|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)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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
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
"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
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
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
Universal Pantheist Society
|Our PANTHEIST AGE, a new world reconciliation based upon the spiritual experience of Nature and the Cosmos