This essay was originally published at the World Pantheism website.
Scientific Pantheism is the belief that the universe and nature are divine.
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most realistic concept of life after death,
and the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.
Pantheism is not a monolithic creed. There have been many varieties of pantheism, arising inside and outside of traditional religions.
Pantheists can be divided along several axes, according to how their view of God’s relationship with the universe, and their attitude to the material world.
Pantheists and Panentheists
One line of division concerns how God relates to the material world.
Those who believe he is identical with the universe, co-substantial, and co-extensive in time and space, are pure pantheists. They may differ among themselves as to whether the underlying substance is essentially material (scientific pantheism) or spiritual, and whether the totality has a mind or goal greater than or different from the sum of its parts.
Those who believe God is present in matter and the cosmos, but also extends beyond it, in ways that are beyond our understanding, are termed panentheists. Most Christian and Islamic exponents have been panentheists. By contrast most Greek and Roman thinkers (other than the followers of Plato) were pantheists.
The distinction between these two groups may seem a fine theoretical one – especially since panentheists say virtually nothing about that part of their God which extends beyond the cosmos. Indeed they often make a point of this inability to emphasize God’s mystery. But there is an important difference in the value attached to the earth and the cosmos. A universe and a nature that is only part of God is less awesome and less crucial in itself, than one which is the totality of God. The panentheist focusses his or her worship on God in the mind. The pantheist focusses it on nature and the skies.
World-Affirmers and World-Denyers
Another division, more important for the way in which life is lived, concerns how the real physical world and the human body is viewed.
World-affirming pantheists believe that the physical world of nature and of the human body are essentially good. Generally they have positive attitudes to nature and sex.
World-denying pantheists devalue the real world and the body. Some of them believe that these are mere illusions projected onto an underlying emptiness or fullness. These tend to include many Hindu and Buddhist pantheists, plus the Greek Eleatics.
Others accept that matter is real enough, but believe that it is inferior – either a formless and chaotic medium, or the creation of evil and darkness. This view is common in the Christian tradition before the Renaissance.
World-denying pantheisms attach little importance to nature, or to physical health, and very often regard sex as the ultimate distraction from God. In general they originated in times of mass trauma – widespread warfare, famine, or epidemic – with massive mortality rates. In these situations, world negation becomes an adaptive response, allowing people to survive in an intolerable situation.
In normal times, however, these attitudes are maladaptive. They work against all types of political, social and environmental action to improve the situation.
World-Believers and World-Disbelievers
The final major dichotomy is between those who accept that the material world is real, and those who believe it is an illusion.
Not all the world-disbelievers reject or despise the material world. Many Chinese and Japanese Buddhists accept that it has a kind of conditional reality, and should be enjoyed in its transient beauty.
World-disbelief is self-destructive or self-contradictory. To be strictly consistent, the philosopher who discovered this truth should forthwith stop eating, drinking, or preaching his discovery, and should simply lie immobile until dead. Since few philosophers take this course of action, it must be assumed that few of them really believe their own doctrines.
Monists and Dualists
Another distinction is between monistic and dualistic pantheisms.
Dualists believe that there are two types of substance or principle in the universe. Usually these two are matter; and mind, soul or spirit. Most dualists see some tension between the two principles. This tension may be cooperative and creative – as in the case of world-affirming panentheists. Or the tension may be full of conflict: the spirit can only achieve its aims by transcending or suppressing the body.
By contrast, monists believe that there is only a single type of substance in the universe. Matter/energy is usually the one substance, since this is the one we can all perceive.
Idealists like Mahayana Buddhists or Greek Eleatics are often termed monists. Certainly they believe that there is only one substance in the universe, and that substance is essentially mental in character. However, they cannot ignore the world of phenomena which everyone, including them, has to deal with every day. Indeed they have to spend a great deal of effort explaining to a healthily sceptical audeince why the unreal real world appears to exist, why it is the same for all of us, and so on. Hence idealists deal with and discuss two realities: the phenomenal, “illusory” reality which most people call real, and a more “real” reality accessible only through and to the mind. That is why idealists are categorized here as dualists.
Varieties of Pantheism: A Visual Guide
|TYPE OF PANTHEISM||CENTRAL BELIEFS||EXAMPLES|
Nature evokes religious feelings of awe and belonging.
May include specific divinities.
| Romantic poets
The material cosmos is divine.
There is no cosmic soul.
Thich Nhat Hanh
The material cosmos is divine.
There is a cosmic soul,
which is of the same substance as matter.
| Zeno of Cittium
Teilhard de Chardin
God is present in the material world
but also transcends it in time and space.
| Ibn Al’Arabi
The Free Spirit
The cosmos is made of matter and soul.
The body, the senses and matter are inferior.
The soul must rise above the body to attain union with God, or can attain full unity
only after death.
| Paul and John
Hildegard of Bingen
The material world is an illusion.
There is only one, spiritual reality.
Mahayana Buddhism Ralph Waldo Emerson