Sunday, 13 May 2012

Sunday Sermon: Atheism or Pantheism?

Everything, good morning! Thank you for the privilege, the wealth and the technology by which I can write here and be read by people from around the world. It truly is an extraordinary thing. In this communication, help me. Help me to help you. Amen.


There is no questioning the explanatory power of science. Though to be sure we didn't learn everything we know all at once. And we keep learning more. What we have learned has come one step at a time. Meanwhile, no good scientist will claim that we know everything, or even close to everything, especially about something as complex as human society. The best science has a humility of sorts toward knowledge and is very careful about distinguishing things that are well-evidenced from things which are still very vague.

Perhaps a general statement that we can make about the progress of our learning is that we have managed to examine the particular much faster than we have learned about system processes. Biology came before ecology for example, and systems theories are relatively new in science. We know about termites in great detail but we still struggle to explain how they collectively construct their nests. We know a lot about birds but still struggle to explain how they fly in formation.

With this in mind it strikes me as somewhat smug and disingenuous for (some) modern rationalists to reject religion, a feature of not just all civilisation but all human existence, entirely and out of hand. Ironically, in my view, this shows a lapse of reason and a lack of rigour.

Human societies are societies bound together by meaning and song. We are social, beyond the most rudimentary family group, by means of religion. Up until quite recently in human history there are no exceptions to this and neither is there any ambiguity about it. Now modern science rightly dismisses a lot of superstitious nonsense, but to dismiss the community of meaning and song as such is a leap of faith, oddly, and may not merely be wrong. It may be social sabotage.

Reform! Like the political institutions of the past as well as the knowledge systems of the past, reform is surely required. No question there. But to say we should abolish the very idea of communities of meaning and song - religion - is a big leap. It's quite literally like saying that because feudalism or tribalism is wrong then all government and society should be abolished.

Like reason vis-à-vis knowledge and democracy vis-à-vis politics, there is a very ancient version of the divine - of God - that should not be ignored. That is pantheism - the conception of God as nature itself, as being, as Everything.

Pantheism is a conception of God which creatures from other planets will recognise (the only such conception, in fact). It does not depend on any cultural residue, and is utterly compatible with reason and science. Everything is the answer to all the standard religious riddles; the first cause, the highest conceivable concept, the ground of all being. Everything is omnipotent and omnipresent. Everything creates all, ordains all and destroys all. Everything most definitely exists, and there's only one of them. As an object of worship and prayer Everything is insurmountable, universal and transcends all culture.

Here is a fairly concise, fresh statement of what pantheism is but let's be clear that it is ancient and far more prevalent in history than the puerile Judeo-Christian god that our modern atheists spend so much time smugly refuting.

According to the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, in fact, there is no difference between atheism and pantheism except that atheism is impotent and useless to human needs. "Pantheism is sexed-up atheism," he candidly argues. Another way to say that of course is that atheism is de-sexed pantheism. He's not wrong. (The God Delusion, p.18).

Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking are just some of the scientists who, despite their rationalism, resort to the term 'God' to describe the nature which they perceive. For Dawkins they are committing some sort of political crime, an act of "intellectual high treason," no less. (ibid. p.19)

For Einstein, who also spoke highly of the nature-worshiper Spinoza, "Religiousness" is, "to sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection..." High treason, according to our modern atheist priest.

In the words of Leonard Cohen, "Come healing of the altar, come healing of the name":

Everything, I struggle to communicate the importance of collective reverence and worship of you - Being, Nature, the totality of existence - to the health of society. In the midst of the modern condition, even whilst so much is falling apart and ways forward are so unclear, this seems all but impossible to articulate. If my insights, which burn me, have merit, please help people see what I am seeing. If I am merely mad, and what I consider to be crucial insights are merely vain delusions, then please give any readers the critical capacity to see this. So be it.

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