WHAT
        IS
"MODERN
PANTHEISM"
        
OMnis
The following is a brief introductory explanation of modern pantheism, with emphasis on the contrasts and similarities between the dualistic and naturalistic varieties, and a brief commentary on how I see the place of the Universal Pantheist Society with regard to these beliefs.
- James D. Quirk (Naturyl)

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Pantheism is a worldview (a philosophy and sometimes a religion) which holds that Nature itself is the source of creation and therefore equivalent to the concept of Deity. At the level of 'lowest common denominator,' it is a belief in Cosmos (Universe/Nature) as 'Higher Power.'

There are basically two major 'flavors' of pantheism, dualistic and naturalistic.

Dualistic pantheism asserts that the world is composed of spirit and matter, with spirit or 'God' as the fundamental essence. In dualistic pantheism, the material Universe is a manifestation and extension of the underlying spiritual reality.

Naturalistic pantheism, on the other hand, does not see such a distinction - nor any necessity for it. Operating from a materialist paradigm, the naturalistic variety of pantheism sees matter/energy as the only substance in existence, and as such the fundamental 'spiritual' essence by default.

It is important here to bear in mind Carl Sagan's definition of spirituality: 'the human relationship to the numinous.' Naturalistic pantheists feel that the numinous need not be any supernatural ether or non-material essence - in fact it is hard to imagine anything more numinous than the vibrantly creative reality of matter/energy, whether it is seen as a manifestation of something deeper or as the most fundamental reality in and of itself.

'Naturalistic' means exactly what it would appear to mean - natural. Not supernatural, 'magical,' outside understanding, or in any way superstitious. There is room for a variety of varying interpretations here - for example, some (such as myself) will see matter/energy as material outcroppings of pure quantum potential (a natural but immaterial ground of being). This position ends up being somewhere in the middle ground between dualistic and naturalistic.

Many such minor variations are possible within pantheism, because it is a spectrum rather than a fixed dogma. Some pantheists of both dualistic and naturalistic varieties will choose to take a scientific approach, favoring empirical study and discovery as a way of relating to Nature, while others will choose a more 'mystical' path, preferring direct experience through action, art, meditation, and other methods. Both approaches are valid and have merit. Most pantheist organizations recognize this, although the UPS has proved itself perhaps the most tolerant and inclusive.

Dualistic pantheism is the more 'classical' of the two options, although the naturalistic variety has significant historical representation as well. Spinoza, considered by many to be the father of modern pantheism, was closest to dualistic pantheism. However, John Toland, who actually coined the term 'pantheism,' is generally viewed as having been decidedly more naturalistic. There are a wealth of notables representing both positions, including Albert Einstein, Walt Whitman, Giordano Bruno, and others.

Defining dualistic pantheism by a single standard is somewhat problematic, but in the most general terms, it can be said to represent the belief that God or Spirit is the ultimate reality, the whole of which is expressed through the material Universe. If the nature of God or Spirit is believed to extend beyond the material universe alone, you have panentheism, which is the belief that Nature is a part of God, but not the whole.

Naturalistic pantheism and its close relatives can be formally defined by the following text, variants of which have been accepted by some major pantheist organizations:

"The religious and/or philosophical doctrine of naturalistic spirituality which holds that the Universe/Nature (Cosmos), when taken or concieved of as the totality of matter and forces in Existence, is fundamentally equivalent to the theological principle of Deity."

Basically, the definition above means that if we are to agree with the findings of empirical science and thereby assume that the material Cosmos itself is the ultimate reality available to us, our own natural human feelings of reverence and religious emotion would be better directed toward that reality than toward supernatural improbabilities and fictions offered by traditional theism.

The 'theological principle of God' is sometimes seen as a confusing notion, but it very simply represents the idea of a higher creative power, which Nature most certainly is. If we find it unacceptable to believe in a 'personal God' as the Christians and other theists do, we can still find a spiritual home in Nature. Keeping in mind Sagan's definition of the term, it becomes clear that spirituality need not involve faith, and it need not exclude reason.



Are pantheism and atheism compatible?

If we are speaking of naturalistic pantheism, oddly enough, the answer seems to be 'yes.' Furthermore, most forms of pantheism are compatible with agnosticism, and in fact, the three are often 'mixed and matched' in the worldviews of people who have studied these matters for some time.

Despite the apparent conflict in the terminology, naturalistic pantheism and atheism actually turn out to be natural mates, with agnosticism an easily added component as well. Although the synthesis involves a semantic complexity difficult enough to prevent easy comprehension for many (it took me over a year to come to terms with these ideas), this is the way I usually attempt to explain the concepts involved. To get a handle on this, it is best to discard any preconcieved notions associated with the terminolgy we are using. The plain truth of the matter is that as in the case of the ancient Chinese concept of Tao, the English language is not particularly well-suited to expressing these ideas.

The first step lies in the idea that none other than the Universe itself is the Creator which takes form as Nature through the process of self-organization, which is a consequence of the physical laws which define existence. Is a natural Creator inherently less worthy than a supernatural one? Is man's story of a 6-day creation somehow more impressive than Nature's story of evolution over billions of years? The kicker comes when one realizes that anything 'God' can do, Nature can do better.

Although this may seem somewhat trite, it is worthy of consideration. From this point of insight forward, there is no further need for supernatural deities or the pitfalls of irrational faith which are required for belief in them. Reality is sufficient unto itself. Yin and yang are reconciled - atheism is lack of belief in God and pantheism is the position which Nature assumes by default when belief in God is absent.

To understand the preceding statement, consider the fact that there is no question as to whether or not a creator exists, the debate is over the properties of that particular entity. If it isn't supernatural (which is the default rational conclusion given the lack of compelling evidence for supernaturalism), it must indeed be natural. The definition of God to which the athiest objects is replaced by the pantheistic definition of God, its polar opposite. The case is then essentially closed and the objection resolved, because in this sense, a naturalistic pantheist is atheistic toward the god of the theist, just as an atheist is. Both are 'without theism,' despite the apperent conflict of terminology in 'pan-theism.' Pan means 'all,' and when you extend the definition of God ('theos') to include all existence, it becomes a superfluous synonym for the universe. If theism is rendered meaningless in the context of Pan, it is as absent in naturalistic pantheism as it is in atheism, and the latter worldviews are then seen as compatible.

It is important to note here that not all pantheists will be atheists as well. Dualistic pantheism centers on the concept of divine or spiritual immanence, and is easily extended to panentheism, in which the theistic aspect is of critical importance. What's more, not even all naturalistic pantheists are atheistic - it is possible (although semantically complex and rather rare) to reconcile naturalistic pantheism with traditional theism. Pantheists don't have to be atheists, but they can be. As explained above, pantheists also don't have to be theists, because the term 'Pan' can modify the term 'theism' to the extent that it no longer represents its original concept. However, this is not a rule but rather an option. Pantheists can certainly be theists, if they so desire.

In summary, modern pantheism is a wide spectrum. There are many 'official' varieties, and as many personal 'flavors' as there are pantheists themselves. All are united in a belief that Cosmos itself is their 'Higher Power,' but from there the details can be diverse. The key to pantheism's future lies in making that diversity a strength rather than a weakness, and the transition to mainstream acceptance and recognition will depend largely on how willing pantheists are to focus on commonality rather than division. In this, the Universal Pantheist Society has consistently led the way, encouraging Pantheist Unity, inclusiveness, and freedom from the divisive pitfalls of dogmatism since 1975.

Copyright -  James D. Quirk  12/7/2001
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