The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Octavia Butler on Religion and the Spirituality of Symbiosis

Octavia Butler on Religion and the Spirituality of Symbiosis

“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer,” quantum pioneer Niels Bohr wrote of the subjective reality in which we live out our human lives, as he distinguished it from the objective reality of the universe. But for all that religions have done to moor us amid the uncertainty of time, space, and being, to give us a sense of agency and a sense of morality, they have also spurred the most violent conflicts in the history of our species — that infinitely dangerous mass rationalization of self-righteousness we call war.

Long before she came to reckon with the meaning of God in her visionary Parable of the Sower, the young Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) considered the perils of organized religion in a 1980 interview included in Octavia E. Butler: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (public library).

Octavia Butler by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of women writers who have enchanted and transformed our world.

With an eye to the reality of what happens when we die, she reflects:

My mother is very religious so I’m very much aware of the attitude that these are the last days. But, let’s face it, no matter where we have been in history, whoever has existed has been living in the last days… their own. When each of us dies the world ends for us.


The kind of religion that I’m seeing now is not the religion of love and it scares me. We need to outgrow it.

A century after Mark Twain admonished against how religion is used to justify injustice, she adds:

Religion has played such a large part in the lives of human beings throughout human history. In some ways, I wish we could outgrow it; I think at this point it does a lot of harm. But then, I’m fairly sure that if we do outgrow it, we’ll find other reasons to kill and persecute each other. I wish we were able to depend on ethical systems that did not involve the Big Policeman in the sky.

Art by Francisco de Holanda, 1573. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

A better way of relating to each other, Butler intimates, can be found in the science of the natural world. Influenced by evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis’s pioneering work on symbiosis, she reflects:

[Lynn Margulis] was not talking about people. She’s talking mainly about microorganisms, but still, it’s true, I think with people as well as some animals and microorganisms, on many levels, we wind up being strengthened by what we join, or what joins us, as well as by what we combat.

There is something lovely in reconfiguring religion as this relational interdependence of selves, rooted not in our ideology but in our biology. This, perhaps, is what moved Butler to write nearly two decades later: “To shape God, shape Self.”

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on spirituality for the science-spirited and the great naturalist John Muir, writing a century before him, on nature as religion, then revisit Octavia Butler on how we become who we are and her advice on writing.

Published November 1, 2023




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