Pantheism: Beyond Atheism and Theism

There are really only three broad topics that are addressed here. Firstly, a definition of pantheism, especially in respect to theism and atheism. Secondly, an elaboration on what is meant by the word 'beyond', as there are multiple meanings being used, and thirdly, why pantheism can be expressed as being 'beyond' atheism and theism. For the first part, a significant portion is drawn from a presentation I gave to the Melbourne Atheist Society on August 9, 2016 entitled "Is Pantheism an Atheism?", which left the answer to subjective experientiality. For the second part, the elaboration especially draws upon the definition of "meta-" in Ancient Greek, and the German concept of Aufhebung and its role in dialectical reasoning. Hopefully, with these two parts in firm foundation, the concluding remarks of the presentation, which really encapsulate the title, will have equivalent confidence. But, with a warning in advance, there is an interesting concluding twist which can be a matter for a lot of further debate.

Defining Pantheism

Whilst we popularly translate "pantheism" as "all God", it is worth noting that the word "theos" can either be "god" or "divine", and is cognate with the Latin feriae for "festival". This etymology brings to light two important themes; reverence and immanence. It is a concept that one also finds well-expressed in Baruch Spinoza's "Ethics" (16877: "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". Contemporary, naturalistic, pantheism is the proposition that reality is simultaneously both prosaic and divine, as Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked 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"). There are, of course, historical religious precedents to this worldview. There is monism in the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, and the more secular traditions in Buddhism. Many of the Stoics are certainly considered pantheists; Chrysippus argued that "the universe itself is God and the universal outpouring of its soul", and there are certainly approaches in the experiential unity in the Islamic Sufi.

It should be clear that pantheism does not endorse a personal God, anthropomorphic or otherwise. This is not to reject serious explorations in panpsychism, the argument that mind-like aspects are a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of universe. Contemporary philosophers, such as Strawson, even argues that physicalist monism actually requires panpsychism. The popular media, of course, reports this as "the universe is conscious", using a particularly sloppy definition which confuses low-grade phenomenal perception and reaction to intersubjective con-scientia, (knowledge-with, shared knowledge) mediated by mutually understood shared symbolic values. This said, a blundering criticism of pantheism by C.S. Lewis must be pointed out; Lewis argued that pantheist errs in considering everything divine, as that would include slums and cancer. Pantheism, to reiterate, has a non-pesonal notion of divinity. There is a moral reason to cure cancer or end slums which is independent of considering the universe divine. It is not, as Lewis perhaps thought, a rebellion against a personal God.

The experiential aspect is a necessary element in pantheism. he philosopher Schopenhauer criticised pantheism as "only a euphemism for atheism", the liberal Christian Illingworth argued that "it is merely Materialism grown sentimental", and Dawkins describes it a merely "sexed-up atheism". Of the three Illingworth's remark is probably the most accurate. After all, is not the experience of sentimentality something that is part of the universe? As for Schopenhauer and Dawkins, it is clear that they lack the sentimentality to experience the world as immanent and divine. Which is perfectly fine; the neurology of some individuals differes to others, and there are those who can combine a cerebral pantheism with an extraordinary sense of wonder with the universe that equates with religious experiences, of which Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan are included. Contemporary research into this matter can be found with the notion of "neurotheology" explored by Andrew Newberg at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioural neurology at the University of Exeter, on the range of imaginative capacity from aphantasia to hyperphantasia.

What Is Beyond?

Having defined pantheism as an experiential world-view that considers the universe as an immanent, but non-personal divinity, it is necessary to elaborate on what is meant as "beyond". Initially one should look at the prefix "meta-" in Ancient Greek, which of course is very well-known in the term "metaphysics", which we typically translate as "beyond the physics" and represents in philosophy the study first principles in understanding universal conditions for ontological propositions. Avoiding a physicalist bias, sometimes I refer to "metaidealism", "metaphysicalism", and even "metasymbolism" - but that is the subject for a different presentation. In any case, we must be quite aware of the numerous failings of metaphysics. The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy, published by Hutchinson, in 1960 makes the following observation: "Metaphysics is that part of philosophy which has the greatest prentensions and is exposed to the greatest suspicions. Having the avowed aim of arriving at profound truths about everything, it is sometimes held to result only in obscure nonsense about nothing."

One must also be aware that there are several alternative forms the word meta-, whether as a preposition or adverb, numerous authors of the time (e.g., Euripides, Herodotus, Homer, Plato, Sophocles, Xenophon, etc) would use it to mean "in the midst of", "in common", "in dealing with", "between", "to complete", "in succession", "beyond", "after or next to", "and then". What should be clear from this elaboration is that the concept of a meta- position is encompassing, but also inclusive. It is not separate from the content that it seeks to elucidate and supervenes. In this sense, it is helpful to consider pantheism as a sort of meta-atheism and a meta-theism.

To do this one can draw upon the Hegelian dialectic, specifically the evolving triad of abstract, negation, and concrete. The abstract represents a set of propositions, the negation is the often withering criticism from experience, known as mediation, and the concrete is a a higher resolution between the two, which both includes the abstract and the negation, but also overcomes their limitations, encapsulated in the German word "Aufhebung". In this manner we can see how various forms of theism represent a set of propositions about the world, which are then negated from experience and the considered criticism from atheism. As the propositions change - and some remain relatively intact - a concrete pantheism results.

Concrete Pantheism

Now this does remind me of the story of the Reverend who, deciding to expand his horizons, invites a group of atheists over for tea and biscuits and a little chat. Afterward, his partner asks him how it went. "Oh, they are qiute pleasant really, not what I expected at all. They do go on about God a lot, however". Which, of course, is the nature of the role of atheism. It is expressed in the negative, both philosophically, and especially as antitheism, in terms of social practise. The extraordinary and irrational damage that religious institutions have caused to individuals and humanity, the deadweight on intellectual progress, the brutality and death-toll of religious wars, witch-hunts, holocausts, and so forth is a nightmare of madness upon the human species.

Yet, at the same time, we can look at this "opium of the people" as Marx famously put it, in terms of its healing qualities, "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions". One can certainly see how this became a practical task in liberation theology, when priests moved from not just caring for the poor but asking why they were poor, to paraphrase Hélder Câmara, and also to mention the effective reformation to Engaged Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh. It is why, for example, we find contemporary philosophers, such as Alain de Botton, suggesting that whilst theistic arguments for a personal God are thoroughly unconvincing the social role of religion, providing community and consolation, structured events through ritual, and historical remembrance through degrees of veneration continues to have importance. In other words, if the atheists managed to negate every single theological argument for a personal God, and I believe that they do, the community, justice, and pastoral aspects will still remain, as will the sense of reverence and wonder of the universe.

This is an area which I think pantheism can play a role, and it was something recognised by Carl Sagan when he wrote in 'Pale Blue Dot':

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way. 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 hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later such a religion will emerge.'

As the criticism and negation of the personal God of theism reaches its conclusion, the vast sense of wonder and community concerns provide a foundation for action, both within existing and new religious institutions, and within individuals themselves. I promised a twist to the story; and here it is. Speaking through Plato in Crito and Phaedo, and after the encounter with personal God advocates in Euthyphro, Socrates argues for the transcendentals - truth, goodness, and beauty - as being holy. This leads to an interesting consideration; if the experience of the universe, of nature, is of an awe-inspiring immanent divinity, then the secular search and implementation of truth, goodness, and beauty within the universe is, in fact, a holy duty for the pantheist. That then, becomes our mission, and our passion in life.

Presentation to Sea of Faith in Australia (SoFiA, Melbourne), July 24, 2021