Evolutionary Spirituality

(Please do not revise without my permission. Thank you. Tom Atlee cii @ igc . org)


by Tom Atlee - Jan 8, 2006

As part of helping Michael Dowd organize the first Evolutionary Salon for May 2005, I did some preparatory reading on evolutionary dynamics. I was intrigued by the social change implications. The Salon was a powerful event, and produced a vaguely defined but strangely compelling vision of "a movement for the conscious evolution of increasingly conscious social systems." 

As planning for the subsequent January 2006 evolutionary salon intensified over the summer, I began to feel increasing energy in the networks we were dealing with. In June and July I watched some of the DVDs of Michael and his wife Connie Barlow presenting “The Great Story” of evolution. During one of them I had a profound evolutionary epiphany in which I experienced myself and everything around me as evolving stardust -- an unfolding drama made up entirely of complex, self-transforming arrays of atoms created in the bellies and explosions of stars -- a process which was now, through us, becoming conscious.

In August I visited friends and family in New England. I showed them the evolution DVDs and found my epiphany deepening and stabilizing; I talked about it with everyone I visited. At the same time, I also realized that I was barely able to articulate the implications of this worldview for the particular social transformation agenda I'd been pushing for years.

The next few months were spent largely on retreat, thinking, talking, and writing innumerable theoretical models and papers, trying to get my sea legs in my new evolutionary worldview. A 2 1/2 day silent retreat -- which I spent meditating and seeking guidance -- brought powerful confirmation that I was on the right track, but not more clarity about how I should proceed.


Shortly after my silent retreat I spent 3 days with Michael Dowd discussing our potential working relationship and the kind of movement he and I envisioned arising around the evolutionary story. A radical Christian minister from 1987-1995 and a peace, justice, and environmental sustainability activist from 1995-2000, Michael foresees an evolutionary movement with world-changing and spiritual power comparable to the evangelical Christian movement's. Central to that evangelical movement are small, local, weekly living-room groups in which those who've committed to being on a Christ-like path help each other live into their religious faith, transforming themselves in the process. These small "home groups" are woven into larger church communities that meet frequently to celebrate their faith, their community, and specific individuals or groups who are embodying the faith in one way or another. These church communities are then networked into powerful political action movements.

A somewhat similar structure, organized by scores (if not hundreds) of us who have had deep personal evolutionary epiphanies, could serve the thousands of us who have been and are being inspired by the evolutionary story. In our small groups, we would study evolution, discuss its transformational dynamics and relevance to our lives and times, set intentions for evolutionary impact, identify our personal evolutionary callings, and support each other in growing into the full realization and power of the evolutionary story, transforming our lives and our world in the process. We would pursue inquiries about what it means to take ourselves seriously AS the evolution of the world becoming conscious of itself. We would together find our collective evolutionary callings, as well, and work together on projects arising from that.

These groups would also be centers for developing and practicing evolutionary spiritual practices and rituals that will help ground us in evolutionary insights, and that we can carry into our daily lives. And our groups will be part of larger communities, gathering to celebrate and connecting with each other to clarify our work and carry the sacred power of evolution into society to transform it. And in these communities many of us will tithe our resources -- time, money, care -- to serve the welfare, effectiveness and evolution of the whole movement.

Our movement would be grounded equally in science, social responsibility, and deep spiritual realization. (That, in itself, seems to me to be a worthy evolutionary leap.) Another enormous difference between our evolutionary movement and the evangelical Christian movement is that we would be guided by ourselves collectively -- as a self-organizing "open source spiritual movement" -- rather than by centralized Bible-interpreting authorities. The ideology of the movement would not be fixed and authoritarian, but self-organizing, diverse, interactive, and evolving, in accordance with evolutionary dynamics.  

Furthermore, the evolutionary perspective has an intrinsic activist orientation, for it assumes that we are the living face of evolution and therefore responsible for the survival of our species and biosphere. We are evolutionary agents of all the urgently needed transformations of human consciousness, culture, technology, and social systems. Evolutionary subcultures could grow up within every major religion, much as eco-spirituality has, providing an expanding interfaith common ground to counter dangerously divisive fundamentalist trends also rising in every religion. Evolutionary subcultures could also grow up within every social sector, field and profession.

To nurture the movement’s self-organizing co-creative dynamic, Michael and I discussed creating a participatory Wikipedia-like online Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Spirituality in which people of all faiths can co-create new evolutionary ideas, book and video reviews, study materials, myths, liturgies, beliefs, practices, and activities or develop evolutionary interpretations of existing aspects of their own faiths (e.g., Ramadan, Original Sin, Tikkun, Compassion, Shiva, etc., much as Michael has begun doing for Christianity on his site http://www.evolutionarychristianity.org ).

We plan to use movement-organizing software like CivicSpace http://civicspacelabs.org/home to help network and coordinate the activist "social creativity" work of the evolutionary movement and to ground it in the power of collective spirit and wisdom.

People would be drawn into the movement through word-of-mouth stories of friend's experiences in their local groups; through video and print forms of other peoples' stories; and through print, video and in-person teaching and preaching of the sacred story of evolution by Michael, Connie, and other popular speakers like Brian Swimme. They do their work in ways that inspire and engage diverse audiences at a deep level where cosmic evolution becomes very personal, connecting each listener to the unity of the universe and their individual and collective evolutionary callings. Michael plans on expanding local and national media coverage of Great Story initiatives and activities and broadening the exposure of his and Connie’s teaching and preaching ministry through TV, radio, web-casts, newspapers, and magazines.

There is also a group that grew out of the first Evolutionary Salon that is planning for media and art which will communicate the evolutionary story and call people to conscious collective evolution -- including a "What the (bleep) do we know?"-style film, documentaries of what is going on in various movement activities, and even an "imagineering" novel about people forming and living this movement, so people would be called and guided to actually live out the evolutionary story in their own lives. (There could be a contest for such a novel, as was once sponsored by Ted Turner for an environmental novel, which brought forth the ISHMAEL books. Or there could be a week-long Open Space conference of storytellers -- novelists, movie people, journalists, historians, futurists, etc. -- combined with people who have useful information or inspiring ideas of what it would take to create a sustainable, wise, consciously evolving civilization.) We could also have imagineering journals and blogs where people can write imaginary news articles about things that they want to see happen, as if they have already happened, and anyone wanting to help make that happen can contact the author. Groups might do collective visualizations, scenario work, or "presencing" exercises to identify things that they want to collectively present in such imagineering media.


We recognize that we are already part of something larger. Many people and organizations are already doing evolutionary work -- Institute of Noetic Sciences, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Foundation for Global Community, the Fetzer Institute, the Bioneers, and countless others -- but they have not yet coalesced into a self-realized movement. We plan to engage them and their networks in discovering each other and co-creating what's next -- as well as carrying out new initiatives ourselves. One approach will be to have evolutionary salons that "convene the convenors" to co-create a commons -- a set of understandings, capabilities and resources that can serve all of them. Another approach will be to make available small-group evolutionary activities that appeal to already-existing networks of groups (like the IONS community groups), so that they will manifest in their own realm what we are trying to create in our realm with our evolutionary groups.

I believe what is emerging out of all this is a movement to increase the capacity of society to consciously evolve towards greater wisdom and wholeness forever. I see this as embracing and going beyond most other visions of social change. In particular, I see this vision fully embracing the spiritual and cultural dimensions of transformation, where considerable human potential for change resides. I see human consciousness evolving hand in hand with evolving social systems -- and this movement as a forum within which to clarify and work with those dynamics. 

And, as a lifelong activist, I see this as a time and opportunity to shift some of our social change and transformational movement energies towards the process of evolution, itself -- not as some mechanical process outside ourselves, but as a living process embodied in and operating through us and our societies. I have personally found the sense that evolution is operating through me -- indeed, that I and we collectively ARE a significant part of evolution -- to be tremendously freeing, motivating, and empowering.


We expect to continue convening 4-5 day "Evolutionary Salons" -- both the generic kind (like last May's and this January's) and, increasingly, strategic conversations of thought leaders from specific fields and sectors to explore evolutionary principles and strategies for evolutionary action in those fields. We are planning the first of these for June to explore the implications of the evolutionary perspective for clarifying and transforming the work of philanthropy. There is need for such conversations to address business, technology, education, journalism, politics, governance, and much more.

A group of us are also envisioning an ongoing think-tank, that could provide a collective intelligence for all this activity and track the horizon of cultural evolutionary developments that would help us in choosing what strategic conversations would be most productive to catalyze next. This group would also research the design principles of -- and best practices for -- evolutionary "social creativity" work, a "pattern language" for conscious evolution. (See https://wd-pl.com for an example of a pattern language.) We would publish research materials from, to and for the evolutionary movement.

In one version of such a thinktank, there would be lots of money and a retreat center (designed for juicy open space gatherings) where 8-20 people were involved in ongoing research, making generative links between people, planning gatherings, etc. There would also be a staff of people to handle the logistics of the gatherings, maintain the site, and provide services to the permanent researchers. Ideally there would be funds to simply bring people together without cost, where an evolutionary impact could be created by doing that. The researchers could cross-pollinate ideas with those who came to dialogue -- and the rich results would become available regularly on the web.

These are some of the strategies that have begun to weave themselves into a coherent whole in the last four months. We expect them to develop further, and new ideas to emerge, at our Evolutionary Salon that begins at the end of this coming week.


I think we are rapidly moving beyond the point where small scale experiments and reforms will be sufficient to address the massive changes that will soon be forced upon us. I think we need a movement that has conscious collective evolution as its core principle, and I am overjoyed to find such a movement ready to be born and eager for contributions and everyone else. I expect it will produce, within the next 2-10 years, hundreds or thousands of people eagerly, actively and effectively pushing the kinds of changes we've been advocating and struggling over for years -- and feeling it is the most obvious thing in the world to do.