What is Pantheism?
Pantheism and Western Monotheism
Differences With Western Monotheism
Pantheism and Personal Divinity
Pantheism and Immortality
Pantheism and Atheism
Is Pantheist Love of Nature Objectively Grounded?
Pantheism and Humanism
The Sacredness of the Earth
Pantheism and Progress
The Question of Divine Providence
For Further Information about Pantheism
What is pantheism?
Pantheism is the view that the natural universe is divine, the proper object of reverence;
or the view that the natural universe is pervaded with divinity. Negatively, it is the idea that we
do not need to look beyond the universe for the proper object of ultimate respect.
Paul Harrison writes,
When we say that the cosmos is divine, we mean it with just as much conviction and emotion as believers say that their god is God. But we are not making a metaphysical statement that is beyond proof or disproof. We are making an ethical statement that means no more, and no less, than this: We should relate to the universe in the same way as believers in God relate to God. That is, with humility, awe, reverence, celebration and the search for deeper understanding. ("Divine Cosmos, Sacred Earth," from Harrison's Scientific Pantheism website.)
One of the chief clues to understanding modern pantheism is its consistent refusal to engage in anthropomorphism. "Anthropomorphism" here means the practice of attributing familiar human qualities to objects outside us when there is no good evidence that they have such qualities.
Refusal of anthropomorphism explains one of the key differences between pantheism and
paganism. In ancient times, "pagans" referred to adherents of polytheistic pre-Christian religions
which Christianity was trying to suppress. Pagans, or people who worship gods and divinities in
nature, obviously have much in common with pantheism. But there was a tendency, at least in
the paganism of the past, to impose familiar human qualities on natural objects that may not have
them, for example, to regard a tree as if it could perceive in the way that animals do or even as if
it were a self-conscious being. Most contemporary pantheists would refuse to do this and would
regard such an attitude as anthropomorphic.
Pantheism and Western Monotheism
How does pantheism relate to traditional Judaeo-Christian conceptions of God? As Paul
Harrison ("Defining the Cosmic Divinity," SP website) points out, traditional (Western) religion
describes a God who is ultimately a mystery, beyond human comprehension; awe-inspiring;
overwhelmingly powerful; creator of the universe; eternal and infinite; and transcendent. The
divine universe fits some of these descriptions without modification and it fits others if we allow
ourselves to interpret the terms flexibly.
The divine universe is mysterious. Though we can understand the universe more adequately as scientific research proceeds, there will always be questions to which we will not yet have answers; and explanations of ultimate origins will always remain speculative (they are too far in the past for us to decipher clearly).
The divine universe is awe-inspiring. Would a creator behind it be any more awe-inspiring than the universe itself?
The universe is clearly very powerful. It creates and it destroys on a vast scale.
So far as we know, the universe created all that exists; which is to say that, the universe as it is now was created by the universe as it was a moment ago, and that universe by the universe that existed a moment before that, and so on. If we view universe in this way, we can keep the idea of creator and creation and yet have no need to imagine a being apart from the universe who created it. The divine being is indeed a creator, in the pantheist view. Indeed, the creativity of the natural universe is probably the best evidence for its divinity.
Is the universe eternal? Well, it depends on how you understand eternity. Traditional Western theology understands eternity as a quality of a God that exists altogether outside time. Yet the dynamic and changing universe is very much bound up with time, so it is not eternal in the theological sense. Possibly it is everlasting, maybe it had no first moment and will never cease to exist. Scientific evidence does point to a Big Bang several billion years ago, from which our universe in roughly its current form originated, but if we accept the time-honored precept that nothing comes from nothing, we cannot rule out the existence of a material universe before this Big Bang.
Is the universe transcendent? In Western theology transcendence is a term often paired
with eternity. A transcendent being is essentially outside and independent of the universe. Of
course, the divinity which pantheists revere is not transcendent in that way. However, in
ordinary language, to transcend is to surpass. Well, the universe which includes us also certainly
surpasses us, as it surpasses everything we are capable of knowing or observing.
Differences with Western Monotheism
Pantheism has clear differences with the traditional description of God. It departs from the picture of God given in the Old Testament to the extent that the Old Testament attributes human attributes to the divine being, such as a willingness to make deals (You worship me and I'll make you my Chosen People) and anger (for example, Yahweh's anger at the Israelites' worship of the Golden Calf).
Pantheism also avoids some features of the theological conception of God which arises
from a mix of Greek philosophical influences and Judaeo-Christian thought. For example,
pantheism does not hold that the divinity we revere is a first cause wholly independent of matter,
or that the divine being freely creates the physical universe from nothing but its own will.
Pantheism and Personal Divinity
Do pantheists believe that the universe is a personal God? Possibly some do, but most
contemporary pantheists do not. We can stand in awe of creative or divine nature without
regarding it as a father. One can be thankful that it supports us and heals us, without attributing
to it a deliberate plan to help or hinder us, without believing that it loves us as a mother or father
might. Pantheists can observe and respect the divine creativity of being without engaging in
wishful thinking. They tend to believe that talk of God as a father or mother who cares for us in
a parental way engages in anthropomorphism.
C. Alan Anderson and Deb Whitehouse, authors of New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality, have married the process theology of Alfred N. Whitehead and others with the religious tradition known as New Thought. They have criticized pantheism for its resistance to the idea of a personal divinity. Their criticisms are interesting because process theology agrees with pantheism in bringing God and Nature together. But process theologians Anderson and Whitehouse are not pantheists--they are panentheists. That is, they regard the material universe as the body of God--everything material is in God--but God's mind or personhood is somehow something extra or more than the universe. God is impartial, they say, but he is not impersonal--he loves us all as a good father loves his children. Whitehouse accuses pantheists of replacing God as a loving father by a "formless, impersonal Ground of All Being into which we all ultimately melt, or get ground!" On this scenario, says Whitehouse, "we [humans] are illusion, without individuality, smothered by a God that Alan Anderson calls the universal wet blanket'" (cited in D. Whitehouse, "God: Person, Eternal, and New," Unity Magazine April 1996).
Several charges are made here, in just a few words. The charge that the pantheist divinity is a "universal wet blanket" seems to boil down to the charge that pantheists do not accept the view that the divinity literally loves us as a parent would. To that the pantheist response is simple: there is almost as much evidence that the universe hates us as there is that it loves us, in other words, not much. On the other hand, the fact that we are still here is evidence that the universe nurtures us and supports us, at least for the time being. We can certainly be thankful for that.
Deb Whitehouse's charge that pantheism denies the reality of the human individual does
actually fit some pantheist philosophies of earlier times, for instance, the seventeenth-century
philosophy of Spinoza. But it does not fit modern pantheism as expressed, for example, in most
of the publications of the Universal Pantheist Society or the text of Paul Harrison's "Scientific
Pantheism" website. Nor is the divine being as conceived by these pantheists "the formless . . .
Ground of All Being" (as Whitehouse puts it) since for them, as for modern scientists, the divine
universe is anything but formless.
Immortality of the Soul
Do pantheists believe in the immortality of the soul? Not usually. And they have less
motivation to do so than mainstream Western traditions. Pantheists do not find nature either
repulsive or without vitality. Thus they do not feel horror at the prospect of dissolution back into
nature at the time of their individual deaths. Of course, there is immortality in the sense that our
material components re-enter natural cycles; indeed, that goes on simultaneously with life itself.
More significantly, as even Plato recognized, our deeds live on after us, insofar as they are
remembered. And the ideas which we have made part of our lives continue to exert influence
after we are gone--this sort of imperfect immortality is not denied to us. Pantheists will ask
whether it is not better to rely on the possibility of such imperfect immortality, for which there is
good evidence, than on the idea that the soul can be detached from everything material and attain
perfect immortality. To my knowledge, nobody has ever made a persuasive case for this kind of
immortality. The greatest thinkers in the Christian tradition, such as Thomas Aquinas, admit that
the existence of an immortal soul is a teaching which cannot be rationally proved. True, Plato
long ago, in a beautiful dialogue called the Phaedo, offered several proofs for the immortality of
the soul, but while they are all interesting, none of them are logically persuasive. Plato's proofs
could convince neither his student Aristotle, who shared quite a few assumptions with him, nor
Thomas Aquinas, who, as a Christian, would have liked to have had a proof for this teaching.
Why should he be able to convince modern pantheists?
Pantheism and Atheism
Pantheists are sometimes accused of being atheists in disguise. Are they? We cannot
answer that question until we define "atheism." Is it literally a denial that there is anything
divine or worthy of ultimate reverence? If that is what atheism is, then by definition pantheists
are not atheists. Is it the denial of divinity beyond the sphere of human beings? If that is what
atheism is, then once again pantheists are not atheists. Pantheism can be equated with atheism,
of course, if atheism is defined as disbelief in the existence of a God who is a person. Most
modern pantheists do not conceive the divinity as a person.
Now, some people who call themselves atheists might really be pantheists because they
value the natural world and only reject the concept of a personal God or gods, which they have
mistaken for the only possible conception of divinity. On the other hand, some people who
might think of themselves as atheists are humanists and not pantheists because they place all
ultimate value in things human or some characteristic which only human beings possess.
Is Pantheist Love of Nature Objectively Grounded?
Pantheists are clearly quite impressed by beauty in nature, and infer from this beauty that
nature itself is worthy of our reverence and respect. But, a critic might say, aren't they just
mistaking their own aesthetic experiences of nature for value of nature itself? The objection
seems to be that pantheists find something to be revered in nature only because they confuse their
perceptions of nature with nature itself.
Although it's risky to generalize about all pantheists, many pantheists reject the idea that when a
human being has an aesthetic experience of nature and sees beauty in it, this is nothing but a
human projection upon nature. They don't mind admitting that humans who experience natural
beauty are contributing something to the experience, but let us remember , they say, (1) that nature has
herself given humans the capacity to recognize her beauty and (2) that nature provides the object
which we recognize as beautiful. Human beings do not invent the beauty and value of nature
--we only recognize it. And we are not the only beings who do. As process philosopher Charles
Hartshorne argues, birdsong cannot be entirely explained in terms of its Darwinian function in
biological survival and finding a mate. It is probable that birdsong is sometimes a bird's open-hearted response to the natural beauty the bird itself experiences.
Pantheism and Humanism
How does pantheism relate to humanism? Humanism, like atheism, can be understood in
many ways. If humanism is the view that human things--actions, experiences, products,
customs, institutions, and history--are of immense interest and importance, then there is nothing
contradictory in being both a humanist and a pantheist. (A teacher of the humanities who is a pantheist is entirely possible, for example.) But if humanism is the view that human
beings are the best things in the universe, then pantheists are not humanists. If humanism is the
view that only human beings have inherent worth and are deserving of being treated as ends, then
pantheists are not humanists. And if humanism is the doctrine that everything else in the
universe exists for the sake of human beings, then pantheists are most emphatically not
A pantheist might well agree with humanists that all or at least most human beings have inherent value and are worthy of our basic moral respect, and that there are many important human achievements worth preserving and transmitting. But a commitment to the idea that human beings and many human achievements are valuable cannot justify blindness to the values which we humans can discover beyond culture in nature.
The pantheist refusal of the idea that humans are the best things in the universe is not merely a matter of faith or attitude. Pantheists might even grant that we do not know whether there are other biological individuals that are superior to humans, e.g., aliens with higher intelligence or greater capacities of cooperation. But pantheism can make the following case:
(1) Surely humans have some value, but clearly
(2) non-human individuals on the earth have some value as well, even if pantheists have to grant
their critics that the value of a non-human individual is less than a human's.
Well, then, consider the biosphere or the living Earth.
(3) It includes both humans, with their value, and non-humans, with their value, however minimal you want to claim it is.
(4) This collective being must contain at least as much value as these humans and non-humans put together.
Conclusion: (5) there is a being more valuable than humans, namely, the biosphere which includes both humans and non-humans.
Similar reasoning can support the conclusion that the cosmos itself is of still greater value.
For historical reasons, moreover, pantheists are suspicious of the claim that humans are the best things in nature. They are especially aware of the perverse use to which this idea has been put over the last four centuries. It is part of the myth that has been used to justify Western humanity's domination of nature on Earth and the eradication of many cultures, species, and ecosystems as part of the cost of taming nature and allegedly perfecting it, i.e., making it over to fit our human whims, which means, to a great extent, the whims of the industrial and post-industrial growth economy.
For those who believe the idea that humans are the best species, it is more an
unquestioned article of faith than an empirically verifiable proposition--in fact, given what
members of the human species have done to each other and other species, it appears that humans
do not on the whole have a very good record. It is a bad argument to use the rare cases--the
Aristotles, the Shakespeares, the Beethovens, the Schweitzers, the Gandhis--as arguments for the
surpassing nobility of the human species. Such highly creative or eminently ethical heroes and
heroines are far from the average.
The Earth Is Sacred
It should be clear by now that pantheism is attractive for some people today because it is a way of
dissociating themselves from the kind of "humanism" that can be used to rationalize ecological
destruction. Environmental concern is so strong among pantheists that Paul Harrison lists as the
second of pantheism's central tenets the claim that "the earth is sacred." He explains it as
When we say that the earth is sacred, we mean it with just as much commitment and reverence as believers speaking about their church or mosque, or the relics of their saints. But we are not making a statement about the supernatural. We are saying that we should treat the natural world as believers treat their temples and shrines--a place to be revered and preserved in all its glory.
Is pantheism essentially a reverence for nature apart from the section of nature transformed by human culture? Well, the Universal Pantheist Society, the only pantheist member organization of which I am aware, seems to encourage open air ceremonies that evoke respect for nature, and it insists that a building is not necessary for the experience of the divine, that sometimes a building can get in the way of that experience. But I do not think that pantheism implies that you can only contemplate the divinity when you are out in the woods far from artifacts that human beings have created.
Still, respect for nature independent of human interference is essential to pantheism.
Pantheists are bound to look with mixed feelings upon most social institutions and technological
marvels. They know how often those institutions and that technology have given humans the
collective strength and the material means for mounting an assault upon nonhuman nature.
Pantheism and Progress
Are pantheists opposed to scientific and technological progress? Modern pantheists are definitely not opposed to the scientific method as a method for understanding nature. They are not inclined to use pre-scientific myths to explain inclement weather, for example, as sent by angry gods. They favor scientific explanations whenever we can get them. They recognize that some explanations are better than others, so that if a person first accepts one theory, then another, and still later a third, and each successive theory gives a better explanation of the same phenomenon than the preceding one, that surely is scientific progress worth celebrating. Seen in this light, scientific progress is mainly about understanding, not about control over nature.
Technological progress usually refers to increasing control over the environment. To control something is to render it passive, to make it into something that can be manipulated by the controller. But nature is nothing if it is not active, if it does not have "a source of motion in itself" (Aristotle, Physics ii). Therefore, technological progress in this sense is profoundly disturbing for a pantheist.
It is not a healthy form of pantheism to celebrate the absorption of nature into the human economic-technological machine, as one website which calls itself pantheist (www.the-truth.com) does. Not only is this tantamount to celebrating the "death of nature" on Earth, but it is guilty of overweening pride. For it assumes that because we have the power to push aside the biological diversity that evolved over millions of years and the cultural diversity that developed alongside it over the last several thousand years, it follows that we and our puny Western technology can substitute ourselves for the richness of what we are displacing. The perverse form of anthropocentric "pantheism" to which I am now referring is also guilty of ignorance: it confuses the temporary domination of the planet by the economic-technological machine with the total absorption of nature and God by human (that is, Western) culture. No matter how totally humans control the planet, they cannot control much beyond the planet. There is a lot more universe out there, as pictures and data from the Hubble Space Telescope strikingly confirm. Besides, we probably cannot even control as much as of the planet as we would like. For example, we can't figure out how to reverse the damage we have caused the stratospheric ozone layer, only how to slow down the rate of additional damage in the hope that natural processes will revive the ozone layer after several decades. And we cannot figure out how to do away safely with our nuclear wastes or even how to store them safely over the very long period in which they remain toxic.
If technological progress is a problem, and in many instances an abomination, when it
works at dominating nature and making it into something passive and a mere resource, it does
not follow that there is no acceptable technical progress. Some technologies are less invasive of
nature than others. For example, those which use wind power for augmenting human energy and
passive solar collection for heating are ethically less ambiguous than fossil fuels or nuclear
energy. One can imagine continuously improved technical solutions of this sort. It is possible that
experience in organic farming and composting since the 1960's has developed a battery of soft-technological practices that would constitute an acceptable kind of technical progress. In any
case, pantheism as a religious perspective strongly endorses our learning how to live more lightly
upon the earth.
The Question of Divine Providence
Do pantheists believe that the divine universe cares whether we are good or bad, and that it punishes us if we are bad and do not get punished appropriately in this life? Since ancient times, political leaders have held that beneficial social consequences derive from belief in powerful gods who see what we do even when no humans see it and who punish wrongdoing, either in this life or in an afterlife. On their view, people must be convinced that nothing that we do escapes the attention of the divine being. We find political philosophers, both ancient and modern, who do not really believe in a wrathful god but think that it is not a bad idea if most people do.
Even if they were right about human psychology and the crime rate--and, it is not, so far as I know, empirically proven that they are--this fact would not settle the issue of whether the divine being, in the pantheist case, the universe as a whole, really knows and cares about what we do. And pantheists will generally deny this, because it would require that the divine universe has or is a single mind, and that would amount to saying that the universe is a divine person, an idea most modern pantheists would prefer to abandon. Therefore most pantheists do not conceive the divine power as an observer of our misdeeds and as a punisher of the ones that our fellow humans fail to catch.
However, pantheists can admit that there is at least a metaphorical sense in which the universe has providentially arranged for punishment and reward. Here they can borrow a page from the Stoics, who were also pantheists of a sort. The Stoics observed that human beings are endowed with a great capacity for wisdom as well as ignorance, and claimed that if we judge ignorantly we receive misery while if we judge wisely we receive tranquillity. They had in mind the insight that we make ourselves miserable by setting our hearts on things beyond our control. These things, they say, are not truly our private possessions and in claiming them for our own, or acting as if they should be, we are sinning or transgressing against nature. Yet if we do this, we are quickly disappointed and so the ignorance associated with this transgression is swiftly and automatically "punished" by our undergoing fear and distress (Cf. Seneca, De providentia). The Stoic insight is that, in producing us as beings with capacity for reason, the universe has created us with the power to interpret events so as to avoid at least the more extreme forms of emotional turmoil. Such internal turmoil besets individuals who do not have their priorities in proper order and try to treat as their own and under their control things which are actually beyond their control.
For further information about pantheism, see Paul Harrison's Scientific Pantheism website.
The Universal Pantheist Society
P.O. Box 265
Big Pine CA 93513