Scientific pantheism: basic principles

Divine cosmos, sacred earth.

Pantheism has two central tenets:

The cosmos is divine.

The earth is sacred.

When we say the cosmos is divine, we mean it with just as much conviction, emotion and commitment as believers when they say that their god is God.

But we are not making a vague statement about an invisible being who is beyond proof or disproof. We are talking about our own emotional responses to the real universe and the natural earth.

When we say "That tree is beautiful," we are not saying anything about the tree in itself, but about the way we feel we must respond to the tree. We are talking about the relationship between us and the tree.

In the same way, if we say THE UNIVERSE IS DIVINE we are making a statement about the way our senses and our emotions force us to respond to the overwhelming mystery and power that surrounds us. We are saying this:

We are part of the universe. Our earth was created from the universe and will one day be reabsorbed into the universe.

We are made of the same matter as the universe. We are not in exile here: we are at home. It is here and nowhere else that we can see the divine face to face. If we erect barriers in our imagination - if we believe our real home is not here but in a land that lies beyond death - if we believe that the divine is found only in old books, or old buildings, or inside our head - then we will see this real, vibrant, luminous world as if through a glass darkly.

The universe creates us, preserves us, destroys us. It is deep and old beyond our ability to reach with our senses. It is beautiful beyond our ability to describe in words. It is complex beyond our ability to fully grasp in science. We must relate to the universe with humility, awe, reverence, celebration and the search for deeper understanding - in other words, in many of the ways that believers relate to their God.

When we say THE EARTH IS SACRED, we mean it with just as much commitment and reverence as believers speaking about their church or mosque, or the relics of their saints. But we are not making a statement about the supernatural. We are saying this:

We are part of nature. Nature made us and at our death we will be reabsorbed into nature. We are at home in nature and in our bodies. This is where we belong; this is where we must find and make our paradise, not in some spirit world on the other side of the grave. If nature is the only paradise, then separation from nature is the only hell. When we destroy nature, we create hell on earth for other species and for ourselves.

Nature is our mother, our home, our security, our peace, our past and our future. We should treat natural things and habitats as believers treat their temples and shrines, as sacred - to be revered and preserved in all their intricate and fragile beauty.

The dominant religions describe their gods in many ways: mysterious, awesome, all-powerful, omnipresent, transcendent, infinite, eternal. These descriptions are not simply projections of human characteristics. The traditional attributes of God are based on the real properties of the universe (see The real divine attributes.)

When theists worship gods, they unknowingly worship the cosmos. If they believe that God is also present in nature and the universe, they will perceive a part of the glory of Being, yet still they will attribute this glory to something beyond Being. Still they will fail to connect with nature and the universe in the deep intense way that pantheism makes possible.

But theists who believe that God is separate from the universe separate themselves from Reality. They turn their deepest attention away from the real divinity before their eyes, towards an imaginary divinity inside their head. It veils Reality like a thick mist. It turns believers into sleepwalkers.

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Ritual, meditation and mysticism

Pantheist religious practice serves many purposes:

It establishes connection with the divine reality.

It expresses our reverence for nature and the universe.

It strengthens our understanding of the tight links between self, nature and cosmos.

It helps us to see human life as part of the natural cycle.

It celebrates the beauty of nature and the universe.

It strengthens our beliefs.

It provide mental support at times of stress.

It provides mutual social support in our beliefs.

It offers a daily therapy.

Pantheistic ceremonies are similar to pagan ones. We celebrate special moments of powerful connection between ourselves and nature, between ourselves and the dynamic solar system. We celebrate the daily rising and setting of the sun, the monthly phases of the moon and tides, the annual solar cycle of the solstices and equinoxes. When skies are clear, we also celebrate the annual showers of shooting stars, the Perseids and the Geminids.

We can also establish connection with Being independently of ritual, through pantheistic meditation. The mystical experience has common features across all religions. At its core is the experience of passing beyond the self and of uniting with the divine. But the experience is often said to be difficult to achieve and to maintain.

Mystical union is more accessible through pantheism. The process does not depend on imagination or mood. It is simple to understand, open to all, and repeatable.

Mystical union with Reality consists in total abandonment of consciousness to the sensory experience of nature or material reality. The self becomes simply the vehicle for the self-awareness of reality. The self is transcended, and re-united with the whole of which it is part.

It is a charged and direct experience of the matter of which we are made, an experience of grounding and connection with the whole.

It can be achieved under a clear sky full of stars and galaxies, or by a forest stream. It can be experienced beside a pond ruffled by wind, or in front of a lit candle. It can be felt while holding a granite pebble or a piece of birch bark.

It can be achieved at any time, by any person. It requires no arduous training, and it never leaves behind that feeling of misery and dejection which so many mystics felt when they lose `connection' with the imaginary God inside their head.

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Ethical foundations.

All religions act as backing to ethical systems, often through the threat of hell, or the promise of heaven. They foster the good, not for its own sake, but in the hope of gaining rewards or avoiding punishment.

Pantheism begins as a statement about our relationship with Reality. However, it leads on to an ethic and a politic. The ethic is based on the premise that the principal good in human life is to connect with the cosmos, with nature, and with other humans, through knowledge, love and loving action. Everything that furthers that connection, in oneself and in others, is good. Everything that hinders it, is bad.

Certain strong emotions are obstacles to connection. Among these the foremost is anxiety. Anxiety has many sources: emotional insecurity, from the absence or withdrawal of love; economic insecurity, from poverty and from loss of livelihood; physical insecurity, from disease, disaster, environmental catastrophe or violence. In different ways, obsessive anger and envy can also make connection with the cosmos impossible.

We must find ways of controlling these emotions in ourselves. This can be done through pantheistic meditation and through contact with nature. These help us keep our own problems in perspective. They remind us that whatever we suffer, whatever we lose, one thing can never be taken from us: we are always and inseparably part of an immense whole.

And we must help work towards social and political conditions which reduce them in others. This means the encouragement of stable, loving families and caring Communities; an end to poverty; equitable distribution of income and work; and the peaceful resolution of disputes through true democracy and real participation.

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Pantheism and environmental ethics.

Pantheism provides the strongest possible support for environmental ethics.

Most Eastern and native religions are very concerned with kindness to animals and conservation of nature.

But the three leading Western religions, all deriving from ancient Palestine, are much less favourable to environmental action. In the Old Testament God handed the earth to Adam and Eve for them to use everything in it. That obviously doesn't mean we should abuse it to the point of self-destruction, but it does mean that Nature is put there only for humans and has no rights of her own. Judaism and Islam both contain some environmental guidance and wisdom, but not as central tenets of the faith, not as commandments or conditions for entering heaven.

Christianity says even less about our duty to care for the environment. Jesus, St Paul and other writers and speakers quoted in The New Testament say absolutely nothing. Instead the New Testament paints a lurid picture of God himself burning up the earth in order to create a new one.

In pantheism concern about the natural world is central. Pantheists regard the natural world as sacred, like a temple. Just as believers do everything they can to keep a temple pristine and beautiful, pantheists are obliged to do everything they can to preserve the diversity of life, and to help other people to connect with nature.

We must preserve as much as we can of the richness of species. That means not just preserving species against total extinction - it is small consolation to know that skylarks still exist somewhere, if I can never hear them in the fields near my home. We must make sure that as many species as possible survive in as many places as possible. We must preserve as many natural habitats as possible, and restore habitats that have been destroyed. And of course we must stop polluting the air and the oceans, threatening wider ecosystems and the whole planet. That will mean many changes in Western lifestyles, production methods, energy, transport, waste disposal, taxation and so on.

Everyone has a need to see nature on a daily basis, and everyone has the right to access to some natural area, even if it is only a small natural park. We must create natural areas in cities or neighbourhoods that have none.

Connection demands easy access to the universe, too. Yet as the world urbanizes, the radiance of the night sky is misted over with light streaming upwards from unshaded street lamps. We need campaigns to end light pollution of our night skies, so we can see them in their full splendor again. We need a massive increase in the number of large telescopes, with free public access.

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Natural death.

Belief in some kind of life after death is almost universal in human societies. In the ancient mediterranean, the afterlife was thought to be a grim and ghostly half-life under the ground. Belief in a heaven far better than the present world emerged later, usually in the wake of famine, plague, or war.

Belief in heaven is not helpful in our attempts to preserve this world. If heaven exists, then there is always another, better world awaiting us, even if we completely destroy the earth. Even if there is a heaven, it would be better for earth if we did not believe in it.

Belief in an apocalyptic end to the world, common to Christianity and Islam, is more dangerous. If God himself will one day roll up the heavens like a scroll and rain fire down on the earth, as Jesus, Mohammed and the Old Testament prophets all predicted, then why should we struggle to preserve it? Some fundamentalists believe that the environmental destruction we are creating is actually God's way of bringing about his plan for the end of the world.

We should not hate death. Death is indispensable to nature. If there were no death there could no birth either, and new individuals with different combinations of genes must be born if species are to keep adapting to their changing environment.

Death is the price we pay for the miracles of love and birth and childhood. If there were no death, the risk of over-population would mean that none of us could ever have children.

Death is not something we should fear. When we are alive, we are not dead. When we are dead, we are aware of nothing. So it's only the brief transition between life and death that poses a problem. We cannot live our whole lives in the shadow of such a short moment. To live in fear of death is to die a living death.

Pantheism can free us from fear. Our bodies are part of nature and part of matter. For the brief span of our lives we have been separated from the whole. At our death we are re-united with nature and the cosmos, and the matter of our bodies is recycled into new life. During the process of dying we should relax into this realization. It is far more calming than to worry whether we are headed for heaven or eternal torment - or whether we'll be reborn as a cockroach or a king.

Natural forms of burial are of great importance to pantheists. We prefer to be buried in special natural places such as woods, where our bodies can be recycled into plants and trees. Such a prospect bears no terrors - indeed for those who love nature it is even comforting. Pantheists should group together to create natural burial grounds, taking care not to destroy any natural habitats while doing so.

Other natural deaths include burial at sea, or cremation in a simple casket and dispersal of the ashes in nature.

[See Elemental death.]

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Mortal immortality.

Many people hanker after some kind of personal survival after death. But we must find a realistic approach, one that is compatible with the evidence. And the evidence is that our minds are not separate from our bodies and do not survive after death. The testimony of people who have returned from spells of apparent death are not evidence, since none of them actually died.

Yet we can hope for a kind of personal survival - survival through the creations and memories we leave behind ourselves in the real world.

First, descendance. Most people leave children and grandchildren, who carry forward their genes and characteristics. Lineage links the present with past and future, so that time becomes not just a succession of isolated moments, but a continuum. Lineage ultimately links all human beings back to a common ancestor group, and may link all living beings on earth back to a common species of origin.

Second, remembrance. Most people are remembered after their death. The frequency and degree of affection with which they are remembered depends on their kindness to others. This remembrance should be enshrined in tradition, as in East and South East Asia. Once a year on the date of a person's death or birth, their descendants should take out an image of them and celebrate their memory.

Third inheritance - the passing down of treasured possessions linked to a person's memory: a favourite walking stick, a school sports prize, a fossil collected.

Fourth, achievement. A person's good deeds and accomplishments live after them, in some cases for a very long time. The greater the achievement, the longer the survival.

These forms of `real-life afterlife' add up to a kind of survival which would satisfy most people. They would almost certainly stimulate greater kindness and consideration, better efforts to improve the world and to preserve nature, than the selfish hope of heaven. The God of Christianity can forgive a lifetime of destructive egotism even on the deathbed. The tribunal of descendants, and of the natural world, will not.

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The unity of religion and science.

In scientific pantheism science and religion are one.

Science is inherently materialist. It always seek material explanations. It never accepts as an explanation that some spiritual force was at work - if it did, then science and technology would come to an end. Disease was once thought to be caused by witchcraft. Science gave it a material explanation which allowed us to control it. Magnetism at one time seemed like a spiritual force - Thales of Miletus thought that magnets were full of spirits. But then science provided a material explanation.

In the same way scientific pantheism believes that everything that exists is matter or energy in one form or another. Nothing can exist, be perceived, or act on other things if it is not matter or energy. That does not mean that spiritual phenomena or forces cannot exist. It means that, if they do, they must in fact be material.

In scientific pantheism, science becomes a part of the religious quest: the pursuit of deeper understanding of the Reality of which we are all part, deeper knowledge about the awe-inspiring cosmos in which we live, deeper knowledge of nature and the environment, so that we can better preserve the earth's wealth of natural diversity.

In scientific pantheism, cognitive openness - listening to reality, to new evidence, to all the evidence, to other people's needs and feelings - becomes a sacred duty in all aspects of life from science to politics to domestic life (see What's scientific about scientific pantheism?)

Of course, we cannot say that science endorses pantheism. Many religions today state their beliefs in ways that no-one can disprove, so they can and do co-exist with science.

But scientific pantheism positively thrives on science. scientific discoveries continually underline the wonder and the mystery of Being, the immensity of the universe, and the complexity of nature. They can never undermine these, because the ultimate mystery of existence, the overwhelming awe of its presence, remains impenetrable, and will always remain so.

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Unity of religion and aesthetics.

Scientific pantheism opens the door to another union, between religion, aesthetics - the appreciation of form - and art.

There is a resonance between the form of the physical universe, or of nature, and our aesthetic faculties. That resonance is based the unity of self and world. We are made of the same stuff as the cosmos, on the same patterns as the rest of nature.

Musical harmonies are relationships of simple numbers. We enjoy them because the atoms, nuclei and electrons we are made of are related by simple numbers.

We respond to natural forms because we are part of nature. We respond to physical and cosmic forms like those on these pages because we are part of the material universe.

Aesthetics is the sensory and intellectual response to the divinity of Being. Religion is the emotional and ethical response. Science is the cognitive and manipulative response.

Human art can never rival the fantastic images we find in nature, or those we see on the cosmic or the microcosmic scale through telescopes or microscopes.

This realization should give a new stimulus and a new raison-d'Ítre to art. Art should celebrate the divine cosmos and the sacred earth.

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Why traditional religion is not suited to the Third Millennium.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. [Paul, I Corinthians, 13.11]

We live in a world aware as never before of the vast reaches of the cosmos, of the immense variety of species on earth, and of the links between things at all levels. We live in an urban and industrial world based on science, technology and the rapid exchange of information.

Yet the major religions that dominate the world today developed among agrarian and pastoral peoples, in times when superstition was rife. Times when the sun was thought to revolve around the earth, and the stars were just holes in a roof.

Following ancient agrarian religions in a post-industrial age has severe drawbacks.

First, their ethical schemes are not adapted to the challenges of the modern world. As we have seen, no major Western religion gives powerful backing to environmental action. The scriptures of all Western religions give support, in varying degrees, to those who wish to resist women's equality.

Second, they often require beliefs in events which common experience and science tell us are impossible, and sometimes in dogmas that defy logic. They force us to divide our minds in two. In our everyday practical lives we are as wily as foxes, continually investigating, experimenting, finding solutions, checking out the evidence.

But in the religious area of our lives we are as gullible as infants. We believe things which defy experience and science - miracles, resurrections, divine or angelic voices, saviours from the sky. Indeed some people seem ready to believe almost anything.

This religious area is of central importance to most people. It governs the most important passages of our lives, from birth, through adolescence, to marriage, parenthood and death. It governs our expectations about death and life after death.

But the schism between reason and religion is dangerous. The religious area helps to shelter or incubate other, political or racial kinds of unreason and other refusals to confront reality and evidence. We need to end the divide. We need a fully rational religion that is open to reality and evidence. That religion is pantheism.

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Why do we need religion at all?

Why not simply abandon religion in favour of science?

Because science alone cannot satisfy our deeper needs.

In an urban world, where isolation is so common, we need to believe in something greater than ourselves. Something less divisive than our ethnic or national identity. Something more encompassing than our fragmented neighbourhoods. Something more enduring than our frantic global marketplace.

We need a source of value and meaning in life. Science explains things - but it cannot endow things with value or meaning. Indeed some scientists couch their explanations - especially of life or mind - in a way that diminishes value or meaning. Yet people are not happy to be reduced to mere mechanisms, or the servants of blindly selfish genes. Nor are these descriptions scientifically accurate.

We need a deeper grounding for our moral systems. Science deals with facts, not with ethics. Many philosophers have tried to devise ethical systems based on enlightened self-interest. But if self-interest is to rule the day, the temptation of unenlightened self-interest will always be powerful.

Although some animals like elephants seem to be aware of the death of others in their family, we humans are probably the only animals aware of our own impending death. We need a way of coping with death, and a hope that at least part of us may live on beyond our death.

We must seek some way of satisfying these deeper needs which traditional religions try to satisfy.

Yet at the same time we must retain all the rigor of the scientific approach. We must never depart from reason and evidence. We must never lose sight of the real world of experience (See What's scientific about scientific pantheism?) When our era was young, we believed as children believe and thought as children thought. Now we are adults, it is time to put away childish things. It is time to adopt a religion that satisfies our religious needs, that embraces the space age, that fully supports our love of nature and our efforts to preserve the earth. That religion is pantheism. If you love nature, if you love the night sky, if you see divinity in all natural things, then you are a pantheist.