On Philosophy

May 7, 2007

Pantheism Is Confused Atheism

Filed under: General Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Pantheism is the belief that nature/the universe/the totality of everything is god. Within pantheism we can make a further distinction, between those who attribute nothing to the universe besides facts derived empirically, whom I shall call rational pantheists, and those who attribute certain additional, mystical, properties to it, whom I shall call irrational pantheists. Clearly there is no chance that irrational pantheism will collapse into atheism. However, irrational pantheism isn’t an especially attractive position; by accepting certain facts on faith alone it isn’t on any firmer ground than traditional religious belief. Rational pantheism has greater draw, within certain circles, since it tries to free itself from a foundation of blind faith while at the same time retaining some elements of traditional religious belief. However, I claim that rational pantheism is the same as atheism, meaning that the beliefs of atheists and rational pantheists have the same content, and that they differ only in terminology.

But before I tackle rational pantheism let me first illustrate how rational chair-theism is confused atheism. Rational chair-theism is the belief that a certain office chair, currently owned by Google, is god, but which doesn’t ascribe to that chair any properties besides those facts about it that have an empirical basis. A chair-theist might argue for their belief by noting that the chair has certain god-like properties. For example, there is a sense in which the chair is eternal, because it has existed, and will exist, in some form or another for the entire duration of the universe. Early in the universe it was just energy, later it was scattered neutrons, protons, and electrons, even later it was scattered molecules, and recently it was brought together in the form of the chair. Later it will become dispersed again, perhaps being transformed into different substances, or even into energy, but it won’t cease to exist, in some fashion, until the end of the universe. Now let’s compare the chair-theist position to the atheist position. They both agree that the chair has no mind. Nor can it hear prayers or respond to them. Nor does worshipping it have any effect. They agree that the chair exists, and that there are no exceptions to natural law (no miracles or other super-natural events). And they both deny the existence of a super-being who exists in addition to the natural world. Thus it makes sense to think of the chair theist as an atheist who simply means something different by the word god, namely what most of us mean when we use the phrase “that chair owned by Google”; and this is the only difference. In content their beliefs are the same.

I claim that chair-theists and pantheists are in the same boat, with the exception that no one opposes collapsing chair-theism into atheism, since it is an artificial position. The best way to demonstrate this is simply to go through the atheists and pantheist positions on the universe and show that they are the same. Both pantheists and atheists agree that the universe has no mind, as demonstrated by the simple fact that the universe is not observed to act purposefully. Of course the universe contains minds, which do act purposefully, and there is a great deal of order within the universe, but these facts, accepted by both atheists and pantheists, do not support positing that the universe has a mind of its own. Both groups also agree that the universe does not answer prayers or is in any way responsive to us, except through the consequences of our actions. Which is to say that we might be able to cure a disease though purposeful action, but that no activity will cure this disease except those actions that medical science says will have an effect on it (the universe won’t intercede on our behalf). Obviously the universe also does not reveal knowledge to mankind (and hence there is no basis for giving extra weight to sacred scriptures or revealed truths); things are learned only through certain rigorous investigations, and both pantheists and atheists agree on this point. Both agree that there are no supernatural events or forces. Both agree that the universe exists and deny that any super-being exists in addition to the universe. So it would seem that the pantheist is an atheist in terms of content, and that the only difference between the two is that the pantheist uses the word god to designate what the atheist thinks of as the universe, and that the atheists uses the word god to designate a kind of non-existent super-being(s).

But why not then argue that atheism is simply confused pantheism? After all if they agree completely in content why should we collapse pantheism into atheism instead of the other way around? I admit that there is nothing that can force us to pick one option over the other; they differ only in language, and language is a matter of convention. However, I think that there are practical considerations that motivate collapsing pantheism into atheism instead of the other way around. The word “god” carries many connotations with it, it is used by many to designate the final arbiter of right and wrong, the creator of the universe, and usually a being who should be worshipped. By hanging onto this old word pantheists run the risk of unconsciously projecting some of these old connotations onto the universe. And even if the pantheists themselves don’t make that mistake many people who hear them will. Thus it seems wiser, to me, to simply call the universe “the universe” and leave “god” out of it. This is why I would describe the (rational) pantheist as a confused atheist; they believe the same things that the atheists do, but they discuss their thoughts using an archaic terminology that often encourages confusion, unnecessarily.



  1. I assume that you are aware of the problem of causation. With motion for example:

    Object A is moving, this motion must have been caused by an object B, which must have been caused by an object C…etc

    There must be something to start it all that had nothing to cause itself. God. A true athiest would say that such a god does not exist. A panthiest would say it does.

    Pantheists are not confused athiests, but I think many athiests are probably confused pantheists.

    With regards to the connotations carried with god, I don’t think this is the problem you make it out to be. It isn’t so hard to leave them behind.

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 7, 2007 @ 12:49 am

  2. see: https://onphilosophy.wordpress.com/2007/01/05/first-causes/ Also if you believe that god is the cause of the universe then god is not identical to the universe, if the universe cant be self causing, and then you aren’t a pantheist.

    Comment by Peter — May 7, 2007 @ 1:32 am

  3. I don’t believe God was the cause of the universe. God is the universe, and the universe is self-causing, because god is the universe a self-causing universe it possible.

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 7, 2007 @ 1:37 am

  4. Why should an atheist have a problem with the universe being self-causing, if that is what observation demands? I certainly don’t.

    Comment by Peter — May 7, 2007 @ 1:43 am

  5. Well, that’s fine. But I think for something to be self-causing it needs some sort of essence/will/motivation to do so.

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 7, 2007 @ 3:15 am

  6. Not really, for example time may have a curvature, and thus be closed. Or time travel may be possible, in which case an event later in the universe may be its cause. Neither of these possibilities requires a will or “essence”. Let me put things another way: both atheism and rational pantheism leave the universe as it is. If observation says it is self causing then both groups must agree that it is self causing. If observation says it isn’t then both groups must agree that it isn’t. And by not pojecting properties onto the universe the claims of both groups must have the same content.

    Comment by Peter — May 7, 2007 @ 8:17 am

  7. Good point. I don’t really know what else to say.

    I’m sure that there is some fundemental difference between the two, I’m not convinced. I’ll be back when I’ve pin-pointed why.

    You win, for now.

    Comment by Peter Hogg — May 7, 2007 @ 12:10 pm

  8. Don’t pantheists tend to attribute to the universe mental or quasi-mental behavior whereas most atheists don’t/wouldn’t? It seems to me that there is a big difference between thinking the universe as like us only greater in some allegorical sense and treating the universe as most atheists do.

    I agree the self-cause bit is unhelpful.

    I’d add that I think the pantheists simply have the older claim to the term given the Stoics, the Spinozists, and even many Platonists of various stripes. It seems to me that all three use the term God for reasonably good reasons – especially the Stoics and Platonists who often have religious or quasi-religious views and even mysticisms.

    Comment by Clark — May 10, 2007 @ 8:29 am

  9. If they do it would make them irrational pantheists.

    Comment by Peter — May 10, 2007 @ 8:38 am

  10. But why not rational pantheists? Atheists tend to be materialists, believing that we are material objects, with mental behaviour nonetheless. We can clearly choose what to type, and then cause words to appear on computer screens, for an obvious example. (They would just explain such choosing and causing in a materialistic way.) So why should the universe not also choose and cause, in much the same way that we do, if not in a way even further removed from the actions of ants and atoms than ours are?

    Comment by Enigman — June 2, 2007 @ 4:40 am

  11. Because all the evidence shows that the universe has no mind and thus does not choose. To believe that the universe does is to believe something counter to the evidence, something irrational.

    Comment by Peter — June 2, 2007 @ 12:20 pm

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