What is Universalis?
Religio Universalis, or Universalis for short, is a naturalistic religion that appeals to astronomy for its iconography and to science for answers about life, health, and purpose. Its Latin root means "pertaining to the universe" or "common to all."
The chief god in Universalis is Sol (the sun), which accounts for 99.8% of all mass in the solar system, and which provides the necessary energy for life on Terra (the earth). Other primary gods include Luna (the moon), Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and Mercury, all of which have been known to humankind since antiquity.
Universalis prescribes Sacraments to help train the mind. At their core, Universalist sacraments are well researched wellness practices that use astronomical bodies as reminders, mnemonics, or focal points. These include mindfulness, spending time in nature, and questioning thoughts.
Universalis recognizes Holy Days as opportunities to learn about the universe, ask thoughtful questions, share inspiring ideas, and set goals for the future. Holy Days are scheduled around recurring celestial events like solstices, equinoxes, full moons, and planetary alignments.
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 (physics, chemistry, geology, biology) to understand where we come from and why the world is how it is;
psychology, especially behavioral psychology, to understand how to cultivate happiness and meaning; and
astronomy for common ground, mnemonics, symbolism, and inspiration.
Many religions embrace mystical or supernatural things. Universalis does not. While supernatural things might exist, many people believe that there are better explanations for the way things are. Moreover, when people focus primarily on things that might exist but cannot be confirmed, it gets easier to mix up fact and fiction. Even though it can be valuable to speculate, only things that can be reasonably confirmed should ultimately guide human decision-making.
Though there are many things that humans do not yet understand, science has shown over the centuries that most mysteries can be solved with patience, careful observation, repeated testing, and open dialogue.
A religion is a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices that reflect devotion to a specific view of reality. From a legal standpoint, religion refers to a person’s view of their Creator and the obligations imposed on their “being and character” by what they believe.
Despite the factual errors and ethical excesses of historical religions, religion in general has played an important role in human evolution. At its core, religion uses symbols, stories, rituals, and community to address troubling questions, provide emotional support, give followers a sense of purpose, and help people establish new habits.
Even through research continues to challenge long-standing religious assumptions, few unifying forces have risen to take the place of historical religious systems. Science has made good progress in answering questions about life, well-being, and purpose, but these ideas are rarely harmonized into a shared system of practice. Accordingly, many who are agnostic, atheistic, or unaffiliated end up missing out on the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits of shared "religious" practice.
Universalis tries to fill this gap. As a religion, it acknowledges gods (albeit ones that are not supernatural), prescribes sacraments, and tells stories about creation and existence, but it does all this without appealing to mysticism.
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.
Their size, distance, and movements inspire wonder.
They will far outlive any human presence on earth.
Our continued existence as a species relies upon whether we successfully understand and "commune" with these objects, especially the Earth.
The pantheon of Universalis can contain infinite gods, but from humanity’s standpoint, the chief gods are Sol (the sun) and Terra (the earth). Under Sol’s influence, the planets of our solar system formed, including Terra. As Terra matured, its composition and position facilitated the development of life. Eventually, Terra selected for our evolution.
Other astronomical bodies have contributed to the creation and sustenance of our existence, too. For example:
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 sky every night no matter where you are on earth—even in large cities with high light pollution. Unlike supernatural gods, Universalist gods are visible to everyone, which makes them the best mnemonics, grounding objects, and sources of inspiration.
In the Latin Church, a sacrament is a special practice that imparts supernatural grace, i.e. something that makes you better. In Universalis, any practice qualifies as a Sacrament if it:
cultivates useful habits and thought patterns per the scientific literature, and
uses something in nature as a mnemonic device.
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, here are 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 people notice, interrupt, and change automatic thought patterns that cause distress and ultimately reduce quality of life.
Thoughts can be identified and challenged most readily through prayer, which in Universalis simply means putting thoughts, desires, and feelings into words as honestly as possible. This 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 help to use Sol, Terra, or some other planet as a silent, one-way "conversational" partner to help folks order their thoughts. People can also discuss their 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 people identify problems and formulate achievable goals.
Gratitude helps people mitigate cognitive distortions and appreciate social connections more fully.
Goal-setting helps people achieve more with their time and cultivate a stronger sense of purpose.
Positive visualization helps people worry less about future events, feel less hostile toward difficult people, and accomplish pre-determined goals more quickly.
Engaging the Body
Evolution optimized both body and mind for conditions on Terra: its gravity, its biosphere, and the radiation it receives from Sol. Accordingly, our bodies must "struggle" against nature to some extent to function optimally, a truth complicated by modern life.
Regardless of where they live, people can engage the body (and in turn the mind) by moving around, spending time in nature, and performing physical exercises that work for them.
Social connection is a core psychological need. Though there are many ways to foster connection, Universalis emphasizes participation in Universalist Holy Days, especially for curious, science-loving people.
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 could, with a few adjustments, be converted into new Universalist Sacraments.
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.
In Universalis, any well-supported theory that explains something about the world counts as a religious story. A well-told scientific story should generate excitement, cause us to think, and help us better understand our place in the world. The big bang, biological evolution, anthropological history, and climate change serve as examples of Universalist religious stories.
As with traditional religious myths, scientific theories should also be taken with a grain of salt, as we constantly refine our collective knowledge through novel research.
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 as well as a novel forum where they can share their hopes, goals, experiences, and sources of natural inspiration with like-minded people.
How can we know things?
When we work together, we get closer to figuring out 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 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, since humans are a product of nature, 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 mental and emotional well-being, Universalis focuses on 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:
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 evidence (democracy).