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.