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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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