Atheism and Pantheism

My attempts to understand the history of atheism have led me back to the early Enlightenment. It’s a very confusing time. Up to that point, the streams of thought had been largely confessional (Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, etc.) As some point, probably during the mid-17th century, that began to break down. It gets harder and harder to classify people.

The politics of the arguments don’t help. Frans Kuyper, who was recently mentioned, is a good example of the problem. Kuyper was a religious radical: he was a unitarian, he rejected the idea of original sin, etc. Yet his printing press turned out attacks on anybody who was slightly more radical, or radical in a different way. And Kuyper wasn’t precise in his use of language. Everybody was a Spinozan, a Quaker and an atheist.

Moderates attempted to distance themselves from radicals by calling them atheists. Conservatives tried to lump them all together. Radicals tried to defend themselves by praising God in pantheistic terms. The result is that it’s very difficult to tell the difference between one person’s atheism and another person’s pantheism. And the difference could be a matter of life or death, as it was for Giulio Cesare Vanini, executed in Toulouse in 1619 for his perceived atheism.

When God and Nature are the same, does God fall away? Is it just a shift in language? How much of the philosophical difference between the two positions is real and how much is just hair-splitting in order to avoid the charge of atheism?

Sometimes I think I understand the differences, but then I run across a poetic atheist like Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

I wanted to become an astrophysicist not because I chose it … in a way the universe chose me. [...] I was called by the universe. I had no choice in the matter.

Poetry or Pantheism? Is that spiritual atheism?

James McGrath once asked Why Be an Atheist Rather Than a Pantheist?. Pointing out that Dawkins once called pantheism “sexed-up atheism,” he asks why we don’t opt for the version with more bells and whistles. Does anybody have an answer?

Being Agent Scully
So Long, And Thanks For All The Memories (From Dan)
Romance at Mars Hill
Bob Cargill on the Holy Grail
  • mikespeir

    I say poetry.

  • Mogg

    I seem to know a lot of people who claim to be atheists but believe in concepts like ‘vibes’ and statements like the Universe determining something. I was once even urged by someone with whom I was sharing my feelings about deconverting not to call myself an atheist because it would mean I was not open to such things. To me, it just seems to be more magical thinking. Maybe it’s just a useful trick of thinking which helps people stop worrying about things out of their control, but somehow I seem to have only a tiny dose of it.

  • Len

    While it can be comforting to think that there’s “something out there”, something greater than us – eg, the great Harley dealership in the sky – if you want to “believe” that, then you have to turn off the bits of your brain that keep asking for evidence. And it’s fine line between that and accepting that ceiling cat is out there too.

  • Troutbane

    It may just be semantics. I consider myself very spiritual or at least “hopefully optimistic of the human condition” but still atheist. At the same time, I accept there could be some overall arching binding patterns to everything (ala Indra’s Net) which could be interpreted as pantheism. This came about because I went through a variety of religions, concepts, classes, and readings looking for …something?. These included Christianity, animism, new age magics, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, physics, environmental science, geology, biology, economics, mathematics, logic, Plato/Socrates, plus lots of chemical “exploration”. I even found inspiration in Sid Meir’s Alpha Centauri game, music like Dead Can Dance, and, of course, tv shows like Babylon 5 (the Minbari were pantheists).
    Of course, belief that the Universe is God, also should include us as gods or at least part of God as well, so at some point, nothing is sacred, nothing is profane, everything simply…is, which, is kinda like atheism.

    • Michael

      I accept there could be some overall arching binding patterns to everything

      I don’t see how this is different from any other form of magical thinking.

      • Troutbane

        Magical thinking implies a hope/desire that there are connections with no proof. Please read my post further down. I’m not saying there is even an intelligent link, but I know my evolutionary pattern of molecules is held to this ball of mud by gravity, which in turn is held to the Sun by said gravity, which in turn is held to the galaxy, and so on. I know that without the Sun I would be dead. I know without myriad living things both inside and outside my body I would not function or survive. I know that I am a cog in the artificial resource distribution system that allows me to have goods. In what way is this magical thinking?

        • Michael

          It’s magical thinking at the point where you subscribe any meaning to these connections beyond what we have already created. I mean, of course things are connected by natural laws, but considering things “godly” when they evidently are not is at least confusing

          • dmantis

            I don’t know how you can go from reading Trout’s Universe as God = everyone is God and then follow with “considering things “godly” when they evidently are not is at least confusing”.

            What I understand Trout as saying is something akin to what Tyson says in his lecture. That there is an awe-inspiring matrix of natural phenomena acting within a field we call “nature” or larger the “cosmos” which has a mayriad of latent properties that we are only beginning to make manifest in the “15lbs. of grey matter” in our skulls.

            Call this “awe” what you will, but it seems you have an aversion to the word ‘god’ rather than anything he actually said, no?

            I think he summed it up beautifully in his last sentence. Reminds me of the quote by Dennis Hopper: “If everything were the same color, then there would be no color”.

  • trj


    To me, pantheism resembles a feel-good, non-committal bunch of woo which is just as unfounded in reality and unsubstantiated by evidence as good old “traditional” religion. Calling it “sexed-up” just emphasizes the artificiality of it, which I can do without. Pantheism isn’t sexed-up atheism, it’s just sexed-up bullshit.

    • vasaroti

      Exactly my point of view.
      When Tyson says he was “called by the universe,” I took that to mean that an overwhelming number of events and circumstances resulted in his choice of profession. It’s a statement about “free will,” not about metaphysics or personification/deification.

      Plus, the few people I’ve met who actually identified as pantheists were woo-mongers. Not the company I want to keep, which is why I haven’t joined the local Unitarian church, even though they have a lot of fun events.

      • UrsaMinor

        Not the company I want to keep, which is why I haven’t joined the local Unitarian church, even though they have a lot of fun events.

        Indeed. I’d be in it for the variety of potato salad offered at the potluck suppers, but there is only so much woo that I will put up with to get it.

      • dmantis

        Exactly the point of his lecture I think. The same centers of the brain stimulated by fundementally different stimuli. One is a fabricated construction of dogma, myth and questionable story telling, while the other is based on the expansion of knowledge of the Universe.

        Its interesting that he states he dosen’t care that people giveup their old belief system, just that they recognize that his study of the Universe can yeild the same feelings.

        This is where I have a problem with this concept. Most people are not going to feel what he feels when studying the Universe. Everyone cannot be astrophysicists. However, there is not alot of physicists out there trying to change laws based on their studies. The truly fanatical amoung them do not attempt subjugate non-physicist etc.

        Just because both concepts (the cosmos and religion) produce the same neuro-chemical responses in the brain, does not mean they are equal. It says nothing about the harm one may do versus the other.

  • machintelligence

    If asked to elaborate (atheist means what you don’t believe in), I refer to myself as a rational materialist.

  • Elemenope

    Perhaps in the days when the choice between the terms was brutally (and sometimes fatally) political, a semantic explanation made the most sense. There were probably a great many atheists who publicly embraced positions like pantheism out of self-preservation, or even simply a desire to continue to feel belonging in a heavily theistic culture.

    However, I’d say that at the bottom, there is a very real difference in terms of perspective. I look at it as the difference between a holistic and a reductionistic perspective. If the universe is a single physical system, then at some level that means that every part of the universe is participating in that system. Those who choose to emphasize–and poetically amplify–that holistic approach, especially when it is romanticized as humans *belonging* in some greater order or universal system, are slouching towards pantheism, which is simply that recognition taken to its logical end-point. Those who stop short of such impulses at some intermediate point are your rather more vanilla atheists.

    Personally I identify as an atheist but not a pantheist because while the universe seems to be a unified singular physical system, it doesn’t seem to me that recognizing that fact has anything beyond bare descriptive value; it does not provide or sanctify values, and I’d go so far as to wager (with all due respect to A. N. Whitehead) it really has no metaphysical consequences at all.

    • Michael

      I would take that further and say the statement doesn’t even have descriptive value. By definition of the term, a “universe” is a closed, causally-connected system. If something were not connected to everything else, it may “exist” in some ethereal, meaningless sort of way, but it wouldn’t be part of our universe.

      • Elemenope

        I would say the only descriptive value it has is clarificational. It is at several levels of analysis easy (and advantageous) to privilege particularity over unity, and so pointing out that ultimately it is one integrated physical system adds one more layer of true description.

        It’s like observing a hunk of polished metal. To the naked eye, it seems smooth. Under an optical microscope, it has an intricate and not-at-all-smooth topology. At even greater magnification, one reveals that the surface is just the gossamer forces of interacting electrons and mostly empty space. *All* of the descriptions are accurate and true, all at the same time. It is in one frame of reference smooth, another rough, yet another mostly empty space. I tend to think that acknowledging a particular frame of reference for a given description is not trivial.

  • kessy_athena

    In my view, there is a real conceptual distinction between pantheism and atheism because the Christian conception of “god” conflates two entirely distinct ideas. Traditional (pre-christian) religion regards a “god” as simply a very powerful being. Very often, people didn’t even really distinguish between a spiritual god and a physical god. It is not coincidental that the word “lord” can mean either a god as in a powerful spirit being or simply a very powerful human. The word “Ba’al” carriers almost the exact same connotations and can also be used to describe either a human or a spirit. This sort of god lacks the “omni” qualities christians ascribe to their god, and is not central to the very structure of the universe itself. For example, several mythologies feature one set of gods being overthrown and replaced by another set, without the fundamental nature of things or the basic order of the universe being effected in any significant way. Contrast this with how most Christians would treat the idea of Lucifer supplanting Yahweh.

    On the other hand, you have the concept of those “omni” qualities. I think of this as being the basis for the pantheistic concept of “god.” The thing is that this is an entirely separate and distinct concept that is only linked to the traditional personal god by christianity and its relatives. If you look at East Asian schools of thought, you will often see that they make an explicit distinction between these two concepts. The Tao Teh Ching says that the Tao is both older and deeper then the gods. Confucius states that he has nothing to say about the gods. Dharma is not a god nor is it directly related to the gods.

    My feeling is that the true absurdity of of monotheism is not in embracing either of these two concepts of god in and of themselves, but in trying to combine them into a single being.

    • Michael

      It’s interesting to note that Romans described the king of the gods as “Iuppiter omnipotens,” despite the fact that they didn’t really believe he was “omnipotent” in the modern sense. Jupiter was just really powerful, and that’s basically what the word meant (via hyperbole).

  • FO

    Why put perfume on a beautiful flower?

    • Troutbane

      There, you hit the nail on the head. Thats why although I find group meditation helpful for myself to “get over shit” I also found that when other people put the oogie woogie crap into the mix, I just felt uncomfortable.

  • Anna

    Personally, I identify as atheist, but still believe that there’s “something” out there. The difference being, I believe that some day science will be able to explain it. I don’t think it’s unknowable, it’s just not yet known. I believe this because of certain unusual experiences I’ve gone through. I have my own theories which help me get through the day, and one day I hope those theories will be proven at least somewhat right. ^_^

    • Troutbane

      “I believe that some day science will be able to explain it”
      Thats how I feel about ghosts when talking to my wife. I told her I dont believe in ghosts per se, simply because there’s pretty much never been any proof, but if proof ever existed, science and capitalism would muck up the romantic ideal of ghosts:
      “Is your house haunted by long dead people, simple use ACME brand Ghost-Away to keep those pesky poltergeists at bay”

      Huh, maybe that would be a better question:
      Is Theism a romantic version of Pantheism?

  • John C

    Its June 1st! I’m back from my nearly two month long, self-imposed UF exile! (I told you I’d keep my promise, it wasn’t easy though, missed y’all so much). You didn’t think that I’d forget about you, did you? Love never forgets, ha. Alright, enough of the mushy stuff, its just good to be back…:).

    • Elemenope

      Welcome back, John. :)

    • Custador

      Welcome back, John.

    • Noelle

      I was just thinking earlier this week that you’d be back soon. Happy June, John C.

    • Nox

      Welcome back John C. How was your vacation?

    • FO

      Welcome back John!
      Did your self-imposed exile make you feel healthier? =)

    • Michael

      John Cena?

      • JohnMWhite

        Unlike John Cena, we can see John C.

        • JohnMWhite

          Welcome back, by the way, JC.

    • Schaden Freud

      Welcome back John!

  • Andrew

    Tyson isn’t an atheist, he said so. Or has he changed his mind? He doesn’t have time to be an atheist or something. I’m very disappointed. Makes me think of the ‘First they came for the communists’ quote.

    • Sunny Day

      He just doesn’t want to be called an Atheist and has even gone as far to say he doesn’t think there’s a need to use the word. I disagree for the reasons Christian Rad nails down here.

    • FO

      Probably he is more interested to spread love for science and nature.
      Today “atheist” is a politically charged word, and he would severely scare off his audience if used that word.
      So he goes for a more woo-friendly “pantheism” (?) which appeals a huge range of people and avoids political load.
      Tyson could be doing this out of manipulative convenience or genuine conviction.

      I agree with neither and consider lying to get a point across to be a bad thing, but I must acknowledge that Tyson is a very effective advocate of science.

      • UrsaMinor

        If I were going to dump the word “atheist” as too politically charged, I sure wouldn’t choose “pantheist”. I’d probably go with “non-theist”.

    • Michael

      Tyson is clearly an atheist, he just doesn’t use that term to describe himself. I think the main reason he wants to stay away from the label is to stay away from theistic debates as much as possible; he’d rather talk about astrophysics.

    • vasaroti

      Don’t ask me to find a YouTube clip, but I’m pretty sure he’s used described himself as agnostic.

  • thread_of_fire

    “Why Be an Atheist Rather Than a Pantheist?”
    Take a step back from that question and consider why an answer is not obvious. It’s because it’s a bunch of fuzzy ambiguity that straddles between meaningless and wrong. Only in those areas that are meaningless can it be confused for being the same as atheism. In those areas it is superfluous and useless, so it should be tossed aside. There are other areas which may smuggle in supernatural concepts which are more obviously problematic as well.

  • L.Long

    1st Tyson is not the ’2nd Sagan’ he is a brilliant ‘poet’ in his own way and is equal to Sagan in words and thought. I love listening to him talk – intelligent and inspiring!!!!
    And becoming atheist has changed me in many ways for the better, which is different then religious as I have found that as the religious get deeper into their faith they do not become nicer.
    As catlick I did not pay much attention to the world as it is not important.
    As atheist it is as Tyson says a wonder to behold.

    As catlick death ad suffering meant little as it was gawds problem and he could sort them out.
    As atheist we are all equally special and unique and HERE & NOW is all we have so make the best of it with killing-death-suffering is to be minimized to what level is in my power to change.

    Life is too short to be delusional thru most of it!

  • Noelle

    Tyson has a wonderful poetic way with words. I’d listen to him talk just about anything. I only know about string theory and multiverses because of him. I think what you’re seeing here is his style, and as always it is delightful.

    Does the coffee call to me in the morning? Or do my depleted adenosine receptors call to it?

    I once felt called to my profession, though I was much younger and still religious at the time. I wouldn’t say it was because I thought a supernatural being wanted me to do it, but more that I was drawn in by a field where I could spend a lifetime learning and using that knowledge to help others. A conviction maybe? But was it any different a rush of brain processes than one who feels called into ministry?

    And that is more Tyson’s point, though he has such a nice artistic way to say it. I wouldn’t call his take pantheism.

    • Martin

      I agree. No pantheism in Tyson’s remarks. What he says reflects my own experience, except for me, the “calling” involves long distance running, particularly on mountainous trails, on jaunts that may last from 1 to 14 hours. Referring to it as a “calling” is more of an empirical statement. Activities like astronomy and trail running (and who knows what else… but my second choice involves chocolate) provide an emotional sense of connection with reality and perspective about how one fit’s into that reality. This empirical/emotional sense of connection and perspective is pretty much what I understand by the term “spirituality”. No dualism here, and no problem self-describing as atheist. I would never use the term pantheism in this context.

  • Julie42

    I think that the “everything is God” belief would be very close to atheism, except that pantheists also tend to believe that since everything is God, everything is connected. Saying everything is God doesn’t seem to be particularly meaningful because it removes the distinction of the word. If everything is God, why not also say that nothing is God? This would basically be atheism. But they take “everything is God” to mean that everything is one; we are all connected. And that’s where they get a bit weird. They’re much more likely to believe in spiritual “energy” and would probably worship the earth and the universe. I’m sure they’re lovely people and probably don’t try to push they’re religion on others, which is cool. But I’ll always be a realist. Maybe if I try shrooms, I’ll convert to pantheism for a few hours.

    • Troutbane

      Although I agree that everything is not absolutely connected, you cannot deny that essentially all life forms on this planet are interconnected in some manner. There’s a very large system (or series of connected systems) grinding gears here.
      In cosmic terms, I am not exactly an expert but I understand that some of the more advanced ideas are pushing for some weird connections between particles, be it string theory or just gravity.
      I’m just not saying go buy a yurt and take peyote.

      • Michael

        The complex web of life is simply the result of evolution filling every available niche. It’s much more profound than anti-environmentalists might realize, but far less profound than pantheists would have you believe.

        • kholdom0790

          What’s an ‘anti-environmentalist’? Genuinely curious, I’ve never heard of or imagined someone being ANTI-environment.

          • Elemenope

            Ah, the joys of not living in the US. We’re absolutely lousy with the fuckers.

            To clarify, they are people not so much against the environment, as they are against the policy prescriptions of environmentalists. At the end of the day (with a few notable exceptions) they cash out as the same thing, but they aren’t motivated by a hatred of nature or anything like that. It’s usually just obstinacy combined with laziness or greed.

            • Brian K

              Pretty much people who are simply against anything or anyone who calls into question their GOD GIVEN right to exploit, profit from, or extract whatever they want from the environment, at any cost. Basically, anti-environmentalism is selfishness raised to an ethos.*

              * Note that I am not defending every environmental regulation or program. Some of said regulations or programs are indeed counterproductive and intrusive to the point of sillyness. Preserving a tractor tire rut filled with water as a “wetland” is silly, for instance.

            • UrsaMinor

              Preserving a tractor tire rut filled with water as a “wetland” is silly, for instance.

              Not to the mosquitoes.

        • Troutbane

          Aint just the life itself. The abiotic mechanisms are pretty intricate too and interwoven into biological evolution, but I see your point about niches. Water cycles, heat transfers, geomorphology. Adding something supernatural to the element spoils the pot, IMHO, but the links are there.

  • Justin

    “Why Be an Atheist Rather Than a Pantheist?”
    My atheism doesn’t need decorations?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    James McGrath once asked Why Be an Atheist Rather Than a Pantheist?. Pointing out that Dawkins once called pantheism “sexed-up atheism,” he asks why we don’t opt for the version with more bells and whistles. Does anybody have an answer?

    But wouldn’t it be even sexier to believe in faeries and leprechauns? Is sexiness your goal? Mine is accuracy; I have a strong regard for the truth.

  • Schaden Freud

    The problem I have with pantheism is that it’s often just like any other religion. I don’t agree with Dawkins that pantheism is sexed-up atheism. It can be that, but it can also be a religion that simply replaces god with “the universe” and treats the universe as if it were somehow conscious and influencing our lives according to some predetermined plan. I really doubt that’s what Tyson means when he talks about being “called by the universe”, but some people do actually see it that way and I fail to see how that’s any different to the magical thinking xians (for example) indulge in when they say “God called me to work in the ministry”. I’m fine with the everything is god = nothing is god school of pantheism, but why not just call it atheism? That’s what it boils down to.

  • John C

    Thanks to you all, I appreciate your friendly welcome back. Just so ya know :)

  • Brian K

    How about the concept of “Alethianism” as a religion. Your “god” is simply “reality” or “truth”. from another FT Blog site:

    “At the time, I was a fervent atheist, but one of the regulars, a self-styled “pastor,” accused me of still being a theist. “You still believe in God,” he told me, “but your new God’s name is ‘Reality’.” Or words to that effect. He was trying to zing me for being some kind of fundamentalist, but instead of arguing with him, I decided to agree with him. I remembered some New Testament Greek from my college days, so I knew that the Greek word for “Reality” was aletheia, which coincidentally is also translated as “truth.”

    I liked that. Reality is truth, truth is reality. I went back and told him he was exactly right: my new God was Alethea (simplified spelling), and She is the Truth. And I started in on all of Her divine qualities. Reality exists at all times and in all places—omnipresence and eternity! Truth comprises and transcends all knowledge—omniscience! Reality dictates what is and is not possible, what does and does not happen—omnipotence! My new God was not only just as divine as the so-called pastor’s, but my God actually shows up in real life, which the Christian God is clearly unwilling or unable to do.”

    • trj

      I realize it’s meant to be symbolic, but having truth be represented via an imaginary deity still strikes me as self-contradictory.