Jun 19, 2016

Scientific Pantheism: Frequently Asked Questions

By Paul Harrison / pantheism.net
Scientific Pantheism: Frequently Asked Questions

Why do pantheists believe in pantheism?
What's the evidence for pantheism? How do you know the universe is worthy of reverence?
If I accept pantheism, what difference would it make?
Is pantheism just theism in disguise?
Is Pantheism just atheism or humanism in disguise?
What is the difference between pantheism and panentheism?
Does pantheism have anything to do with pantheon or polytheism?
What is the relationship between paganism and pantheism?
Has pantheism got anything to do with animism?
Does pantheism believe that all things are one?
Does pantheism believe that humans are one with nature and the cosmos?
If you revere everything, then surely all actions are good, and there is no distinction between good and evil?
Does Pantheism believe in an afterlife for the individual soul?
Without the hope of heaven, what incentive is there to morality?
If there is no personal creator God, wouldn't the universe and human life have no meaning or purpose?
Nature and the universe are changeable, and sometimes hostile. Doesn't that mean they are not worthy of reverence?
How can we feel gratitude or love or worship towards impersonal matter?
How can we pray to the universe and nature?
Isn't it idolatry to worship the creation and not the Creator?


Why do pantheists believe in pantheism?

There are several compelling reasons.

1. Most traditional religions have elements which are hard to believe or to reconcile with common sense, evidence or modern science. Most pantheists are reared in another religion, and as they mature come to question what they have been taught. This leads many people to atheism or humanism.

2. Atheism and humanism don't suffer from the logical or empirical problems of traditional religions - but many people find them too cold and dry. They don't provide a sense of positive belonging to nature and the universe. In themselves, they merely state negatives: a disbelief or doubt in relation to the God or gods of other religions.

3. Nearly everyone feels deeply awed or moved when looking at nature or the night sky. Most people explain those feelings in terms of the religion they were taught as children.

Scientific pantheism proposes that those feelings are older and more basic than any traditional religion: they are a natural part of our existence as natural material beings. They are a recognition of our participation and belonging as members of nature and the universe.

Scientific pantheism takes those feelings as its basic foundation.

What's the evidence for pantheism? How do you know the universe is worthy of reverence?

We choose to regard the universe with awe, reverence, love, feelings of belonging and a recognition of tremendous power, beauty and mystery. This is an aesthetic/emotional choice and basically lies beyond any challenge from logic or evidence. Not everyone shares those feelings - but there's no basis to deny these choices to the people that feel this way.

In fact most people regard the universe or nature in that way but many are mislead by traditional religious teachings into seeing these things as evidence for deities they read about in their ancient scriptures.

We need no faith, no ancient books, no preachers ior gurus to reveal these feelings and experiences to us. The visions are right in front of our eyes, the feelings are in our hearts. We only need to recognize them frankly to accept the universe and nature as primal focus.

The evidence for this approach is infinitely stronger than for belief in a personal creator God.

If I were to adopt a scientific pantheist approach, what difference would it make?

You would acquire the most positive attitude to existence on earth in a human body that any spirituality can offer. You would focus your spiritual interests on nature and the universe. Instead of admiring these as evidence of a creator God's glory, you would love them for themselves. You would gain a much stronger basis for concern about the environment than any Western religion can offer.

You would overcome all sense of separation from the earth and from your own body. If you belong to a traditional religion, you would replace faith with common sense and science, and reconcile the spiritual and the everyday parts of your thinking.

Is pantheism just theism in disguise?

No. Theism means belief in a personal God who is greater and older than the universe. This God may or may not be present in the universe.

Scientific Pantheism says simply that the Universe is worthy of the deepest reverence. This is a statement about the attitude we should adopt towards the universe and nature - an attitude which is fostered when we open our eyes to the full awe and beauty and mystery of reality.

The universe has some features in common with the God of traditional religions - its power, immensity, and mystery. But the Universe is not personal. It has no mind apart from the minds of intelligent species within it. It is neither loving nor vengeful. It does not demand worship or obedience. It is not watching you. It is not eavesdropping on your every thought. It will not judge you. It will not punish you or reward you. 

So is scientific pantheism just atheism or humanism in disguise?

Again: no. Like atheism and humanism, scientific pantheism does not believe in a personal God separate from the Universe. Like them it is critical of beliefs that depend on faith in impossibilities, or unproven revelations in ancient books.

But atheism is essentially defined by a single proposition. It states that there is no creator God, and no other supernatural gods, and nothing more.
Usually atheism implies respect for certain approaches, for example realism, physicalism, demand for very strong evidence of improbable claims, rejection of scriptural or priestly authority claims as a source of truth.
All of these are valid and valuable. But these are the ways in which people arrive at atheism - they don't constitute part of the definition of atheism. Atheism does not claim to be a comprehensive philosophy. You can be an atheist and believe in reincarnation, or the law of attraction, or crystal healing, or be skeptical of all of these.  You can be an atheist and love nature, or detest nature, love life or hate it.
In other words, atheism is like a starting point: if you want a system of ethics and attitudes to life, you have to add them on top, and from other sources.

Humanism has tried to develop a positive philosophy and ethics, but sometimes this has been too anthropocentric, too confident of human superiority, too nervous of appearing even remotely like anything called "religion" or spirituality.

Scientific pantheism goes beyond atheism in offering a positive approach to the world and a a reverent attitude towards nature and the universe. It affirms our unity with these, and rejects the idea of human mastery over nature or human pre-eminence in the cosmos. It takes our relationship to nature and to the universe as the center of our religion, our ethics and our aesthetics.

What is the difference between pantheism and panentheism?

Panentheists and pantheists share the view that the universe and every natural thing in it is in some sense worth of reverence. 

However, pan-en-theos means "all-in-God" - that is, the universe is contained within God, not God in the universe. Panentheists believe in a God who is present in everything but also extends beyond the universe. In other words, God is greater than the universe. Often they also believe that this God has a mind, created the universe, and cares about each of us personally.

Pantheists believe that the universe itself is the prime focus for reverence. They do not believe in personal or creator gods.

Does pantheism have anything to do with pantheon or polytheism?

Only the etymology. In Greek pan means all, theos means god, while poly means many.

POLYTHEISM is belief in many gods.

The PANTHEON (=all gods) is the collection of classical deities like Zeus, Hera and so on, or a building in which they are worshipped.

PANTHEIST (all=god) is a term coined in 1705 by John Toland, for someone who believes that there is only one eternal being - the Universe. On this basis in 1732 the Christian apologist Daniel Waterland used the noun "PANTHEISM" for the first time, condemning the belief as "scandalously bad … scarce differing from … Atheism."

Very confusingly, many dictionaries give an alternative definition of pantheism as "belief in all the gods." However, this use is based on a nineteenth century misunderstanding. Pantheism was first recorded in this erroneous sense in 1837 - one hundred and five years after its first use in the original sense - by Francis Palgrave. Palgrave wrote: "The great proportion of the Tartar tribes professed a singular species of Pantheism, respecting all creeds, attached to none." Probably Palgrave had heard the word pantheism and confused it with the word "pantheon" - a temple erected to all the Gods. Other people repeated his mistake, and their usage was recorded in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (published between 1884 and 1928).

It's important to note that this second "meaning" is almost never used today. It it incompatible with and contradictory to the original meaning. It's also useful to note that "belief in all the gods" is not the same as "POLYTHEISM" which means belief in many gods.

Polytheism usually means belief in the several gods of a particular national culture. Pantheism in its second sense means belief in all the gods of ALL the nations. This second meaning of pantheism is never used today in books on religion or philosophy. It only persists in dictionaries because it crept into the OED, the mother of all dictionaries, consulted by every new dictionary-compiler. And it only crept into the OED because of a mistaken use of the word!

What is the relationship between paganism and pantheism?

There are many points in common between paganism and Pantheism. Most pagans say they are pantheists. They too revere Nature and the Universe and regard them as in some sense unified wholes. They too celebrate solstices, equinoxes and other natural passages. They too have a strong environmental ethic and a deep love of nature.

Many pagans are basically pantheists, using the gods and spirits of paganism as a metaphoric way of expressing their reverence for the Universe and Nature. Some people feel the need for symbols and personages to mediate their relationship with nature and the cosmos. There is no harm in this, as long as the symbols help us to connect to Reality and do not block or distort our view of Reality.

Most scientific pantheists relate directly to the universe and to nature, without the need for any intermediary symbols or deities. The  cosmos manifests itself directly to us in nature and the night sky.

However, many pagans are literal polytheists, they believe the the existence of gods and spirits, and often believe in magic, reincarnation, and the irrational. Scientific pantheists are not polytheists, and do not believe in magic, or disembodied spirits. Most of them do not believe in a personal afterlife, whether through reincarnation or transport to any kind of non-material "heaven."

Has pantheism got anything to do with animism?

Animism is the belief that every living thing in nature - including trees, plants and even rocks or streams - has its own spirit or divinity. In primitive societies animism often requires that before anyone can kill an animal or fell a tree, its natural spirit must be placated.

Pantheism is in a sense a natural development of animism. Pantheism celebrates the "numinosity" or awesomeness of the whole of the universe and nature. This whole possesses the power, the creativity, the awe and mystery that we need for a focus of our spiritual feelings.

However, the whole exists through and in its parts. Every natural thing from the sun to a grain of sand, from a giant sequoia to a bacterium, is a part of the whole. Every natural thing has the quality of being a distinctive organization of matter with its own unique character and dignity.

Only animals have nervous systems. But all living things have communication systems, through which information about the external world is transmitted by way of chemical and electrical messages. Even inanimate objects are shaped by and shape their environment and in that sense are responsive.

The scientific pantheist attitude to all individual natural phenomena is one of appreciation of beauty, quiet and respectful observation, love and care. Since it is impossible for us to perceive or grasp the whole universe or the whole of nature at once, we can revere it in and through its constituent parts.

Does pantheism believe that all things are one?

Most modern pantheists are monists in the sense that they believe there is only onebasic type of substance - matter - rather than two different and distinct types, spirit and matter. They believe that all individual things have a common origin with humans, and are closely interlinked and interdependent in many ways. They and we interconnect through social systems and ecosystems and the greater system of Gaia, as well as through gravity and the universe-wide spread of signals and impacts.

Anyone with eyes can see that matter in the universe is arranged into distinct individual things: galaxies, stars, planets, trees, people. This diversity is an essential part of the beauty of nature and the night sky. Without diversity everything would be drably monotonous.

Attempts to deny diversity usually end up in claiming that the visible world is mere illusion. Scientific pantheism believes the universe is vibrantly real.

So things are one in some senses, and many in other senses. They are linked in some senses, and separate in others. Anyone who claims that things are totally united, or totally separate, is flying in the face of everyday experience and of scientific evidence.

Does pantheism believe that humans are one with nature and the cosmos?

Yes, there is a fundamental underlying unity. Humans are made of the same substance as the rest of the universe. We don't have any magic spiritual ingredient just for ourselves.

We developed as part of nature, and remain part of local and global ecosystems.

However, humans do have consciousness, and that can be a blessing or a curse. The conscious mind evolved to help survival, and it can help us to relate to nature and the universe through love, appreciation, study and action.

But consciousness also means awareness of one's own individuality, so it can also give us a misleading sense of separation from and radical difference from the world. Our ideas can also develop out of tune with reality and with nature.

So it is important not just to state that there is a unity, but to learn to perceive that unity, to understand it, and to act upon it.

If you revere everything, then surely all actions are good, and there is no distinction between good and evil?

This is a misconceived Christian criticism of pantheism. Certainly a few sects of Pantheists (like Tantric Buddhists and some pantheistic Christian heresies)have believed this.

But remember that scientific pantheism does not say that "God is everything", but rather that the universe is worthy of the most profound reverence. Within the overall whole of Nature, it is possible for intelligent species or individuals to become separated from the whole and to act in conflict with it, by harming nature or other people.

Modern pantheists are not amoral. They have strong ideas about right and wrong in relation to environmental ethics and social justice. They would consider environmentally destructive or unjust and oppressive actions as "evil."

Does scientific pantheism believe that everything is predetermined and there is no free will?

Some pantheists, like Spinoza and Einstein, have believed this. Some atheists and scientific pantheists believe this.

But there is no logical link between scientific pantheism and determinism. Many pantheists have not been determinists, and many believe in free will. You can take your pick.

Does scientific pantheism believe in an afterlife for the individual soul?

Some idealistic versions of pantheism - such as neo-Platonism or Hinduism have held such beliefs.

No-one could completely exclude this possibility. But there is no scientific evidence for such beliefs. People who have died medically and have been revived do have mental experiences, because parts of the brain continue to function or resume when the heart is restarted. But that does not mean that their spirit was separated from their body during the "dead" interlude.

Most modern Pantheists believe that the mind is an aspect of the body, and at death dissolves with the body to merge into the elements from which it was formed. If there is any validity at all to near-death experiences, then this is what they are expressing.

For environmental as well as religious reasons, Pantheism strongly prefers natural burials in special woodlands, at sea, or in other natural areas, where the individual can be reabsorbed into the nature of which they were, are and always will be a part.


Without the hope of heaven, what incentive is there to morality?

The idea that the hope of heaven is the only guarantee of moral behaviour is absurd. Highly ethical behavior is found among peoples who do not believe in heaven - for example, many Chinese, or Japanese. Conversely, crime and corruption are rife in many Christian societies. Nowhere was the hope of heaven stronger than in medieval Europe - yet few places on earth have seen injustice, oppression, and violence on such a scale, much of it in the name of Christianity.

The strongest stimuli to moral behaviour in all human societies are parental and social discipline, either externally imposed, or internalized. Plus the direct rewards for good behavior - love and social recognition. These factors ensure that we are often punished and rewarded for our deeds before we die - though chance and social injustice can often distort the outcome.

Of course, religion can provide support for ethics, and but scientific pantheism can provide better support than religions which believe in heaven.

Pantheism believes that we live on in some senses, thiough not as conscious persons. Our elements are re-absorbed in Nature. Memories of us persist in the minds of people we have known and in the achievements we leave behind. Therefore we have a powerful incentive to be good and kind to people, and to achieve lasting good in our lives. The kinder we are, the more good we do, the longer will be our "afterlife" in people's memories. If we do harm, then our memory will be execrated.

Contrast this with the God of Christianity who forgives mortal sins even on the deathbed and can reward mass murderers with heaven if they are truly penitent. What kind of incentive for lifelong morality is that?

If there is no personal creator God, wouldn't the universe and human life have no meaning or purpose?

There are two meanings for the word purpose. One is purpose in relation to something external. By definition the Universe comprises all that exists: there is no outside in relation to which it could have purpose. If God existed, we could include him/her in this All, and in that case the totality "God plus universe" would have and could have no conceivable purpose. Theists claim that God is self sufficient and can exist without purpose. So why can't the universe?

But we can have purpose in the second sense: purpose and goals for our lives which we freely choose for ourselves, in the light of the needs of others humans, animals and ecosystems.

The fact that our lives have no external purpose designed by some dictator in the sky liberates us to create our own purposes! For the pantheist, the purpose of life is to connect more deeply and harmoniously with the universe, nature and other humans, and to help others to do so.

Finally consider the so-called "purpose" the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam has planned for us: to struggle through a miserable brief spell on a stage designed as a testing ground for eternity, obey and worship this huge invisible entity known as "God", and prove to it that we are good enough to get into the real show which only starts when we're dead. Is that a worthy purpose for a life? What on earth would be "God"'s purpose in setting up such a show, creating little puppets and seeing whether they're good enough and burning the ones that aren't for all eternity?

Nature and the universe are changeable and sometimes hostile.
Doesn't that mean that they are not worthy of our reverence?

Change and flux are facts of life throughout the cosmos. So are the risks on earth of disease, accident, collision with meteorites and so on. [See God and Reality]

It is true that these attributes of the universe and nature are not compatible with pre-conceived ideas about God as an unchanging, loving being. But scientific pantheism does not believe in such a God. It accepts the universe as it is - wonderful, mysterious, creative, exuberant, joyful, and yet also at times chaotic and destructive.

Evil and pain exist for theists too, and they are extremely difficult to reconcile with the idea of an omnipotent, yet loving God. Christian apologetics have still not come up with any satisfactory explanation of why God should have created them.

How can we feel gratitude or love or worship towards impersonal matter?

Matter is not impersonal: for each of us it is our very substance. If we cannot love matter, then we cannot love ourselves as we are. Almost everyone loves nature, even though it is impersonal, and often seems indifferent or cruel. We can feel gratitude, too, to nature and the universe, for giving us the privilege of conscious life. People love mountains, oceans, stars - even though they know these things are material and impersonal and cannot love them in return.

Consider the reverse of the coin: how can Christians feel love and gratitude towards an all-powerful God who has created disease and pain; a God who has given humans the free-will to do evil, and then if they use it punishes them for all eternity; a God who is planning to wrap up creation, destroy the earth violently, and create a new heaven and a new earth?

How can we pray to the universe and nature?

The short answer is that we can't. But can we pray to a God and realistically hope that out of nearly six billion humans in an immense universe he will come to our personal assistance? Could we really expect any kind of just God to alter his decisions and laws simply because we asked him to do us a favor?

Apart from outside forces, it is we ourselves - our thoughts, our feelings, our determination, our action - who decide what happens to us. We can think about the right course of action, and pray to ourselves, to summon up the determination to act.

We can also meditate on nature, and achieve states of mental union with nature and the universe akin to mystical states.

Isn't it idolatry to worship the creation and not the Creator?

This is a common Christian accusation against pantheism.
But it is not idolatry at all if there is no Creator.

Pantheists believe that the universe created itself [see The Self-existent Cosmos] and designed itself [see The Self-organizing Cosmos.

If this is the case then the true idolatry is to worship an imaginary Creator rather than the visible and vibrant reality that surrounds us.

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