Rev Rex A E Hunt, MSc(Hons)
Spirit of Life Unitarian Fellowship
Kirribilli, NSW
29 September 2019


“The way you really get to the public is by having the right enemies, not the right friends.
The friends don’t do you that much good, but the right enemies attacking you
really do open up the possibilities”
(US Senator William Spong, cousin of Bishop John S Spong)

Marcelo Gleiser grew up on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
Years later, a world famous theoretical physicist with hundreds of scientific articles
and several books to his credit—his latest being The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected—
he felt it was time to reconnect to nature in less theoretically ways.

So he took up fly-fishing—a hobby he says that teaches humility.

In 2019 Gleiser was awarded the Templeton Prize.

A native of Brazil, where his books are bestsellers
and his television series draw audiences in the millions,
          Gleiser was the first Latin American to be awarded the Prize.

According to Wikipedia, The Templeton Prize is an annual award
granted to a living person who, in the estimation of the judges,
"has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works". 

It was established, funded and administered by John Templeton starting in 1972,
and then after 1987 by the John Templeton Foundation.
          Mother Teresa was the first winner.
          Australian biologist L. Charles Birch was also a recipient.

Gleiser is a prominent voice among scientists, past and present.
“To watch the Apollo moon landing at ten,” he writes, “gave me a very concrete sense of what science was capable of.” (Gleiser 2019a) 

 But he rejects the notion that science alone
can lead to ultimate truths about the nature of reality.

Instead, he reveals the historical, philosophical, and cultural links
between science, the humanities, and spirituality,
          and argues for a complementary approach to knowledge,
          especially on questions where science cannot provide a final answer.

He often describes science as an “engagement with the mysterious,”
inseparable from humanity’s relationship with the natural world.

This morning I want to retell one of Gleiser’s articles, just slightly edited for the sake of time.
Maybe it will stimulate some discussion which this place is known for!
          The title of his article, published in July this year, is: “The Trouble with Tribalism”.


Humans are tribal animals.
There is no question that belonging to a tribe had essential survival value
to our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. 

The tribe provided shelter, food, and a code for survival based on shared values.
Those values were, generally, religion-based.

Rituals were a bridge between humans and the divine,
whatever that divine was.

Of course, we can’t know precisely which values and rituals were used so long ago.
But we can confidently state that different tribes had different values and rituals. 

The tribal identity and its value system were what, to a large extent, defined the tribe.
In this regard, little has changed in the past millennia.
Tribes may change but what defines them does not.

There is no question that we remain tribal.
Tribes are everywhere. 

They make up subgroups in the schoolyard and the playground.
They define people’s political affiliation.
They define people’s religious beliefs.
They define what football or baseball team you [support]. 

To belong to one of these subgroups is to share, to a lesser or larger extent,
the vision and value system of that subgroup.

In politics, we talk about party affiliation for a reason.
To question a party’s values from within is very different
          than to question them from without.

It’s similar with religions.
These tribes share a code of ethics, based on sacred scriptures
or from a hierarchical power structure, like the elders. 

To question those from within is not taken lightly by fellow tribe members,
as countless historical examples show.
To question those from without is also not taken lightly,
but it’s a completely different kind of attack.

How Tribes React to Criticism
An insider’s critique or attack, in politics and religion,
is something that the tribe tries to remedy somehow.
          Disciplinary behaviors abound. 

A critique to tribal values may, of course, have very serious consequences. 

After all, religions split… as do political parties.
Once that happens, they become two separate tribes,
          independent and mostly non-overlapping,
          even if alliances are occasionally possible.

An outsider’s attack to a tribe’s established ways is a whole different story.
It triggers a cohesive force within the tribe. 

An enemy strengthens the cause, as the tribe unites to defend itself and its values.
A tribe without enemies is, almost by definition, not a tribe.
As a consequence, tribal dispute and warfare
          is part of what defines humanity.

We are a split species, one that needs enemies to function and to find meaning.
Tribes provide a sense of belonging, of dignity to its members.
As long as we belong to the same tribe,
we are all “brothers and sisters”: 

We fight for our values and stay together as a group.

Are Tribes Necessary?
At least this has been the case for tens of thousands of years.
The question I’d like to ask today is, Do we still need tribes?

This is not a yes or no question.
Of course, people are (or should be) free to think differently
about their beliefs—religious, political, or otherwise.
A rich diversity of opinion and shared values is key to a creative society.

Homogeneity breeds little creativity.  Friction is important.

But tribal allegiances go against these concepts.
They segregate.
They silence protest.
They squash criticism.
They divide and label.
They see the “other” not as an equal, but as an enemy. 

And enemies, as our long history of tribal warfare has shown over and over again,
must be either destroyed or converted.

No one can make tribes obsolete.
They are written in our genes,
          products that we are of millions of years of evolution. 

So, the answer to my question is, yes, we still need tribes.
But tribes can change.
They do, usually, when subjected to a massive confrontation of values.
Or to massive new information.

So, it’s not whether tribes are obsolete or not,
but what tribe or tribes are best equipped to deal with our current challenges. 

Well, it depends on who we define as our enemy…

Thinking big
Let’s not think small here, and just list the enemies that go against your tribal allegiances.
This made some sense in the distant past,
          when our challenges were mostly local:
                           local food source, and other small tribes going after them.

Things have changed a lot since.
The biggest enemy we have to fight against right now is our tribal past.
What served us so well for thousands of years is now an obsolete concept. 

It’s no more about the survival of this tribe or that one,
but about Homo sapiens as a species. 

We must wake up to the fact that,
when seen from a global planetary perspective,
          we are a single species living in a fragile ecosystem…

For the first time in our collective history,
we must think of ourselves as a single tribe in a single planet.
          Tribes exist to guarantee the survival of their members. 

Given the current planetary and geopolitical stressors,
if we don’t begin to think of ourselves in global terms as a single species
as opposed to tribes fighting tribes,
we risk letting our tribal past write our dystopian future.

We are a single tribe, the tribe of humans.
And, as such, not a tribe at all. 


Now I shared these thoughts by Marcelo Gleiser for one simple reason.
Millions of people world-wide - many tribes - took part in 5,225 global climate youth-led strikes just a few days ago.

Organisers claimed it was one of the largest global mobilisations ever
against climate breakdown, with people in 156 countries
          on all seven continents taking part. 

The weeklong movement surrounded the UN Climate Summit
held last weekend in New York,
which met to accelerate actions on implementing
the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Our Prime Minister, while in New York, chose not to attend the Summit.

Despite Morrison’s recalcitrance, shaped by dangerous neo-pentecostal beliefs,
both against the NY Summit meeting, and before that, in forcing the Pacific Islands Forum
to delete or water down any reference in the Tuvalu declaration to a ‘climate crisis’…  

And John Howard’s past efforts with the ‘greenhouse mafia’ to Sabotage the Kyoto Protocol,
the climate crisis is an emergency.

Action on climate change shouldn’t be just driven by the activities
of a softly spoken 16 year old Swedish school-girl activist, Greta Thunberg,
          and thousands of other school children around the world.

Thunberg, you will recall, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
She was also named one of the world’s most influential people
by Time magazine in May this year.

You are correct Greta Thunberg.
We do need hope. But the one thing we need more than hope is action.
          Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.

You are correct Marcelo Gleiser.
We are a single tribe, the tribe of humans, so eloquently stated in an early creed
          by the sage Yeshu’a, but forgotten within a few decades.

We are the ones we have been waiting for!
But… the number one obstacle to dealing with the climate crisis is human inertia.


There is something quite remarkable about life,
and that is that all life on Earth is interconnected in a very fundamental ‘tribal’ sense.

Quite beautifully, all life, from plants to insects to humans,
shares a common ancestor dating to around 3 billion years ago.
“Within our blood
stars flash their signals,
rivers circuit their courses,
seas fluctuate rhythmically
while the dust of dead constellations mingles with our bones…”  (Catherine de Vinck)

We are part of Nature. Nature enriches our lives.
And as Australians especially it’s part of our identity, it sustains us and inspires us,
          and we bloody-well need to do a better job of looking after it.

de Vinck, C. “Waking in the Cosmos” in The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, 2019
Gambian, C. Chief Executive, Nature Conservation Council of NSW. eMail correspondence. Dated: 16 August 2019
Gleiser, M. The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected. A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. Lebanon NH: ForeEdge, 2016
————-, “A Giant Step for Mankind” published on Orbiter Blog, 4 July 2019a. <>
————-, “The Trouble with Tribalism” published on Orbiter Blog, 18 July 2019b. <>
Hamilton, C. Scorcher. The Dirty Politics of Climate Change. Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda, 2007
John, J. “Australia Waters Down Commitments” on Common Grace… <>

• The Greenhouse Mafia was exposed by an ABC’s Four Corners program, in February 2006.
In that program we learned that for a decade the Government’s policies had been determined by a cabal of powerful fossil-fuel lobbyists representing the very corporations whose commercial interests would be most affected by any move to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal, oil, cement, aluminium, mining and electrical industries… Almost all of these industry lobbyists had been plucked from the senior ranks of the Australian Public Service.
The revolving door between the bureaucracy and industry lobby groups gave the fossil-fuel industries unparalleled insight into the policy process and networks through Government. Howard included key members of the fossil-fuel lobby groups in its official delegation to negotiate the Koyoto Protocol.

• The mother of all life forms was a simple bacterium… our microbial Eve. Life evolves through random mutations in the genes. 

• On the Forum… one of my colleagues wrote the following: “What emerged, directly as a result of Australia’s recalcitrance, was a watered down version of the Tuvalu declaration, called the Kainaki II Declaration. This declaration omits the call to halt the expansion of fossil fuel power-plants and coal mines, and the challenge to all nations to increase their Paris Agreement commitments, amongst other things.”  (Jason John)   

• Long before the followers of Jesus declared him to be the Son of God, Jesus taught his followers that they too were the children of God. This ancient creed, now all but forgotten, is recorded still within the folds of a letter of Paul the Apostle. Paul did not create this creed, nor did he fully embrace it, but he quoted it and thus preserved it for a time when it might become important once again. This ancient creed said nothing about God or Christ or salvation. Its claims were about the whole human race: there is no race, there is no class, there is no gender.

   This… forgotten creed, and the world of its begetting, a world in which foreigners were feared, slaves were human chattel, and men questioned whether women were really human after all. Into this world the followers of Jesus proclaimed: "You are all children of God. There is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female, for you are all one." Where did this remarkable statement of human solidarity come from, and what, finally, happened to it? How did Christianity become a Gentile religion that despised Jews, condoned slavery as the will of God, and championed patriarchy?

   Christian theologians would one day argue about the nature of Christ, the being of God, and the mechanics of salvation. But before this, in the days when Jesus was still fresh in the memory of those who knew him, the argument was a different one: how can human beings overcome the ways by which we divide ourselves one from another? Is solidarity possible beyond race, class, and gender?