Lauren Olamina

Octavia Butler’s fictional religion of ‘Earthseed’ inspires real religious movements

The fictional cosmic religion of “Earthseed,” featured in the works of Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006), one of the greatest science fiction writers of all times, keeps inspiring new religious ideas and movements in the real world.

“[M]any [Terasem] believers embrace traditional positions held by mainstream religions – including the omnipotence of God and the existence of an afterlife – but say these are made possible by increasing advancements in science and technology,” says a recent TIME article about the Terasem religion. “Einstein said science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind,” Terasem founder Martine Rothblatt tells TIME. “Bina and I were inspired to find a way for people to believe in God consistent with science and technology so people would have faith in the future.”

I am briefly cited in the article and many of my Terasem friends are quoted. A few months ago in a video chat I discussed some of the scientific aspects and philosophical roots of Terasem with TIME journalist Jessica Roy. None of that is mentioned in the article, but that’s just how mainstream journalism works. The article is focused on the juicy bites: the exploits of Bina48, the robot who looks and talks like Bina Rothblatt (the robots are coming!!!), Johnny Depp’s Transcendence film (we will become machines!!!), and of course Gabriel Rothblatt‘s political aspirations. Cultists who “worship computers” are taking over the U.S. Congress!!! Gabriel has transhumanist and transexual connections!!! Even worse, he is a Democrat and may even, God forbid, support Obamacare!!!

However, even with the typical flaws and dumbing down of mainstream journalism, the article is not bad or unfriendly, and provides a good first introduction to the cosmic religion of Terasem, which is partly based on the fictional cosmic religion of “Earthseed,” invented by the great science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. See Terasem’s Octavia Butler Memorial Dedication.

Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler Memorial Dedication, Terasem

The TIME article explains that the name Terasem comes from the Greek word for “Earthseed.” I knew that, but I didn’t know that “Earthseed is also the name for the futuristic religion found in Butler’s novels Parable of the Sower [and Parable of the Talents] that helped inspire Gabriel’s parents, Bina and Martine Rothblatt, to start their new faith.” Of course, I rushed to read both Earthseed parables.

The novels are great, addictive and thought-provoking, written in Butler’s spare and effective prose, with unforgettable characters in a (alas too) believable near future world.

Butler’s heroine is a strong-willed, larger-than-life woman, the kind of person who builds cities and founds religions. “I wanted to tell the story, the fictional autobiography, of Lauren Olamina, who begins a new religion and who, sometime after her death – after people have had time to forget how human she was – might easily be considered a god,” says Butler in an interview included in the first book. “I wanted her teachings to be reasonable, intellectually respectable. I wanted them to be something that someone I could admire might truly believe and teach. She didn’t have to be always right, but she had to be reasonable.”

Though hardened by a difficult life and a powerful purpose, Lauren is a nice person, born with a “hyperempathy syndrome” (the result of her mother’s addiction to a synthetic drug) that forces her to feel the full impact of others’ emotions, including extreme pain, and there is a lot of that in the story. Lauren’s odyssey begins in 2024, when she is a 15 years old kid in a future America on the verge of societal collapse (think of a nation-wide “Beasts of the Southern Wild“). There is futurist technology – life-like VR entertainment systems and colonies on Mars where scientists study strange native life forms (until their funding runs out, that is) – but Lauren has no access. She lives near Los Angeles in a walled community of poor people, but one day the people outside, even poorer and more desperate, storm inside to burn the houses of the “rich,” scavenge, and kill almost everyone.

Walking on the road to far away Northern California, Lauren groups with other refugees (there are a lot of them on the road), and tells them about her new cosmic religion, “Earthseed.”

“The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.”

The group finds a safe haven, or so it seems, and founds the “Acorn” community, inspired by Earthseed. But the ruthless leader of fundamentalist “Christian America” is elected U.S. President, and soon after armed thugs with superior weapons storm Acorn and enslave everyone. After months of imprisonment, punishment, pain, rape, torture, and murder, Lauren and her surviving followers kill their captors and escape. Lauren is alone on the road again, searching her daughter Larkin who was taken by Christian America and given to a foster family, and her brother Marc, a rising star in Christian America who may help to find Larkin. Of course, Lauren continues to promote Earthseed, this time with encouraging results.

Lauren wins. Earthseed becomes, in Larkin’s words written decades after Acorn, “an unusual cult. It financed scientific exploration and inquiry, and technological creativity. It set up grade schools and eventually colleges, and offered full scholarships to poor but gifted students. The students who accepted had to agree to spend seven years teaching, practicing medicine, or otherwise using their skills to improve life in the many Earthseed communities. Ultimately, the intent was to help the communities to launch themselves toward the stars and to live on the distant worlds they found circling those stars.”

“[I]n order for her to do what she was bound to do, [Olamina] had to be a power-seeker and it took me a long time to get over the idea that anyone seeking power probably shouldn’t have it,” says Butler in an interview included in the second book. “I had to remind myself again and again as I strove to write Sower that power is only a tool like any other tool – like money, like knowledge, like a hammer, even. It’s the way tools are used that’s important. It’s the way they’re used that’s good or bad.” This seems to justify Lauren quest, not for personal power, but for the power realize her Earthseed vision.

Before her death, Lauren sees the first interstellar colonists leaving for outer space. “I have not given them heaven, but I’ve helped them to give themselves the heavens,” she says. “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. They’re young adults now, leaving the nest.”

Unfortunately a third novel, Parable of the Trickster, was not completed before Butler’s death. A recent Los Angeles Review of Books article by Gerry Canavan (h/t io9), the first scholar to read Butler’s notes written before her death, reveals Butler’s ideas and plans.

We learn that Butler wrote many tentative beginnings and outlines for Trickster and three other Parables (Teacher, Chaos, Clay). Most stories take place in an Earthseed colony on an alien world called “Bow.” Life on the alien planet is harsh and unforgiving, and the human colony goes through problems after problems (Butler doesn’t do utopias), including really bad nightmare scenarios. The notes, with examples of a love-hate relationship between a writer and her character, reveal also darker aspects of Lauren Olamina, not explored in the two published novels (I guess that makes sense, at times prophets must break some eggs). I encourage you to read Canavan’s article and the comments at io9, and I hope that Butler’s notes will be published.

“Getting off the planet, achieving the Destiny, was to be the start of the hard work, not the end of it,” says Canavan. “The epigram [Butler] chose for Trickster captures this tension between optimism and pessimism, and the possibility of actually breaking through this psychic impasse into something new, quite wonderfully:”

“There’s nothing new
under the sun,
but there are new suns.”

The practical aim of Earthseed is to take humanity to the stars. The philosophical and spiritual aspects of the new religion are developed in the two published Parables (and, I am sure, in the unpublished notes). Lauren rejects the personal God of her father, a Baptist minister, and looks for ultimate meaning in the impersonal works of natural laws. The only permanent feature of the universe is change, and therefore change, permanent and unstoppable change, is the one God-like driving force of nature. We can’t stop change, but we can try to steer and “shape” inevitable change toward desired ends, such as building a strong community of people who care for one another, and spreading humanity among the stars.

“I put Earthseed together by asking myself questions and coming up with answers,” says Butler in the interview included in the first book. “For instance, I asked what was the most powerful force I could think of? What one thing could we not stop no matter how hard we tried? The answer I came up with after some thought was ‘change.’ We can do a lot of things to influence the ongoing processes of change. We can focus them, alter their speed or impact, in general we can shape change, but we can’t stop it no matter how hard we try. Throughout the universe, the ongoing reality is change.”

“Sort of like saying God is the second law of thermodynamics,” is a common reaction to Lauren’s first explanation of Earthseed. Others ask “If God is Change, then… then who loves us? Who cares about us? Who cares for us?” Lauren’s answer, “We care for one another. We care for ourselves and one another” makes perfect sense, but Earthseed seems too intellectual and impersonal, hardly able to offer the strong, immediate emotional appeal of a religion. I guess Lauren Olamina – and Octavia Butler – were interrupted by Butler’s untimely death.

A religion very similar to Earthseed has been proposed by Ted Chu (see “Cosmic Beings: Transhumanist Deism in Ted Chu’s Cosmic View“). In “Human Purpose and Transhuman Potential: A Cosmic Vision for Our Future Evolution,” Chu argues that post-humanity is a logical and necessary evolutionary next step for humanity, and we need a new, heroic cosmic faith for the post-human era. Evolution works by creating complexity and diversity, and the only permanent feature of an ever changing universe is the process of change itself. Chu believes that we should create a new wave of sentient beings, our immortal, post-biological, hyper-aware mind children, a new species on the frontier of cosmic evolution that is unimaginably powerful and creative, and pass the baton of cosmic evolution to them.

To stretch our soul and aim for the stars, Chu proposes a “Cosmic View” based on active contemplation of our transcendent destiny and cosmic duty to create our successors, the “Cosmic Beings” who will move to the stars and ignite the universe with hyper-intelligent life.

Chu’s Cosmic View and Butler’s Earthseed can play many of the impersonal, philosophically oriented roles of religion. But they don’t offer belief in a personal God who cares, or hope in afterlife. “The best way to overcome the fear of death,” says Chu, “is to make one’s interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the spiritual walls of the self recede, and one’s life becomes increasingly merged into the universal whole.” This contemplation of self as a small part of the wonderful cosmic adventure of intelligent life and the creation of more and more evolved entities is, indeed, intellectually satisfying and motivating.

But I am afraid that the impersonal, essentially Deist approach of Earthseed and the Cosmic View, may not be emotionally satisfying enough for most people, especially for Westerners with a worldview strongly centered on self. The problem – how to make an impersonal, scientific Deist religion emotionally appealing – is addressed but not solved in Chu’s work. In the story of Lauren Olamina, Butler reaches the point where Lauren begins to persuade early adopters, but then fast-forwards to a point decades in the future where Earthseed has become an established and very successful religious movement.

I am hopeful that future refinements of Butler’s and Chu’s ideas will permit the emergence of “Religion 2.0,” a synthesis of “cold,” scientific, impersonal Deism, and the warm sense of personal hope offered by traditional religions. Terasem, with its cuddly new-age look and feel and its openness to wildly speculative ideas of technological resurrection and afterlife, seems a good first step.