Doren Damico

If you have stumbled here before reading part 1 of this series, you may want to check out: Futurist Octavia Butler: How the Parable Stories Point to Our Own Time, Part 1 . 

Part 1 of this series explores the books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, citing several excerpts and how they relate to many of the challenges in our time. In this post, I explore the religion of Earthseed that is featured in the Parables, touch on the Teresem project to express Earthseed through cyber consciousness, and look to the Parables for wisdom and insight in creating communities worthy of Butler’s vision.

Seed: Religion as a Playful, Creative, Problem-Solving Act

Author of Religion in Human Evolution, Robert N. Bellah, suggests that religion may emerge out of the mammalian “play” instinct. A few years ago I was taking a walk with my son and we discussed starting our own religion. We talked about the tenets of our religion, who would be our prophets, and various rituals we might include. Both of us have exceedingly personal belief systems, and overall it was a thought experiment–exploring how those beliefs might be codified and shared. Perhaps religion is just a form of “pretend play.”

As a writer, I often dream of using my fiction to balance what I see as the wrongs in life: the powerlessness I’ve sometimes felt as a woman, can be transmuted into strong female protagonists; the injustices of the world can be righted by my heroines; the futurist visions I hold and how we may respond to the tumultuous future ahead of us, can find satisfying expression, perhaps inspire others.

I think that Octavia Butler was doing exactly this when she wrote her Parable books. As an African American woman, she knew well the injustices in the world and used her fiction to raise awareness about the complexities and difficulties of being human. Raised in the Baptist Church, Butler decided at the age of 12 that she did not believe in an afterlife or a celestial caretaker. She wanted evidence! While Butler didn’t write ghost stories, and personally eschewed religion, she studied history, leading to great insight about the role that religion plays in communities. Butler has remarked on this in several interviews, noting how religions throughout history have helped civilizations accomplish many things, and that the Black Church has been an important center for African American communities.  Butler believed that religion is a tool that can help communities survive, or as she called it: species insurance. We can look to the Parables and the religion of Earthseed–created by the books’ protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina–for wisdom and insight to create our own hopeful communities in these difficult times.

Root: Concepts of Change, Purpose, and Religion

Butler introduces us to the religion of Earthseed early on in the book, Parable of the Sower. The protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, develops her religion as a young girl. Unlike my thought experiment game to create a religion, Olamina seeks to codify truth, her seeking must be expressed and shared, must fulfill its destiny.

Here is the introduction into the religious concepts of Earthseed:

I need to write about what I believe. I need to begin to put together the scattered verses that I’ve been writing about God since I was twelve.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I believe.

God is Power—
Infinite,
Irresistible,
Inexorable,
Indifferent.
And yet, God is Pliable—
Trickster,
Teacher,
Chaos,
Clay.
God exists to be shaped.
God is Change.

The Journals of Lauren Oya OlaminaParable of the Sower

This concept of God as Change is not too radical. First, how people have perceived God over the millennia has changed. This change can be found within specific cultures and religions over time. It can also be found in the variety of religious beliefs that people hold, from monotheistic (Christian and Muslim) and polytheistic (Pagan) religions, to other religions such as those with a belief that all is God (Pantheism), and those that do not believe in God (Buddhism). Through the teachings of these varied religions many ideas of God have materialized. Additionally, how we as individuals view God privately, can be both personal and varied. Personal concepts of God are ever-changing, just as we change and the world we live in changes.

Second, it is quite logical that our own thought processes and perceptions have evolved over time–an evolution (or change) of consciousness. This concept is described in great depth in the writings of philosopher and philologist, Owen Barfield, who noted that when we investigate actual languages, we find them becoming more and more figurative the further back we look. The participation of primitive people (what Barfield called “original” participation) was not theoretical at all. He said, “It was not man who made the myths but the myths, or the archetypal substance they reveal, which made man.” Conversely, our language and meanings today put the idea of participation almost out of reach. Most notably, with the scientific revolution, we see a different kind of consciousness arising. We seek to be “objective,” “scientific,” and to think about things as mere onlookers.

(To learn more about Barfield’s thoughts on this topic, you can read Owen Barfield: The Evolution of Consciousness, an excerpt from Stephen L. Talbott’s book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. If you have an interest in language or any of the above concepts, you should definitely pick up some of Barfield’s books: Speaker’s Meaning, Poetic Diction, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Go here to buy them, or look for them at your local library.)

Third, the concept of change as the only constant has been in place for a long time and in a variety of perspectives. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (500 BCE) believed that the human condition is chiefly characterized by strife, by the coming together and pulling away of opposing forces. The Chinese philosopher, Lau Tzu (4th century BCE), said: “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them- that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let the things flow forward in a natural way.” From a (modern) scientific viewpoint, we can determine that change is a constant. Science is mainly concerned with understanding physical change, whether it be motions, growth, cause and effect, the creation of the universe or the evolution of species. Scientific views of change have influenced philosophical views of change. 

I once heard a preacher say that God is immutable, His oath and His word are unchangeable promises. As a Gnostic Christian myself–with quite esoteric beliefs about evolution and the coming rise of ASI–I find it quite arrogant of any preacher to claim such knowledge of God. The evidence is in: things change, grow, evolve. Why not God? I find Butler’s religion of Earthseed an intriguing consideration, that claims religious knowledge may be supported by evidence.

This is the central verse of Earthseed. 

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Sower

Butler gives her own suggestions of the roots and evolution of Earthseed through dialogue in the books. Various characters accuse Olamina of just making it all up, to which she replies:

All the truths of Earthseed existed somewhere before I found them and put them together. They were in the patterns of history, in science, philosophy, religion, or literature. I didn’t make any of them up.”

Parable of the Talents, p117

I can’t help thinking that the religion of Earthseed is in many ways, representative of Butler’s own seeking for truth. The Parables can be categorized as speculative fiction, and they also have some science fiction components (see more on the super category of science fiction) to include interesting virtual tech and the ultimate destiny of Earthseed: To take humans to the stars.

Earthseed is all that spreads
Earthlife to new earths.
The universe is Godseed.
Only we are Earthseed.
And the Destiny of Earthseed
is to take root among
the stars.

Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Sower

In the book, Parable of the Talents, after a long life of teaching about Earthseed and funneling money toward areas of study that will facilitate sending people into space, fulfillment of Olamina’s dream begins to be realized.

I have not given them heaven, but I’ve helped them to give themselves the heavens. I can’t give them individual immortality, but I’ve helped them to give our species its only chance at immortality. I’ve helped them to the next stage of growth.

The Journals of Lauren Oya Olamina, Parable of the Talents, p362

Sprout: The Religion of Earthseed is REAL

Many other people have been equally or more obsessively intrigued by the religion of Earthseed. There is an actual Earthseed Movement, whose website: GodisChange.org seems to be a literal and direct extension of the religion created in the Parables. On their disclaimer page they say: [This] is one expression of Earthseed, one which strives to realize the vision of Earthseed as a religion, a religion which inspires people to shape God in the direction of a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” You can join the group and help build a real Earthseed Community. So if you feel inclined, check it out!

Two additional outflows of Butler’s Earthseed include: the Terasem Movement, and the SolSeed Movement. I’d like to note that one seeks to mechanize consciousness, and one seeks to preserve and perpetuate organic life. It is my sincere opinion that this dichotomy can be found in many human expressions at our time. Indeed, I believe it is the beginning of a species split, those that will move toward integration with machines, and those that will seek preservation of biological human purity. Let us pause for a moment to note this fact: Both find root in the fictional religion of Earthseed. God is Change.

The Terasem Movement, Inc. has a mission “to educate the public on the practicality and necessity of greatly extending human life, consistent with diversity and unity, via geoethical nanotechnology and personal cyberconsciousness, concentrating in particular on facilitating revivals from biostasis.” They are literally engaged in experiments to prove the Terasem Hypothesis, which states: 1) A conscious analog of a person may be created by combining sufficiently detailed data about the person (a mindfile) using future consciousness software (mindware).

The SolSeed Movement calls itself a wisdom tradition, with a tendency more in the direction of treasuring organic life. They believe that “science tells the truth; life, all life, is precious; and the purpose of humanity is to nurture life.” 

This creates in us an urge to do two things:

  • nurture and care for the precious life here on Earth and
  • help life burst through the final boundary and take root and flower amongst the stars; to help the Earth give birth to a family of living worlds.
Bloom: What Earthseed Can Teach Us About Adaptation and Community

Butler suggests through the Parables that the only way to survive the dystopian settings of the novels, is to adapt to change. 

We do not worship God,
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
We adapt and endure.
For we are Earthseed
And God is Change

Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Sower

In part 1 of this series, I go to great lengths to make connections between the 21st century that Butler was imagining and the times we live in today. I believe that we face many challenges both globally and locally, and that we have much to learn from the Parables about community building and grassroots organizing. Like Olamina, I believe that communities may bond over shared beliefs and I hope for unifying beliefs that include both reverence and science, beliefs that seek solutions eschewing hierarchical systems for community circles. I will now briefly address the difficult topics of part 1 with lessons and guidance to be found in the Parables.

Face Economic Difficulty With Partnership

There are many communities in the U.S. with little hope for relief from unconscionable wage slavery, high housing costs, health care challenges, and near or actual homelessness. We can’t rely on government institutions alone to solve these problems. We need community. We need partnership.

      Partnership is giving, taking, learning, teaching, offering the greatest possible benefit while doing the least possible harm. Partnership is mutualistic symbiosis. Partnership is life.
     Any entity, any process that cannot or should not be resisted or avoided must somehow be partnered. Partner one another. Partner diverse communities. Partner life. Partner any world that is your home. Partner God. Only in partnership can we thrive, grow, Change. Only in partnership can we live.

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Sower

Much of Parable of the Sower is about the first Earthseed community, how it developed and survived through harsh circumstances. This community began with a simple partnership of three people, traveling through a drought and crime ravaged California. As they journeyed, the group partnered with more people: couples, parents and children, individuals that demonstrated moral integrity and offered strengths and talents to the community. Not everyone believed in Earthseed, but they believed in life. We must journey together with a shared objective of healthy survival, and participate in discussions and activities that connect us, uplift us and cooperatively grow healthy communities.

Face Global Crisis With Healing Actions

Even in the 1990’s, when Butler wrote the Parables, there was evidence of global warming. Despite the consensus of scientists all over the world, there is still much debate about climate collapse, debate which keeps us locked in a state of inaction.

Do you believe?
Belief will not save you.
Only actions
Guided and shaped
By belief and knowledge
Will save you.
Belief
Initiates and guides action—
Or it does nothing.

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Talents

In the Parables, the effects of climate collapse include: erratic weather conditions; rising oceans and crumbling shores; an increase in disease, the dying off of forests in once hospitable climates, unquenchable fires, and a constant struggle for water. Yet, Earthseed believes in the adaptability of humankind. 

What we touch, we change. Regardless of our beliefs about climate collapse, we can adapt to the conditions we now face. In order to mitigate our impact on the future, we  need to become more conscious of our water use, and the global environment that is our home. Actions can include drought tolerant and native plant landscaping, roof gardens, utilization of water economy in our personal lives, the courage to fight for and protect fresh water supplies, healthy ecosystems and wildlife welfare. We should carry water wherever we go, settle our communities where water is plentiful, and be prepared to adapt our water habits in order to survive. We must engage in stewardship of people, animals, plant life and the wellbeing of the planet in order to ensure the wellbeing of humankind.

Choose Leaders With Wisdom and Forethought

One beautiful effect of the Trump administration, is the rising number of women campaigning for political office. Another, is the awakening this crisis has catalyzed. Olamina is a leader controlled by a powerful and noble purpose: the survival of humankind. The religion of Earthseed understands that leaders must value and utilize what is the best in us, and deny what is the worst of us. It eschews hierarchical systems and grows community circles where people thrive. Anything less, creates destructive systems that lead to the most debasing conditions for people.

Choose your leaders
With wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward
Is to be controlled
By all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool
Is to be led
By opportunists
Who control the fool.
To be led by a thief
Is to offer up
Your most precious treasures
To be stolen.
To be led by a liar
Is to ask
To be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant
Is to sell yourself
And those you love
Into slavery.

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Talents

Only a coward, fool, opportunist, thief, liar, and tyrant would separate parents and children seeking refuge, destroy evidence and dismantle the means for combating climate crisis, make friends with tyrants, and make enemies of educators. This country has suffered over 200 years under the leadership of fools, white men who spoke freedom while enslaving women and people of color. I cannot imagine a greater comfort than the idea that God is change. It is time for change. The many women and progressive leaders seeking political office require our support if they are to enact changes that benefit people. We must choose leaders driven by a powerful and noble purpose: the wellbeing of humankind and the determination to do what it takes to arrive at this goal.

Beware Ignorance and Protect Learning 

For at least 20 years I have believed in this concept: Evil is one-sidedness. Racism, religious division, and superiority complexes are all extensions of one-sidedness. Another word for one-sidedness is ignorance:

Beware:
Ignorance
Protects itself.
Ignorance
Promotes suspicion.
Suspicion
Engenders fear.
Fear quails,
Irrational and blind,
Or fear looms,
Defiant and closed.
Blind, closed,
Suspicious, afraid,
Ignorance
Protects itself,
And protected,
Ignorance grows. 

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Talents

We are all ignorant in some way or form, and indeed, we cannot know what it is that we do not know. Inexperience, inculturation, and fear all contribute to the horrific effects of racism and acts of hatred. But we can be committed to not letting our ignorance be a steady state.  It is our capacity to learn and evolve that must be protected and allowed to bloom. This begins with a simple understanding: WE. Not, IT. Not, I. Not, US against THEM. Not, YOU… WE.

Beware:
At war
Or at peace,
More people die
Of unenlightened self-interest
Than of any other disease.

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Talents

In Parable of the Talents, the early Earthseed community has to do many difficult things to survive in a dangerous world. Butler was a realist, and we ought to be realists, too. But Earthseed  understands some essential qualities of WE: a community that is not ruled nor threatened by ignorance and one-sidedness, is a community that thrives.  

“It’s our job to show by our behavior that we’re not thieves, and we’re not fools….In emergencies, we help out.” (p68)

“Our Gatherings, aside from weddings, funerals, welcomings or holiday celebrations, are discussions. They’re problem-solving sessions, they’re times of planning, healing, earning, creating, times of focusing and reshaping ourselves. They can cover anything at all to do with Earthseed or Acorn, past, present, or future, and anyone can speak.” (p65)

Fight for Our Freedom

We can,
Each of us,
Do the impossible
As long as we can convince ourselves
That it has been done before.

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Talents

In the end of Parable of the Sower, Olamina and her small group find land and collectively decide to stay and build a safe and hale community. In Parable of the Talents, the community works incredibly hard and through many challenges to begin to thrive. Then, a group of fanatic followers of an one-sided American President, take it upon themselves to turn community land into a “re-education camp.” The Earthseed families are separated, their children taken away from them, and thus begins over a year of torture, rape and slavery. 

In order to rise
From its own ashes
A phoenix
First
Must
Burn.

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Talents

Sometimes, we cannot do anything to stop injustice. We must merely abide it and survive until we can fight for freedom. This is the trauma upon trauma upon trauma that African Americans suffered and still suffer. Historically, we know that African Americans suffered almost 400 years of slavery. What “ended” this unconscionable injustice? War. But there is still so much that requires change, and the “enslavement” of people, particularly people of color, through poverty, imprisonment, and institutional intimidation, must be challenged. It can be challenged in the legislation. It can be challenged in the courts. It can be challenged through education, and on social media, in street protests and through advocacy for the powerless.

However we challenge injustice, it must not be ignored.

Life Cycle: How Earthseed Prepares for The Collapse and Rebirth of Civilizations

Create no images of God.
Accept the images
That God has provided.
They are everywhere,
In everything.
God is change—
Seed to tree,
Tree to forest;
Rain to river,
River to sea;
Grubs to bees,
Bees to swarm.
From one, many;
From many, one;
Forever uniting, growing, dissolving—
Forever Changing.
The universe
Is God’s self-portrait.

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Talents

Religion is a cultural system that relates humanity to transcendental realities, providing beliefs and reasons that explain or give meaning to life. Butler’s understanding of the role that religion has played in helping civilizations develop, is evidenced by her use of Earthseed as a viable solution in a story about a collapsing society. Religion is one of the unifying forces of civilizations, a tool that helps communities survive crises and complete massive undertakings: environmental disasters; dangerous migrations and colonial takeovers; huge edifices; universities; the Destiny of Earthseed- to take root among the stars. 

Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation.

Civilization, like intelligence, may serve well, serve adequately, or fail to serve its adaptive function. When civilization fails to serve, it must disintegrate unless it is acted upon by unifying internal or external forces.

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Talents

Earthseed–a religion based on the patterns of history, science, philosophy, religion, and literature–is delivered by Octavia Butler, as a potential unifying force that serves to remold civilization in the throes of collapse. Regardless of our religious biases or beliefs, there is much we can learn from Earthseed.

Jared Diamond, academic and popular science author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), explores the causes of pre-historical and historical societal collapse. He also argues that humanity now faces possible catastrophic near-future consequences for many of the world’s populations. Even the collapse of one civilization may have a dangerous impact on the global community.

“Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote … can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline. But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere else in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past. That’s why I wrote this book.” 

Furthermore, Jared Diamond suggests that we have two critical choices that distinguished the failures and successes of past societies. One is long-term planning, the choice to make anticipatory decisions before problems reach crisis proportions. The second, is a willingness to consider core values that help societies thrive. I believe that the core values of Earthseed and the various ways that the fictional and current day iterations of Earthseed communities are working to preserve human life, represent a societal choice for the success of our civilization as a whole.

Earthseed is about preparing to fulfill the Destiny. It’s about learning to live in partnership with one another in small communities, and at the same time, working out a sustainable partnership with our environment. It’s about treating education and adaptability as the absolute essentials that they are.  (Parable of the Talents p 322)

To survive,
Let the past
Teach you—
Past customs,
Struggles,
Leaders and thinkers.
Let
These
Help you.
Let them inspire you,
Warn you,
Give you strength.
But beware:
God is Change.
Past is past.
What was
Cannot
Come again.

–Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Parable of the Talents

Some References and Articles:

http://natureinstitute.org/

Butler Interview by Charlie Rose

“Her Eyes Weren’t Watching God” by Christian Coleman

PDF Describing the Terasem Experiment

Review of Diamond’s Collapse by David Brin

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Doren Damico

Doren is a salsa dancing philosopher poet, slinky sculptor, and fan of science fiction.