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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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