pantheism and humanism

Ross Douthat, the new conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, has an item entitled Heaven and Nature in today’s issue, pointing out the pantheism in the movie Avatar, as well as in many other Hollywood movies in recent decades. While I haven’t seen Avatar, his general argument rings true to me. Exceptions such as the Christian-inspired Narnia films stand out precisely because they are rare.

As he develops his argument he finds time to suggest, almost in an aside, that pantheism is “a form of religion that even atheists can support.”

Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.”

The conclusion of his essay is a ringing attack on pantheism as an abandonment of self-consciousness and morality, a “downward exit” from civilization itself. I don’t wholly disagree with this: Pantheism alone, not informed by humanist values, has as much potential for harm as any other religion.

I take issue, however, with the implication that atheists typically or even often embrace pantheism as their sub-rosa religion. There is a big difference between feeling awe at the natural world and “divinizing” nature. Humanists may reasonably share Douthat’s concern about Hollywood’s embrace of pantheism, to the extent that it represents a deification of the natural world to the detriment of human values. But any implication that Humanists exalt nature-worship over human values is simply wrong.

I do acknowledge a division among Humanist in how we feel about nature. (This emerged in a lively discussion at a recent meeting of Boston’s Humanist Small Group.) Some of us feel that nature is to be valued only because of its potential to contribute to human thriving, both materially and aesthetically. If some element of the natural world has no potential to serve human needs these folks would feel no compunction about destroying it. Others feel empathy for animals, plants and even other natural features, as well as for other humans. This second group sees it as a Humanist value to preserve and protect nature as such, while recognizing that the flourishing of human beings is a more important value. Even though some Humanists care more about nature than others, none of us deify it at the expense of human values.


12 Responses to “pantheism and humanism”

  1. December 21, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    I didn’t see the movie either, but on the larger context, I would distinguish between science-oriented atheists and Humanists, and the New Agey types who are common in LA. I think there is a tendency among some New Age types to personify nature, as Gaia, and indulge in thinking that is no more scientific than traditional religion.

    For humanists, we don’t divinize or personify nature, but we do recognize that there is a physiological response in the brain that causes feelings of awe and even a feeling of sacredness when viewing natural wonders. Usually, this occurs when the natural object that is viewed is physically large–the ocean, a mountain, Yosemite Valley. It may be an adaptation that makes us submissive to things which are larger and presumably more powerful than ourselves, which would make us more likely to survive than if we attempted to fight something bigger than ourselves.

  2. 2 David Kimball
    December 22, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Robert Mack ends his piece with “Even though some Humanists care more about nature than others, none of us deify it at the expense of human values.” I agree whole-heartedly with this. To me, as a Humanist, I may experience awe, and may respect and appreciate nature and many things natural. But I wouldn’t want that to be charaterized as meaning that I “worship” nature. I’m not sure what the definition of “worship” would be to an inanimate or insensate object or even feeling.

  3. 3 Robert Mack
    December 23, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Worshiping nature might look something like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSEaHyzbqTA

    I don’t dismiss or reject the feelings these people have but I strongly question the proportionality of expending so much time and energy bemoaning the loss of old-growth trees in a world where people are tortured, go hungry, and in so many other ways are denied the opportunity to flourish.

    P.S. Apologies if this turns out to be a parody, but if so they’ve done a systematic job of it since there’s quite a comprehensive web site: http://www.earthfirst.org/

  4. 4 David Kimball
    December 23, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Roberg Mack. I agree. With such an extreme emotional reaction it’s hard to tell if this is sincere or a parody. It seems to me they are responding to their own alienation more than honoring nature. I definitely wouldn’t call their actions one of worship.

    I also agree that although we have a responsibility to nature and the environment, we also have a (greater) responsibility to the vulnerables in society. The four levels of existence requiring morals are inorganic, biologic, social, and intellectual. Social morals should be considered more important than biological trees and definitely higher than inorganic rocks.

  5. 5 E. Agro
    December 25, 2009 at 8:37 am

    I wonder if there’s a way that doesn’t posit a ranking of humankind and nature, putting one or the other “above” and the other “below”, as some of the commentators imply. It probably doesn’t serve more than as a comfort to see sacredness in rocks & trees; at the same time assigning humankind a special status hasn’t seemed to have gotten us very far, and doesn’t bode well for the future. But if we see something transcendent in nature, then humankind, as part of nature, also partakes of the transcendent. So I’m comfortable valuing nature and humankind on equal terms – which means that humankind has to share the consequences (not all of which are happy ones) of obeying the ecological/evolutionary laws that rule nature as a whole. Hmm, is this viewpoint something rather less than Humanist?

    • 6 Edward John
      December 28, 2009 at 11:09 pm

      I agree with you E and pose the same question to myself regarding the viewpoint being “less than Humanist”. I feel that humans are part of nature, therefore humans and our natural surroundings should be respected accordingly, but certainly not “worshipped”

      I’m new here, so hello to all.

  6. 7 Jeremy Keith Hammond
    December 29, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    According to the American Humanist Association, Humanism can be defined as “… a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

    1. Nature isn’t, in I think most relevant cases, regarded as “supernatural.” It is simply natural, and best explained by science. Personification or deification of nature, I believe, is either just word-play, harmless theatrics or an effort to wrap one’s head around nature itself.

    2. Reverence of nature (which is inclusive of humanity, as E.Agro and Edward John points out.) does not hinder attempts to “lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”

    In fact, reverence of nature may indeed be worthwhile since it is a lack due reverence which has lead to many human damaging issues, such as pollution or the depletion of resources.

    “Worship” – in my opinion – is closely linked to the personification/deification. It can provide comfort and meaning to some people in many different ways. It may just be a social activity, rooted in tradition/culture – theatrics. It itself does not necessarily conflict with secular humanism – even if taken to very emotional levels. But it can cross a line.

    Excessive worship becomes harmful and does conflict with humanism. But excessive… devotion… of anything is harmful. Excessive devotion to nation. Devotion to economic systems. Worship of pets. Devotion to World of Warcraft.

  7. 8 Robert Mack
    December 29, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    I’ve enjoyed all the thoughtful comments.

    At the risk of further complicating the discussion I’ve now seen Avatar. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie as a science fantasy, and I was no more bothered by the “Earth Mother” than I was by Harry Potter’s wand. Neither makes a claim to describe our world that is likely to mislead anyone. I am less persuaded, however, by the movie’s attempt to lay a veneer of scientific fact over its pantheistic theme. While it is arguably possible to imagine some alien non-supernatural world where “trees” link together as synapses in a planetary Uber-Mind, we have an awful lot of experience with tribal groups imagining such a being where none exists. And the swaying group prayer at the mysterious tree of memories looked a lot more like a Pentecostal service than a scientific convention. I find mushy pantheism less annoying than evangelical Christianity — this deity doesn’t “take sides” except to ensure the “balance of nature”, and doesn’t tell me who I can sleep with or whether my women friends can get abortions. But I also don’t think Dawkins, Harris or Einstein would be in any hurry to join the Na’vi’s congregation, even in the unlikely event that short, non-blue humans would be welcome.

  8. 9 Devon Wade
    May 12, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I enjoyed “Avatar”, and it definitely espouses a form of pantheism, but it should be noted, most of the pantheists I know don’t really “personify” or “deify” nature, per se. Pantheists do see Nature as being an interconnected whole, and they feel that reverence is a natural and even healthy response to nature, but most pantheists, especially modern-day pantheists wouldn’t agree, at least not wholly, with “Avatar”‘s depiction of a pseudo-supernatural earth-mother concept. To modern pantheists, the word “god”, if used at all, is not literally referring to some supernatural creator, but rather, symbolizes their reverence for the interconnectivity and interdependency of the natural world, of which we humans are a part. Some New Agers may have conceptions of nature that can be called pantheistic, but I would say THE dominant form of pantheist today, and for the past few centuries as a whole, has been a naturalistic, scientific pantheism, as espoused by Einstein, for example. Personally, I don’t feel that a naturalistic pantheism and humanism are mutually exclusive. A recognition of the interconnectivity of nature necessitates, in my mind, a recognition that we human beings, too, are a part of nature (something few humanists would debate, in my experience), and in fact that we and our highly evolved minds are the RESULT of natural processes moving towards ever greater plateaus of sentience. And humanism’s emphasis on reason must surely realize our unique place in nature, and the fact that there is no higher power apart from the majesty of nature and its laws. That’s just my way of looking at things.

  9. 10 Jim Farmelant
    May 15, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    George Santayana once wrote that, “Pantheism, taken theoretically, is only naturalism poetically expressed.” In that light, it is not necessarily objectionable from a humanistic standpoint. And I am also reminded of John Dewey’s proposal, in his book, “A Common Faith”, to retain the word “God” while rejecting the traditional, supernaturalist understanding of it. Dewey wrote”

    “One reason why personally I think it fitting to use the word ‘God’ to denote that uniting of the ideal and actual which has been spoken of, lies in the fact that aggressive atheism seems to me to have something in common with traditional supernaturalism. . . . What I have in mind especially is the exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism with man in isolation. For in spite of supernaturalism’s reference to something beyond nature, it conceives of this earth as the moral center of the universe and of man as the apex of the whole scheme of things. It regards the drama of sin and redemption enacted within the isolated and lonely soul of man as the one thing of ultimate importance. Apart from man, nature is held either accursed or negligible. Militant atheism is also affected by lack of natural piety. The ties binding man to nature that poets have always celebrated are passed over lightly. The attitude taken is often that of man living in an indifferent and hostile world and issuing blasts of defiance. A religious attitude, however, needs the sense of a connection of man, in the way of both dependence and support, with the enveloping world that the imagination feels is a universe. Use of the words ‘God’ or ‘divine’ to convey the union of actual with ideal may protect man from a sense of isolation and from consequent despair or defiance.” (Dewey, pp. 50-51)

    While I do not strenuously object to those people who wish to use the term “God” in that sense, I do not see any great need for us to embrace it either. First of all, it risks causing confusion to both humanists and more conventional religious believers because both groups might then finding themselves using much the same vocabulary, while meaning quite different things by it. Secondly, I thinks it possible to address Dewey’s well-grounded concerns without necessarily having to speak of God, or event the pantheistic God. We can still acknowledge out interdependence with both nature and society, without having to make use of God-talk. That does, however, require a willingness on our part to confront the myth of autonomous man; something that many humanists have been loathe to do, since that myth is such a strong part of our culture.

  10. 11 Ed Agro
    November 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    David Kimball said:

    “I also agree that although we have a responsibility to nature and the environment, we also have a (greater) responsibility to the vulnerables in society. The four levels of existence requiring morals are inorganic, biologic, social, and intellectual. Social morals should be considered more important than biological trees and definitely higher than inorganic rocks.”

    The problem is that the “higher” modes of existence aren’t possible if the others are destroyed, as we higher beings seems to be doing. Much more productive to think of it all as an interconnected web or organism of which “intellectual,” say, is only a part. Or perhaps a part with special responsibilities.

  11. 12 Ra
    May 13, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Pantheists do not worship anything.

    It is just the feeling that Nature and God are identical. I myself am a Pantheist and I do not agree that the word “god” should be used. I’d rather use terms like “Everything” or “the Laws” or “Universe” with capitalization etc. Pantheism has a lot of humanism in it, or at least naturalist Pantheism.

    A pantheist will militate for secular principles just like an atheist, the separation between State and Church, and so on.

    Pantheism is not deification of Nature, and Avatar movie shows some sort of paganism mxed with Pantehism, not Pantheism alone. Avatar shows pagan religious rituals.

    Paganism is deification of Nature. The word “God” is used in Pantheism to describe the Universe as a functional “body”, as a Power or Entity, but not a deity. It is a feeling of reverence toward Nature, when you are on the top of a mountain or in a space capsule, but it’s not a belief.

    I myself as a Pantheist am not religious at all, I am a Humanist Pantheist.

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