Pantheism

I. Definition

Pantheism is the belief that God = the universe. The word “God,” on this view, is just another word for “Nature” or “Everything that Exists.” If you take everything in the universe – all the humans, planets, stars, galaxies, alien creatures, dirt clods, etc., and add it all up, what you get is God.  In this sense, pantheism has only one god, and therefore it’s a form of monotheism; however, since pantheism implies that every part of nature is divine, most pantheistic religions recognize a variety of nature spirits.

Pantheism is a kind of nature-worship, but in a very special sense. To pantheists, Nature doesn’t just mean wild mountains, lakes, and trees. Nature includes everything that exists— human beings, cities, computers, asteroids, songs, nuclear waste, and supernovas. In pantheism, God is the sum total of all these things, not just the pretty or unpolluted parts.

Pantheism is often confused with pan-EN-theism, but they’re actually quite different. Panentheism is the idea that God is in everything, whereas pantheism is the idea that God is everything.  You may believe that human beings, trees, and physical objects have a divine spirit or a “spark of the sacred” within them. Technically, this wouldn’t be pantheism:

  • Panentheism: God is in the tree, the rock, and the river.
  • Pantheism: the tree, the rock, and the river are in God.

However, a lot people with these beliefs don’t think carefully about this difference, so, practically speaking, pantheism and panentheism tend to overlap or blend, as they do with polytheism.

 

II. Pantheism vs. Atheism

Atheism is the belief that there are no gods. So it might seem opposed to pantheism. However, pantheism and atheism are actually quite similar in some ways. For example, they both agree that there is no “supernatural” god–no cosmic ruler who sits outside the universe and judges what goes on within. The pantheist god is not outside the universe; it is the universe. For atheists, on the other hand, the universe is its own reality but not a god. In short, for some people the only real difference between atheism and pantheism is that pantheists use the word “God” for nature, whereas atheists don’t.  But there may be further differences between them because some pantheists may believe that nature has certain god-like qualities, such as intelligence and spirit, while atheists usually believe in a purely mechanical universe.

There are some religions that hover between pantheism and atheism.  The Chinese religion of Taoism can be interpreted either way; Taoists believe that the universe is all produced and governed by the universal Tao, or first principle, which is basically the essence of natural law, but which according to Taoists, can never be fully defined or understood. So . . .

  • If you interpret “Tao” as a kind of God, then, this would be a form of pantheism
  • If not, then it would be a form of atheism.

This is an entirely open question since the idea of “God” as we understand it in the West doesn’t really apply to classical Chinese philosophy.  In practice, there are two very different kinds of Taoism—one which features gods, rituals, prayers, and dogmatic beliefs, and another which is entirely a form of natural philosophy without religious elements or dogma.  These two Taoisms even have different names in Chinese (Taojiao (the religion) versus Taojia (the philosophy)), which has led to no little confusion among westerners who don’t realize there’s two of them!

 

III. Quotations About Pantheism

Quote 1

“Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator, [the democratic man] is still embarrassed by this primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.” (Alexis de Tocqueville)

Alexis de Tocqueville was a French traveler and philosopher who came to America to write books and essays on democratic society. One of his essays was titled “Why Democratic Nations Incline Toward Pantheism,” and it explored the popularity of pantheist ideas in early America. He argued that pantheism was more compatible with democracy because it equated the Creator with Creation. Rather than placing God above the natural world, it unified God with the natural world, in exactly the same way as democracy aims to unify the government with its people.

Quote 2

“I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations.” (Albert Einstein)

Albert Einstein was once asked whether he would describe himself as a pantheist or atheist, and this was his response. He never firmly identified himself as a pantheist, but he said that he admired pantheism, especially because it instilled a sense of wonder and humility toward the universe. By describing the universe as divine, pantheists try to gain better understanding of their own smallness and limited perspectives. Atheism, Einstein argued, was not an effective way to instill this sort of attitude.

 

IV. The History and Importance of Pantheism

As we’ve already seen, pantheism has been around for thousands of years in different religious traditions. At various times and places, people have come up with the idea that Nature or the Universe is a sacred being, and that there is no separate God standing outside, or within, that universe.  Some people believe that the ancient pagans were essentially pantheists, and that their spirituality was based on a belief in the sacredness of the whole universe. Certainly some pagans in Europe thought this way. For example, Stoicism, a philosophical-religious sect of ancient Greece and Rome was heavy with pantheism. Similarly, the Taoism of ancient China had pantheist elements.

Modern pantheism can be traced back to the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who argued that pantheism had to be true if there was to be any logical basis for believing in God. He started by pointing out that God had to be eternal in order to count as God – so he defined God as an “absolutely infinite being.” He then showed that such a being could not be infinite if it excluded anything in existence: if anything in the universe was not part of God, then God would no longer be absolutely infinite, and thus God would not exist!

Spinoza was always something of an outsider in philosophy, and his ideas were never as influential as philosophers such as Kant or Hegel. But he has started to come back into the spotlight during the last few decades as pantheism has become more popular. This is due to the rebirth of pantheism and neo-paganism as popular spiritualties in the modern era. Most modern philosophers are not persuaded by Spinoza’s arguments for pantheism (mostly because he was working with an older concept of “infinity” which modern philosophers no longer accept), but nonetheless his ideas have gained some popular appeal.

 

V. Pantheism in Popular Culture

Example 1

In Avatar, Eywa is the name of a god / force created by the entire ecosystem of the planet Pandora. All the creatures and plant-life of Pandora add up together to make a complete, divine being. The humans think of Eywa as the “god of the Na’vi,” but this isn’t quite right since Eywa is not a being that exists outside the natural world and controls or supervises it; rather, Eywa is the planet itself. This is very close to pantheism. It isn’t quite pantheism since Eywa is only the size of a single planet, not the whole universe.  However, it can be assumed that it was a kind of pantheism for the Na’vi up until they encountered humans and learned that there are other worlds.

Example 2

“This corner of the earth is like me in many ways

I can sit for hours here and watch the emerald feathers play

On the face of it I’m blessed when the sunlight comes for free

I know this corner of the Earth, it smiles at me.”

(Jamiroquai, Corner of the Earth)

Like many Jamiroquai songs, this one hints at nature-worship, and maybe pantheism. The song describes the natural world as a ‘blessing’ which ‘smiles’ at the singer in the way a Christian might speak of God smiling on one. Whether or not it’s pantheist is open to interpretation. The song simply expresses a spiritual appreciation of nature.

 

VI. Controversies

Is God Conscious?

If the natural universe is God, then is god a conscious being? Some pantheists say no, because consciousness is a property of brains and the universe is far more complicated than a brain, so it doesn’t make sense to imagine the universe as conscious. On the other hand, some pantheists speculate that all the matter and energy in the universe together might form a conscious pattern of energy. There’s also a third option–that human consciousness is God’s consciousness. In other words, human brains are part of the universe, and therefore part of God; so when we look at the world around us, it’s basically one part of God becoming aware of another part, and thus God achieves consciousness and self-awareness through us.

Quiz

1.
If you like to spend time in forests and believe that every tree has a divine soul, you’re probably a(n) . . .

a.

b.

c.

d.

2.
The first modern pantheist was…

a.

b.

c.

d.

3.
This person never definitively identified himself as a pantheist, but expressed admiration for the idea:

a.

b.

c.

d.

4.
In Avatar, the idea of Eywa doesn’t quite count as pantheism, because . . .

a.

b.

c.

d.

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