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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.