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Is Pantheism an Atheism?


Etymology and History

The word 'pantheism' in popular translation means "all God". Which at least on an initial level, would seem to be the polar opposite of atheism. The Oxford dictionary defines the term as "A doctrine which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God" and, interestingly, "The worship or tolerance of many gods." This does not sound very atheist at all. However as one digs a little deeper into the etymology some further understanding is gained in the history. The Ancient Hellenic "pan" is a relatively unproblematic translation of "all". But "theos" is alternatively "god" or "divine", derived from the Proto-Indo-European "to do, to put, to place". It is not related, despite similarity in form and meaning, to the Latin 'deus', whose Proto-Indo-European root, is "sky" or "heaven". In fact, in Latin, it is a lot closer to the words feriae ("festival days"), fanum ("temple"), and festus ("festive"). Immediately from the etymology once can see to core themes; simultaneous association with reverence and immanence.

These ancient roots aside, the word itself is relatively recent, being first used by the mathematician Joseph Raphson in the Latin text "De Spatio Reali" published in 1697. Raphson makes a distinction between atheistic panhylists (from pan 'all' and hyle 'wood, matter'), and pantheists whom he said believe in "a certain universal substance, material as well as intelligent, that fashions all things that exist out of its own essence". The content of this definition combines both the future monism of Barach Spinoza and the future idealism of G.W.F. Hegel, both of whom are associated as pantheists.

The Irish rationalist and free-thinker John Toland in 1705 made reference in the English-language publication, 'Socinianism Truly Stated', by a pantheist", where he argues against orthodox interpretations of Christianity in favour of a rational indfference which provides "fair dealing". Toland had previously argued in his first book "Christianity Not Mysterious" (1696), that "That there is nothing in the Gospel[s] contrary to reason, nor above it. [Therefore] no Christian doctrine can be properly called a mystery". As a result of this, he was prosecuted by a grand jury in London, and members of the Irish parliament proposed that he burnt at the stake, as his works. In his absence, they burnt three copies of his book instead. He also printed a few copies for private circulation of "Pantheisticon, or the Form of Celebrating the Socratic Society", which imitated the Church of England liturgy by suggesting a service made up of passages from pagan authors.

Historical Contributors

In the contemporary definition, pantheism is the position that reality is identical to divinity; that reality represents an immanent, rather than transcendent, divinity. As a result it clearly rejects proposals of an anthropomorphic or personal God. Philosophers and theologians have considered that there is at significant elements of pantheism in the Indian philosopher, Adi Shankara, the founder of the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism. Others have make an association with Buddhism, especially more secular and practical aspects of the Zen or Theravada traditions. The Stoics, from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius, too are considered pantheistic. In Book VII of his mediations the latter writes: "All things are implicated with one another, and the bond is holy... For there is one universe made up of all things, and one god who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, and one reason". There are even aspects in Islam and especially Sufism, initially through Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad who explored the notion of wahdat al-wujud, the "Unity of Existence", but especially through through the panenthiest Ibn al-'Arabi, "The existence of all created things is His existence".

Key figures modern west that have been associated with pantheism include Giordano Bruno, the Italian monk, mathematician, and cosmologist, who argued that God was immanent and infinite. He had the temerity to argue that the stars were just suns with their own planets and that they could even have life as well. For his troubles, he was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1548. Also associated is Baruch Spinoza who, having noted problems with anthropomorphic definitions of God in previous publications, came out with the blunt statement in his "Ethics" (1677): "Whether we say ... that all things happen according to the laws of nature, or are ordered by the decree and direction of God, we say the same thing."

Tied with philosophical monism, pantheism has also been tied with idealist philosophers such as such as G.W.F. Hegel, political figures such as Abraham Lincoln, and famously in the twentieth century by scientists such as Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan. Einstein of course used many labels to describe his religious views, including "agnostic", a "religious nonbeliever", "pantheistic", and "a believer in "Spinoza's God". Most notably he wrote: "I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being." Carl Sagan, ever-optimistically, argued in Pale Blue Dot (1994): "A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge."

Criticism of Pantheism

There are of course many critics of pantheism. Apart for the various religious authorities who have declared it blasphemy, heresy, and apostasy, and have shown the courage of their convictions by executing the adherents for many centuries. Putting the pantheists in good company, Pope Pius IX in 1864 released the "The Syllabus of Errors", which started with a condemnation of pantheism, but included subsequent propositions that condemned naturalism, rationalism, socialism, liberal clerical societies, and indeed, liberalism in every political form.

In addition to these there are more philosophical objections. Arthur Schopenhauer in particular argued - as it was a negative proposition - that "Pantheism is only a euphemism for atheism", and that "to call the world God is not to explain it; it is only to enrich our language with a superfluous synonym for the word world". An English contemporary, John Richardson Illingworth, a liberal Christian, famously claimed that "Pantheism is really indistinguishable from Materialism; it is merely Materialism grown sentimental, but no more tenable for its change of name." Of course, many people here would be familiar with the quote from Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion" (2006):

"Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist's metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism."

In describing pantheism as sexed-up atheism, perhaps Dr. Dawkins has inadvertently made apparent how to many his version of atheism has the sex appeal of a road accident. But this aside there is a serious question being posed at the the pantheists by Schopenhauer, Illingworth, and Dawkins - if you're using God, or "All-God" as a synonym for an impersonal universe, for goodness sake, why don't just the the word "universe"?

The Experience of Pantheism

As explained by Michael Levine's classic 1994 text, "Panethism: A Non-Theistic Concept of Deity", pantheist answers to this question is primarily experiential. The pantheist calls the universe divine, because that is their experience with the universe evokes religious emotions. This is not to suggest that there are not cerebral justifications that tie the identity of the universe with traditional notions of omnipresence, omnipotence and even, in some interpretations, omniscience. However the stronger argument for the pantheist is a reverence for and sense of identity with the world, in the sense that it evokes such extraordinary wonder and transcendence that the experience itself is described as religious, in the same manner that William James explained in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902), and with the sense from Ludwig Wittgenstein's comment in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921): "Nicht wie die Welt ist, ist das Mystische, sondern dass sie ist" ("Not how the world is, is mystical, but that it is").

In part one can refer to the recent work for Andrew B. Newberg, the Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Newberg's work, entitled "neurotheology" concentrates on how religious orientations combined with ritualistic behaviour contributes to a sense of transcendent universalisty - a position that has attracted much interest and support from the radical German theologian and former Catholic priest, Eugen Drewermann. It is not too much of an elaboration to tie this to recent work by Adam Zeman, a professor of cognitive and behavioural neurology at the University of Exeter, on the range of imaginative capacity from aphantasia to hyperphantasia. In the former case, individuals do not have any visual or auditory imagination, and no ability to conjure them. To them, "counting sheep" is an abstract metaphor. To people on the other end of the scale, their imaginations as vivid if not even more so than reality itself.

Now it is quite obvious that not everyone has such experiences or desires. However there is increasing empirical evidence that suggests that that the mental landscape of the theistic believer, and the strictly analytical atheist are significantly different. The pantheist, one may speculate, seems to combine the imaginative experience of many theists with the analytical reasoning found among many atheists. William Boulting, in his biography "Giordano Bruno: His Life, Thought, and Martyrdom" (1916) expresses something that many pantheists feel:

"Bruno is the first thinker who based the soul's duty to itself on its own nature: not on external authority, but on inner light. ... Of Bruno, as of Spinoza, it may be said that he was 'God-intoxicated.' He felt that the Divine Excellence had its abode in the very heart of Nature and within his own body and spirit. In dwelling in every dewdrop as in the innumerable host of heaven, in the humblest flower and in the mind of man, he found the living spirit of God, setting forth the Divine glory, making the Divine perfection and inspiring with the Divine love.... The heroic soul, says Bruno, shall seek truth and find it."

The Problem of Suffering and Of Evil

One final issue that must be addressed is the problem of evil, whether expressed in terms of natural suffering, or the conscious actions of people. The British novelist Clive Staples Lewis thought that pantheism was very weak on this question. In his apologetic, "Mere Christianity" (1952), he rejects the pantheistic idea in the following manner:

"Confronted with a cancer or a slum the Pantheist can say, 'If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realize that this also is God.' The Christian replies, 'Don’t talk damned nonsense.' For Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks that God made the world—that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colors and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God 'made out of his head' as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again."

It is not a very good example of the supposed advantages of Christianity of course, as many atheists point out that if a personal God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent they should prevent such things from occurring. But the point in this context is that it illustrates how poorly understood the pantheistic perspective is by C.S. Lewis (indeed, Schopenhauer made the same criticism). To reiterate, it considers the universe both to be divine and impersonal. Thus the problem of evil is not a problem for the pantheist, because there is no in-built benevolence in the divine universe. Confronted by cancer or slum, the pantheist does indeed consider them to be both divine, they are part of a magnificent universe, and that they need to be changed, because they cause suffering.

Concluding Remarks

So is pantheism an atheism? Much depends on what means by atheism - as the convener of this group, David Miller, points out at each and every meeting, there is a continuum of positions that fall under that broad banner. Certainly for practical purposes pantheists (and for that matter deists) act according to the principles of philosophical naturalism. As an epistemological perspective they would fall largely into the same position as metaphysical agnostics, expressing an inability to know what is external to our shared universe and, obviously, a degree of ignorance about that shared universe.

In terms of social expression, one must say there is a lesser degree of correspondence between mainstream atheism and pantheism. Pantheists may be as politically secular from atheists for fairly obvious reasons (indeed, arguably being secular is a holy duty!), but one will certainly encounter them more often than atheists in established churches (and, of course, we know that there is church-going atheists). Pantheists, contrary to Carl Sagan's wish, have no religious institution of their own and no defined rituals. Indeed a historical sociologist would recognise that there is a greater opportunity for existing religions to become more pantheistic, than a new one to form.

This said, the Unitarians, in whose hall we meet tonight, have certainly been accused (and quite correctly) of having a high proportion of pantheists and deists. As an aside, in the much criticised Australian Census, which is being held tonight, the Unitarian-Universalists have been moved from a sub-category of Christians are now listed in the same category as "Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation". Interestingly, pantheism has been removed from the code entirely whereas previously it was listed under "Other Religions"

However, returning to the topic in question and by way of conclusion, it is experiential relationship where pantheists differ from many expressions of atheism. Their relationship to the universe is not a relationship to a nihilistic and meaningless universe but a relationship with divinity itself, at least as defined from their perspective. It is certainly a form of religious naturalism, where a naturalistic conception of the universe, is combined with an emotional response associated with religious experience. Loyal Rue expresses this religious naturalism quite succinctly in "Religion is not about God" (2005):

"Religious naturalists will be known for their reverence and awe before Nature, their love for Nature and natural forms, their sympathy for all living things, their guilt for enlarging the ecological footprints, their pride in reducing them, their sense of gratitude directed towards the matrix of life, their contempt for those who abstract themselves from natural values, and their solidarity with those who link their self-esteem to sustainable living."

Is pantheism an atheism? To the members of the Melbourne Atheist Society, that is up to you to decide, and it depends very much on how you experience the universe through your cerebral atheism.

Presentation to the Melbourne Atheist Society, 9th of August, 2016