I finally got around to reading Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. They had been hanging out on my Kindle unread since a $1.99 special of several years back. They are as fantastic, as foundational for today's science fiction (published in 1993 and 1998), and as prescient as every NYT op-ed piece or sci-fi-convention panel ever claimed they were. As entire college courses have been taught on them, I'm going to stick to one aspect of the books: the religion invented within them called Earthseed.
To illuminate the God of Earthseed in a way that doesn't merely summarize what many before me have said, I will compare this God to one which nobody living in our nonfiction world can escape. I will call her GOPU, an acronym for the God of Politicians and the Ultrarich. My juvenile side has decided you should pronounce her name as go'-poo to suggest the far less polite command many of us often have for politicians and the ultrarich.
She is not the Christian version of God that many of my friends believe in. GOPU commands many religions: she is as much Narendra Modi's pantheon of Gods as she is Allah to the Saudi King Salman. She is not the God of the average person in either (or any) country. However, Octavia Butler was an American, and as the religious landscape against which she created Earthseed was primarily Protestant America, the comparison will be inevitable. Friends, suffice it to say that hypocritical distortions of your religion are subject to criticism herein; you are not.
Allow me to begin with a report on GOPU's recent earthly manifestation in Lehigh Acres, Florida. Before I get there, some background on one of GOPU's early local prophets: Lee Ratner. Many consider Ratner the inventor of the Florida real estate swindle. In the early 1950s, he owned nearly all of the undeveloped land east of Fort Myers. His brochures circulated in cold climates, offering land in paradise at the low, low price of $10 down and $10 per month. It sold. It sold very well. But Ratner never planned for electrical power. Hell, he never even drained the swampland. Who needed a sewer in paradise? Roads were paved solely to allow the scammed to visit their parcels. The corporation went bankrupt in the 1980s, leaving the land worth less than the tax bill Lee County sent the scammed each year.
A few land scams later, Lehigh Acres is a dump. Poverty, unemployment, crime, poor services—you name it. This brings me to the "gala" I recently attended as a spousal escort for my wife at a country club on the edge of Lehigh closest to Fort Myers. My wife was invited as support for a friend being honored by the Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce. When the emcee introduced himself to our table, it was with the line, "I'm sure you all know who I am." We didn't. He proceeded to get very drunk before coming up to speak, and we were all pleased when he finally ended his rambling by introducing a woman he called a pioneer of Lehigh Acres. I think she was vice-chair of the Chamber or something like that. Calling her a pioneer meant she was somehow involved in the original land scam, especially with the date he gave for her arrival in Lehigh. We never found out the details, but it was clear she represented the wealthy. The last line of the emcee's introduction was, "If you don't know who she is, then you are impoverished." I'm pretty sure he didn't mean the last word literally, but it made sense, as I imagine neither of them would deign to associate with the average denizen of Lehigh Acres.
She invoked Jesus. Over and over again. Jesus was a servant of the people, so therefore, all the firefighters, cops, and teachers being honored were Jesus. That's about the only coherent idea that came from her lips; the rest was a rambling word salad punctuated with frequent references to God and Jesus. At a supposedly secular event, offending the hell out of my wife's friend, the honoree, who is militantly atheist.
To the speaker, God was stasis: God brought her a long time ago to Lehigh Acres, allowed her to get rich (off the misfortunes of others), and how dare you challenge God by accepting as leaders anything other than the very white group of faces on the stage! Okay, one school board member, a friend of mine, is Black. She and her opponent in November's election were both present. We met the opponent briefly. When he walked away, the person next to me began ranting about how she was so glad he was running because my friend was pushing the "Colored Agenda" to the detriment of Lehigh Acres. Yeah, there was a lot of racism in the crowd. Fortunately, not at my table, which was free of bigshots and included Black and Latinx friends of my wife, so we all retreated to our salads.
Where GOPU is the God of stasis, the defining feature of the God of Earthseed is change. Everything changes is a foundational principle of Butler's invented religion. In explicating this tenet, Butler invokes scientific concepts such as the second law of thermodynamics and evolution. Humans can't prevent these changes. However, they can shape change. Being changed by God as well as "shaping God" are the immediate commands of the religion.
In the two-book series, the protagonist begins as a teenager in a gated and guarded middle-class enclave outside Los Angeles. Her parents are academics. Her family is Black, but the community includes Latinx and white families, all fighting to survive in a world where civil society has collapsed, drug-addled homeless folks attack anyone who seems to have more than they, and the police are very much a part of the problem. By sticking together, the community attempts to stave off a violent end. It doesn't work. Later, in the second book, the protagonist's husband, a doctor, finds a way to remove the protagonist from harm in a "little piece of the twentieth century." She refuses, tragically.
Instead, she pursues the idea of a community based on Earthseed. These single communities that spread to all of society don't work in the real world. We have the remains of one, now a state park, within walking distance of my home. The Koreshans believed they were building a new Jerusalem, and like the Earthseeders, cosmology mattered to them, although they believed the Earth was hollow, the last Koreshan abandoning this belief in 1982 when she finally accepted that the space program was real. Unlike the Earthseeders, they were celibate—Butler wisely avoided this real-world-inspired trope. Lots of characters have kids in Butler's books.
The seed community, Acorn, doesn't work in the novel either. The community is destroyed; its residents, enslaved. Later in the book, evangelism does spread the idea to the point that their ultimate objective is realized.
And that has always been GOPU's strategy. From the 19th-century waves of Protestant evangelism to the Moral Majority in the 1980s, to Dispensationalism (remember the Rapture?), to the anti-vax/anti-mask/white supremacists of today, the focus has always been on spreading influence far and wide. Like Butler's Church of Christian America, the aims of the wealthy, in all cases, depended upon a network of preachers to spread the Gospel to the masses. Also like in Butler, those doing the spreading were often hypocrites who disdained their followers. Despite numerous well-known instances of Donald Trump calling evangelicals idiots, they still voted for him and showed up at his rallies.
Butler envisioned fake news but didn't anticipate the role of the Internet in spreading it. I can't fault her too much—she did publish the second book in 1998, when even online ordering of a pizza was novel (a lark from a Pizza Hut in Santa Cruz, California). Indeed, Butler's equivalent of GOPU, Christian America, is not dead by the end of the book, more an equal competitor of Earthseed, still propped up by their propaganda/church networks.
In Butler's novel and the real-world examples I cited, the end-goal of the powers-that-be in charge of the GOPU religion were terrestrial: power and wealth by controlling the United States. Earthseed, by contrast, aimed literally for the stars. Parable of the Talents ends with the first ships heading to Mars, with the suggestion that they will eventually reach beyond. As climate change, bigotry, and unfettered capitalism had largely pushed the United States to the point of no return in the novel, escaping to the stars and having the pioneers start something new out there was a rational story choice. If you assume our planet is doomed, escape it.
However, Butler wrote in the 1990s. This was when Kim Stanley Robinson published his Mars trilogy, still the space exploration books with the most serious attempt to grapple with the engineering of terraforming ever written. At the time, KSR thought Mars colonization was twenty years away. Then, high levels of perchlorates were discovered in Martian soil. When KSR wrote Aurora, he'd revised his estimate to two hundred years. And his generation ship in Aurora was fatally flawed due to ecological impossibilities. The honest message today, the one KSR has evangelized since 2015, is that escaping this planet is a pipe dream (although a one-way ticket for Elon Musk might be desirable). That wasn't what science fiction writers thought in the 1990s.
More than anything else, this shift makes Earthseed dated. In reality, escaping the planet can't work, and climate change can still be blunted and mitigated, so a religion that accepts our damaged planet as irreparable is regressive, not progressive. The Dispensationalists were the first in our reality to decide that the world was beyond saving, so the rich should just milk the Earth for what it's worth and wait for Jesus to rapture them up to heaven. James Watt made these ideas government policy as Reagan's Secretary of the Interior. Then we had three decades of climate change denialists dominating US politics.
And that's why Earthseed never took off as a religion in the real world, à la Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land or L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology. It wasn't, like the book kept saying, that Earthseed forced people to live in the real world and do the hard work of establishing communities that lead toward an ultimate goal. It was that the goalposts shifted. What seemed like a valid goal to save humanity to Butler is now the ultimate service to GOPU in the real world.
However, Butler's challenge is still on-point. Evangelical Protestants, you have a problem. Your religion has been commandeered by a corrupt class of bigoted wealthy people who know how to use the Internet. Those of you young enough not to realize that extreme racism changed your religion radically in the 1970s need to do some reading of history. Here's a blog post to get you started.
Our last chance to stave off the worst of climate change is collapsing because of a politics of the ultra-wealthy controlling the ultra-religious. Even modest efforts to get back to leading the world on the central issue of the day, "shaping" environmental change to put it in an Earthseeder fashion, have been blocked in the Senate. Read Butler. Realize you are the Church of Christian America. Realize your political leaders support everything that led to Butler's dystopia (privatization of public schools, get-tough-on-crime policies, weakening of separation of church and state, sabotaging of the social safety net, misogynist and anti-queer legislation, editing of curriculum to emphasize white supremacy, restrictions on reproductive freedom, climate inaction, laissez-faire economics, etc., etc.). Then fight for change within your religion.
I hope you succeed.
Or abandon it as Butler's protagonist did. Your choice, but realize that if you allow the environmental/societal collapse Butler warns us about, you will bring about the outcomes seen in Butler's books. Christians who minimized what the "extremists" were doing and focused on the good things they saw in their religion were Butler's worst villains. Don't be those people.
GOPU will laugh at you.