#185 The Sacred Depths of Nature: exploring the interface of science, spirituality and religion with Ursula Goodenough
How do we merge the best of science with an earth-based spirituality that focuses our attention on the thriving of the web of life?
Sometimes the synchronicity of this podcast leaves me very happy. About six months ago, I was thinking that I wanted to talk to someone who really lived at the interface between science and spirituality, where I could begin to sand down some of the rough edges of my own thinking.
And that afternoon, I discovered that the 2nd edition of Professor Ursula Goodenough’s book The Sacred Depths of Nature‘was due to be published in the first half of this year. So we set up a podcast and then it turned out that my calendar management was haywire and I’d booked it for the day after teaching one of the most challenging of the shamanic dreaming courses. Normally I’d give myself several days to come back to something approaching consensus reality. You may think I don’t spend a lot of time in CR as it is, and you’d be right, but there are degrees of my untethering and the day after a dreaming course is not my most tethered.
But in the end, it was magical – really good to re-read Ursula’s book in the evening and then have a quiet day reflecting and exploring things that snagged my attention. And so here we are: Ursula is a Professor of Biology Emerita at Washington University. She has discussed religious naturalism in essays, college classes, and as part of blogs and television and radio productions. She participated in conversations with the Dalai Lama sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute.
She is author of the book, The Sacred Depths of Nature which, examines cosmology, evolution, and cell biology, celebrates the mystery and wonder of being alive, and suggests that this orientation might serve as the basis for “planetary ethic” that draws from both science and religion. And on the basis of this concept, in 2014, Ursula was part of the founding of the Religious Naturalists Association. And now comes the second, updated, edition, that looks into epigenetics and pandemics and generally updates both the science and the moving reflections that each scientific section evokes.
It’s beautiful, thoughtful, and inspiring. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass said of it, “At once expansive and intimate, empirical and immanent, analytical and intuitive, material and spiritual, science and poetry get to dance joyfully together in these pages.” What better encouragement would we need to explore more deeply with the author? So People of the Podcast, please welcome Professor Ursula Goodenough, author of The Sacred Depths of Nature
In 2023, Ursula was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Manda: Hey, people. Welcome to Accidental Gods, to the podcast where we believe that another world is still possible. And that if we all work together, there is time to create the future We would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I’m Manda Scott, your host in this journey into possibility. And once in a while the synchronicity of this podcast leaves me very happy. About six months ago, I was thinking that I wanted to talk to someone who really lived at the interface between science and spirituality, where I could begin to sand down some of the rough edges of my own thinking in conversation with somebody who thinks about these things all the time. On that afternoon, I got an email telling me that the second edition of Professor Ursula Goodenough’s book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, was due to be published in the first half of this year. So we set up a podcast. And then it turned out that my calendar management was as bad as it usually is. And I had booked the recording for the day after a weekend teaching one of the more challenging of the shamanic dreaming courses. And normally I give myself a couple of days, half a week of decompression time to come back to something approaching consensus reality after I’ve been teaching.
And and you may think I don’t spend a lot of time in consensus reality as it is. And you would be right. But there are degrees of my untethering and the day after dreaming course is one far end of the spectrum. But we went ahead and it was magical. It was really good to reread Ursula’s book last night and then have a quiet day to day reflecting and exploring on all the things that had snagged my attention, which were, I have to say, quite different from the things that snagged it first time round. And then to talk to Ursula. And here we are. So to let you know a bit more about Ursula: she is a professor of biology emerita at Washington University in the US. She has discussed religious naturalism in essays in college classes and as part of blogs and podcasts and radio and television. She has also participated in conversations with the Dalai Lama, sponsored by the Mind Life Institute. She is, as we said, author of the seminal book The Sacred Depths of Nature, which examines cosmology and evolution and cell biology, which celebrates the mystery and the wonder of being alive, and suggests that this orientation, the religious naturalist orientation, might serve as the basis for a planetary ethic that draws from both science.
Manda: And religion? I would say spirituality. We didn’t really unpick the distinction between those two, although Ursula has a definition in her book. And based on this concept, in 2014, Ursula was part of founding the Religious Naturalists Association, which now has members in over 50 countries. And then she has updated the book to this second edition, which looks into epigenetics and pandemics and generally updates the science. And I think deepens the moving reflections that each scientific section evokes. It is beautiful and thoughtful and inspiring. And Robin Wall Kimmerer, who wrote Braiding Sweetgrass, said of it: ‘At once expansive and intimate, empirical and imminent analytical and intuitive. Material and spiritual science and poetry get to dance joyfully together in these pages.’ What better encouragement would we need to explore more deeply with the author? So people of the podcast, please do welcome Professor Ursula Goodenough, author of The Sacred Depths of Nature.
Manda: Ursula. Welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Ursula: Pleased to be here.
Manda: I hear you have just been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Congratulations, that woman. That’s an extraordinary accolade.
Ursula: I was very happy.
Manda: How did you hear about that?
Ursula: Oh, there’s a very arcane process. I got a mysterious thing to be on a Zoom link at a certain time. And I went in and all of the people who had been elected were there, and members of the Academy. It was very classy.
Manda: Fantastic. Well done.
Ursula: I had a hint that that might be what it was about but didn’t know for sure.
Manda: Right. Right. That must feel a real vindication.
Ursula: And then I got an email.
Manda: Then you got an email afterwards. Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t believe anything unless you’ve had the email, obviously. Well done. Yeah. And so you’re talking to us from Massachusetts – thank you. And I want to go back to the beginning of the first edition of your book, because clearly I’ve been listening to podcasts broadly with people in the US, and it seems like the first edition of the book made a real impact over there. And I somehow, sadly, sorry, didn’t pick up on it in spite of it being in the field that I was really interested in, which is how do we find that interface between science and the numinous? And you were there. So tell us a little bit about how you came to be the person that wrote the first edition, and then we’ll look at the changes that evolved into the second edition.
Ursula: Okay. So in the beginning of the first edition, there are a couple of pages where I describe that journey. But in in brief, I was just being a scientist and doing my thing, and came upon some people who were interested in asking how our scientific understandings of nature might serve as a story for a religious orientation. So what was its potential? And a guiding light here was a philosopher named Loyal Rue, who had written a book called Amythia, where he decried the absence of any overarching myth in Western civilisation and said that we needed a new one, and the old ones had lots of implausibilities in them that were taking people away. And he suggested that what at that point we were calling the epic of Evolution might have the potential to serve as a religious narrative. And so I picked up on that, since that was a story I knew well, and began exploring it and eventually wrote the book.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. So your father, you grew up in a religious, Christian religious household, and that, is that not true?
Ursula: Well, my father grew up in a strictly Methodist religious household and went to seminary and did all of those things. However, he lost his faith long before I was born. And he studied religion as an academic subject and was fascinated by it. But I was not, you know, immersed in this except as one tradition. He also, his scholarship was actually centred on the Jewish faith. And there were Muslims that would wander in. And, you know, it was it was all very sort of anthropological rather than anything that I was expected to have any faith in. So I certainly knew the stories of those traditions, I guess most Americans do, but I didn’t practice them.
Manda: Okay. That’s clarified things because I wondered how it was that you, I was going to inquire how you broke away. Because by the end of the book, your dad said that he still prayed to kind of Christian entities, even though he didn’t have his faith.
Ursula: Yeah, well, that quote was from a book he wrote, so he meant it. But I think he was speaking metaphor. I think he was saying that as a child, he had this Jesus figure that he could pray to and that he still, even after the Jesus figure had lost its potency in terms of, you know, taking him to heaven or anything, was still a practice that he was able to use psychologically, almost therapeutically, I think he would agree with, rather than that he actually thought that he was communicating with Jesus himself.
Manda: A particular entity.
Ursula: And think I think that’s often the case with people with lapsed faith traditions, that they still participate in the ritual. It still is meaningful to them, even if some of the things that they were taught about it no longer make any sense.
Manda: Yes, Yes. That would be an interesting route to go down. We might get down that in a bit. The historicity of of religions and why… let’s not head there now. Because it’s one of my minor obsessions, but let’s not. Because I’m quite curious still: so you are a scientist, and I imagine that when you began sciences, it wasn’t hugely common for women particularly to be at professorial level in any of the hard core sciences, the kind of material, more material sciences. And you’re in America, which is as Oscar Wilde said, two nations separated by a common language. And viewing the US from the other side of the water, it seems to me that you’re in the middle of a civil war and that it’s actually a religious war, as much as any other kind of a war, in that it seems to me – and you’re perfectly prepared to tell me it’s not the view from where you are – that the hard core, particularly the Christians, are becoming more Flat-earth than they were before, and that the other side are becoming more liberal, possibly, depending on how we define that word. Is that unfair?
Ursula: Well, I mean, if you look at the turn of the century, when my father was growing up, the Christians were incredibly rigid and Victorian, as we called them. And, you know, you weren’t allowed to do anything on Sundays or etcetera. The Pew surveys in America of the last ten, 20 years document, I think without any question that allegiance or attendance, belonging to a particular denomination in the United States is very much falling. So the people who call themselves Christians who have stayed in the church tend to be far more conservative and dogmatic. There are then liberal Protestant denominations in particular and some Catholic ones as well, and certainly Jewish ones where the idea is more liberal and more open. But they aren’t doing all that great. I mean, they’re you know, it’s not something that young people in particular are very interested in pursuing once they get out of the house.
Manda: Right. So that interface where politics and religion collide and combine, we’re getting the extremes being highlighted. All right. We’re going to park that for a bit because it feels not quite as fertile as I thought it might be. What you have written, I’ve only read the second edition, but what we’ve got is a beautifully elegant exposition of science as I understand it, I loved some of the metaphors that you used. I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know, and I thought I was a scientist and I thought I was a biological scientist. so yay. And you very deliberately say in the introduction that you’ve made it as clear as you can for non-scientists. I would like at some point to explore where the edge places may be in terms of what we consider science to be and how hard core it is. But let’s leave that for a moment. You’ve created a science of how we come to be who we are, and it goes from the foundations of the universe all the way through to what makes us human. And that’s one part of the book. And then as every chapter unfolds, you have the reflections on it of what for you are the, I would call spiritual and you call religious, and I think we can unpack that a little bit.
Ursula: It’s spiritual as well.
Manda: Okay. The spiritual implications of something that is not explained by science. We have the wonder and we have the awe, and there is something greater. And my imagining is that when this first came out in 1997, 1998, that that probably upset people on both sides of that divide. And probably also you had a lot of people who were incredibly glad that someone had dared put their head above the parapet and and acknowledged that not everything was hard core science, or not everything was anti-science. How did you experience the impact of that?
Ursula: Well. I’m sure that there were people who read it and disagreed with it and didn’t like it. As it turns out, I didn’t hear from them. So I heard from people who loved it. And it was, you know, an eye-opener and just what they were looking for and yada, yada, yada. So I really can’t comment on the negative. I mean, there were a few sort of academic theologians who wrote articles in theological journals where they tried to point out some of the things that I said about religion that they didn’t agree with. And I think. But, you know, no impact. I’ve read them and okay, go for it.
Manda: You’ve got to justify your existence as an academic theologian, I guess.
Ursula: Yeah. But so I don’t really have any good stories.
Manda: Okay. And I’m thinking also social media didn’t exist in those days. Maybe it was different. And so the second edition has just come out this year. Are you still only getting the people who are really enjoying it, or are you getting some of the flak from the Twitterati?
Ursula: No flak.
Manda: Wow. I’m amazed. All righty. In that case, let’s head back a little bit towards the science. I would really like to delve into the interface. But you’ve done a very elegant job of exploring what makes us human. And there was one particular quote that you mentioned a couple of times from Terrence Deacon: biologically, we are just another ape. Mentally, we are a new phylum of organism. And one of the things that I came across a while ago that has really influenced my thinking is another quote from E.O. Wilson, who says that we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and the technology of Gods. And this is not necessarily a winning combination. And yet mentally we are potentially a new phylum of organism. And that opens up two avenues of questioning for me. First one is how do we get to that? How sure are we that other things are not thinking in the way that we think and we just don’t see it? I used to be a veterinary anaesthetist and in the days when I had a filing cabinet full of papers, which was two moves ago, I had papers from the 70s, from professors at UK universities in peer-reviewed journals stating that babies did not feel pain, because they were incapable of expressing their feeling of pain. Which nowadays you just think, how did that get through? You know, first of all, how did anybody think that, too? They were clearly, you know, probably Victorians, they were probably born in the previous century to your dad.
Manda: And, you know, okay, they’re entitled to think that, although the fact that they’re professor of anaesthesia is a bit sad, because they’re probably practising as if it were true. But how did that ever get past a peer review? I mean, really, in a time when you and I were still alive. But I look back at that and think, a hundred years from now, are people going to be looking at us going, why did they think dolphins were not conscious, or even – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of Joe Lang. He’s a behaviourist and he’s shown that if you set the experiment up right, pigeons do the same thing where they can see a dot in a mirror and will try and rub it off, that previously only people and chimps did. And he’s done some extraordinary experiments with pigeons where he teaches them that if they do a certain thing, a certain coloured light goes on and the green light means you get food, and the red light means you don’t, and the orange light means you don’t know. And you can influence the light of the pigeon in the next box with a perspex barrier between, and he gets pigeons who are basically engaging in tit for tat. I will switch your food off if you don’t switch mine on for me. And it’s incredibly forward thinking, self-reflective behaviour that we previously, if somebody had not set up those and designed those studies, we would have no clue that pigeons were thinking like that. So in your mind with what you know, do you think that we are unique and if so, why?
Ursula: The reason I like Terry’s quote and agree with it, is that what he’s talking about, and that quote comes from his book called The Symbolic Species that he published in the early 2000. And he’s a neurobiologist at University of California, Berkeley, and brilliant. And what his focus in that book, in most of his research career, has been on the fact that we are a symbolic species, that we use language. He distinguishes from communication, which all animals, all organisms do, basically. I mean, bacteria communicate via their quorum sensing molecules and so on. And there’s lots of communication everywhere. So we’re certainly not distinctive at all in our communication propensity. It’s the way that we communicate that’s different. And the way we communicate is via symbolic language. And this language not only has symbols where something represents something else besides itself, as opposed to an icon, for example, but it also has syntax, and all of these other features, so that the symbols can be used to tell a story, to have a narrative, to say that the symbol did this, thought that, felt that, whatever, and go through a narrative process, which is… Everyone I think at this point pretty much agrees that humans, we think in narratives, remember in narratives. We remember our stories.
I think I put in the caveat that there are features of this kind of thinking that one can pick up in dolphins and in some birds, and that’s fine. But, you know, so there’s no reason to think that our acquisition of this mode of communication is strictly unique or strictly just, you know, came out of nowhere. The whole idea of communicating was alive and well in our primate ancestors. But the efforts on the part of people like Sue Savage-Rumbaugh with Kanzi, and with other primatologists working with our closest cousins, makes it very clear that whereas human children are language ready and they pick it up, you know, when they’re two years old, and no sweat, and everything is easy. The manifestations of learning human language that have been recorded in these other very highly trained animals over years and years is that it’s really not at the same level at all as what we do. So we can say that our nonhuman apes had large brains. Ours got a lot larger. And coincident with that, enlargement of the cortex has been the inborn ability to be able to learn languages and communicate with them. And so it was in that sense that Terry came up with his aphorism.
Manda: Okay. I have some ancillary questions, but I can feel that as a rabbit hole. So let’s let’s assume that he’s right. And that we could, we are essentially mentally, and then I think you and I would both argue also potentially spiritually, a new phylum of organism, and perhaps through other branches that would get to a similar place. That’s not impossible. How do you see that unfolding? Let me rephrase that. It seems to me that we are at a number of tipping points of the potential species extinction. And this would be the first time that as far as we know in the history of this planet, that one species has had the capacity to wipe out not only itself, but pretty much a very large swathe of the rest of the biosphere. But if we were able to step over our E.O. Wilson Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and the wrath of our technology, we might evolve into something that was mentally very different. And I am assuming that none of us, not you or me or Terrence, are heading down the pathway of implanting silicon chips and devising a whole new form of bio-silicon based biology. Let’s leave that for other people. How do you envisage us moving down this new phylum path?
Ursula: Okay. Well, it’s not that new. I mean, the current guess as to when Homo Sapiens per se showed up is about 300,000 years ago. There are fossils, at least. So 300,000 years is lots of time actually, and lots of generations. I mean it’s a lot longer period of time than we can really imagine. We can maybe imagine, you know, 10,000 years ago or something. The dawn of agriculture. But 300,000 is a very long time, so a long time to generate the current form of our mind. And by the same token, I’m often asked, as you sort of have, do I think humans are going to evolve into something different? And I don’t think that’s a very relevant question. If we did, it would take a long time just because biological evolution is very slow. And even more importantly is that we live in, create and depend on our cultures. And cultures evolve with and, you know, can evolve instantly. They can, you know, a new kind of toy that kids want to play with. All of a sudden that’s the Toy, right? And a new politician can come on to the screen and, you know, acquire new followers with new ideas in record time. So I think if we’re going to talk about amending or correcting or improving upon what we are, that the place where that’s going to happen is in our cultures.
Manda: Okay. And if it does, so, if you and I were to consider how we might like that to go, or even how it plausibly could go, there is an infinite number of how it could go. But let’s pick some of the ones that are not self-terminating. Have you any concept of how that cultural emergence might be, what that might look like?
Ursula: Well, sure. It would be the… in addition to all of the traditional religions and wisdom traditions and everything that we have come through our cultures and that are very important to us and that we revere, and that I think we should revere, that humans would adopt something along the lines of a religious naturalist orientation where they see the natural world for what it is, and how it works, and are awed and grateful and reverent towards those understandings, and realise that in order to take care of the place, we have to hold that those understandings, as I would say, religious understandings. And if that were to happen globally, I think we would be in much better shape than we are now for sure.
Manda: Okay. Several points in that, because basically you just articulated the thesis of this podcast. So this is a really fertile and interesting place. Tell us a little bit about the Religious Naturalist Association, which Jeremy Lent very handily pointed out that I hadn’t spotted: its RNA, or its initials. Well done. Tell us what it is and what its basic premise is, or what it holds to be true.
Ursula: Okay, so. the Religious Naturalist Association is an online thing with in America, we call them 501C3. It’s a non-profit status that we applied for and were accorded. So we’re tax exempt. And so religious groups in general are nonprofits. But of course there are many others that are working for many other causes. And so RNA is simply an online entity that persons who feel, consider themselves to be religious naturalists by whatever name become a member, you just join for free. Okay? And we have a monthly newsletter, and we have a website where we try to put up other readings and lots of different authors and poets and stuff too, that articulate this perspective. And that’s it.
Manda: But you’ve essentially founded this. You’re, and you’re certainly.
Ursula: I did it with two other people who were already had were already believers, if you will. And a fourth quickly joined us who did all of our web stuff. And then we just started, you know, getting members, gathering people. And there was a board of directors. And the bylaws say that the board of directors elect a president, and they elected me as president.
Manda: So you happen to be the president.
Ursula: There I am.
Manda: How long has it been running? How long have you been up and going?
Ursula: Well, we started in 2014.
Manda: And can you just say again, what is it that makes a religious naturalist a religious naturalist, as opposed to anything else that they could potentially be?
Ursula: So as we said earlier, we humans are storytellers, and humans, I believe, need a large story to orient their life around, or a series of stories. But these large stories are usually found in what are called our religious traditions. And so the story of the religious naturalist is what we’re calling everybody’s story, because it applies to all humans and all non-humans and all beings. It’s the whole shebang. So everybody’s story is something that a person who considers themselves to be a naturalist would agree is their story, that they have taken this in, they go all the way down, and that a religious naturalist then explores the religious potential of this story, As Loyal Rue first suggested that we do in his book in the 90s. So then we have to say, what does it mean? What does the word religious mean? And there are as many versions of that as there are people who’ve asked the question, I guess.
But I have come up with being religious as entailing three activities. One is to explore interpretations of the story. What does the story mean? How does it answer questions that I have? Why is there anything at all rather than nothing being an obvious one? Um, and what does it tell me about death? What does it tell me about the meaning of life? These are sort of existential, philosophical, theological, if you will, questions that one can ask of the story and find orientation within. The second approach to the story I call spiritual. And these are inner feeling states, emotional responses. And so spiritual responses might include awe, wonder, gratitude, reverence, joy, assent, responsibility, all sorts of you know, internal ways. And in the traditional religions, our spiritual responses are typically elicited via art, ritual, poetry, song and dance, ways of telling the story that make one feel it, if you will. And the traditions are full of wonderful stuff along those lines. And then the third would be an external response to the story: a communal response, a moral response, ethical response. What does this story tell me about how I should be in community? And then I go on to talk about eco moral, where eco moral, as its name implies, indicates how one behaves morally with respect to the entire planetary matrix.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. So first question, before we head into the spiritual things, how do you define a naturalist? Because over here, it feels a bit like a kind of Victorian gentleman who wanders around with a net and catches butterflies, and then kills them and pins them out.
Ursula: Well, that’s what comes to mind with the term naturalist. And I sort of welcome that, because that naturalist isn’t scary to anybody.
Manda: Unless you’re a butterfly. But yes.
Ursula: And it does certainly carry that implication. And I’ve gone ahead and suggested that we also use the word for someone who also cares where the butterfly came from, and how it flies, and what its colours mean, and what kind of sexual practices it does. And I think that the, maybe not the Victorian naturalist, because they didn’t, he presumably didn’t have much information along those lines. But nowadays, our naturalists and our birdwatchers and all these other people are intensely interested in how the animals that they’re following work. And the same is true of people who are naturalists in the plant world. They want to know about how the trees work. So I think that it’s not pushing it too far to say that a naturalist is someone who pays attention, takes to mind nature in all of its guises. All the way down.
Manda: And I was wondering, had you come from it through nature? And rather, because otherwise, your book is really intensely scientific. It’s beautiful, but there’s physics and biochemistry in there, and genetics and neuroscience, and so you could have called it the Religious Scientists Association. But I wondered if that then doesn’t have the natural.
Ursula: Science is a very different word in my vocabulary. So science is a method. It’s asking questions of nature. And one asks the questions of nature in a form that has come to be called the scientific method, although scientists at the bench don’t really say, Aha, now I’m going to formulate a hypothesis, and I’m going to test the hypothesis, and I’m going to have controls. But anyway, it’s a way of asking questions of nature where when the answers come back, the way the question was asked and the nature of the answer is such that others can evaluate it, can test it, can repeat it, can deepen it, can show that it’s wrong. I mean, there’s lots of things that happen.
Manda: When it works right.
Ursula: Yeah. And to call it, I mean, I hear ‘science’ and ‘religion’ all the time. And science is used in a very loose way to sort of imply our understandings of nature, but I try to avoid using it. So I say science-basedunderstandings of nature is what I’m really interested in.
Manda: Right? Yes. Which is a big difference.
Ursula: That’s my phrase. Yeah.
Manda: And so then nature becomes a very, very large set and the science understanding is quite a small subset within that.
Ursula: And you know, there’s another whole part of nature, which is humans and human societies and human cultures, and we have social sciences that approach how those things work, in the same way that the natural sciences ask questions of sort of non-human nature. But those social sciences, of course, huge.
Manda: All the sciences are huge. Any science is as huge as the number of people who choose to explore it, I think it’s an exponential function. On that topic, while we’re here, because this is something that I’m just curious about, and I genuinely don’t know the answer. But let’s take a backtrack of where the question is coming from. I don’t know enough of the science that you unfold in your book to know where the blurry edges are. There are bits of science where I know exactly where the blurry edges are because I’ve been in them, and the edges are incredibly blurry and a lot of the science is incredibly bad, and not repeatable. And if it is repeatable, it’s repeatable because people fudge the numbers the same way the first guys fudge the numbers, because they want to prove that the first guys were right and not wrong. And we could go into examples of that. But just before we came on line, I showed you the book that I’m reading at the moment, which is called Birch by Lucy Cooke, and it’s hilarious. People, I will put it in the show notes. I will also put the RNA in the show notes and everything else you’ve mentioned. But as an exposition of how people’s prejudices were dressed up as hard core science and maintained for a long time. So, for instance, there’s a lovely story of the dunnock. And some Victorian naturalist scientists decided that the dunnock was a perfectly good example of how women should behave, because the female dunnock was very chaste and very monogamous and behaved in a good way, and was an example to all women.
Manda: And it took until this millennium for people who’d been saying for over a hundred years, you know, that’s not actually right, and having their careers destroyed, until people were able to get DNA and show that actually the female dunnock is basically having sex with anything that’ll move while the male is on the nest, helping to hatch eggs that most of which are not his. But that wasn’t acceptable to the heteropatriarchal society of the scientists of the time, which is to say right through the 20th century. And so people who suggested that their observations found something different were just removed. And so I know that in that particular instance, and this book is full, it’s hilarious, actually, of all these things that are quietly being overturned now. And I know in the field of anaesthesia, I’ve watched people fudge things that were fundamentally untrue, but they fitted the narrative. And so they went into the canon and people cite them. And that’s how you produce canons. And yet you and I are talking to each other across thousands of miles on computers that exist because the semiconductor chip does work. People may have fudged the science somewhere, but it’s actually a functional thing. And people were capable of writing code that worked. They weren’t busy fudging that. And so we can talk to each other. So I’m not suggesting that all science is rubbish, because quite clearly it isn’t. But a lot of science is on very weak foundations. How do you go about finding the stuff that you can trust?
Ursula: Well, I would say that science sits on weak foundations that’s speculative, that’s describing what it is that the person who’s articulating the particular idea, how he or she wants it to go, is not science. You know, that’s pretty….
Manda: Yeah, but a lot of the scientific community will claim that it is.
Ursula: Well, I disagree with them. I mean, whoever they are, you can bring them in and we can have a conversation.
Manda: But you have to know it well enough to know that. This is what I’m saying. I don’t know anything that you’ve got in your book. I don’t know it well enough to go well, yeah, but I’m not sure I agree with that little tiny bit because it’s, you would need to know each bit in enough depth to be able to pick it apart.
Ursula: I worked very hard to make sure that the science, scientific understandings that I present in the book are ones that are agreed upon by the people who are in the field.
Manda: Across a fairly broad spectrum of whatever the field is.
Ursula: Well, yeah, exactly. So cover a lot of fields and checked out my facts really carefully.
Ursula: Which is not to say that these understandings are complete. Okay? So in fact, if you’re a scientist, you’d be out of a job if all the understandings were complete. Right? Because there’d be nothing to do. And instead, that’s not the case. You do experiments and you have a project and in in your fantasies and hopefully in real life, you make a discovery that you then check and everything, and publish. And people say, I don’t believe Fig. 3 and you have to repeat Fig. 3 with a different control. So, you know, you finally get this discovery out there. People start to cite it and it becomes part of the canon. But in making that discovery, what has really happened is that while you’ve opened the door and seen something that hasn’t been appreciated before, what you see is a whole lot of closed doors. Okay? Because that just shows you what is the next question. And that’s why scientists are still in business, is because there are always plenty of questions. And these edges are where we work. And if you’re at an edge and you’re working to try to ask questions that will generate discovery about how that edge is put together, you’re doing science.
Ursula: If you see an edge and you say, ah, well the scientists haven’t figure this out yet, so let me tell you what I think it is. You’re not doing science then, you’re, you’re forming an opinion. And it’s as valid as having an opinion of a Picasso. I mean, you know, others may agree or disagree with it or whatever, but there’s no reason to think that it’s what Picasso had in mind, and what he was trying to do. You know, a lot of a number of the people who do this edge work, we can call it that, and come up with statements such as? Since we don’t understand this, therefore it must. I think it works in such and such a way that. It is true that some of those people have PhDs and can show up on television wearing white lab coats. Let me say something else, though, that I think is important for us all to remember, and that is that we have. A huge system of verification of scientific understandings precisely in our technology. So technology is taking science based understandings of nature, how nature works, and using that understanding to make something.
Ursula: So when you make something based on that understanding and it works and it becomes a telephone or a drug or whatever the technology is, this is a big verification of the science, right?
Manda: Yeah. Delete drugs from that, to be honest. But yeah, we could. That’s probably a whole separate discussion. Some drugs work. And some drugs don’t work nearly as well as they tell you.
Ursula: They work, we have penicillin. So we, you know, save millions of lives. So we can all be happy about penicillin. And so the fact that we have these technological, I’ll call them verifications or, you know, things that emerge from scientific understandings of nature is, I think, a very important reason to take science seriously.
Manda: Yeah, I wasn’t at any point suggesting that we didn’t.
Ursula: Oh, I’m not saying you don’t, but I mean…
Manda: Some people don’t.
Ursula: Yes, there are lots of people that don’t.
Manda: Yes, yes, yes. And there are also lots of people who I know write novels. And there are people who make academic careers out of literary theory and pretend that it’s a science, which frankly drives me crazy because that’s effectively suggesting that having an opinion about somebody’s book is somehow scientific. But let’s not go there. I’ll get too many emails from people and it’ll all be a horrible car crash. So I want to have a quick peek into the world of Rupert Sheldrake because I find your work and his work to be very complimentary. And he has something. He says this ‘The Big Bang Theory, originally called The Theory of the Primaeval Atom was first proposed in 1927 by a Catholic priest, as Terence McKenna expressed it. What Orthodoxy teaches us about time is that the universe sprang from utter nothingness in a single moment. It’s almost as if science said, Give me one free miracle. And from there, the entire thing will proceed with a seamless causal explanation.’ And that seems to me to get to the heart of, I think, what the Religious Naturalist Association are saying and you are saying, which is science can only take us so far. And then there is the numinous impact of the whole of a world that actually we only understand a very tiny amount. History hasn’t ended. Science is not over. The guy in IBM who said he could only think of one use for a computer and you’d only ever need one in the world have all been wrong. And we will, if the human race continues, continue to discover things forever. Do you have theories in your own exploration of your ideas of the world of what preceded a big bang or where it might be going?
Ursula: Absolutely not. So the reflection of the first chapter where I present the Big Bang and all of cosmology in a few pages, the reflection is that what I am perfectly happy with is the concept of mystery. And so I call it a covenant with mystery. Okay? And I’m happy, perfectly happy to agree with any physicist that we don’t know what happened before the Big Bang or how to even talk about before the Big Bang, and that there are many things about the universe: where did the laws of physics come from? Those kinds of questions that I don’t have an answer to. And what I try to suggest is that I’m not interested in having an answer either. If if one were to come, if I were to pick up The New York Times tomorrow and the Big Bang was explained, I’d of course read every word…
Manda: And be seriously impressed.That would be impressive.
Ursula: t I’m not getting up in the morning waiting for that. And instead, I’m very happy with the fact that there are things that we don’t understand about why there’s anything at all. And I don’t need to look for a point. I don’t need to look for a creator. I don’t need to look for a reason. It’s just not part of my religious quest. I just say, okay, mystery. Now let’s see what happened on planet Earth.
Manda: Okay. Yeah. I would really hope that would be published in Nature before the New York Times. And if it happens, you and I will be having another podcast.
Ursula: The New York Times would be reporting paper.
Manda: Yeah. Definitely. All righty. So let’s get to the heart of your book, which is that interface between science and spirituality. And the place where we as human beings can stand. Acknowledging and celebrating the scientific understandings that have got us to where we are in the 21st century and still acknowledging and celebrating the mystery of the world outside. I love that all the way through your book, you’ve got lots of poems, but you’ve got lots by Mary Oliver. It seems to me that she is basically the poet laureate of your entire movement. And I just wanted to quote one, because there’s so many of hers that all the time, Wild Geese and all the others, everybody hears all the time. But this is one of the less often quoted ones. I’m just going to read a tiny bit of it.
‘When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily. I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment, and never hurry through the world but walk slowly, and how often around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, “Stay awhile.”
Manda: And I think apart from the fact that I think Mary Oliver was a genius and I am so, so glad that she wrote what she wrote. How do you experience that?
Ursula: How do I experience my walk in the woods? Or…
Manda: Or the magnificence of the mystery?
Ursula: Okay, well, when I use the word mystery, I’m talking about things that we don’t understand. By definition. Okay?
Manda: But you’re talking also about their capacity to impact the human soul, because there’s a lot of things we don’t understand that might not impact our soul. I don’t understand Donald Trump, but it doesn’t necessarily give me a spiritual uplift.
Ursula: Okay. What I mean is things about the universe in particular, as well as the infinitesimal, the quantum world, which is equally mysterious and not at all understood in many ways. Those are, the infinite and the infinitesimal are the places where I walk in mystery. When I’m on the planet, when I’m experiencing the Earth and its creatures, I realise that while there are many things about the Earth and its creatures that are left to be discovered, and that we haven’t yet discovered, I feel like where I do orient myself and base myself is in what we have discovered. We know an awful lot about Earth’s history and about how life works and genes and all that other stuff, and that fills me with things to think about and feel about and take to heart. So I think that, I wouldn’t want to call myself bipolar or anything, but I do think that these are two different ways of experiencing nature. One, in terms of gee, we don’t understand that, and that’s mysterious and woo woo. And maybe it even scares me – versus these are the things we do understand. And how cool is that? How wonderful are those understandings? How reverent they make me feel about what is sacred.
Manda: Okay. And that was what I was trying to get to the heart of was how reverent they make you feel about what is sacred.
Ursula: That’s my religion. I mean that’s what a naturalist does, is that orientation in the natural world, as the religious naturalist experiences it and understands it and takes to heart.
Manda: Brilliant and beautiful. Thank you. So you have some quite interesting perspectives on time in your book. And you said near the top of the podcast that humanity had been around for about 300,000 years. Let’s just take that as a ballpark and lock it in. And we can argue the edges if we want to. When I first got to know about you, I had recently, Tom Murphy had done a mapping of time onto other time, it doesn’t really matter. I recently sat down and mapped the 300,000 years of human existence onto a 30 year lifespan because I thought it was a useful way of getting our head around things. And so for the first 25 years of humanity, a person who might be coming to the island of Britain, because that’s where I live, is in Africa. And then they and their cousins leave Africa and gradually come up. And the Romans invade on the last day of October of their 29th year. Let’s assume that they’re born on the 1st of January because it makes it all easy. And it seems to me that most of the current world religions, certainly the Abrahamic religions, the ones imposed by Rome on everywhere else, and then spread.
Ursula: Except the Jews.
Manda: Yes. Yes. But grew out of that. And then the Romans exported them and and everything else evolved out of that. They’re incredibly, I mean, that is, it’s like two months at the end of our 29th year of our 30 year existence. They’re a flash. The cult of ISIS lasted at least 3000 years, probably longer. When the Romans came to Britain, they crushed a spiritual inheritance that seemed to have continuity back many thousands of years. When we look at the cave paintings in the south of France, they were continually being updated for a span of 25,000 years. So one can assume that the people who were going in and out of these caves had at least some lineage that made it worth going into the same cave and and updating the paintings a little bit. And yet we are locked in. If the thesis is right that we might be becoming mentally a new phylum of humanity, we’re locked in this mental state where our capacity to access time is so incredibly tiny that we think capitalism, which I would say arose with the Romans in the UK, is the way the world is. That the religious ethos that the West has ingrained and then spread around the world is the way the world is, and is the way that religion functions. And yet in indigenous cultures and every continent of the world, that’s not how religion functions. And you have quoted quite a lot in your book from indigenous spiritual leaders. And what I think I heard you say earlier on was that if we were to embrace the indigenous worldview, then we might move into this new mental phylum in a way that was not going to terminate us. First of all, is that a fair assessment? And second, my big question and this is a question I ask a lot of people, so if you have no answer, I will not be surprised, but I’d be delighted if you did – is how do we get the bulk of humanity to there?
Ursula: To become religious naturalists? Is that what you’re asking?
Manda: If that’s what you want to call it? Yes, I have a little bit of unpicking to do about that, but yes, yes, essentially.
Ursula: Okay. So the indigenous traditions, the pagan traditions in Great Britain, Stonehenge, that I visited a few years ago, and it’s wonderful… so, you know, all of that is very nature based. And of course the people who were developing those stories were people who lived in the natural world, and whether they farmed or hunted and gathered or all of the above. Their stories, by definition, came out of that context. That’s, you know, what they’re trying to understand. And interestingly, those traditions are all very anthropomorphic. So the goddesses, even the cave paintings, while they just depict animals – some of the cave paintings have humans, but not many. Most are just animals -but they are reflections, and created by humans who were seeking large stories and putting their spiritual sensibilities into those effigies and those rituals and whatever, that had meaning and that brought the group together, which is, I think a key thing that religions do, is to supply a common story, and therefore a common basis for moral engagement and understanding. And so if we take the American Indian traditions, which are highly diverse and not at all a one Thing, let alone how we from the outside go in and try to interpret what they’re trying to say. It’s of course not the case that capitalism is part of it because capitalism wasn’t it wasn’t on their screen, right?
Manda: It would be hard, actually, yes. I would say mutually incompatible.
Ursula: You know, the wampum kind of was involved in exchanging, but the point of life wasn’t how much wampum you had. And so the economic and political systems that you’re talking about, I see as very different from religious systems. I mean, a lot of people say, oh, capitalism is the religion of the world. And I don’t think it qualifies as a religion at all. It’s a way of going about…
Manda: But it gives a value system. If your profit motive is what drives everything, and the destruction of the external world doesn’t matter, if what matters is that you make a profit, then the impact on the world still creates a sense of tribalism, I would say. So there’s an external impact, and there’s that sense of cohesion that people get when they’re part of a worldview that says the only thing that matters is growth.
Ursula: Okay. Well, I don’t think that the only thing that matters is growth, in any sense of the word. But that doesn’t feel to me like a religious system.
Manda: Okay. And I don’t want to start splitting that particular hair. It’s not worth it.
Ursula: It doesn’t have a spiritual component to it. It’s about fear. It’s about greed. It’s about all sorts of….
Manda: But its impact on the world is profound.
Ursula: Well, fine. But I mean, Genghis Khan had a big impact on the world, too, I mean, as he marched through Asia. I mean, there are lots of ways of impacting the world that aren’t religious. You know, we could probably spend a week on this, but this is….
Manda: This is not a useful thread to go down. Let’s let’s reframe that then, because what I’m trying to get to is, so I exist in a modern, contemporary shamanic world, which would be pantheistic. And we haven’t explored the difference between non-theistic and atheistic, which I think is interesting. And you can perhaps explain that in a second. But leaving that aside, I think you and I have quite a lot in common, which is that we both hold a belief – and beliefs can always be tested, and they can be wrong. But let’s stick with it – that if humanity writ large, we’re able to connect with the web of life in a way that felt real, and was then Oliver actions, and our value systems and our morals and our ethics and our philosophy arose out of that spiritual connection and the understanding that that was what mattered in life, then humanity would be in a very different place. I think we might be heading down that new phylum route. However, my question always is: given that we exist in the middle of a system that does not believe that, and some people will fight quite hard to make sure that we never believe that, how does that belief spread? Because you and I are not into evangelism. We’re certainly not into fighting people out of canons, or tying them at stakes and burning them if they don’t believe what we believe.
Ursula: I think it spreads via evangelism, if you use the word in the way I do, which is to talk about it, write books about it, have podcasts about it, have circles. I mean, you know, have shamanistic retreats. I mean, it’s one person at a time and there are huge capitalistic headwinds. So I am not in any way minimising that. But you can either say, well, the headwinds are so strong that screw it, I’m just going to, I don’t know what you do instead, but I’m not going to try to change the world because it’s impossible. You just don’t take that point of view. And it is for sure, I mean, I’m 80 years old, and so throughout my lifetime eco sensibility, starting with Silent Spring and with all sorts of other pioneers, people who waved red flags and said, No, no, no, this isn’t the way we’re supposed to do that, has definitely been increasing. I mean, it is not decreasing in any way. I mean, when I was a kid, they used to spray our neighbourhoods with DDT trucks and we kids would run along the back of these trucks, because there was so much fun!
Manda: And you got to 80 and you’re still alive!
Ursula: I’m still alive! But, you know, maybe a lot of people aren’t for that reason. And the point is that our parents never told us not to do that. And there’s no parent that would ever allow that to happen now. I mean, we can come up with countless examples where people are putting solar on the roofs. And I mean, you know, there’s lots of stuff happening. And so it’s sort of a glass half full, glass half empty proposition. And I’m very much a glass half full kind of person, I think. I think that these understandings are having an impact. They are truths that our children understand and our young people understand much more than even when I was writing the first edition, it to me is very encouraging and even exciting that these ideas are developing and taking hold.
Manda: And you’re seeing that happen in real time.
Ursula: Yeah. You must be, too. I mean, you know, you can’t ignore it! You know, and that it’s not complete yet is goes without saying. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. And that’s the best we can do is to as individuals, as groups, as associations, as religious orientations, that we do everything we can to help it along.
Manda: Yes, absolutely. Are you seeing a step change in applications to the Religious Naturalist Association? Because one would hope that’s the case.
Ursula: We’re doing great. And I mean, great is I think we have 1000 members from 50 states and 50 countries, I think. So it’s coming in all sorts of places. There’s a group called the Atheopagans. Have you ever heard of those?
Ursula: No. How do you get to be an atheopagan?
Ursula: You just say you are. It’s the same thing as being.
Ursula: Yeah, but pagans are polytheists, are they not? Is it pretty much the definition of being a pagan, is being a polytheist.
Ursula: Mark Green started out in in pagan traditions, and he felt uncomfortable with, you know, what he would probably call the woo part of it, where the crystal is going to actually make your life better. And so he decided that you could have the pagan rituals and the seasonal ceremonies and all of that, without the belief in the supernatural. And so that’s what he’s doing. And there are 5000 people in there. So they’re really going strong and have a big Facebook presence and everything. So there are lots of ways to skin this cat.
Manda: My mind is boggled.This is because I just spent the weekend… yeah, anyway… I’m genuinely trying to imagine how you do that without connecting to the Gods of the Land. Because for me, the whole point of anything that we would very loosely pile into the kind of pagan pot is that you’re actually connecting to the Gods of the Land, and the way that has tangible impact on the rest of your life. Because otherwise why would you bother? But maybe people like the ceremonies.It’s fine.
Ursula: He has written a book and he has a website that I’ll shoot you.
Manda: Yeah, we’ll put it in the show notes because, hey, people might want to do that.
Ursula: Yeah. So the question is, you know, do the Gods in a pagan or indigenous view where, you know, Gods are more often called spirits, I guess, but whatever.
Manda: We can have that conversation offline.
Ursula: Language will mess us up every time, but –
Manda: This is where symbols become a problem rather than an actual source.
Ursula: But certainly the ancestors in the indigenous traditions that I’m familiar with are hugely important and they’re real. Okay? And so the question of whether one takes the importance of one’s ancestors as metaphor or as real is, to my mind, not very interesting. People who find a religious home in the reality of gods, spirits, ancestors, whatever and find meaning in that, that’s true of a lot of my friends. It’s true of my daughter. You know, I’m not in any way trying to talk them out of that, in any way. It’s just, it turns out I can’t go there.
Manda: Okay, so that’s, we need to stop shortly. But this is really interesting. So I exist in a world where I connect with the web in whatever way I understand it in the moment. And that is a very evolving thing, particularly when I’ve just finished teaching a weekend. But the connection feels like plugging into something, and then the whole of my existence is simply asking of that, What do you need me to do in this moment? and trying to do it. And that is how life is, and that is the expression of my spirituality. And so what I’m hearing from you is that you have a spiritual experience, which is one of, I believe, awe and wonder. But it doesn’t, it’s not a two way thing? It’s not a reciprocal thing? Is that right? Is that what I just heard you say?
Ursula: Oh, no. I mean, the the creatures and the ecosystems and everything are fully real. It’s just that for me, my reverence for them is for them as they are, and not as manifestations of spiritual entities.
Manda: And not manifestations of a greater spiritual reality which can offer any kind ofguidance or help or support, or with which you could build a relationship.
Manda: But you have a relationship with nature, with the natural world.
Ursula: I have a full relationship with nature. But nature, you know, another animal, for example, or a tree, you know, I’m not sure I have a relationship with bacteria, but…
Manda: You have a microbiome. I would suggest you have a very strong relationship with bacteria. It depends how conscious it is.
Ursula: So actually, the critter that I worked with all my life is a eukaryote. It’s an alga, so it’s green. It lives in the soil. It’s called Chlamydomonas. I spent hours watching it under the microscope, seeing how it does its thing, how it does sex, how it grows, what it looks like when it’s dying, what it looks like when it’s mutant. I totally inhabited that world. It didn’t feel to me like it gave a bleep about me.
Manda: But if you went and sat under a tree and were to extend your spiritual awareness to the treeness of the tree.
Manda: You feel nothing? You don’t feel any kind of two way connectedness to that?
Ursula: No, that’s the part that doesn’t happen to me. And I don’t think I’m alone.
Manda: Okay, but it’s redefining what I thought you were meaning by religious, then.
Ursula: What I would love to say is that I would match my reverence for that tree with your reverence for a tree as being similar in spirit, and importantly, generating the same outcome, which is a reverence and a need to preserve, protect. Everything about that tree as fully important as I am. We are co creatures in the planetary matrix. So whether one makes that move to something that we can call extra in one’s relationship to the tree is is an extra that I don’t engage in. But you and I are fully as in our embeddedness in scientific understandings are also fully in awe, and grateful for their root systems and their leaves and the way they propagate. And you know, all of their treeness is important. And then you add something in addition.
Ursula: And I don’t.
Manda: Yeah, I’m not suggesting you have to. I’m just reconfiguring.
Ursula: We can all walk hand in hand. And then I go to your ceremonies. I mean, I love circles. I love to be with people who are having this experience. It’s just, you know, I don’t want to fake it and it doesn’t happen to me.
Ursula: And I’m not alone.
Manda: No, no. And if in your not aloneness, it’s the people who have the reverence, but it’s it’s kind of a one way all going out, but nothing coming in. So…
Ursula: Well, nothing in, in terms of the tree speaking to me. Let’s put it that way. I mean the tree’s magnificence, the tree’s essence is coming to me. But it’s coming to me as a tree and not as… I don’t use the language. It’s used in the circles that I go to where the tree is speaking.
Manda: Yeah, I don’t think I would use that language either, probably. I think we’re down to that very, very fine difference. And it may be semantic and it may be symbolic.
Ursula: It’s not semantic, it’s symbolic. I think it’s very important. I think that the people on your side of the aisle, if you will, that connection, that sense of being given back is very important to your religious life. And I envy it in a way. It would be nice if I could go there, but I can’t. It hasn’t happened yet, maybe.
Manda: But also your side of the aisle, the people are less likely to kill to defend it. It seems to me that one of the things that people get really violent about is defending a belief system which has no tangible basis. So I wrote a series of Roman era spy novels in which I think I discovered the historical basis for Christ, who was actually three separate people whose stories got crushed together. The only time I’ve been in the company and been talking about this and had people get incredibly angry, oh, that and suggesting to the French that Joan of Arc might not have been who they thought she was. But, you know, each of these things, and it isn’t hard, you know, this is history, is a set of belief systems. But when you can put certain things together and go, look, guys, this makes a narrative, and your narrative is shot full of holes. I’m sorry. Just because you believe it very, very strongly does not make it true. And it certainly doesn’t mean that the world happened the way you happen to stitch it together. People will kill other people incredibly nastily in defence of a belief system, where they wouldn’t touch them for anything else. And so I always look at for me, the difference between religious and spirituality is that spirituality is an imminent experience in the moment, but I don’t need anybody else to feel that. And I particularly don’t need anybody else to share my belief systems. And I’m absolutely not going to encourage anyone to kill anybody else nastily in defence of our belief systems. What you’re experiencing, if I’m hearing it right, as a religious naturalist, is something where there is no belief system over which people can fight and that probably is really valuable, if it’s enough for people.
Ursula: Yeah, there’s nothing in it that condones violence of any sort. But if it came down to it, I would, I don’t know whether I would use violence, but I would certainly use every power of my being to protect an endangered habitat or an endangered species, or any of that stuff.
Manda: But we’re in a system where we’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction. We’re losing species at a terrifying rate Ursula: Again, so you know, the fact that this is happening doesn’t mean that my puny, if you will, effort to do something about an endangered species should therefore be written off because it’s so stupid, and it’s a reason why we’re having these podcasts. It’s, I mean, you say in your autobiographical stuff online that you started doing what you were doing here because you wanted to make a difference. You wanted to have your presence on this planet go in a trajectory that you fully believed in as being real and true. And that’s where I am, too. And I don’t think that the particulars of how we frame the the spiritual. dimension are nearly as important as that. We consider the natural world to be our spiritual home.
Manda: Okay. Final question, because I hear you on that. Yes. And I think we’re agreeing. Okay. Totally. I was just thinking that your system, that does not require that people hear anything, is probably more dispersible. But so the final question is: we are in the 21st century. There are no circumstances that I can see, where we’re going to move back towards the way our ancestors lived, at a time when the majority of people living on the globe had indigenous thinking. We’re going to have to move forward into something new that is a concatenation of the world that we’re in at the moment. And this belief that the natural world really matters. Do you have a ‘succinct enough that we can say it within the space of the ending of the podcast’ vision of how that world might look and function if we were to get there?
Ursula: Well. It would focus on sustainability, about taking care of the place. It would have answers to the enormous question, the one that Ed Wilson lifts up in one of his books of, ‘How do we preserve habitats and still have habitats that humans can live in?’ And he proposed that half the planet be human free. And while that was, you know, we can laugh and say, yeah, right. I found that as an incredibly interesting challenge. It’s kind of like the challenge of Christ to be Christ-like. I mean, it’s a challenge that even if we don’t go there, the vision of having humans really understand that they are critters who happen to have evolved on this planet with these particular kinds of minds that can do these particular things, doesn’t in any way elevate us to a state where we can take the place over. And that’s, as we’ve said throughout our conversation, the question of how long that will take, what that will take to get into people’s skulls, what kinds of education there would need to be, what kind of political leadership there would have to be, what kind of economy there would be entailed in that kind of world, are questions that lots of people are asking, lots of people are talking about. This is, you know, I went to a climate change fair yesterday on my island, and there were just booths all over the place and everybody had, you know, this way of doing the water and this way of doing the wetlands and this way of deciding what vehicle to purchase. And, you know, there were thousands of people there. It’s hard for me to get too discouraged when I come back from that.
Manda: No, no, I absolutely do not intend to discourage you at all. I just want the way forward. I think it’s grand, and you’re right. You know, I think five years ago, this podcast would not have existed for very long, because I don’t think there would have been people who could engage with the depth and the breadth that it requires. And now you’re going to fairs where people are engaging with that breadth and depth in real time.It’s grand.
Ursula: My heroes are not only Wilson, but I’d say Greta Thunberg had a huge impact on particularly the young people. I think that Bill McKibben and 350.org, I mean lots of these things that started out in the last 10 to20 years and now have thousands and millions of people that are familiar with it. I mean that’s, that’s big.
Manda: Yeah. Yeah.
Ursula: And one can join 350.org and follow Greta without calling oneself a religious naturalist or a pagan or a pantheist. I mean, you know, the way that we describe our religious orientation and experience our religious orientation is very important to us individually, but it’s also very important to keep in mind to keep our eye on the prize, which is that we take care of the place, and turn things around so that we’re not careening toward disaster. There are lots of ways to go that way. And the way I and you are choosing, which is a more spiritual/religious route, is just one of them.
Manda: Hm. Yeah, that’s true. There are secular ways… and we’re not going to get in the way for sure. I was just trying to find the bill McKibben quote about your book. I will find it and put it into the intro, because it was fantastic. Okay, Ursula, I think we are definitely out of time. Thank you so much. Is there anything that you would like to say finally? I mean, it sounded to me like that was pretty good. But if there’s anything else…
Ursula: No, I love it.
Manda: All righty. And I will put the Religious Naturalist Association in the show notes alongside everything else so that people can come and join you. I think that would be grand?
Ursula: Fantastic. Great to talk to you.
Manda: Super. Thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. And that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Ursula for the depth of her thinking and its clarity and for taking the time to rewrite the book and put in all the extra bits that bring it up to date for now, in terms of the science and in terms of the thinking about how we can become a spiritual culture. Which if you listen to this podcast for more than about five minutes, you will know is basically where we’re heading to. Just sometimes we put some data points around the outside to help us understand why it is that we need to get there. And then at other times, we really begin to explore some of the harder questions that don’t have concrete answers. Like, what’s it all about? Why are we here and how do we connect into the web of life in ways that will make a difference? And again, if you’ve listened for any length of time, you’ll know that I am totally there with Ursula that we need to expand this concept of ecospirituality, eco morality, I don’t care what we call it, religious naturalism. If that works for you, that’s grand. Although if that is a one way thing, I think for me I need the reciprocity. But you can’t fake it. She’s completely right. And if it’s not there, it’s better that we are in absolute awe of the natural world and work with it in whatever way we can, rather than trying to fake some kind of connection.
Manda: Lots of people do that. It’s extremely bad news and very unpleasant to be around. So, yeah, let’s not. So I’m going away to gradually return to something approaching consensus reality insofar as I ever do, and hope that you can go and explore Ursula’s work. There are links in the show notes. It’s a beautiful book. There’s all kinds of really thoughtful stuff in there. And I learned a bunch of science that I absolutely didn’t know. And here was I thinking I was a scientist somewhere buried underneath all the rest. So it’s good. Go out and get it. It’s grand. And I will put links in the show notes to the RNA and to other stuff that we mentioned. And in the meantime, we will be back next week with another conversation. Thank you to Caro C for the sound production and the music at the head and foot to Faith Tillery for the website and for taking me to Wales to look at a puppy. Thank you also to Ann Thomas for the transcripts. And as always, thank you for being there and for caring enough to listen. And if you know of anybody else who wants to dig deeper into that virtual space where science and spirituality meet, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you. Goodbye from me and goodbye from the cat that’s busy leaping all over my keyboard. I hope it’s not making too many noises. Take care. I’ll see you next week. Bye.
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