Saturday, July 27, 2019

Interview: Paul Harrison, leader of the World Pantheist Movement, on our creator -- or not

Editor's note: This story was originally published on January 22, 2017.

This is the second part of a four-article series on pantheism, as explained by Dr. Paul Harrison, who established and leads the World Pantheist Movement. If you did not read it, the first entry can be found here. The block-quoted material below appeared in yesterday's article, offering background on the subject matter. 
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

PANTHEISM (Gr. πᾶν, all, θεός, god), the doctrine which identifies the universe with God, or God with the universe …. the system of thought or attitude of mind for which it stands may be traced back both in European and in Eastern philosophy to a very early stage,” the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explains.

For starters.

“At the same time pantheism almost necessarily presupposes a more concrete and less sophisticated conception of God and the universe,” Britannica continues. “It presents itself historically as an intellectual revolt against the difficulties involved in the presupposition of theistic and polytheistic systems, and in philosophy as an attempt to solve the dualism of the one and the many, unity and difference, thought and extension.”

This is merely the tip of the iceberg.

“At this period of enlightenment, a declaration from the pulpit that Christian Science is pantheism is anomalous to those who know whereof they speak — who know that Christian Science is Science, and therefore is neither hypothetical nor dogmatical, but demonstrable, and looms above the mists of pantheism higher than Mt Ararat above the deluge,” Mary Baker Eddy’s religion declared in 1898.

What does the Roman Catholic Church have to say?

“The Church has repeatedly condemned the errors of pantheism …. the Vatican Council anathematizes those who assert that the substance or essence of God and of all things is one and the same, or that all things evolve from God's essence …. The straining after unity in the pantheistic sense is without warrant,” it claimed in 1914.

So much strife over such a straightforward doctrine! Since when is a reasonable quest for truth about our world and its creation a bad thing?

Dr. Paul Harrison is an environmental scientist who built and helms the World Pantheist Movement. In its own words, the organization’s “primary aims are to make our naturalistic, scientific form of pantheism available to a wider and wider public as a religious option. This is partly to provide an alternative to the many forms of irrational belief that are being actively promoted around the world, often with huge financial resources backing them.”

Joseph Ford Cotto: When did pantheism mature into an organized belief system with a sizable following?

Dr. Paul Harrison: It was really not till the later 20th century that there were efforts to organize and network large numbers of individuals. Pantheism is the sort of spirituality that does not really need organization in the form of churches or priests – you can just go on a hike in Nature, climb a mountain, go surfing or stargazing.

The World Pantheist Movement was the first to put out a kind of Credo, which we call our Statement of Principles. It’s not something everyone has to agree with every word, or learn and recite – it’s more of a notice on the door. We had less than ten thousand friends and members until Facebook came along, then from about 2010 we started to boom to over 160,000 followers now. We have done many experiments in trying to facilitate local groups, and there are some, but it seems like pantheists do not have that hunger to form congregations and have priests that we find in most supernatural religions.

Cotto: Pantheism is an explicitly naturalistic perspective. How and why does it diverge from supernatural or deistic movements?

Harrison: There are forms of paganism that basically have a pantheistic focus on Nature, but also believe in supernatural beings and powers and even reincarnation. They tend to call themselves pagans rather than pantheists.

The World Pantheist Movement promotes scientific pantheism, which by and large accepts the findings of current science. We have a physicalist view of the world. Most of us tend to be rather skeptical of things like telepathy, ghosts or pagan magic. We recognize that there’s a lot that science has not yet explained, and maybe a few things that science will never explain – especially why there is something rather than nothing.

Scientific pantheism diverges from Deism because Deism is still a form of theism. It believes in a god who created the Universe, but then disappeared. Most Deists I know use design in nature as their evidence that there was a creator – they use the same arguments as Intelligent Design people.

Cotto: In the pantheistic realm, is our creator best described as an energy force or would another choice of words be apropos?

Harrison: The Universe is our ultimate creator. Nature is our creator on this earth. But in another sense we do not really have a creator. The Universe is everything that exists, so we are all a part of it along with all other living beings and stars and planets. Pantheists tend to think of the Universe as eternal, perhaps renewing itself in big bangs and big crunches. Or we may be part of a diverse multiverse, most of which we will never have contact with.