Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Interview: Paul Harrison discusses pantheism -- and Richard Dawkins's claim it is "sexed up atheism"

Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 21, 2017.

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.”

Harrison shares his views with me in this first part of a four-piece series.

Joseph Ford Cotto: Where can the origins of pantheistic thought be found?

Dr. Paul Harrison: Really as soon as humans started speculating outside the boxes of religions, in Greece, India and China. There were many thinkers long before Toland who thought along the same lines and can be called pantheists in retrospect. In the West we can go back to the 6th century BC Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who said “The cosmos was not made by gods or men but was and is and always shall be ever-living fire.”

The Stoics were pantheists – the most famous of them was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius with his beautiful book “Meditations.” Then there’s a long silence in the Christian West from the fourth century until the 16th - 17th centuries, because you could be executed for heresy, as Giordano Bruno was in 1600 AD. Pantheism really got moving in the late 18th century, when the Germans became interested in Spinoza. By the 19th century it was regarded as a serious threat to theistic religions.

In the East it’s fair to say that the Daoists Lao Tzu and his follower Chuang Tzu were pantheists. They have a very reverential approach to Nature and the Heavens, and they never speaks of supernatural gods. Some forms of Buddhism – especially Zen - are close to Pantheism.

Cotto: Describe the meaning of pantheism.

Harrison: Basically the term means “belief that All is God.” The Irish writer John Toland, who first used the word “pantheist” in 1705, defined it as someone “who has no eternal being but the Universe.” In modern usage, it has come to mean a belief that everything is, in some sense, a unity, and is deserving of our reverence.

Cotto: Richard Dawkins famously called pantheism "sexed-up atheism". What is your take on his perspective?

Harrison: All forms of pantheism revere the Universe, or the totality of everything that exists, rather than a thinking judging creator being like the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or any other supernatural god. So in that sense all forms of Pantheism are atheistic.

But Pantheism is not just a form of atheism. Atheism states only what you do not believe in and people need more than that negative. Pantheism expresses what you do believe in: that Nature should be our main focus deserving of our care, and that everything is in some sense a unity deserving of our reverence. I would say that this is indeed “sexed-up” compared to straight atheism.

Dawkins is quite positive about pantheism but he is really talking about naturalistic, scientific pantheism, the type expressed by Einstein and many other scientists. However, Dawkins disapproves of their using the term “God.” And in fact most scientific pantheists avoid using the term “God,” because it immediately brings up thoughts of the Abrahamic God.