“Observing: The shape of the ritual” by Áine Órga

Bart Everson:

Áine Órga shares the general outline of a Gaian ritual.

Originally posted on Humanistic Paganism:

One question that is often raised by those who are coming to Paganism for the first time – whether naturalistic or not – is that of ritual content and structure. And this is a question that also needs to be answered by those whose practices are changing; for example, from theistic Pagan practices to naturalistic or atheistic ones. When I initially returned to ritual, I was doing something similar to what I had done for years as a Wicca-influenced theistic Pagan. But a lot of it felt empty; there were elements that I just didn’t believe in, and which didn’t mean anything to me. So I began to address this problem, and went about gradually reconstructing the content of my rituals.

Although Pagaian Cosmology by Glenys Livingstone was probably the most influential book I’ve ever read in terms of sorting out my attitudes towards divinity and the philosophy behind my…

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‘Gaia’s Lovers” by Meg Pauken

Originally posted on Humanistic Paganism:

Today we continue our early spring theme, Inspiration, where we showcase examples of the poetic imagination flowing from the depths of the universe through the minds and hands of Naturalistic Pagans and friends.

Author’s note: One of the things that has drawn me to Paganism is that it embraces both the divine feminine and the divine masculine. I tend to see this duality playing itself out nearly everywhere in nature. This poem was inspired by an early morning drive through the countryside in late October, just as the sun was coming up.

photo by Meg Pauken

“Gaia’s Lovers”

Gaia’s breath lingers, misty, in her hollows
On a chilly October morning;
Sighs as geese rise from her pond,
Honking and flapping.
Stirring slowly as her lover arrives over the horizon:
Sun, casting a golden flush on her curves,
Russet blush on her tree-covered peaks.
Warming, she arches to the sky
Urging her mate…

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The Cult of Gaia in 2064

Planet EarthCurrently, in 2014, Gaia is not a major focus of religious thought and activity. The Gaia hypothesis or theory has been advanced by James Lovelock and others, not without controversy. This scientific conception of Gaia has fired the public imagination, leading some to criticize the idea as essentially religious or spiritual. Tellingly, most media references to a religion of Gaia come from conservative sources and are critical or satirical. More broadly, nature religions do exist but they are obscure, diffuse, esoteric, marginalized and all but invisible to mainstream cultures. This will change in the decades ahead.

Fifty years from now, the cult of Gaia will have grown substantially. In part this will be because the vicissitudes of climate change will have driven home the message that humans must live more lightly on the Earth.

As a religious movement, the cult of Gaia will manifest in many forms. The dominant established religions of the world will begin to connect to the idea and image of Gaia. In its most dilute form, this will simply be a message of environmental responsibility and stewardship. In some communities and traditions there will be a more substantial recognition of Gaia as a coherent whole, as an entity, as a sacred context, and this will be syncretized with existing theologies and beliefs. There will also be a proliferation of newer groups explicitly dedicated to celebrating Gaia. These will provide the most dramatic and interesting forms of religious expression.

These new groups dedicated to the celebration of Gaia will represent a confluence of contemporary Pagans (especially Naturalistic and Eco-Pagans), New Age practitioners, Goddess worshipers, Deep Ecologists, radical environmentalists, indigenous cultures, pantheists, religious naturalists, atheists, Buddhists and many others.

They will not always use the name Gaia. Some will refer to the Great Mother, or Mother Nature, or Mother Earth, or simply the Earth, or some other name. Some will envision an anthropomorphized goddess, while others will seek to embrace the Earth just as she is, in leaf and rock and wave, without such imagery. Yet these groups will share a common understanding and a common experience of the Earth as a sacred system in which humans participate. (Ideas about the exact role of humans in this system will differ considerably.) The centrality of this concept in beliefs and practices will be the uniting factor that defines the cult of Gaia as a recognizable cultural phenomenon.

The cult of Gaia will further be characterized by a radical feminist, anti-authoritarian sociopolitical stance; a critical perspective on global capitalism; and an emphasis on direct action for political and social change. Yet the orientation of these groups will not be exclusively external by any means. Above all they will be marked by a holistic view and what might be called an ecocentric consciousness. As people cannot awaken to Gaia without development of such consciousness, the cult will support the interior growth of celebrants in an integral fashion. The cult will meld politics and spirituality and reunify science with religion, blending secular modernity with Pagan revival.

As sea levels rise, as extreme weather events become commonplace, as various forms of ecological crisis become more severe, as the age of cheap petroleum draws to a close, there will be much fear, confusion and upheaval. People will seek new answers to the oldest questions of humanity, new expressions of ancient experiences. Insofar as it provides a relevant response to these developments, the cult of Gaia will swell accordingly and play a central role in shaping humanity’s future.

In response to a prompt from Christine Kraemer and Rhyd Wildermuth: Much of the current dialogue in the Pagan blogosphere is about carving out ways to explain and justify our personal experiences and beliefs in relation to other traditions, but without a clear vision of the place our own traditions and experiences might have in an ideal world. Will the Pagan movement become one tradition-heavy set of religions with several “fringes”? Will it split apart into competing factions? Or will we find a way to unite using some shared cultural language? What institutions will we build, or will we build institutions at all? What rights or recognition will we have in the larger society?

What does your Paganism look like in 50 years?

Photo credit: Planet Earth / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Name of Gaia

To recap: The stronger formulations of the Gaia hypothesis have been authoritatively debunked, but the weaker formulations remain intact. For more, read Gaia Is Dead and Long Live Gaia.


Toby Tyrrell, author of On Gaia, finds in favor of a coevolutionary hypothesis, the notion that life and the environment are “somehow coupled.” This hypothesis is equivalent to what James Kirchner labels coevolutionary Gaia.

A brief review of the literature

Peter Ward writes that coevolutionary Gaia is “already viewed as true,” that it is “virtually no hypothesis at all.”

In a similar vein, Arthur C. Petersen holds that the weaker formulations of the Gaia hypothesis are really just “basic assumptions,” from the view of Earth systems science.

Kirchner holds that coevolution between biota and environment “is not original or unique to Gaia,” tracing the idea back to 1844 — long before James Lovelock published the Gaia hypothesis. Kirchner calls coevolution a “fact,” one that is so widely recognized that “it would seem odd to call it a hypothesis.”

What’s in a name

One question that seems to remain is that of nomenclature. Are the weaker forms of Gaia worthy of the name Gaia at all?

Tyrrell doesn’t think so. He writes that attaching the coevolutionary hypothesis to the name Gaia “only generates semantic confusion,” as this form of the hypothesis haven’t been used in any major Gaian publication. Clearly, Tyrrell has not read Primavesi’s Sacred Gaia, which concentrates on a coevolutionary model, but in fairness her theological work would seem to be outside his scope.

If Tyrrell’s work is well-received in the scientific community, the name Gaia may fall from favor as a label for any credible model of how the Earth works. But the Gaia hypothesis is notable for being known and discussed well outside of the scientific community.

And yet…

This question of naming would seem to be a matter of poetry rather than strict scientific nomenclature. Lovelock originally wanted to call his idea the “Earth feedback hypothesis”; the name Gaia is credited to the novelist and poet William Golding. It’s doubtful that Lovelock’s work would have captured the public’s imagination without this poetic license.

We might do well to inquire into the overall value of the name Gaia in the context of our modern understanding of the Earth and our relation to it. As a metaphor, Kirchner says, Gaia is “unusually rich, colorful and evocative.” In a splendid recent essay, Michael Ruse writes that “even if Gaia is not literally true, it is a metaphor worth cherishing.” The name Gaia has increased general interest in a holistic view of the Earth and its systems. Gaia can inspire feelings of gratitude, reverence and mature responsibility. That is positive.

But the name Gaia may also confuse people. The powerful image of the ancient mother goddess may lead to muddled thinking and a complacent mindset. People may lose sight of a weaker coevolutionary model and gravitate toward the stronger homeostatic and teleological models. People may think “Gaia will protect us” though the evidence does not support such hope.

It is possible to hold an image of Gaia that is both resonant with ancient wisdom and consonant with current scientific thinking. But is this an esoteric exercise limited to an intellectual elite? Can such an image capture the popular imagination?

What do you think? If you have any thoughts on the subject, please leave a comment.


“The Gaia Hypothesis: Can It Be Tested?” by James W. Kirchner

The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? by Peter Ward

Sacred Gaia : holistic theology and earth system science by Anne Primavesi

On Gaia : a critical investigation of the relationship between life and earth by Toby Tyrrell

“Earth’s Holy Fool?” by Michael Ruse

“Models and Geophysiological Hypotheses” by Arthur C. Petersen in Scientists Debate Gaia: the next century

Long Live Gaia

Gaia is dead. Long live Gaia!

The Gaia hypothesis is one of those bold proposals that has captured the imagination of the general public. It has been embraced and celebrated well beyond the domain of conventional science. Gaia has been held to have deep spiritual ramifications.

Hope for the planet

Such matters are beyond the scope of Toby Tyrrell’s recent book, On Gaia (review) which offers a devastating critique of the Gaia hypothesis. Yet for those who have taken the Gaia hypothesis to heart, who have found it a source of inspiration and wonder, it’s important to discern what exactly Tyrrell has discounted and what he has not.

As Tyrrell points out, Gaia is “not a well-defined concept.” He cites the work of James Kirchner, who identified no less than five variations on the hypothesis, ranging from weak to strong.

(1) influential Gaia, which asserts only that biology affects the physical and chemical environment to some degree; (2) coevolutionary Gaia, which limits itself to stating that the biota and environment are somehow coupled; (3) homeostatic Gaia, which emphasizes the stabilizing effect of the biota; (4) teleological Gaia, which implies that the biosphere is a contrivance specifically arranged for the benefit of the biota; and (5) optimizing Gaia, which suggests that the biosphere is optimized in favor of the biota.

As one might imagine, the stronger versions of Gaia are more controversial. The two strongest forms have been abandoned even by James Lovelock, the originator of the hypothesis, while the two weakest forms are deemed largely uncontroversial. Therefore it’s the middle version, the question of homeostatic Gaia, which constitutes the prime interest of Tyrrell’s work.

Far from debunking all five versions of the Gaia hypothesis, Tyrrell to the contrary finds in favor of a coevolutionary hypothesis, the notion that life and the environment are “somehow coupled.” This hypothesis is equivalent to what Kirchner labels coevolutionary Gaia.

Thus, while the idea of a strong, self-regulating Gaia may be in question, the concept of an evolutionary coupling between living creatures and the environment is not.

Religious Implications

One of the most comprehensive and thoughtful treatments of Gaia’s implications for religion and spirituality may be found the work of Anne Primavesi. Her book Sacred Gaia, published in 2000, is a radical reappraisal of Christian theology in light of Earth system science.

As such, it is instructive to inquire as to which model of Gaia informs Primavesi’s writing. What vision drives her work along? Does she place importance on the purported homeostasic and regulatory effects of Gaia? Does she portray Gaia as an optimizing force that keeps the Earth “comfy” for us?

Indeed not. Primavesi writes almost exclusively about a coevolutionary Gaia (to use Kirchner’s term). She describes Gaia as “the planet-sized system where the living and non-living components interact as two tightly coupled forces, each one shaping the other through systemic feedback loops.” Amongst the significant implications of this fact, she finds that “a Gaian perspective… does not support a view of ourselves in radical discontinuity with other species. On the contrary, our common origins with other multicellular organisms bind us ineluctably to past and present communities of life forms on earth.” Coevolutionary coupling means that we are situated in a web of interdependent relations, and this realization has profound moral consequences.

The awakening to such dependence is disorienting to a species which has believed and preached that God has given it dominion over all living creatures. Or, in a secular version, that our brains/technology/higher consciousness have given us the ability to dominate every other life form and the right to exercise that dominion.

This is a radical revisioning of Western thought. However, it does not call upon the more radical formulations of the Gaia hypothesis for support.

To state the matter bluntly, Tyrrell’s debunking of homeostatic Gaia does no damage to Primavesi’s thesis.

This is but one example. The effects of Tyrrell’s critique will vary according to one’s thealogy. If one is seeking scientific support for the comforting metaphor of an all-powerful Earth Mother who protects herself from the vagaries of the cosmos (and the depredations of humanity) then Tyrrell brings bad tidings indeed. On the other hand, a metaphor of Gaia in process, striving with us and through us to make a better world, remains as a source of both inspiration and spiritual sustenance.

It should also be noted that, despite Tyrrell’s critique of Gaia, the Earth remains a coherent whole, a complex of interconnected systems. This may be the substantial and lasting scientific contribution of Lovelock and his collaborators. The holistic view is now taken as a given, as the bedrock foundation for Earth system science.

Next week: Is a coevolutionary Gaia worthy of the name Gaia at all?


The Gaia Hypothesis: Can It Be Tested? by James W. Kirchner

Sacred Gaia : holistic theology and earth system science by Anne Primavesi

On Gaia : a critical investigation of the relationship between life and earth by Toby Tyrrell

Photo: Hope for the planet / CC BY 2.0

Gaia Is Dead

Gaia is dead, and Toby Tyrrell has killed her.

Book Cover

This is a brief review of On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship Between Life and Earth by Toby Tyrrell.

It’s a devastating book. Devastating, that is, to the Gaia hypothesis. It’s also quite fascinating. This is recommended reading for anyone who lives on Earth and has a brain.

The author aims to investigate the hypothesis, formulated by James Lovelock in the 1970s, “that life has played a critical role in shaping the planetary environment and climate over ~3 bil­lion years, in order to keep it habitable or even optimal for life down through the geological ages.” (From Q&A with Toby Tyrrell)

Tyrrell offers evidence and argument in roughly equal measure. The empirical evidence is drawn from a diverse array of sources, most notably evolutionary biology and Earth system science. The philosophical arguments include an extended meditation on the anthropic principle and its implications.

For non-scientists, at least, it’s perhaps too easy to dismiss the empirical data. The critical reader, if not familiar with the current research literature, can’t help but wonder if the author is selectively presenting only evidence that supports his agenda. The philosophical arguments can be understood by anyone, regardless of specialization, and are much harder to discount.

On both fronts, in chapter after chapter, Tyrrell finds the case for Gaia doesn’t hold up. He gives credit to Lovelock for major insights that have proven correct, and for generally provoking scientists and the general public to think about life on Earth in a new way. But at the end of the book, Gaia has been thoroughly dismantled.

So where does that leave us? Tyrrell winds up with an excellent discussion on just why all this stuff matters. He points out that any notion of Gaia as a self-sustaining, self-regulating system may lead to complacency. We may be tempted to believe that environmental problems will tend to correct themselves. In other words, Gaia may lead us to “undue optimism.” It’s important for humanity to realize that we cannot rely on built-in safeguards to save our proverbial bacon. The global ecosystems which sustain us are more precarious than a strong Gaian view might lead us to believe. If we are to protect our home from the effects of our own depredations, we must dispense with the erroneous notion of a self-healing Earth.

In other words, in order to save Gaia, it is necessary to destroy her.

Next week: Spiritual and religious implications of Tyrrell’s critique.