What is Universalis?
Religio Universalis, or Universalis for short, is a non-supernatural, science-based religion that appeals to astronomy for its iconography and to research for answers about life, health, and purpose. Its Latin root means "pertaining to the universe" or "common to all."
The chief god is Sol (sun), who accounts for 99.8% of all mass in the solar system, and who provides the energy needed for sustained life on Terra (earth). Other primary gods include Luna (moon), Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and Mercury, all of whom have been known to humanity since prehistoric times and can be regularly seen with the naked eye. Universalis anthropomorphizes the gods mostly for fun—but doing so also makes certain wellness practices easier.
Universalis prescribes Sacraments to help train mental acuity and emotional resilience. At their core, the Sacraments derive from well-researched wellness practices. They use the gods as mnemonics or focal points. Such practices center on mindfulness, questioning problematic thoughts, and spending time with nature.
Universalis celebrates Holy Days, which are opportunities to learn about nature, ask thoughtful questions, share inspirational ideas about the cosmos, and set goals for the future. Holy Days are scheduled around recurring celestial events like solstices, equinoxes, full moons, and planetary alignments.
A religion is a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices that reflect devotion to a specific view of reality.
Most religions embrace the supernatural, but Universalis does not. While supernatural things might exist, science tends to account for most mysterious phenomena over time. Moreover, belief in the supernatural comes with risk: prioritizing ideas that cannot be confirmed makes it easier to conflate fact with fiction, and once established, false narratives are entrenched by our own psychological tendencies.
And yet, despite the factual errors and ethical excesses of many historical religious systems, evolutionary psychologists suggest that religion has played an important role in human evolution. At its core, religion uses symbols, rituals, narratives, and community to address problems, provide support, and help folks establish new habits.
Even as research calls into question long-standing religious assumptions, few unifying forces have risen to take the place of historical religions. Science has made progress toward answering questions about life, well-being, and purpose, but these ideas are rarely harmonized into coherent systems of belief and practice. Accordingly, many who are agnostic, atheistic, or unaffiliated end up missing out on the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits of religious experience.
Universalis aims to fill this gap. As a religion, it acknowledges gods (albeit natural ones), prescribes sacraments, and tells stories about creation and existence—but it does so without appealing to mysticism. It embraces cosmic themes, in continuity with thousands of years of religious and astrological practice, but it grounds its practice in a scientific understanding of the laws that govern reality.
Since scientific knowledge evolves over time, the core tenets of Universalis remain broad: a commitment to good faith personal inquiry and using well supported science to guide human behavior.
Specifically, Universalis appeals to:
the physical sciences (i.e. physics, chemistry, biology) to understand where we come from;
psychology, especially behavioral psychology, to understand how to cultivate happiness and meaning; and
astronomy for common ground, mnemonics, symbolism, and inspiration.
The Beliefs section the bottom of this page offers further treatment of this topic.
The gods of Universalis are the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies. Unlike traditional gods, Universalist gods are not conscious beings. They are “gods” in the sense that:
They are ancient, and they predate life.
They create and sustain life, including our own.
They will far outlive any human presence on earth.
Their size, distance, and movements inspire wonder.
Our continued existence as a species relies upon whether we successfully understand and "commune" with these objects, especially the Earth.
The Universalist pantheon contains a theoretically infinite number of gods, but from humanity’s standpoint, the chief gods are Sol, Terra, and Luna. Under Sol’s influence, the planets of our solar system formed, including Terra—and as Terra matured, its composition and position to Sol facilitated the development of life. Luna, whose gravity influences our tides, likely sped up evolution on earth, which allowed for complex species like humans to emerge.
Other astronomical bodies have contributed to the creation and sustenance of life, too. For example:
The gravity of Venus may have caused a great collision between Gaia (proto-earth) and a Mars-sized body named Theia, which led to the moon’s creation.
Jupiter may have helped in multiple ways: by stabilizing the early earth’s orbit, and by protecting inner planets from life-threatening comets and asteroids.
Appealing to the movements of celestial bodies for guidance, order, and inspiration accords with millennia of near-universal human practice (as outlined in this book, among many others). Moreover, the sun, moon, and planets appear in the night sky no matter where you are on earth, even in large cities with light pollution. Unlike supernatural gods, Universalist gods are visible to everyone, which makes them better mnemonics, grounding objects, and sources of inspiration.
In the Latin Church, a sacrament is a special practice that imparts supernatural grace—in other words, something that makes you better. In Universalis, any practice qualifies as a Sacrament if it:
cultivates useful habits and thought patterns, and
uses something in nature as a mnemonic.
This broad definition allows practitioners to identify sacraments that work for them (or even to create new ones) rather than forcing everyone to follow the same narrowly prescribed templates. Universalis emphasizes sacraments that center on the following practices.
Mindfulness means “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of [ones] thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment” without judgment or criticism.
A large and growing body of research highlights the many physical, emotional, and intellectual benefits of practicing mindfulness. By way of example, consider these articles from Harvard Health, UC Berkeley, the American Psychological Association, and Forbes Magazine.
Identifying and Challenging Thoughts
This includes making thoughts explicit, distinguishing between thoughts and feelings, identifying cognitive distortions, and challenging problematic thoughts. These practices help us notice, interrupt, and even change automatic thought patterns that cause distress and ultimately reduce our quality of life.
Thoughts can be identified and challenged most readily through prayer, which in Universalis simply means putting thoughts, feelings, and desires into words as honestly as possible. "Prayer" can be done silently, aloud, or in writing; the practice itself is more important than the medium. Since Universalist gods have no bias and cannot judge, it can be helpful to use Sol, Terra, or other planets as "conversational" partners to help you order your thoughts. You can also discuss thoughts, feelings, and desires with friends, family members, or a therapist.
Cultivating Productive Thoughts
Generating new, positive, and useful thoughts can be accomplished through practices like reflection, gratitude, goal-setting, and visualization, each of which has proven cognitive benefits.
Reflection helps us identify problems and formulate achievable goals. Gratitude helps us mitigate cognitive distortions and appreciate social connections more fully. Goal-setting helps us achieve more with our time and cultivate a stronger sense of purpose. Positive visualization helps us worry less about future events, feel less hostile toward difficult people, and accomplish pre-determined goals more quickly.
Engaging the Body
Evolution has optimized our minds and bodies for conditions on Terra: its gravity, its biosphere, and the radiation it receives from Sol. Accordingly, our bodies must "struggle" against nature to perform well, a truth that is complicated by modern life.
Regardless of where we live, we can engage the body (and in turn the mind) by moving around, spending time in nature, and identifying physical exercises that work for each of us.
Social connection is a core psychological need. Though there are many ways to foster connection, Universalis emphasizes participation in Holy Days (see below).
Therapists and psychologists have identified a number of practices that can help people build productive habits—and some of them even use nature as a focal point. Here are some examples from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley, which can be converted into new Universalist Sacraments with few adjustments.
Any natural or cosmic event can be a Universalist Holy Day if practitioners use the event as an opportunity to share in the Sacraments together. Most Holy Days revolve around celebrating the sun and planets.
Celebratory activities on these days might take the form of thematic games; topical conversations; sharing food and drink; or science-themed entertainment (documentaries, sci-fi movies, etc.).
The most common Holy Days are:
Major solar events, like the Winter Solstice (New Sol Day), the Vernal Equinox, the Summer Solstice (Full Sol Day), and the Autumnal Equinox. These are great opportunities to reflect upon the past few months and make plans with friends and family for the new season.
The phases of the moon (i.e. full moon, new moon, etc.). Observing these phases offers opportunity to set short-term goals, reflect on your progress, and practice gratitude as you look both backwards and forwards.
Planetary oppositions and conjunctions. By design, Universalis associates different aspects of wellness with different moons and planets, which allows practitioners to consider many different aspects of wellness throughout the year.
Universalis encourages people to engage with books, articles, news stories, literature reviews, and any other kind of media that discusses well-supported scientific theory—especially sources that make complex theory digestible for folks outside the field. These texts should generate excitement, cause people to think, and help people better understand their place in nature. Climate change, the big bang, and the history of evolution on Terra are some examples of compelling topics. As with religious myths, any text that discusses scientific theory should be taken with a grain of salt, as we are constantly refining our collective knowledge of the world through novel research.
Which science-related books, articles, or websites have been most inspiring to you? Provide feedback!
Universalis aims to cultivate a community of people who are curious about the natural world and who use science to guide their pursuit of well-being. Anyone who commits to learning about the universe (the gods), practicing sound wellness habits (the sacraments), and sharing scientific knowledge with others (religious stories) makes for a welcome addition to the religion.
The core tenets of Universalis likely align with the pre-existing beliefs of many people. These folks may be agnostic, atheist, nonreligious, or spiritual, so they may be missing out on some of the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits that have historically come from religious practice. Universalis attempts to give these individuals something to rally around: it offers them a novel way to practice wellness and a new forum in which they can share their hopes, goals, experiences, and sources of natural inspiration with like-minded people.
How can we know things?
Every individual has extensive knowledge, but one person’s thoughts and perceptions can't make sense of everything. Moreover, our personal thoughts and feelings can even be misleading at times.
When we work together, we get closer to discerning the truth of a matter. As a broad guideline, the scientific method is humanity’s best tool for discerning what’s real. If we conduct research that can be shared, reproduced, challenged by others, and proven wrong, we open up our ideas to wider democratic participation, and we keep individual bias in check.
What is real?
Science suggests that the universe and its contents, including life, evolved to their current state through natural processes over billions of years. These processes (cosmic, geological, chemical, and biological) are guided by physical laws, which are a built-in part of the universe. We can better understand these laws and processes by studying them scientifically, as physicists, chemists, and biologists do.
What should we do?
Everyone has to decide for themselves how to live. That said, humans are a product of nature, so studying the laws and processes of nature can help us determine what kind of behavior is best for us and for society.
Fields like psychology, biology, and neuroscience address wellness from different angles, but each offers valuable insight, so therapists, doctors, and scientists alike can help us optimize for healthy and meaningful lives. With respect to our mental and emotional well-being, Universalis emphasizes behavioral practices that have a good track record of alleviating distress and improving quality of life.
Because macro-level fields like politics and economics deal with complex and ever-changing interactions among billions of individuals, it is much harder to know for sure what to prescribe for everyone. That said, we can focus on the following commitments as a broad ethical framework for collective behavior:
ask about others’ experiences, worries, and concerns to identify societal challenges (diversity),
gather research about and test the efficacy of new social ideas (science), and
decide together which ideas are best supported by the evidence (democracy).