Thursday, March 11, 2010

Enter the pantheist

It's been a while since I have shared a long philosophical post on this blog. As sometimes happens with me, a lot has been going on in my head, but it has taken me a while to pull it all together.

This latest thought process started in December, when I took our family to see James Cameron's film Avatar in IMAX 3D. I enjoyed the film immensely. But I was also depressed. The depression faded after several hours, but I was also acutely aware, every day, that something was missing in my life. I knew what it was.

It was not the floating mountains or other visual wonders of the Avatar movie that I missed. Yes, all that was cool. But what I really missed was plain ordinary sitting on the ground mountains. And plain ordinary forests, lakes, clouds, and birds. Except that I could no longer see them as plain and ordinary. It is not the first time I have had such feelings.

As a boy, every summer my father would take our family for Sunday drives around Canandaigua Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. Carved by ancient glaciers and surrounded by forests and farms, that lake made a deep impression on me. The love of water and wood has stayed with me ever since. I even remember the price of gasoline from one of those drives.

I had similar feelings five years ago, when my wife and I first explored western Washington by car. I gasped in awe every time we saw one of the Cascade volcanoes. We felt a sense of being home as we followed along shallow inlets of Puget Sound and Hood Canal. Again, woods running down to the water. Water and wood. It was powerful, and familiar, though I did not yet have a name for it. Naming that feeling required me to dig a little deeper into the religion of Avatar.

If you have seen Avatar you know that the film takes place on a fictional moon called Pandora, in a science fiction future. The catlike humanoid aliens called the Na'vi who live there practice a religion centered on Eywa, a mother goddess who is literally the collective mind of their planet. On Pandora, all living things have spirits, and all living things are connected to each other.

The human visitors to Pandora are a mixed group of scientists, mercenaries, and their corporate overlords bent on mining Pandora's resources. To most of the humans, the Na'vi and their sacred natural places are nothing more than an obstacle to corporate profits.

“Pandora” comes from the Greek for “All gifted”. The Na'vi mother goddess Eywa is reminiscent of Gaia, the mother goddess of the ancient Greeks, literally “Mother Earth”. In modern times, “Gaia” has been used by scientist James Lovelock as a metaphor for the Earth's natural systems, the complex feedback processes which have maintained an environment comfortable for life.

In Avatar, when one of the Na'vi laments that the humans had “killed their mother”, she is referring to Gaia in the modern sense of the Earth's environment. It was the thought of a future where humans had destroyed the natural environment of the Earth that disgusted me when I saw the film. But I believe that comment was also referring to Gaia in the ancient sense, is the sense of reverence for nature. Most of the humans in the film had lost that reverence. They were the real aliens, to me. I had rediscovered that reverence in myself. What was it called? And how did it fit into my life?

I found the answer when I ran across a bizarre editorial by a Catholic conservative who condemned Avatar as an "apologia for pantheism". The Vatican released several statements condeming Avatar for the pantheist ideas depicted in the film. Pope Benedict also mentioned pantheism is his "World Day of Peace" message, warning against "a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms." Sounds yummy. Can I have some more of that please?

Pantheism. I had heard the term before. Several times I had visited a web site by Paul Harrison that laid out a set of ideas that he calls scientific or naturalistic pantheism. This time I explored more deeply. I read everything I could read about pantheism and related ideas. The more I read, the more I realized it is what I have always believed.

Pantheism derives from the Greek, meaning "All is God". It is a modern word but an ancient idea that has surfaced in many philosophical and religious traditions for thousands of years. Pantheism is the view the Universe ("All") is the only thing deserving of the deepest kind of reverence ("God"). Thus, pantheists do not believe in a supernatural God who transcends the Universe or who can hear prayers or punish humans. Pantheists also do not believe in a supernatural life after death. For these reasons, Pantheism has traditionally been considered a heresy within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Catholic church in 1600 for his pantheist views. The pantheistic philosopher Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated from Judaism in 1656.

Some pantheists see the Universe as an intelligent process with something like a mind or soul. Naturalistic pantheists believe the universe is a completely natural process, driven not by spirits but by matter and energy. There are many things about the universe that science does not understand, and may never understand, but that does not mean there is a supernatural intelligence behind it all. Similarly, the absence of a supernatural intelligence does not make the Universe any less awesome or sacred.

Pantheist ethics derive from our reverence toward the Universe. Because the Universe is sacred, its processes are also sacred, especially the process of life. We humans are made from stars and so are other living things on Earth. We evolved from the same natural processes, and are genetically related to animals and plants. We depend on them for food, air, and water. Humans are not separate from Nature but part of it. From that  comes a strong environmental ethic and support for human rights.
"A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." - Carl Sagan
I love that quote by Carl Sagan. It is the essence of naturalistic pantheism. If you've ever seen his Cosmos series of videos, you know that Sagan does not mean only looking up at the universe through the telescope, but also down through the microscrope. It is no coincidence that he uses a dandelion seed as a spaceship metaphor. The symbol of the World Pantheist Movement is two spirals: a spiral galaxy and a nautilus shell, emphasizing reverence for the Universe and Nature both.

Naturalistic pantheism is not the only idea laying claim to Sagan's prophecy. Ideas closely related to it are religious naturalism and humanistic religious naturalism. The differences between all these perspectives are small, largely a matter of terminology and emphasis, and there is considerable overlap. All place reverence for the Universe and Nature at the center of their concern. I am not completely happy with any of these names. But they are at least as descriptive as the names of most churches or denominations. Who could tell what a "methodist" is just from the name alone?

In a sense none of this is new to me. I have been an atheist most of my life. I still am, in the sense that I do not believe in supernatural gods.

Still, embracing naturalistic pantheism feels like a religious conversion to me. I feel more excited, and more motivated to get outside and experience nature and take action to protect it. I feel more grounded and less isolated and defensive. I feel truly at home. The best part has been discussing these thoughts with my wife LeAnne and discovering that pantheism is also what she has always believed.

I am not interested in arguing with supernaturalists. Life is simply too short for that. I am happy to explain my beliefs, even though in pantheism there are no points for converting others. The Universe does what it does. It doesn't care what we believe.