Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sustainable Living as Religious Observance

Alexander Levchenko
[Update: Orren Whiddon, who organized the Age of Limits conference, has contributed some comments, which I have added below.]

I have spent the last few days at a conference organized by the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary near Artemas, Pennsylvania. Titled “The Age of Limits,” it was well attended and promises to be one of a series of annual conferences to address the waning of the industrial age and the social adaptation it makes necessary. This conference was quite different from all the others I have attended.

First, the venue is a campground; a beautiful one, consisting of lush meadows surrounded by an equally lush but passable forest girded on three sides by a fast-flowing creek of cold, clean water. This sanctuary is dedicated to nature spirituality, and includes a very impressive stone circle and a multitude of little shrines, altars, charms and amulets hung on trees. (Also included is an assortment of cheerful hippies skinny-dipping in the creek.) Second, spirituality was prominently featured in the presentations: the question of spiritual and emotional adaptation to fast-changing, unsettled times was very much on the agenda. Third, the campground is owned by a church; one of undefined denomination, theological bent or specific set of beliefs, but a church nevertheless. Lastly, the campground is run by a monastery that is at the heart of this church; the monks and nuns do not wear habits, do not seem to have not taken any specific vows other than those of loyalty, poverty and obedience, but in substance not too different from, say, the Benedictine Order: work is seven days a week, there is a meeting at eight sharp every morning, all meals are prepared and eaten together, and, except for insignificant personal effects, all property is shared.

In case the term “new-age hippies” has sprung to mind, let me add some more detail. This is not California (where the new-age flakes mostly reside) but southern Pennsylvania, on the Maryland border, some 30 miles from the dead industrial town of Cumberland, and, other than that, in the middle of nowhere. The campground is outfitted with hot and cold running water, electricity from a 10kW diesel generator, a septic system, a large communal kitchen and everything else needed to comfortably house and feed several hundred people. The buildings that are used year-round are super-insulated and heated with local wood. There is a machine shop which turns out, among other things, precision components for biomedical equipment, and a winery that makes several varieties of mead. The place has a strong survivalist bent, not of the doomsteading variety, but focused on being prepared to do whatever it takes, depending on what the future brings, be it farming or repairing the neighbors' farm equipment and ever-plentiful firearms. It is a perfectly good, successful example of thoughtful preparation and adapting in place.

I do not have an awful lot to say on the subjects of mysticism or spirituality, but since these were on the agenda at this gathering, at which I was invited to speak, I had thought that I could add something to the proceedings by holding forth on the (possibly) related topic of religion and the (potential) usefulness of religious institutions in helping us adapt to the unfolding deterioration and collapse of industrial civilization, all the while steering well clear of any mystical or spiritual matters. What follows is a summary of my talk, based on the notes I had scribbled on some index cards.

* * *

Our social institutions are failing us. This is not an economic or technological problem but a cultural one. There are billions of people in the world who are able to survive on less than a dollar a day, and yet many of these people are happier than most of the people in the developed nations. This societal failure takes many forms. There is the educational system which mainly trains students to take tests (not a marketable skill), then attempts to teach them a job (which, more often than not, no longer exists). The best outcome that education can achieve—an educated person, versed in liberal arts and basic science—it considers useless.

There is the travesty of commerce and finance, with an insistence on growth at any cost, on maintaining inflated standards which make it impossible for people to meet their basic needs if they lack the money for the upscale, high-standard products and services that are considered mandatory, on extreme but impersonal interdependence where everyone is forced to rely on and to put their trust in complete strangers. It is a system that forces everyone to become a gambler—be it with your retirement, or with taking on student loans, or with most other investments. Furthermore, this system of legalized gambling is rigged so as to pool localized, personal risk into centralized, systemic risk that will, sooner or later, bring down the entire economic system.

The outcome of all this is that most human relationships have been reduced to the commercial, client-server paradigm. The intergenerational contract, where parents and grandparents bring up children who then take care of them in their old age, and which is an essential evolved trait of the human species, has been gambled away. There is extreme alienation, which reduces most conversations to scripted interactions on topics that are considered safe, and a great deal of transience, both in where people live and in the people with whom they associate. There is a steady replacement of local, human culture with commercial culture, packaged as a set of popular but short-lived cultural products.

Faced with all this, the natural response for many people is to want to turn their back on society, but without being alone. What institutions do we have that could help them accomplish this? Are there any that predate this now failed society, as well as the countless other societies that have failed before? Yes, there are. Religious institutions have turned their back on more societies than we can count, and have survived. Moreover, they have repeatedly provided a survival mechanism where all else had failed.

A well-studied example is Rome after the collapse of the Roman empire. Rome went from a majestic imperial center to a papal swamp. The barbarians destroyed the baths and the fountains, but left the aqueducts running. Over the following decades, the aqueducts filled Rome with water, turning it into a malarial swamp. The Roman forum was used to graze goats and to scavenge marble, which was then burned to make lime, to make mortar which was used to build churches and monasteries. What followed was an austere, ascetic age dominated by religion, which eventually coalesced into the Holy Roman Empire. It was neither holy, nor roman, nor an empire, but the dominant role of religion set the rules by which everyone had to play, even its rulers: no warfare was permitted on Sundays or feast days, or in churches or monasteries, which were treated as sanctuaries, as well as church property, which was considered sacrosanct. There followed several centuries of small-scale, silly little “operetta” wars, in which not too many people were hurt or killed. The last surviving echo of this age was the Christmas cease-fire during the first world war.

What makes religion unique among human institutions is its ubiquity (all cultures have it in one form or another) and its lack of compartmentalization. The secular universe is always broken up into specialties. Look at the departments at your typical college or university: there is marketing, communications, economics, political science, sociology, psychology, etc., which all have their circumscribed set of concerns. Anything else is considered interdisciplinary and results in a denial of tenure. In comparison, religion is a total system that encompasses every aspect of human existence. Moreover, religion (when placed in a position of authority) is able to place limits on the secular realm, rejecting those parts of it which it finds harmful or unhelpful. Religions also have the uncanny ability to demand and be granted social exemptions and become, to quite a considerable extent, a law onto themselves. The role and authority of religion tends to increase in times of adversity. Immigrants, exiles, diaspora communities are often held together by a church, a mosque, a synagogue, an ashram, etc. This effect usually wanes as times get better, but the institutions never quite go away, and come roaring back in times such as this.

I fully understand that religion is by no means popular with everyone. I would not have given this talk if this were, say, France, but the unique religious environment of the United States makes the subject impossible to ignore. To me, atheism is a perfectly valid belief (or, if you like, belief system). Everyone believes something, because our brains spontaneously produce explanations for things, even where there isn't one, as is generally the case with the stock market, which can go up or down for no reason at all. Everyone believes in a creation myth of one type or another. The atheist creation myth is the Big Bang, which is that the universe came into existence 12.75 billion years ago. Alternatively, you can believe that the world was created in 6 days of work, followed by a day off. Or, if you are one of the Oogla people described by Douglas Adams, who live in the Oogla tree and subsist on Oogla nuts, you believe that the universe was created when the Giant Pixie sneezed, in an event known as the Big Sneeze.

Theology and astrophysics and humor/science fiction literature are all very different from the point of view of their practitioners, but as for the rest of us who make up about 99.9% of humanity, it is a matter of choosing what we want to believe. We walk up to the great salad bar of faith and decide what to put on our plate. The practitioners try to restrict our choices (they are, after all, in competition with each other) but in the end it is up to us. If the beliefs happen to be contradictory, then we don't have to believe in them at the same time. To us, these are just different stories, accepted on faith, without proof or evidence. But there is one type of story that you get to play a role in, rather than just watch television. There are no historical reenactments of the Big Bang that I am aware of, no little Big Bang mangers, with the Three Subatomic Particles come bearing gifts, set up annually to commemorate the birth of the universe on its birthday.

We cannot not believe because our brains are wired for it. All of our perceptions and value judgments are based on what we believe. And our beliefs are mostly based on what we've been told when we were young and impressionable, and unquestioning. Some beliefs are outlandish; for instance, people believe that suburban real estate will continue to be valuable, because they will continue to be able to drive there. Religious belief in particular offers us a connection. The word “religion” comes from the Latin religere, to reconnect. Religion gives us a part to play. Scientific belief makes us a research subject, a specimen, or, if we are young and still daydream, a great scientist about to be awarded the Nobel prize. Science has its uses, of course. (The notes for this talk were written with a National Science Foundation Grantee Conference pen.) Science has its utility, you see. It can also inspire awe. The Large Hadron Collider is an awe-inspiring scientific experiment. But there are much cheaper ways to inspire awe, giving people a role to play at the same time; a role that expands in bad times.

The minimal functions of religion are limited to what one priest once expressed it as “Hatch 'em, match em and dispatch 'em”: baptism, matrimony and last rites. The maximal functions might be carried out by a network of monasteries that oversee agriculture and construction, regulate commerce, control politics, conduct scholarly investigation, limit warfare and offer education, medical treatment and all manner of advice. This describes, among many others, medieval Europe and Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion. Societies in which religious functions are maximized tend to last a few thousand years longer than the ones in which they are minimized.

There is a long-standing tradition of exempting religious organizations from the rules that govern civil organizations. These run the gamut from taxation to labor laws and land use laws, to lax law enforcement (which is why the Roman Catholic church in North America has not been summarily shut down, as a preventative measure, to prevent further incidents of child molestation). There are many special exemptions grandfathered in, from the Christian Scientists being exempt from Romneycare in Massachusetts to the Amish in Pennsylvania being able to live in ways that would alarm Child Protective Services were they living in a city. An exception that proves the rules is the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, which was torched out of existence by the FBI: if you stockpile illegal firearms and impregnate underage women whom you hold captive, the government will eventually go after you, but not before much soul-searching accompanied by a full-scale media frenzy. Cults are a bad problem specifically because political authorities are afraid to go near them. In the US, it's practically in their DNA to avoid a confrontation with anything even vaguely religious. Political arrangements are transient; religions are not. Also, religions often help governments do their job, or do the job that they do not do, of helping take care of the sick, the old and the indigent. Religious organizations face the fewest barriers to expanding their functions in bad times. They are the organizations most capable of creating alternative living arrangements during a time of permanent crisis.

Religious institutions are sustainable and resilient by virtue of the fact that they tend to outlive cultures, empires and civilizations. Not all of them are, but life in balance with nature is imperative for any religion that wishes to be one of the surviving ones. To this end, nature spirituality, which is practiced at the Four Quarters, seems to have its priorities straight. In any human endeavor there is always the threat of Realpolitik rearing Henry Kissinger's ugly head, and religions are no exception, but religions offer wider latitude for moral challenge than secular organizations (unless they are largely dead).

This brings us back to the American context. In other parts of the world, conscientious atheism can be perfectly moral, even scrupulous because for an atheist morality and ethics are ends in themselves, not motivated by some supernatural, external force. But the US was founded for religious reasons, and political tolerance of religious differences is here enshrined more fully than any other freedom. Given the steady erosion of civil liberties, the emergence of an untouchable financial/political elite beyond the reach of the law, and the acceptance of fraud at every level, an attempt to mount a moral challenge via the legal system is futile. At the same time, religious freedom will prove to be very difficult for American politicians to whittle down. It would be foolish to ignore so potent a source of public authority.

Religion does have a negative side, which we should not ignore either. It mostly has to do with identity games. Give an idiot a flag to wave, an anthem to sing and some patriotic drivel to repeat unquestioningly, and he will march off to battle to kill other such idiots who are marching under a different flag. Religions provide ample scope for such identification, but religious idiots tend to be even more ardent than political idiots. But at a higher, non-idiotic level, different religions tend to work and play well together. A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar... and what do you suppose they discuss? Who is the one true god? Not likely; they are far more likely to compare notes on whatever happens to threaten or to oppress them, and to share their troubles. Religious tolerance and religious freedom are exactly the same thing. Freedom from religion is just as important; the atheists deserve to have their own church. (It can be an open-air church, to save money, and it can stand empty.)

Note that I have not delved into the specifics of any one religion. I have used the word faith, but have refrained from using the s-word (spirituality). That's not what this talk was about. My point is that we have religious institutions, or traditions, that are able to survive just about anything. We also have a society that is disintegrating, a corrupt political system that will ruin many lies, and an economy that is failing to provide the necessities for more and more people. Why should we fight battles that have already been won? Religious institutions have already succeeded in fighting political institutions down to a reasonable truce, which the politicians are rightly terrified to break. Let us not start from scratch; let us work with what we already have.

Orren's comments:

The overwhelming sense we have from the questionnaires returned, is the hunger of the attendees for exploring the ethical and spiritual component of Collapse. It is certainly true that we who are living through the industrial peak must begin the process of rediscovering what community is, if we are to leave any worthwhile legacy to those who come after us.

John in Cape Charles
It is not clear to me from your post whether or not you attended Age of Limits, so I will try to give a bit of background. Originally I thought that there should be an absolute minimum of "spiritual" content in the event, but as the presentation outlines came in from the presenters, it became clear that they had other ideas; to the point that the schedule had to be expanded at the last moment to accommodate them all. As a matter of course I anticipate that my initial opinions on any subject will be subject to later change, and that was certainly the case here as the degree to which ethical and spiritual issues were included in the events content became the most overwhelmingly positive comment made on our feedback questionnaires. I like to think that the gentle, yet palpable spirituality of Four Quarters was a part of that outcome.

I share your distrust of most organized versions of the Christo/Islamo/Judeo complex of what I like to call "Sky Father Religions," that is why we here at Four Quarters offer no answer, promote no dogma and have no priest/tessdhood. Our mission is simple. To offer up Nature as an inspiration and toolkit for the individuals exploration of their own spirituality.

Gayle Bourne
Your point is a good one and I too expect that as we stair step down the back side of Collapse non-profits will be seen as a harvestable resource by governments in their desperate attempts to preserve their revenue stream. Our specific case in Pennsylvania is a bit different as Pennsylvania actually offers the bare minimum of real estate tax exemption for churches, literally only the area under the building's roof. That's a bit of a problem for us as our church is the Land and Stone Circle, with no roof to be seen! The tax advantages would actually be far greater if we were founded as an educational non-profit.

I well remember our conversation in which you insisted that I personally resolve your issue with your tent neighbors late night noise making, and my explaining that our Board of Directors discourages staff from intervening in a non-criminal civic matter until the aggrieved party has first made an attempt to resolve the issue themselves. I recall explaining to you that this policy has evolved because we have found that some people are very quick to appeal to hierarchy and perceived authority figures to resolve issues that are best resolved by their own actions; ie: by embracing their personal sovereignity. While I am not a voting member of the Board, organize only this one event with no other staff duties, and live here only part time; it is a policy of our Board that I support.

I am sure that it will come as no surprise that reality has disabused us of many of our initial idealistic conceptions as Four Quarters has moved through its 18 year history. One of the most difficult lessons we learned is that we cannot be all things to all people, any attempt to do so results only in a descent to the lowest common denominator. For this reason we understand that [a] functioning community is about exclusion as much as it is about inclusion. Our Board has expelled persons only a bare handful of times in its history because we expect that people who are seeking a libertine party, the meaning of life for a $100 donation, or someone to solve their personal problems with no effort on their own part, are unlikely to come here after reading our literature. If they do come they find that we will gently but proactively refuse to enable their dysfunction, and will suggest alternative behaviors. As often as not this works wonderfully well as these persons adapt and are then able to find their own worthwhile place within this community of choice.

We call this process of defining our communities boundaries of inclusion and behavior "The Filter" and we trust in it precisely because it is based on other peoples personal choices. As you shared your unhappiness in our personal interaction specifically, and Four Quarters in general, with our staff and other attendees over the course of the long weekend, it was ultimately brought to my attention. I counseled faith in your process and our own.


John D said...

Down here in Virginia Beach area we have two dominant religions, militarism and fundamentalism. That's probably true of every civilization that ever existed. It seems to me that especially over the last decade or so the two have merged dramatically; thus our war adventuring has to a large extent morphed into "spiritual warfare", a concept that what is happening in the earthly realm is also happening in some "higher" realm. Many, many people, and many in power (Bush 2, for instance) are certain of this.

The Four Quarters experience did not give me any comfort. Beliefs and rituals revolving around worshiping objects (stones, nature, earth, whatever) are no more or less valuable than any other belief/ritual system. It's the same formula. Humans experience life, develop concepts about how it operates, the concepts morph into a belief system, rituals and hierarchies of authority, all of it is imbued with the pixie dust of "truthiness" (thanks Stephen Colbert) and then this "truth" is defended to the death.

Perhaps humans will evolve beyond such things. After all, whatever is in fact true is true whether you know it or not, and whether you believe it or not. Surrendering to the reality of not knowing is a fine and humble path, one might think.

Puzzler said...

As always a pithy commentary -- thank you.

Might your talk exist in a video form?

kevin said...

Your commentary has me thinking... the increase of anti-religion by our (American) govt (removing "in God we trust", "one nation under God", 10 commandments, etc.) is likely resultant of the increased totalitarianism of D.C.

In America, churches and the govt have generally coexisted peacefully. However, if the govt decides to grab more power (as it seems to be), it may deem religion a competitor that needs to be restricted.

From wikipedia, Hitler's party viewed religion as a threat. "National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable." and the Churches influence in the leadership of the people "must absolutely and finally be broken."

Perhaps we'll soon see those unmanned aerial drones circling over churches.

Al said...

John, if you think these folks are worshipping rocks, you've kind of missed the point.

Jeff said...


I'm curious how religion fared under the Soviets, and what role it played in helping Russians get through their collapse?

Peak Everything said...

I was pleased to have been in attendance for your presentation. Several of the other talks about spirituality and collapse were, to me, a bit flaky. Yours stuck to the here and now and suggested that regardless of our own beliefs or lack thereof, churches are an organized force that are likely to continue for longer than some of the more temporal and unsustainable organizations upon which we currently depend. Your point was made quite rationally and was thus palatable to those of us who might otherwise be too quick to dismiss religion(s). After all, most religions have been around for quite some time, are organized on a different basis than our rather temporary social and government institutions and are obviously self-sustaining enough to last for hundreds or thousands of years. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, I don't see why they won't continue to be a major force in many people's lives, possibly even more so as other institutions collapse

Ahavah said...

The tax-exempt status of religious property is not likely to last - as the government becomes more and more starved for revenue taxing religious institutions is low-hanging fruit. But if they begin planning and budgeting for that now, while it's still a ways off, that problem can certainly be mitigated.

The one true advantage of churches, synagogues, mosques, covens, and fraternal orders of all sorts is that they generally have already in place a framework, however rusty and disused at present it may be, to provide exactly those things for their members through communal sharing that government is now getting ready to yank out from under the poor, elderly, and working classes. Starting such organizations from scratch, with people who have little or nothing in common, simply isn't going to work when TSHTF for real and the process is under pressure - which is when most people will start thinking about it.

Most people nominally belong to some such group - even if they have long been absent from participating. Now would be the time to get back involved, not just to get in touch with a more spiritual side of life but to be a catalyst for these fledgling lifeboats. And if your "old" group doesn't listen or care, then there's still time to find a new spiritual home - at least for now. A spiritual place of peace and a communal resource are both going to be necessities of life.

We must break away from the unnatural (and largely mythical) "rugged individualism" imposed on us by our divide-and-conquer corporate and government masters and become part of a real group that looks out for its own. That is the only way most people are going to survive.

hawlkeye said...

Just wondering about a possible typo in the last paragraph...

...a corrupt political system that will "run many lies" or "ruin many lives"?

Of course, it's both!

darrenabi said...

Interesting post, thank you. Always enjoy reading of informed parallels with the fall of Rome.

Can’t agree about living without belief though. It is possible - although, as you say, you ignore mysticism (the beliefless and therefore irreligious roots of religious institutions).

I recently posted a guide to dealing with the end of the world - from a self-mastery (aka spiritual) perspective on the Dark Mountain forum...


Thanks again.

crespi effect said...

I too was in attendance at Four Quarters and found Dimitry's presentations extremely interesting and compelling. He speaks off the cuff but weaves a narrative that keeps your complete attention. I however saw the venue a bit differently and am curious why Dimitry did not fit this into his own "Stage 3" paradigm. This is a "big man" operation if there every was one. The hand (heavy in my opinion) of Mr. Whiddon was everywhere to be felt. There is no question that he is the alpha (and omega ) dog on the property, ( I even noticed "Little Bit" the camp puppy cringing when being summoned by him.) This raises the question to me that are not most religious operations Big Man (always a man, most times big), operations, my way or the highway types. Perhaps in collapse times I may have to put my tail between my legs and crawl over to Whiddon types but for now I will remain upright. I will seek out Mr Orlov whenever he appears, I will not be attending anything soon at Four Quarters.
An aside, my wife loves the tee shirt.

John D. Wheeler said...

I enjoyed meeting you at the Age of Limits. Thank you for providing this summary of your talk, I was at the other session for this one -- I wish I could have heard all of them. I'm sure it will be worse next year.

I have to somewhat disagree with you about suburban real estate though; once the garages are converted to stables, they are a very good density for having pastures, orchards, and market gardens. Of course, the quality of the houses is critical; 50 years ago they built houses to last as long as possible, 30 years ago they built them to last as long as the mortgage. Also, the over-sized McMansions will have to become multi-family dwellings to become economical to maintain.

I have thought long and hard about using the power of religion to promote sustainable living. I even went so far as to become ordained in the Universal Life Church. But it is very hard to "sell".

Atao said...

Why are Lao Tse, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed remembered so well? Why are they remembered in a different way than Cesar, Kleopatra and Alexander the Great?
All the religions are based on their founders and their particular awareness of nature in general and human nature in particular.
And why did since Mohammed not one man or woman manage to found a new big religion?
The churches will eventually fall, with their priests and their soldiers. But never their founders. They will always be remembered until we have understood and applied, what they teached.

Unknown said...

Dear Dmitry,

This topic is close to what Rudolf Bahro was talking about in Germany in 80's and 90's. He was a founding member of the Greens and wanted them to go for industrial and military disarmament and building of benedictine-style religious communities.

He agreed with Lewis Mumford's analogy that our civlization is a suicidal Megamachine.

Well, the Green mainstream ignored him back then, but i think he was ahead of his time. I'm glad you Dmitry have same kind of viewpoint with lots of new observations on this topic.


"For Rudolf Bahro, parliamentary road to sustainability is counter-productive. Therequired social transformation is so fundamental as to involve a completechange of consciousness through a strategic withdrawal from conventionalpolitics. Bahro compares the predicament in the contemporary world with that of the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, calling for a 'new Benedictine order'organized in a 'commune-type framework'. Commune living not only realiseshuman fulfilment but enables the 'longer run-up' required for achieving radicalgoals (Rudolf Bahro,Building the Green Movement (London: GMP, 1986) pp.87-91)"

Evan said...

It is interesting to note that in the time of its birth, Christianity was about as mixed up and zany as a lot of New-Age shit today. The various remnant apocryphal gospels about Jesus from the first centuries C.E. were hardly in agreement theologically (the rest of the stories were likely burned or never written down and subsequently forgotten). In those times, those who lived within the bounds of the Roman empire but did want to live the life of an ordinary Roman citizen or who were merely another of the folks conquered by Rome may have found the emergent Jesus-cult as an alternative community in which to find support (though by no means safety). Even well after Paul, the Christians were still disagreeing over whether Jesus was God and what this meant (was he flesh or spirit?), but most importantly they had a sense of commonality of being a group-apart-from-Rome. Later, however, this realm of the small, somewhat egalitarian alt-communities metasticized into a full-blown religious institution with a priest class and a hierarchy that would mediate between people and their God (and land, and social structure, etc), which typically happens when a religion gets popular and large or wins the support of the state.

All this to say that while religions seem to offer a backdoor at the end of empire, for certainly Christianity grew as Rome declined, their character often changes so drastically that little more than symbolic continuity exists between them. Does Christian fundamentalism today have anything to do with a Jesus cult originating in Palestine in the first century C.E. other than allegiance to the same symbol?

I bring this up because though monastic austerity seems in some way a solid route for our time, the monastics often merely carry the seed for a future nonsense that seems just as maniacal as the one the religion started out trying to avoid.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Just because the word "religion" appears in the title doesn't mean that you will get away with posting preachy comments. Comments considered preachy have been and will continue to be deleted.

Lance M. Foster said...

The Rule of St. Benedict is worth a look for any community of shared belief: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_Saint_Benedict

Lance M. Foster said...

Mr. Orlov, Tonight I posted two resources for folks to consider from a First Nations / Native American point of view that could help inform and shape the discussion and development of a community's spirituality: 1. Twelve Principles of Aboriginal Philosophy, and 2. First Nations Code of Ethics, at http://hengruh.livejournal.com

The Rule of St. Benedict is also a very useful approach.

Unknown said...

Good post. Just one point on your reference to an atheist creation myth. There is no requirement for any atheist to believe in, accept or acknowledge the Big Bang as the creation point of the universe. Indeed, there are some strands of thought that argue that there may have been no "Big Bang", with scientific argument to back that up. So I think to categorise atheism as a religion, in some way, is incorrect. Not that everyone, including atheists, doesn't have beliefs, it's just that one atheist may have a quite different set of beliefs than another atheist and so they can't be regarded as being of the same "religion".

To pre-empt a comment, yes, one can probably distil some common strands from most atheists but they wouldn't necessarily be woven through all atheists nor do they require a common set of ceremonies or rituals, as I think you hinted at.

vera said...

I am disappointed, Dmitry, that you do not show any evidence that this was a conversation (as billed). Rather, it comes across as another "sage on the stage" presentation. I would have enjoyed hearing what the 'audience/the other side of the conversation' had to say. (hi Orren ;-)

Dmitry Orlov said...

Vera -

There was plenty of conversation following my presentation. You had to be there. At some point you have to get off your internets and actually go talk to people.

vera said...

Dmitry, I did not express well what I meant. First, I apologize for my strident tone.

Basically, what I am thinking is... it was billed as conversations, you said it was and Orren told me it would be. I believe you both.

So say you were having a conversation with several friends, and then wrote up a report about it, would you feel free to only speak about what you had said? That's what's been bugging me.

Orren said they wanted to push the envelope in the format. So I am looking for signs of it.

Cynthia Q said...

@Tony Weddle, thanks for addressing my pet peeve about those who regard atheism from afar. My own sister is among this group which asserts that "belief in science" is no better, AND NO WORSE, than her Rapture Buddies' own fantastical concoctions.

What is bemusing is that—in insisting that atheism, or even a mere general acknowledgment of scientific facts, can be considered a "religion" subject to just as much whimsy and disputation as their own beliefs— they denigrate and undermine their own positions.

I find it pretty hilarious.

Unknown said...

Hi Lance

Thanks for posting The Rule of Saint Benedict. Many years ago, as we were trying to wrap our brains around what we were becoming as a religious community of service, I did a survey of the founding rules of religious community, looking for those common threads that were shared amongst long-lived religious communities. The rulke of Saint Benedict was wise and inspirational, and served as source material for our own rule, which you will find here.

What is easy is typically the default state for we humans, which is why passive spectating is the default condition at conferences. It's easy on the organizers and easy on the attendees. The degree to which one can organize a social environment that encourages personal engagement has many factors, the single greatest in my experience being the demographic of the attendees. At The Age of Limits we were fortunate in this regard, as our attendee demographic was skewed towards relatively more intellectually engaged people, as one would expect.

This came out in a number of ways in my observation.

Even though our workshops were 1 1/2 hours long with 30 minutes between, they consistently ran right into the next presentation as people continued their conversations with each other.

Social settings, meals, evening settings, the coffee pavilion; were simply packed with gay primate chatter!

We had a 70% return rate on our questionnaire (an extremely high rate in my experience) and the accolades for the conversational format and Phillip's and Circe's (our Q+A Moderators) engagement with the audience were outstanding.

The response to the spirituality content was very positive. So much so that at the last moment we resident ceremonialists threw together a small bit of psycho/emotive theater as an unplanned closing ceremony. It's inspiration was our efforts to deal with grief and it had 50 people in tears. This kind of risk taking on our part was only possible because of the palpable simulacrum of community that arose over the long weekend. (Notice my use of the word simulacrum as a weekend of excellent personal communication is not a community, but it is a good place to start!)

All in all, in my view as lead organizer, the event was successful literally beyond my hopes, and we nailed our efforts to break out of the spectacle/spectator paradigm. There is of course much room for improvement, further risk taking, better organization and the like. In my 18 years as an organizer I have learned that events must be allowed to grow organically and at their own rate. Like children they respond best to patience and nurturing care. I am very proud of my little baby and I look forward to seeing what it grows into!

JWN+ said...

I am ordained in a "mainline Protestant" denomination; I would have dearly loved to attend "The Age of Limits," but parish duties kept me from joining you. (I'm never sure how my commitment to Christian faith will be received at similar gatherings, even when I keep it on the "down low"; I confess that may also have been a factor.) All that said, it is exciting to me that the spiritual aspect of the crisis we face is not being neglected and that in fact participants of all and no faith recognize the importance of paying attention to our hearts as well as our heads, tending our souls as well as our bodies and brains. It's going to be a long, tough haul, and we are going to need each other.