, but it seems like a “plateau experience.”2 Eventually this state of grace started losing its momentum and I realized that if I wanted to continue my journey, I would have to do so intentionally.
By this time I was vaguely aware that spiritual and/or religious atheisms did exist. Buddhism, particularly as it tends to be practiced by Westerners, is often cited as an example. I explored and learned more and eventually expanded my understanding of these words.
Careful with that vocabulary, it might be loaded!
I love words, but the most profound truths seem to lie beyond words. So I try to be careful. I’ve already used one of the most confounding words repeatedly in this account: the r-word, religion. It’s a common word that we all know and recognize, yet in my view it is also one of the most misunderstood and misused words in the English language. Ask any Westerner if there is more than one religion in the world, and they’ll undoubtedly assert that there are multiple religions. Yet listen to how Westerners actually deploy the r-word, and you’ll discover a different story. Again and again, in regular everyday usage, people say “religion” when they are actually talking about Christianity. Sometimes “religion” is used a bit more broadly, to encompass not only Christianity but also Christianity’s close relatives, Islam and Judaism, known collectively as the Abrahamic faiths.
Yes, yes, sometimes the r-word is used very broadly, to include all the religions of the world, including Buddhism and Hinduism and the vast profusion of Indigenous perspectives. Investigate closely, and you’ll find most Westerners don’t actually know much about those religions. Here’s the kicker: if they study any of them closely, they are liable to exclaim, “That’s not a religion!” In other words, the less a religion resembles Christianity, the less it seems to be a religion at all. That’s because Christianity is so entrenched in Western culture that it has become normative, even for non-Christians.
Not convinced? Look it up in any dictionary. Merriam-Webster will do.
- the belief in a god or in a group of gods
- an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
See what I mean? Belief is at the forefront. Gods are at the forefront. Those are very Christo-Abrahamic predilections. Christianity is notable for its emphasis on belief over practice. Many other traditions emphasize practice over belief. As for the centrality of gods, that’s a defining characteristic of theistic belief, not of religious practice. In other words, religion is not about gods.3
Rooting out meanings
So what is religion about then? It’s tempting to look at the etymology. Lots of folks, going back even to some ancient Romans, seem to think the Latin root religionem comes from religare, meaning “to bind.” This would indicate a common root with other words about binding and connection: ligation, ligature, ligament, oblige, rely.4
Whatever the actual origins of the r-word, it’s easy to understand why this etymology is so appealing. It speaks to our intuition, and suggests an alternative to the tyranny of the dictionaries.
It’s my understanding that religion is a collective response to the deepest questions of our existence. Spirituality is individual; religion is collective, and today, more than ever, collective responses are essential, given the human-precipitated crises Gaia faces. Religions are spiritual communities. That suggests some degree of shared beliefs, a shared worldview, and that is important in a broad sense. In terms of group cohesion, however, practice is more important than complete agreement on every philosophical point. Religions are spiritual communities of practice.
Let me be clear. I still hold to a naturalistic worldview.5 Thus, I’m still an atheist by most Christian definitions, since most Christian doctrine sticks with the whole supernatural deity thing, the concept of a god outside or “above” nature somehow. That doesn’t make sense to me.
What does make sense? I find the natural world, and the Earth in particular, inspiring of a deep and profound reverence. Personification and metaphor seem like entirely justifiable means of expressing this love. James Lovelock tapped into this when he took William Golding’s advice and named his hypothesis after a primordial Greek deity: Gaia, Mother of All. The science is fascinating and reveals much, yet the mystery and wonder remain. Further, the myths of antiquity remind us that reverence for Mother Earth is nothing new.
Today I can say I worship a living goddess and see no contradictions there. Or to slice it another way, I embrace all the contradictions. I hold to a naturalistic conception of deity and the divine. It works. It’s not even complicated. In fact, it may be the simplest of spiritual stances. Simple? Yes, but that doesn’t mean superficial. And it does sometimes require explaining, because so many of us have such funny ideas around these words.
This is not merely my own personal idiosyncratic spirituality. Plenty of other people see life the same way. That’s why I was so excited to discover the Gaianism.org website in early 2020. I’d been looking for a community of like-minded people for over a decade.
Connecting to a community has consequential benefits.6 Most immediately, it makes me feel a little less alone, and a little less crazy, in a society that seems to value Gaia only as a resource to be plundered. That’s why I’ve become an enthusiastic proponent of the Gaian Way. Perhaps if I’d had the support of a Gaian community at age 22, my life would have taken a very different course.
What is the proper label for a community of people who share a way of looking at life, a way of understanding who we are, a worldview that encompasses so much? The word “religion” seems like the most appropriate descriptor.
Maybe you don’t agree. Maybe the r-word triggers associations that just don’t seem right to you. That’s OK by me. I’ve explained how my understanding of definitions has evolved and shifted over time. When I thought spirituality and religion meant “supernatural worldview,” I felt I was not a spiritual or religious person, by definition. When my definitions shifted, I realized I was a spiritual person all along. When I found the Gaian community, I realized I was a religious person after all.
If I still haven’t managed to convince you on the point of nomenclature, please don’t let that stop you. If you don’t want to call the Gaian Way a religion, call it something else. Call it a “philosophical path” if you like. Seems a little cumbersome to me, but I cast no aspersions! The community is the important thing. Labels come after.
I hasten to add that the Gaian Way is a fledgling community. In many ways we have only begun to begin. At this stage of development, we barely exist. We are coming into being. It’s still more of an idea than a reality, tenuous and tentative, and one might expect birth pangs and many challenges, if we are lucky enough to survive at all.
—Bart Everson helped found the Green Party of Louisiana as well as Friends of Lafitte Greenway, the Earth-Based Spirituality Action Team of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the Earth-Centered Special Interest Group of POD Network, the Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition, and the Crescent City Gaian Guild. He is the author of Spinning in Place: A Secular Humanist Embraces the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. He also recently ran for New Orleans City Council At-Large. You can learn more at BartEverson.com.
1. Such “episodes of unitive consciousness” (Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof, Spiritual Emergency, 1989) are beyond words, and glib summations quickly degenerate into cliches, so I won’t go into detail here about how I became one with the universe or anything like that. Let me just say that after 33 years it remains as a singular moment that has shaped much of my life since. I’d have to write a novel to delve more deeply, and who knows, maybe I will.
2. “This is serene and calm rather than a poignantly emotional, climactic, autonomic response to the miraculous, the awesome, the sacralized, the Unitive, the B-values. So far as I can now tell, the high plateau-experience always has a noetic and cognitive element, which is not always true for peak experiences, which can be purely and exclusively emotional. It is far more voluntary than peak experiences are. One can learn to see in this Unitive way almost at will. It then becomes a witnessing, an appreciating, what one might call a serene, cognitive blissfulness which can, however, have a quality of casualness and of lounging about (Abraham H. Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, 1964).”
3. Hey, that would be a good title for a book, and indeed Loyal Rue has written such a tome.
4. There’s also the less-familiar “colligative” which none other than James Lovelock cites as “useful” in The Ages of Gaia. Lovelock wants to borrow this word from physics and use it for biology:
All collections of living things show properties unexpected from a knowledge of a single one of them. We, and some other animals, keep a constant temperature whatever the temperature of our surroundings. This fact could not easily have been deduced from the observations of a single cell from a human being. […] Homeostasis is a colligative property of life.
(A tip of the hat to Bruce Clarke for expanding my vocabulary with this reference. Have you read his book, Gaian Systems? Highly recommended. See also “The Colligative Chorale” from the Gaian Variations by Nathan Currier.)
In the same way, I would suggest that religion is a colligative property of humans. This is celebrated in the famous Christian hymn from 1782, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” in which John Fawcett relishes “the fellowship of kindred minds” and the value of community. Something new and unexpected emerges when we come together.
5. Hey, there’s another handy word. In philosophy, naturalism is the perspective that nature is enough to explain everything we experience and encounter. Wayne Martin Mellinger has a good definition: “Naturalists embrace a rational and scientific worldview and seek empirical evidence to support their beliefs and support continual testing of these ideas.” I find that to be an inspiring ideal.
6. There are also risks that should not be overlooked. Religious communities have long been prone to abuse, generally related to issues of social control, with examples too numerous to bear mentioning here.