It isn’t often that we get to observe the birth and death of a religion. Especially a non-religious religion. Universism is, or was, such a beast. Its brief rise and sudden fall offers some instructive lessons concerning the dangers of institutionalized belief.
I’ve been writing about Universism since I discovered it last July. At first I considered it a kindred unfaith that was completely compatible with my churchless leanings. I then plunged deeper into Universism and organized a local Salem Universist discussion group.
But then the central Universist Movement started to turn weird. My posts became more critical, starting with “Herding cats, Universism’s challenge,” moving to “A friendly critique of the Universist Movement,” and culminating with “I abandon Universism.”
Today I decided to see what was up in the world of Universism and found that the weirdness has continued. The founder of this so-called “faithless faith” seemingly is just about the only person remaining on the Universist sinking ship. Ford Vox has taken over the organization’s website which features this language at the bottom of the page:
Universism has been seen on CNN, in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, and many more. Universism is a trademark and copyright of Ford Vox. All rights are reserved.
OK, but it’s hard to imagine Jesus copyrighting Christianity or the Buddha getting a trademark on Buddhism. And I’m not sure what it means to reserve the right on a philosophy that claims to have no dogma other than the open-minded search for truth. Ford Vox has a healthy ego, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you’re out to energetically counter the ill effects of traditional religions.
However, the Open Letters to Ford Vox posted on The Freethought Fellowship forum reveal what a mess he made of what could have been a promising movement. For example, John Armstrong, the spokesman for Universism, says:
I regret to offer my resignation as the spokesperson for Universism as well as the editor/author of deism.org. Unlike some, my reasons is not that I don't like you personally nor is it because I don't agree with the principles of Universism. In my heart, I still hope that some movement like it will succeed where Universism failed. My reason is that I feel Universism, whether or not you restart it in some other form, is a lost cause.
The reason Universism is a lost cause, frankly, is you. Again, I like you personally and respect you for the idea you came up with but I'm convinced that you can't manage a freethought movement and you're never going to let it go. Your apparent need to control the movement so tightly is just never going to work and it will inevitably antagonize any followers you manage to find. Freethinkers don't like strict management.
Yes, you can’t herd cats. Nor try to tell people who want to think for themselves what to think. My involvement with Universism, which included rewriting the Universist Movement FAQs to make them more coherent and understandable, has taught me that an organized un-religion is prone to the same defects as the organized religions which it supposedly is an alternative to.
In short, the problem is organization. As soon as two or more people are gathered together in an organized fashion, things are likely about to start going downhill. That’s how the universe works: entropy or disorder naturally increases.
But if you start with disorder and stay disorderly, there’s no problem. Nothing can fall apart if it isn’t put together, as the Tao Te Ching wisely advises.
Tao abides in non-action,
Yet nothing is left undone.
If kings and lords observed this,
The ten thousand things would develop naturally.
If they still desired to act,
They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.
Without form there is no desire.
Without desire there is tranquility.
And in this way all things would be at peace.
I’ve become a believer in a Religion of One. I’ve got mine, you’ve got yours, everyone else has theirs. No problem. Each to his or her own. Problems begin with a Religion of Two, and escalate from there.
I love my wife and she loves me. But when one of us tries to convert the other to our own way of spiritual thinking, you can feel tension in the air. It’s uncomfortable. And unnecessary.
What Ford Vox never realized is that dogmatic religious belief can’t be countered by equally dogmatic non-religious belief. As the cliché goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. Closed-mindedness is healed by open-mindedness.
Universism potentially could have become another home for free thinkers and untraditional spiritual aspirants. However, it needed to leave all the doors and windows open so that fresh ideas could flow freely. Instead, the founder’s ego tried to make the Universist Movement a monument to him. And that’s why it failed.
Monuments are set in granite. Which is exactly what the world doesn’t need: more rigid religious commandments etched in stone.
Before knowing Universism, I was developing a very similar religion, Aleatorism. It was based in atheist aleatory events. Though, it was a little dogmatic, but I wrote a book teaching freethinking ideas.
How about creating a new freethinking religion? Freethinkism? (only choose that title if there's a translation in Portuguese) Rationalism? Universism is a religion based in rationalism!
Contact me everyone who wants to create this religion!
Posted by: Hugo Reis | April 22, 2006 at 08:40 PM
Hello to all.
I was witness to the death of Universism. It was sad to see it die, but since Ford could not let it grow, I guess that death was the only option.
To the first posting. I agree and disagree with you. Just because one person got it wrong, does not mean that the concept is wrong, just its specific implmentation.
To Hugo. I think you have the start of an idea but consider using care with its steps. Perhaps you need to consider Altairianism. ??? Just a thought. :-)
Posted by: Elder Norm | April 24, 2006 at 10:46 AM
We have seen in "Wholly Holistic Evolution, Mr. Darwin" (see URL) that there are seven levels of spiritual development; Instinctive, Compliant, Conformist, Ideological, Idiosyncratic, Creative and Autonomous. The advanced elements of our culture are idiosyncratic, with significant groups of people still idolatrous. The last time that Western Civilization was at a stable equilibrium was in the middle ages when everyone was idolatrous, even the peasantry. One of the reasons that the United States is relatively advanced is that we separated religion from politics so that politics could be idiosyncratic while religion stayed idolatrous.
However we are now in a period where the bureaucratic establishment is significantly decadent and the stratification in the society is increasing by the year. The fundamentalism of the establishment has the purpose of justifying their elite position, so they are losing touch with the middle-classes.
This is the stage where a new religion is needed to keep the non-elite from fragmenting into cults that have no significance to the evolution of the human species.
There was a religion, Universism, that I thought might be comfortable for the ordinary idiosyncrat. Unfortunately its inherent inconsistencies caused it to collapse. There may be no way to formalize the fragmentation that is required when you try to apply a Neolithic religion to ordinary contemporary life.
What is needed is a modern religion that can be used as a muse by the creative specialist (artist or scientist), that is consistent with the needs of an aspirant to psychological autonomy, and that is not grossly inconsistent with the implicit religion of a contemporary Bodhisattva. There are various eastern religions that can, and are, being used for those purposes but they aren't really compatible with contemporary science and technology.
What we can do is to create a model religion that has the proper worldview for a creative specialist or autonomous person and is compatible with modern science and ecological responsibility. We will call it Neodeism
Posted by: Karl Eklund | April 02, 2007 at 07:15 AM
I was not aware of Universism when it was getting off the ground and when it was dying. Very recently I became aware of it as I was looking for places to ask for dialogue about the book I have written. First, let me say that the book is not copyrighted. It is downloadable completely free from my website. There is no advertising, nothing to buy, etc. I have made no money and will make no money from this book.
When I saw a forum on Universism, the little bit of knowledge I obtained about it led me to believe that the book would by completely syntonic with Universism. It contains no magical thinking, pseudoscience, advocacy of "blind faith," or valuing of belief as an act of obedience.
So I posted a notice about the book. There has been no response except for a recent one saying, "Spam sucks."
I am looking for people who would have an interest in dialogue about the book. I have no interest in becoming the head of an organization, and, in fact, the book doesn't advocate one. It advocates that we promote a movement that is already in progress, but is hard for people to see because it is so early in its development.
The website is http://HomoRationalis.com Hopefully you will not write my effort off as an example of the dreaded "spam."
Bill Van Fleet
Posted by: Bill Van Fleet | September 23, 2007 at 07:29 PM
I came up finally with a fair synopsis of what's in the book, but there is far more actually in the book. It is as follows:
At one time we lived more or less like chimpanzees. However, our species has undergone two exponential changes, making us drastically different from all other species, and also drastically different from the way we were before the changes took place. (By exponential I mean beginning imperceptibly, but gaining momentum and eventually accelerating markedly.)
The first exponential change was the development of the ability to use, essentially now to an infinite extent, symbols and the rules of syntax, giving us language and related phenomena. Consequently, we now have the capacity for highly intensive empathy (we can share with others our present and past experiences, feelings, wishes, fantasies, and plans in great detail) and highly effective cooperation (we can give highly detailed instructions, directions, and feedback). This new capability has been a tool in the service of our basic animal nature (everything we share with other species), so with it we do wonderful things, terrible things, and all in between.
The second exponential change was the development of the ability to use the rules of logic and the rules of evidence, giving us ultimately science and technology. Consequently, we now have the capability of developing extremely accurate models of the way the world really is (enabling us to do things that 200 years ago would have been considered magic). Again, this new tool has been in the service of our basic animal nature, so with it we are now able to protect and enhance our lives in amazing ways, but also able to distress, harm, and kill ourselves and each other, from one at a time to millions at a time.
Our basic animal nature is a product of natural selection, which has nothing to do with the quality of life. (Pain and suffering promote survival of the species the same as pleasure.) But because of the above two exponential changes, we are now able to study and understand ourselves and the world around us, and thereby able to change our behavior from that which comes naturally to that which works better, that is, promotes "the good life," by which I mean only a maximum of joy, contentment, and appreciation, and a minimum of pain, suffering, disability, and early death (PSDED).
But we have not yet, in any global way, begun to do this except to an almost imperceptible degree. So we are talking, hi tech (and extremely angry) "chimpanzees," frequently doing what comes naturally no matter how awful the consequences. And unless we bring about this third exponential change in ourselves, such that we stop doing these awful things, we are in danger of producing a globally catastrophic amount of PSDED, with perhaps even the demise of our species, at least as we know it. The situation is increasingly urgent.
Because we have never seen what it would be like to bring about this change in ourselves to the extent to which we are now increasingly capable, we regard as silly the idea of doing so. We believe that the PSDED we cause ourselves is almost inevitable, and therefore we do not look with seriousness upon what all of us could be doing, given adequate studying, understanding, agreement, cooperation, and motivation. And to some extent, some of us believe that the best we can do is just to inflict more PSDED on others than they do on ourselves. For example, punishment and revenge are a part of our basic animal nature, and we believe in and live by them, individually, culturally, and internationally, regarding them as essential even though they often, if not always, create even more PSDED.
So what will this predicted third exponential change be like, and what can we do to promote it? Because we have never seen such a way of life, it will be hard for us to take such a prediction seriously. Yet, we must do so if we are ever to achieve such a change, because it will only happen if we understand what is necessary to bring it about and act cooperatively to do so. And it is indeed possible to get some idea of what would be involved, as follows.
First, we will have to shift (much, much more) from our naturally occurring "authoritarian ethics" to our newly emerging "rational ethics." By "ethics" I mean only that set of beliefs that can be modeled with statements containing "should" ("I, you, we should do such-and-such"). The ethics that comes to us naturally, as a group animal, is based ultimately upon the "authoritarian-ethical ultimate ethical principle" that "we should do whatever X wants, X being whoever or whatever is most powerful (parent, leader, group, deity)." This ethics, though having contributed to the survival of our species, often also promotes incredible amounts of PSDED. We are, however, very early in an accelerating shift to what ultimately will be a commitment to an ethics based upon the "rational-ethical ultimate ethical principle" that "we should do that which will promote not only the survival of our species but also the good life (defined above) for everyone, now and in the future."
And we will also need to promote the development in ourselves and our children of a much stronger, more effective "ethical sense," the motivational state produced by an ethical belief ("I want to do it because I believe I should"), such development to be discussed further below.
To the extent that we achieve this shift in our ethics, there will be enormous, initially hard to imagine, changes in how we live our daily lives, globally. If and when this change occurs, the members of our species will look back upon us (the current state of Homo sapiens) like we regard Neanderthals or even chimpanzees. So we can metaphorically give our species of the future the name, "Homo rationalis."
Second, we never accomplish anything without some degree of agreement, about how the world is and about what we should and will do. There is not a single thing (other than exceedingly trivial) that we can have or do that does not require others having done their part. So we will need to achieve agreement, globally, on certain basic ideas that will allow for successful, important decision-making. Currently, the idea of there being such consensus is considered ridiculous, as endless debating without agreement is now a universal, and even valued, phenomenon. There of course will always be a certain amount of disagreement, but much disagreement is an illusion created by imprecise, metaphorical, ambiguous use of words. And such debates are characterized frequently by hostility, distorted logic, and disorganized changing of topic, in the service of winning rather than of building consensus. So we will need to develop, for the purpose of such discussions, more rigorous use of definitions and rules of logic, and we will need to agree on the optimal ways to respond to inability to agree, including especially the avoidance of hostility.
Third, however, in order to know what we should do, we will need to have beliefs about how the world works that are as accurate as possible, so that we will make as few mistakes as possible. Currently, having long ago given up on attaining Absolute Truth, we are engaging in our postmodern devaluation of agreement ("What's true for me may not be true for you, so let's just talk about something else"). Instead, we will need to value highly the achievement of ever-increasing accuracy of our beliefs, and therefore to value highly all those methods that foster that achievement. The rules of logic and the rules of evidence will therefore be much more highly valued, as will science and education, and friendly debate as the optimal response to any perceived difference of opinion. And we will also need to develop better access to relevant, accurate data, that can be distinguished from pseudoscience.
Fourth, there will be a global awareness of an agreed upon anger-prevention paradigm, either the one I teach or one even better, because anger is our most problematic motivational state. Rather than our continuing to value anger, punishment, revenge, and skillful induction of PSDED ("fighting"), we will recognize anger as our most problematic motivational state and hostility as our most deleterious behavior. We will have a well-understood systematic approach to external anger-prevention (methods of changing a situation that is producing anger) and internal anger-prevention (methods of reducing anger being produced by a possibly unalterable situation). Of extreme importance will be the reversal of impending relationship breakdown, interpersonal to international.
Fifth, there will be a globally agreed upon model of child rearing, either the one I teach or one even better, that any parent will have been adequately trained in prior to assuming independent parenting responsibility. And this model of child rearing will be taught to all children (as a continuous part of their general education) for whom there is any possibility of eventually becoming a parent. The model will be based upon principles involving a marked diminution (and effort to avoid completely) the punishing of children for making mistakes. This avoidance of punishment will be because of the recognition of its production of low self-esteem, demoralization, anxiety, and anger that is often manifested by cruelty, destructiveness, and rebellion (overt defiance, passive-aggression, and/or sneakiness), all of which undermine the development of a strong ethical sense. The model will also be based on principles involving much more effective methods of rewarding, teaching, and modeling for identification, that will foster, not blind obedience, but wisdom, capacity for ethical reasoning, and the development of a basic ethical philosophy, accompanied by a strong ethical sense, that promotes the development of the child into a competent, healthy, productive, and confident adult capable of contributing reliably to the welfare of society.
Sixth, there will be universal awareness of general principles of belief management, beliefs being the most important modifiable determinant of decision-making, or behavior, as well as of pleasant and unpleasant motivational states, which in turn affect the individual's health and quality of life in general. Not only will accuracy of belief be valued and promoted, but also the specific individual and societal methods of acquiring such accuracy of belief. Education, mental hygiene, friendly debate, openness of mind, and accuracy of communication will all be considered essential for the good life. In addition, the management of belief-like states, not for the purpose of decision-making but instead for the purpose of comfort, stress management, and optimal emotional functioning, will be much better understood and practiced.
Seventh, there will be, I predict, world government based upon a hierarchical structure of small groups, each one representative of those below, such that everyone will have a place in decision-making at the appropriate level. Thus, each representative sent from a group to a higher level group will be chosen to do so by those that know the individual best. And there will be mechanisms and procedures that assure that all decision-making is open to scrutiny, just as all knowledge, opinions, and debates will be available to all. And although undoubtedly there will always be individuals that need varying degrees of supervision, this will be accompanied by a thoroughly non-punitive, understanding approach to such individuals, that aids those individuals in maximally working toward their potential for good. Government will be appreciated as the source and method of optimal large group decision-making, rather than regarded as a clandestine, non-responsive, self-serving organization at odds with the welfare of the individual.
Eighth, their religion(s) will, I predict, have the primary function of helping them to arrive at the optimal way of living life (promoting personal ethical beliefs that are consistent with the rational-ethical ultimate ethical principle, defined above), having turned over to science the function of attaining the most accurate set of existential beliefs (about the way the world is, was, or will be). Each individual will be encouraged to develop his or her own basic ethical philosophy, dependent upon ethical principles and the person's idiosyncratic life situation and personal characteristics. And there will be an awareness of the importance of the integration of science and religion, one without the other being indeed dangerous. And the religion(s) will supplement and augment a basic social support system for all that are in need of such. The religions, I predict, will optimize from within themselves, gradually putting to rest their less desirable and outmoded ideas, and gradually adding ideas more consistent with the rational-ethical ultimate ethical principle (defined above).
I feel committed to doing all I can to promote this third exponential change. I have had such a wonderful life because of the efforts of countless individuals all throughout the history of our species who have tried to make the world a better place within their sphere of influence and within the limits of their capabilities. I wish similarly to give back to my species whatever I can in order to continue this effort, out of gratitude and appreciation for all my species has done for me. I look to you, the reader, if you believe that I have identified a possible way of helping us to have a much better life in the future, to join me in this effort, by further studying these ideas, debating them with others, and, if they still seem correct, advocating for them. As more and more do so, this third exponential change, that I believe has already begun to accelerate noticeably, will progress even faster. And each individual who participates in this effort should not only see a significant improvement in his or her own life and in the lives of those within his or her sphere of influence, but he or she should also be able to feel good about what he or she is doing for many, many people in the future. I believe there can be no greater satisfaction regarding the expenditure of one’s life.
Bill Van Fleet
Posted by: Bill Van Fleet | November 11, 2007 at 07:08 AM
"It is dismaying that in 21st-century America, a business owner feels entirely comfortable discriminating against the faithless," says Vox. "We should not be tolerant of people who exercise such intolerance."
We should not be tolerant of intolerance...
Now read that last statement again, and try to keep your head from exploding.
Posted by: Andrew | April 04, 2008 at 12:03 PM