On Secular Spirituality and Science Fiction: A Provocation for Terra Two

The following extract is from a paper entitled ‘Terra Two: An Ark for Off-World Survival – a York St John Project on sustainability, spirituality, and science fiction’, which I presented in November at Canterbury Christ Church University at a conference on the intersections between sustainability and spirituality. The full article will be published by Springer in 2018, and I will make the link available here at that time.

Part 2: On Secular Spirituality and Science Fiction: A Provocation for Terra Two (revised summer 2018)


Write, form a rhizome, increase your territory by deterritorialization, extend the line of flight to the point where it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency. (Deleuze and Guattari, 2013: 11)

Speak up about a third way—it is no longer about a particular religious tradition, or spiritual leader, or path to enlightenment; nor is it about turning one’s back on spirituality as a concept; instead we might explain that spiritual desire (the desire to connect with something larger than ourselves) is as real and urgent for each of us as hunger, sexual desire, or the need to breathe. In fact, these desires are all one.


The Terra Two project has been developed with a working understanding of ‘secular spirituality’ in mind, and the remainder of this paper will attempt to tease out what this concept might embrace, and why it is valuable, drawing on a range of science fictional texts which have simultaneously inspired and given shape to the term. Additionally the section gives focus to the work of Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s visionary A Thousand Plateaus (1987), and most specifically to its generative, disorderly, ‘rhizomatic’ understanding of the way organic life in our multiverse functions, a model which arguably sheds light on human spirituality.

In the introduction to their concept of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari explain that   ‘[i]t is not a question of this or that place on earth, or of a given moment in history, still less of this or that category of thought. It is a question of a model that is perpetually in construction or collapsing, and of a process that is perpetually prolonging itself, breaking off and starting up again’ (21). I might begin here by suggesting that human expressions of ‘spirituality’ are integral to a sustainable vision of the future; additionally, they are expressions in modes which in practical terms are ‘perpetually […] breaking off and starting up again’. Spirituality is an impulse which human beings have attempted to tame, capture, and house within religious paradigms since the beginning of culture as we know it. Spiritual expression finds a natural home in religious communities, as tribes, groups and nations seek to express ways of doing and being which connect with something larger themselves; however, spiritual energy sits at the core of every vibrating life form, and like Deleuze’s rhizomes, spirituality ‘operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots’ (22). In other words, as theologian Cornell Toit explains, although all religious communities engage in some form of spiritual practice, spirituality ‘does not discriminate between religion and denomination, or between believers and unbelievers. It is a human capacity accessible to all’ (2006). The impulse to experience and recognise deep connections between the self and other forms is as natural as breathing or sleeping; the spiritual impulse is at the heart of every ethical decision, every admiring response to nature, every act of love.

Yet how do we pin down a concept that may be a ‘human capacity’, but which means very little without context? Theorist Ernesto Leclau might call spirituality an ‘empty signifier’, as it has no direct referent (2006). However, to my mind, spirituality is one of the most valuable words in the English language; the process of understanding and working with this concept is identical to the process of living in a sustainable, open-hearted, and compassionate way. Considering the work of science fiction writers who have influenced my thinking, I would suggest that there are (at least) seven values practiced by individuals, communities, projects, institutions, and relationships which might be called spiritual, and these include the following: 1) connection 2) compassion 3) respect 4) vision 5) attention 6) evolution and 7) love. The importance of placing the term ‘secular’ beside the term ‘spirituality’ in this section’s title cannot be overstated: at this point in history, when many religious communities are at odds both with one another and with secular groups, a number of human beings across the globe (secular, scientific, and religious) are unwittingly responding to sf writer Ursula Le Guin’s invitation to philosophically ‘move sideways’ (1989: 95) in order to acknowledge common spiritual ground. It is my contention that we cannot move forward successfully, sustainably, as a global community until we consciously acknowledge that all human beings, no matter what their religious or non-religious beliefs may be, express spiritual desire on a daily basis. Until we understand and acknowledge that the impulse to connect spiritually comes first, and the impulse to join a particular religious institution, to study astrophysics, or to nurture a vegetable garden comes second, we will continue to judge some human beings as insiders and others as outsiders.

Sf writer Ursula Le Guin’s novels, short stories and essays imply that a culture’s underpinning philosophy forms the basis for its future, and I would in turn suggest that a global, planetary culture which recognises, and appreciates, diverse expressions of spiritual desire will signal the next stage in our mutual evolution. When we settle a ‘Terra Two’, whether that be Mars or a planet outside our solar system, will it not be necessary to form new rituals, new, collaboratively-developed ways of recognising birth, death, commitment, sorrow and joy? These ‘becomings’ (Deleuze) will be innovative, rich in affective creativity. Our colonists will bring spiritual desire with them, and together they will find new ways to express it.

Theologian Robert Fuller in his book Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (2001), makes the following assertions:

Up to 21 percent of all Americans are unaffiliated with a church, but should nonetheless be considered religious in some broad sense of the term. The largest group of the unchurched, then, is concerned with spiritual issues but choose to pursue them outside the context of a formal religious organization. These Americans can be described as “spiritual but not religious” […] They view their lives as spiritual journeys, hoping to make new discoveries and gain new insights on an almost daily basis. Religion isn’t a fixed thing for them […] Importantly, the terms they adopt in their effort to understand such things as the nature of God, the essence of the human soul, and the practices that promote spiritual growth are almost all drawn from spiritual philosophies outside dominant religious institutions. (Fuller, 2001: 4)

Fuller’s paragraph contains inconsistencies: he suggests that 21 percent of Americans who are not affiliated with a church ‘should nonetheless be considered religious’, but he also explains that they can be described as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (4). I would suggest that a common tendency in academic culture to collapse the two terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ creates confusion here. The two terms do not connote the same thing, although for many individuals they are deeply connected. Robert Fuller, although curious about and often generous towards the ‘unchurched Americans’ he describes, concludes finally that those he classes in this way can often be considered anti-social (178). In other words, from Fuller’s Christian-based perspective it is the term ‘religious’, with its associations to biblical scripture, traditional ritual and community worship which holds value, while to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ is to experience spirituality in a diminished form. To again create a parallel with Deleuze and Guattari’s description of rhizomes, I would suggest that spiritual desire works through ‘variation’, ‘expansion’, and ‘offshoots’: although many individuals immerse themselves within a single, dominant religious tradition, numerous others connect with spiritual concepts, behaviours, and experiences through alternative, and crucially non-traditional and non-religious sources.  To my view, Fuller’s conclusions are unnecessarily limiting.

One particular artistic genre is uniquely placed to offer perspectives on spirituality ‘outside dominant religious institutions’ (4), and that genre is science fiction. Science fiction, as critic Damien Broderick has pointed out, is ‘that species of storytelling native to a culture undergoing the epistemic changes implicated in the rise [. . .] of technical-industrial modes of production’ (1995:155). In other words, science fiction speaks specifically to those across the globe who are experiencing dramatic social transformations due to the advances of technology. Science fiction additionally has a history of asking the ‘bigger’ questions, such as ‘how did we get here?’, ‘what does it mean to be a human being?’, ‘what can we do to make the world a fairer place?, and ‘is there more to reality than meets the eye?’, questions which a number of religious texts explore too. Writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and Jeff VanderMeer draw on non-traditional modes of spiritual expression in order to advance warnings about environmental damage and social injustice. They and a range of other contemporary sf writers and film-makers focus our attention on issues of race, class, gender, sexual identity and dis/ability, creating parallels between our treatment of difference and our treatment of non-humans and the natural environment. They encourage us to extend our imaginations beyond the limiting paradigms of what is commonly understood to be ‘reality’, encouraging us to reflect on the malleability of time, the many-layered nature of consciousness, and humanity’s potential to experience deep internal (and external) transformations. In so doing, they express spiritual desires for alternative futures.

Before we arrive on Terra Two, shall we make a pact to create some sacred space when we get there? And when we arrive, shall we take it in turns to share poetry, stories, music, and readings from a range of wisdom traditions, including science fiction? Shall we meditate, dance, stretch, chant, sing and sometimes cry together? Shall we gather in circles of three, or seven, or nine, and shall we choose from a pile of stones from Terra One at the end to see who will shape the next gathering? And will we decide, together, how often to meet – perhaps with attention to our new night sky? Referencing the spirit of the late great Octavia Butler, whose character Olamina created ‘Earthseed’, let us make a resolution to resist dogmatic viewpoints. Let us understand that pathways to understanding may be found in a diverse range of symbolic frameworks including poetry, quantum physics, and magic.

Let us agree to welcome evolution, and let us promise to embrace change.

LK updated 22/8/18         yin yang


Broderick, D. (1995). Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction. New York: Routledge.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2013). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Fuller, R.C. (2001). Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Le Guin, U. (1989). ‘A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be’ in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York, Grove Press, pp. 80-100.