Adding emotion to atheism

Paul Harrison, environmentalist and founder of the World Pantheist Movement, explains the basics of

In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins calls Pantheism “sexed-up atheism.” This is a fair description. Pantheism, in essence, is reverence for Nature and the wider Universe—the Pantheist “God” is everything that exists.

In fact the scientific, naturalistic Pantheism promoted by the World Pantheist Movement does not use the term “God” officially. Only a quarter of us are comfortable with using it metaphorically—to express the depth of our feeling towards Nature and the wider Universe. Another quarter are okay with “God” in quotation marks. Half of us feel that the word carries too much baggage and avoid it when talking of our own beliefs.

For centuries Pantheists have been accused of being atheists – and on many basic points we do agree with atheists. We don’t have any scriptures that we must follow. We don’t believe in a creator God. We don’t pray to the Universe for help – we know it can’t hear us. We don’t worry that it’s watching or judging us. Most of us don’t think it has some goal for itself—or for us; we know we have to choose our own goals. Most of us don’t think we will persist as individuals after death. We see the physical Universe naturalistically, as scientists see it: the physical reality of everything that exists, following the laws of Nature.

Where Pantheists differ from “unadorned” atheists is that we add a range of positive feelings about our lives in Nature and the wider Universe, and we embrace those feelings. We view the Universe as a vast dance of creation and destruction and see ourselves as part of that dance. We look at the night sky or Hubble images thickly strewn with galaxies, and we feel awe, wonder, reverence and humility. We look at a forest or an ocean and we feel we belong, with gratitude and concern. We gladly and fully live in our physical bodies and nowhere else, and feel love, exhilaration, celebration.

Pantheism has an ancient pedigree. It reaches back to Heraclitus, for whom the cosmos was an ever-living, ever-changing fire, and passes through the Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote: “Everything harmonizes with me, which is harmonious to thee, o Universe.” From 400 to 1700 CE, it was dangerous to be a Pantheist—Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, and Spinoza was excommunicated by his Jewish community. After the Enlightenment made unbelief less risky, Pantheism enjoyed a 19th century heyday with Wordsworth, Whitman, Hegel, Thoreau and many others. In our century it was espoused fully by D. H. Lawrence, and (erratically) by Einstein. It is hinted at by many modern scientists, from Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, to Lee Smolin and Stuart Kaufmann.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.