Pantheism: Nature is God

Pantheism
is the belief that nature or the Universe is identical to God. Unlike
theists, pantheists do not believe in a personal god who interacts
with people, performs miracles, listens to prayers or judges what we
do as being morally right or wrong. Unlike atheists, pantheists do
believe in some sort of god. Some people say that pantheism is the
complete opposite of atheism since it says that everything is God, whereas atheists believe in no god anywhere.


However,
some also argue that pantheism is a close relative of atheism, since
the pantheist essentially says that the Universe is all that there
is, but that it makes sense to call the Universe God. If the Universe
and God are identical, then God is not something supernatural, but
just a poetic name for something much larger and more mysterious than
ourselves. Pantheism is like a spiritual form of atheism – Richard
Dawkins calls it “sexed up atheism.”


Although
the term pantheism did not
exist until the 17th
Century, the idea of it is much older. Hindu and Taoist philosophy is
pantheistic in some ways. In the ancient Hindu text, the Vedas,
Brahma (or God) is said to be the basis of the whole Universe and
also that the whole Universe is pervaded by Brahma. Brahma is in
minerals, plants, animals and humans equally. Taoism is also similar
to the outlook of a pantheist.


In
the foundational text, the Tao Te Ching
by Lao Tzu, the Tao is
referred to as if it was something divine and holy. But the text
never refers to a supernatural, transcendent God, but to a mysterious
ground or principle underlying all things. The famous Chinese
philosopher Zhuangzi said: “Heaven and I were created together, and
all things and I are one.” When asked where the Tao was, Zhuangzi
replied that “There is nowhere where it is not…There is not a
single thing without Tao” – he admitted that it must even be in
“excrement”.


The
most well known pantheist is probably the philosopher Baruch Spinoza
(1632-77). Spinoza was a Jew who would flee from the Spanish
Inquisition to Holland and change his Jewish sounding name to a more
Christian one. He later became Benedict Spinoza. If that wasn’t
enough of an insult to Spinoza, he was also excommunicated from his
synagogue in Amsterdam for his non-orthodox views on religion and
God. Spinoza studied Descartes who was a dualist,
that is, Descartes believed there are two kinds of substances in the
world: mind and matter.


God,
for Descartes, would fall into the category of mind, as would human
souls. Everything else – minerals, plants, animals – were material
and there was nothing divine about them. Spinoza came to reject this
dualism and in his book Ethics
said there is only one type of substance and it is called God or
Nature. It’s no wonder that Spinoza would later be regarded as a
heretic – he was arguing against the Juadeo-Christian God which
watches us and cares what we do. Spinoza’s God was impersonal. Some say that Spinoza had created a religion of nature in which the adherent expresses respect and awe at nature or the Universe, instead of towards a personal god.


Others
have argued, however, that although Spinoza did identify God as
Nature and said that God is in all things, he did not say we should
show religious awe to God. The philosopher Steven Nadler says Spinoza
wanted to study God in an objective and rational way – if we start
to show religious awe towards God then this would make the study of
God more open to error and superstition. Spinoza expresses these
views in his work Tractatus Theologico-Politicus,
where he criticises organised religion and says we must use our
rationality and not rely on claims made in holy books. He also
claimed that prophecies, miracles and other supernatural events do
not exist; God acts only through the laws of “his own nature”
which could stand for the laws of the Universe. He rejected the idea
that there was any sort of purpose or plan to God or Nature. Max
Muller, who studied comparative religion, did notice an obvious
similarity between the one substance that Spinoza believed in (God or
Nature) and the one substance or principle described as “Brahman”
in Hindu texts such as the Upanishads.


Some
argue that Albert Einstein was also a pantheist – in that he
believed in a god, but definitely not a personal, anthropomorphic
one. In his own words: “The idea of a personal God is an
anthropological concept which I am unable to take seriously.”
Einstein had always said that he was a deeply religious man and this
even affected his science. For example, he is known for famously
saying: “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” Einstein did, however, reject the idea of a god who is
concerned about our individual lives, judging us when we die and
intervening in the laws of nature he created when he feels like it.
He saw this as a very immature concept of God – it was just too
human-like to be a true representation of such a being. As Einstein puts it,
I
believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony
of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and
actions of human beings.”


Einstein
regarded the Universe with the same kind of feeling that religious
people direct towards the Juadeo-Christian God. He was just amazed
and awe-struck by the fact that the Universe exists, that it is so
ordered, and how mysterious it is. He was also struck by how science
and reason could give us access to the structure and order of the
Universe. Because the Universe was so ordered and possible to
understand Einstein gave it divine qualities and called the Universe – or the laws of nature – God.


When
Einstein said that “God does not play dice”, he was not referring
to a God who created the Universe, but to a God which is the
Universe, which is non-random and can be understood by
reason. Einstein would reject quantum mechanics because it was random
and so couldn’t be a part of the Universe – but if he were alive
today he could appreciate the evidence for it and perhaps see quantum
interactions as another part of the mystery of God.


Ralph
Waldo Emerson (1803-82), a friend of Henry David Thoreau, expressed
his pantheistic views in his essay Nature (1836),
which puts forward a non-traditional appreciation of nature. In the
essay Emerson reinterprets the “divine” as being something large
and visible – the divine is all around us he says – in nature. But
he also said that living in society means that we are, for the most
part, separated from it. As a founder of the transcendentalist
movement in America, Emerson believed that society distracts us from
what the “spirit” of nature, as he calls it, has to offer.
Thoreau would carry on this tradition in his book Walden
(1854), where he describes how he lived away from society for two
years, in nature and in complete solitude. Emerson referred to nature
as the “Universal Being” and he often describes his feelings of
religious respect and admiration to the natural world around him. 

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    June 15, 2015 / 6:34 pm

    calling "oxygen" god doesn't make it a god, just like calling the universe "god" doesn't make it a god

    we already have names for these things, quit trying to muddy the waters with more useless definitions of gods…

    • June 18, 2015 / 3:23 pm

      I do not believe this is muddying the waters. The earliest religions were fertility cults and for our ancient ancestors celestial bodies (the moon, the sun, the planets) and natural cycles (seasonal changes) were very much endowed with divinity and personified as gods. I see no issue with an atheist being spiritually inclined (like myself) and metaphorically referring to the universe as 'God'. The universe, like belief in a deity, can evoke similar feelings of humility, awe and gratitude. I'm not saying I am a pantheist, but I can definitely sympathise with it.as a point of view.

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