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23 June 2008updated 27 Sep 2015 2:30am

Adding emotion to atheism

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

By Paul Harrison

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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