Why Be an Atheist Rather Than a Pantheist?

Why Be an Atheist Rather Than a Pantheist? March 18, 2012

I keep coming back to this question. Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, says that pantheism is just “sexed-up atheism” (p.40).

I have never been able to grasp why someone who believes this would choose atheism over pantheism.

Seriously, if you had a choice between anything, and that same thing sexed-up, which would you choose?

I would like to hear from those who identify with one of these categories or the other on why you self-identify as one rather than the other.

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  • My husband self-identifies as an atheist, though he said that he would likely consider himself a pantheist. The biggest reason that he uses atheist is because he doesn’t want to cause any kind of confusion about his unbelief. He doesn’t believe in any god, and he’s afraid that if he uses pantheist, it might make people think that he does. I think that’s probably why a lot of people are disinclined to use that phrase. Because we know what atheist means (kind of).

  • blueXenologer

    I can identify as pantheist. It isn’t inaccurate, because I am certainly quite in love with actual reality and it gives me fully sufficient wonder and amazement and a sense of connectedness to the world around me.

    However, I don’t identify as a pantheist. It’d feel cowardly to me, like a backtrack to my earlier days of being an atheist and knowing I didn’t think theism was supportable but wanting to find any way, any way at all, to not use the A-word. It was a phase I had to go through so that I can run through some terms and get closer and closer to just sucking it up and saying it, but in the end what was really happening was that I was getting closer and closer to accepting who I am and claiming what I am without dancing around it.

    Other people’s mileage may vary on this stage, but I feel like a lot of people go through the progression of, “Okay, well. I’m a non-literal XYZ, or well I guess I’m just very spiritual but not religious, though I guess what I really am is a pantheist. Okay, y’know what. Screw it. I’m an atheist and I’ll just say it.”

    Additionally, using a separate descriptor for a non-theistic philosophy that allows room for joy and awe and reverence for the real physical universe feels to me like it implies “atheism” doesn’t have room for those things. Not only is this inaccurate, but it’s one of the most frustrating stereotypes atheists face, that we’re joyless nihilists. I’m not going to feed it by distancing myself from the identifier “atheist.” I don’t know a single atheist who DOESN’T think reality is neat.

    So I wouldn’t say pantheism is necessarily “sexed-up” atheism. I’d say it’s candy-coated atheism for people who either aren’t comfortable thinking of themselves as atheists, or who don’t think they can think of themselves as atheists as long as they have retained some vestige of joy or purpose in their lives. It may go down more easily at first, but it started to feel dishonest to me and so now I just call me what I am. I’m an atheist practicing Wiccan. Why pussyfoot around it?

    Self-identifying pantheists obviously need to be able to identify themselves however they please, but if you’re asking me why I don’t identify the way they do even though I can detect no real difference in our worldviews (except, perhaps, their apparent opinion of atheists who don’t identify as pantheists), well this is why.

    • rainhorse

      The idea that atheism constitutes an already formed complete set of beliefs that includes reverence for nature is not accurate.
      Atheism says only one thing about you: that you disbelieve in any supernatural gods or creator God. Beyond that you could love nature or hate it, you could tree hug or spend all your free time shut up in a room playing computer games. In fact, you could believe in a personal afterlife and I have met quite a few atheists who do.
      Scientific pantheists do not use the word pantheism to hide the fact that we are atheists, but to broadcast that on top of not believing in a god or gods, we have positive feelings about nature and the Universe.
      Dawkins is spot-on in calling scientific pantheism “sexed-up atheism.”

      • Veggie dancer

        So a scientific pantheist doesn’t believe in god at all? But has reverence for nature, positive feeling towards universe? Is that not just an atheist but with a positive outlook?
        I think I am a pantheist, but I believe that all nature, the universe is somehow alive/ divine/ that everything IS god. Is this a different type of pantheist? What’s that kind called? I’m trying to identify what I am. .. It is amazing how words seem to have different definitions to everyone I talk to! 🙂

        • José Carreño

          I think in my opinion you are a scientific pantheist, and call “God” to nature. You see nature as being “God.”

        • neodoru

          You are a pantheist.

      • TheDude

        I think the main difference is that as a pantheist, I believe that all matter/energy has awareness, in some sense; in other words, everything is ALIVE, and that life, considered as one infinite being, is God.

    • Veggie dancer

      Hey, your post is pretty interesting, I guess it comes down to how we define the words we use, what you mean by atheist may well be what someone else means by pantheist.
      I find it especially interesting that you say you are Wiccan as well as atheist. I have been considering myself pagan… But feeling uncertain in the definition of this as all of the different factions within that umbrella have so many different gods and goddesses that somehow still seem quite separate from nature and what I consider to be divine/ magical/ alive/ reality. On the other hand it seems to be a bit of free for all to believe what you want.
      I see myself as pantheist, with all of nature/ universe being full of life and divine in itself. I think my definition of pantheist might be similar to your atheist definition.
      How does it work with your practicing Wicca? .. Sorry if it’s too intrusive.. I am genuinely interested though.. Do you practice with a group or individually? do you address different gods or goddesses in your spells or rituals? How do you see their ‘characters’ for want of a better word in relation to your beliefs?

      • Brandilyn

        I identify as a pantheist, and I also practice Wicca. Wicca is all about nature. Anything that has to do with nature, really. Wicca doesn’t have to include gods/goddesses, it can JUST be the Universe/The Divine that you worship, and whose energy who draw from. I practice as a solitaire and also in a coven. There are some in my coven who rather than address god/esses in ritual, they instead worship and name personality types. I chose to worship and name the Universe in my ritual, as I believe all energy comes from the Universe.

  • spinkham

    Because labels are short by definition, and atheist captures my thoughts better than the alternatives.  However, as the saying goes, if your views fit on a sign, think harder.

    Atheism is a label that speaks to my desire to have a secular government, that I reject all supposed revelations from a deity as human creations.  When I tell people I’m an atheist, I think those are the primary messages projected.

    Among those informed on matters of philosophsy of religion I sometimes use the igtheist label.  I believe pantheism and panentheistic systems are tenable, but I really don’t see how to test such ideas, or what they could conceviably add to my life even if they were true, so I still lack such belief even if I think they are much more plausible than traditional theism.  In that way, the apatheism label also sort of applies to my current understanding.

    TL;DR: I am an atheist because I believe that label best communicates my goals and desires for our society.  My more nuanced views on the possibility of an ultimate an/or necessary being are quite secondary to that.

    As an aside, I think this is my primary beef with liberal/progressive/postmodern Christians.  Many times we see the world in very similar ways, but value different things, which impacts what we spend our time discussing.  When I get frustrated that you won’t come out and say what you really think about Paul, that’s the issue at hand.  I believe our society is greatly harmed by what primarily reduces to how many people read the work of Paul (and the writer of the Johannine Gospel), and that’s an issue most liberals don’t want to touch with a 10′ pole.  Genesis and Revelation seem to be fair game, but nobody wants to talk about the middle.

  • Smijer

    For me, it is a question of gilding the lily.

    When I see “sexed up”, my mind automatically adds, “contrived”, “artificial”. I don’t endeavor to criticize good pantheists or panentheists worldwide, but the only allure I see in declaring the whole world/universe to be God is to go after that pat on the back you get socially if you at least “believe in something”. If I want to talk about the whole universe (which is rare… how many things can you think of to talk about that would apply to the whole thing?) – I’d just as soon say “whole universe”. 

    • James

      Honestly, for me, not being a pantheist invokes an extreme anxiety in that I feel like I’m being incongruent with myself. That’s largely in my own interpretation of the label atheist and how it applies to me…so I certainly don’t expect others to feel the same.

    • Veggie dancer

      Hey I think you are being a little harsh.. In my experience, to admit you believe in anything takes courage and being atheist is more fashionable, (I’m In the UK maybe fashions are different here. )
      I identify myself as a pantheist .. And very much believe in the divinity of everything in nature.. but I have only admitted this to a handful of people.. I certainly don’t band it about for pats on the back.

    • Justice Pidgeons

      I think it’s a bit of a stretch to assume you know the motives of a person, and especially to generalize an entire group into that assumption. As for me, I seek no pat on the back . . . but I don’t really know what to call myself yet. I think I might be a pantheist, based on some definitions I’ve seen, and I definitely wouldn’t call myself a sexed-up atheist. ”Atheist” isn’t a bad word for me. It’s not a thing I would be embarrassed about being considered, but I am pretty sure it doesn’t describe me. I’m not going to get into the details of why I believe what I do, since my only goal right now is to describe what I believe; I see a star or a planet as an inert, unliving thing . . . but not the universe itself as a whole or rather existence itself as a whole. I don’t see the universe as some metaphorical god, I imagine that all of existence might be an actual living entity. I’m very careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that I know it to be truth, or something like that . . . it just what it seems like to me, and seems more and more likely every time I entertain the subject. Of course, I didn’t come into this thinking without biases, and there’s no way to rid myself of those biases. I would just be biased without realizing it even if I had. It’s definitely a thought process irrelevant to science. It’s not relevant to answering scientific questions I don’t think, but I don’t have the belief for a specific purpose. I’m not even that interested in whether or not god exists or what it’s nature is. I’m far more interested in entertaining the thoughts I have of the afterlife . . . which I haven’t really come to any one speculation on, but I do think that people get it wrong when they say that an afterlife MUST come with some belief in a deity. I’m still looking into what to call myself, if there’s a label for it. More as a means of amusing myself than anything else.

  • Michael Wilson

    I think the difference is pure emotional. Scientifically speaking your mother is a pile of objects held together by forces randomly determined at the beginning of time but the people we call healthy don’t categorize their relationship with their mother as manipulation for emotional and material support. They call it love. Likewise one can think of existence as a giant fluctuating pile of shit we are stuck in for a few decades or one can see some real value in it all. I imagine most people at some level do the latter and this is little different than faith based religion, though lesser lights are adamant that religion is defined as that which they don’t do.  “Sure I act as though things I can’t confirm are true, but that ain’t faith; I’ve got good reason for it! Those other guys don’t have good reason so they practice religion!” We all know of course that Christianity is one of those faith for no good reason religions as we can read from 1 Peter 3:15 “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. And that answer is we don’t have a reason, if we did, it wouldn’t be hope.” The reasonless hope is what motivated Paul after all, when on the road to Damascus, God appeared in a vision and said “Paul persecute those Christians, I definitely don’t vouch for that guy Jesus and he is defiantly dead and molding.” And afterward Paul went and preached the Gospel of Jesus.  

  • Mace Windu

    Yes but are Pantheists truly guilty of guilding the proverbial lilly or do they truly believe? Most people (Dawkins, Pat Robertson,  some pantheists, etc.) come at beliefs from their own personal perspective. It seems that some, like Dawkins, are guilty of “I’m rightism”. That or they truly have ESP and can read minds. If it’s the latter then they should leave the Pantheists alone and use their powers for the greater good. 🙂 Despite being a nonbeliever, I tend to think it’s a little arrogant to assume that all pantheists are just atheists in denial. 

    A wise professor once told me that every viewpoint is a view from a point. 


    • The Dude

      I was an atheist and am now pantheist so it’s definitely not a denial thing. The central difference, for me, is that if everything is alive/aware to some extent, we as humans can harness that awareness to advance ourselves and become capable of “god-like” things; we will never become god-like in knowledge/capability if we don’t see already envision ourselves as part of God

    • The Dude

      example of a “god-like achievement”: linking all human brains into a groupmind where everyone can be anyone

    • The Dude

      And I get that most people don’t give a fuck about being a god, they just want to be themselves. But I was born at the end of the 20th century, and I think it’d be pretty awesome to advance the human species because we can. In other words, I’m not simply pantheist but also transhumanist.

  • Mike A.

     Igtheist…now there’s some confused etymology…

  • Joshua DeWald

    Never crossed my mind to identify as a pantheist over an atheist… the idea of pantheism does not seem to “add” anything to the picture of any practical use. As @c08d6dde823f29ac59dc1fda5901bdc2:disqus said, it feels “contrived” as a means to identify something “greater than ourselves”, as if describing the action of the Universe in terms of natural laws isn’t quite “enough”. 

    • James

      For some, it isn’t enough. Simple as that. To them, the practical use is that it enables them to fully experience their emotions without anxiety. Kind of weird and unfortunate? Perhaps. However, there’s an easy fix, for them, which is to adopt the label.

      • TheDude

        Incorrect. The central difference, for me, is that if everything is considered to be alive/aware to some extent, we as humans can harness that awareness to advance ourselves and become capable of “god-like” things; we will never become god-like in knowledge/capability if we don’t see already envision ourselves as being God (example of a “god-like achievement”: linking all human brains into a groupmind where everyone can be anyone) And I get that most people don’t give a fuck about being God, they just want to be themselves. But I was born at the end of the 20th century, and I think it’d be pretty awesome to advance the human species, because I know it’s possible. In other words, being a pantheist makes it easier to be a transhumanist.

    • TheDude

      I was an atheist and am now pantheist so it’s definitely not a denial thing. The central difference, for me, is that if everything is considered to be alive/aware to some extent, we as humans can harness that awareness to advance ourselves and become capable of “god-like” things; we will never become god-like in knowledge/capability if we don’t see already envision ourselves as part of God (example of a “god-like achievement”: linking all human brains into a groupmind where everyone can be anyone) And I get that most people don’t give a fuck about being a god, they just want to be themselves. But I was born at the end of the 20th century, and I think it’d be pretty awesome to advance the human species, because I know it’s possible.

    • TheDude

      The central difference, for me, is that if everything is considered to be alive/aware to some extent, we as humans can harness that awareness to advance ourselves and become capable of “god-like” things; we will never become god-like in knowledge/capability if we don’t see already envision ourselves as being God (example of a “god-like achievement”: linking all human brains into a groupmind where everyone can be anyone) And I get that most people don’t give a fuck about being God, they just want to be themselves. But I was born at the end of the 20th century, and I think it’d be pretty awesome to advance the human species, because I know it’s possible.

    • TheDude

      The central difference, for me, is a practical one: that if everything is considered to be alive/aware to some extent, we as humans can harness that awareness to advance ourselves and become capable of “god-like” things; we will never become god-like in knowledge/capability if we don’t see already envision ourselves as being God (example of a “god-like achievement”: linking all human brains into a groupmind where everyone can be anyone) And I get that most people don’t give a fuck about being God, they just want to be themselves. But I was born at the end of the 20th century, and I think it’d be pretty awesome to advance the human species, because I know it’s possible.

  • When I shed my fundamentalist beliefs, I initially, in my passion for my newly found unbelief, described myself as an atheist.
    Over the years, however, I have found that the term atheist really does not fully describe how I see and respond to the world.  When I look at at the grandeur of the universe, when I look at the beauty therein, when I feel the rapture and power and divinity of love, when I gaze in awe at our insignificance and fleeting temporal existence in the face of a cosmos so vast in space and time that we cannot even begin to comprehend it, when I look with fear and dread upon the callous evil that this universe impersonally visits upon us, when I am delighted by the joys and ecstasies that befall us by chance–in these moments and in the times when I reflect upon them, I feel a spiritual response to all of existence, to the entirety of the universe (or mulitverse) such that I have no qualms calling it God.  To call myself an atheist fails, I think, to capture this religious feeling that I have towards the universe, and so, for me anyway, calling myself a pantheist best represents my attitude of awe and wonder towards reality.

  • spinkham

    I’ll take another tack and say what it would take for me to accept the pantheist label as a primary one.

    For me it comes down to views on teleology.  If you think there are non-human relative “goals” or “aims” or “final causes” in the fabric of the universe, then the pantheist or panentheist explanation has some sort of increased explanatory power over atheism.  I do not think the universe contains such teleological features, so I consider myself primarily an atheist.

  • Human Ape

    Pantheism: A doctrine that identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God.

    Translation: Pantheism is bull****.

    1. Type “darwin killed god” in the google search box.
    2. Click the I’m Feeling Lucky button.

  • I care about persons. Nature has no personhood so far as I can see. Obviously, persons do occur in nature, but essentially as a minor contaminant. Which is why I don’t feel sentimental about nature. Now it is perfectly possible to treat a purposeless mass as a God. You can even follow Spinoza and construct a version of the Ontological argument about deus sive natura. After all, if the universe (multi-verse these days) has always existed, it is a necessary being if necessary is construed to mean is always the case. If this approach floats your boat or throws the thought police off your scent, I guess it makes some sort of sense. From a philosophical point of view, however, I don’t see how pantheism can be understood to have some conceptual meaning additional to atheism without thereby becoming implausible or merely false.

    By the way, what happened to the post about the contributions of atheism to civilization?

    • James, the post you mentioned is still there:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2007/11/the-atheist-contribution-to-world-civilization.html

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    Well, there’s two reasons. The philosophical reason is that pantheism still implies some ideas about the nature of reality that I consider to be dubious. Ubi dubium, ibi libertas. Doubt about both the ontological reality of god, and the use of god-based metaphor for describing reality means that theology is problematic ground for me to build my life around.

    The social reason is that, like millions of other atheists, I’m a spiritual person and a participant in a welcoming religious community. I have just as much right to claim my doubts as atheism as the most vocal anti-theist critic.

  • Ryan

    I identify as atheist over pantheist because I do not think that the universe meaningfully fulfills the kinds of intuitions evoked by the notion of a deity. In fact, I am very anti-spiritual in my view of the universe, as I tend to think our reality is a hideous thing compared to our wondrous fantasies.

    I mean, think about science fictions, they often have people with the ability to form civilizations across the stars, but this appears to contradict what physics tells us about the universe, as we will likely NEVER be able to meaningfully create such civilizations and so our dreams of continual growth, exploration, and improvement are prevented by what appears to be an arbitrary physical rule. Even in fiction in general, the image we have of ourselves is more refined and spiritual than the crude ways that we exist. Narrative tends to be a refined view that cuts away the fat to find the essence, however, reality has no essence. People die for bizarre ideals and outright falsehoods, and yet, there is no villain in the story or really anyway to save them. Suicides occur for reasons dictated by biochemical defects, not the forces of evil, or even nobly. Choices are made by biochemical reactions we are barely conscious of and a process that doesn’t feel “right” to our basic intuitions on how we work. Ideals themselves are really the crude shapings of an evolutionary past, and quite possibly even just things to be exploited by natural hypocrisy. http://www.overcomingbias.com/2010/03/homo-hipocritus.html Human beings can try to gloss things over, but it really just appears to be gloss and our continual desire to delude ourselves, fantasize, and feel “mystical”, but the world we live in is more like Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions(without the breaking of the 4th wall) than it is like any of the inspiring fictions. Spirituality, however, tends to need something to inspire.
    I am not saying this is a bad world. It’s really quite nice in many ways. I am also not saying that local inspiring causes cannot exist, but I think the bigger picture is a hideous mockery to our intuitions, and I cannot really respect it in the manner that pantheism implies. I’d feel like a person who is a pantheist is either lacks knowledge of, rejects, or is glossing over the kinds of things I am pointing to. They *want* to see the world as profound and wondrous, but it’s really really ugly. Darwin’s world is an ugly survival of the fittest where our ideals are trampled by the brute economics of gene survival. Quantum mechanics has a God who plays dice. Einstein’s theory traps us under the speed of light. Psychology presents a world where our intuitions on how we work are shattered by the decentralized and Kluge-y nature of our cognitive processes and the crass materialism about what drives us, economics itself suggests that our noble ideals of cooperation really probably DON’T make the bigger picture work and that instead the egoistic invisible hand is needed and that trade-offs are to be expected, instead of nobility and victory. Maybe I am missing something, and maybe this is really all a matter of perspective, but I have difficulty seeing how these issues can be pushed to the side in making the assessment.(I think my perspective is similar to Alex Rosenberg’s Disenchanted Naturalism. http://onthehuman.org/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality/ )

    • Therese Monteath-Carr

      Interesting. I have described myself as a pantheist, but I can really understand where you are coming from here. Because I have struggled with these thoughts all my life- I have chronic depression in recurring bouts. When I am very depressed, I see the world in the way you have described, and when I’m not I focus on the positives. But I often have sneaking doubts even when I’m well that the negative world view is more correct. However, life would not be worth living if I allowed myself to think that way- even if it were completely true. So I choose to focus on the positives that I KNOW exist, rather than even entertain the posibility of the natural world being made up of MOSTLY negatives, even if it’s a dishonest way to live. Because though there is a posibility it’s a dishonest worldview to deny the world is essentially an awful place, the alternative to this self deciept for me is suicide.

      • TheDude

        In response to your argument: Yes, I fully agree that “Darwin’s world is an ugly survival of the fittest where our ideals are trampled by the brute economics of gene survival.”

        In my opinion, a pantheistic viewpoint will make our species willing to begin abandoning Darwinism and recreating human nature from scratch (using technology)

        • TheDude

          Sorry Therese, that message ^ was meant for Ryan

    • TheDude

      You are, indeed, missing something. As a pantheist, I believe existence/God to be infinite: everything exists, and thus everything is possible. We are ABLE to build civilizations across the stars. Doing so would not violate the laws of physics as they currently stand. What’s stopping us is that no one believes that we can. As products of natural selection, we humans are, obviously, still enslaved by animal nature — the kill-or-be-killed mentality — and thus we don’t like to cooperate. Pantheism (at an extensive scale) would solve that problem. If people start believing that every one of us is the same eternal life-force/consciousness expressed in a different form, then people can start to link themselves into greater organisms (groupmind) for which intergalactic colonization is a totally feasible goal.

      Also, when people start seeing themselves as part of (rather than created by) God, then they will start being okay with modifying/improving the human body to enhance our collective quality-of-life. In other words, pantheism enables transhumanism.

    • TheDude

      So in response to your argument: Yes, I fully agree that “Darwin’s world is an ugly survival of the fittest where our ideals are trampled by the brute economics of gene survival.”

      In my opinion, a pantheistic viewpoint will make our species willing to begin abandoning Darwinism and recreating human nature from scratch (using technology)

  • Paul D.

    I think pantheism might suffer from the God-is-a-noun problem. If God is love, why not call it love? If God is the universe, why not call it the universe? A label with metaphysical baggage that will be misunderstood by others isn’t necessary — unless you’re using that label precisely because you want people to read more into it than there is.

    I suppose if you were a Christian agnostic, you might claim pantheist belief just to remain accepted by Christians for whom belief in a supernatural entity is an absolute requirement.

    • Michael Wilson

      Well you can certainly call it universe. Early words for “God” had such meanings as Sky, Day Time, Wind. etc. The problem is the dev3elopment of emotional bonding and superstition regarding the Universe and Love. You know people kill for freedon and equlality now.  Do we not love and revere our modern ideologies?

  • Pseudonym

    “Sexed-up” in this case is a reference to the September Dossier. Ironically, it sounds like Dawkins is saying that atheism is made-up crap, but dressing it up as pantheism makes it more palatable to the general public.

    The principle of charity, of course, compels me to assume otherwise. But it’s still my gut response.

    • spinkham

      I think you’re definition of “sexed up” could use some tweaking.

      The dossier was the “sexed up” product,  which either means it was embellished with likely falsehoods to make a better case, or it was making the strongest case possible by going right to the limits of what they thought was the truth.


      In this case, pantheism is “sexed up” atheism, meaning either atheism plus what are believed to be likely falsehoods, or atheism at it’s most palatable and strongest case for a particular reader, depending on how you take that.

      If anything it’s overly dismissive on Dawkins part about pantheism, and you really have to stretch the metaphor to claim Dawkins was saying something bad about atheism.  Well, other then the obvious fact that atheism might in fact be unpalatable to some people, who would prefer a “sexed up” version.

  • Erp

    Personally I use humanist (or agnostic, atheistic pacifist humanist if I want to be pedantic).   However I do know someone who prefers naturalism as he feels humanism is a bit too human-centric.

    Would you identify as a Christian first or as a theist?  Could one be a Christian deist, pantheist or even a Christian atheist?

    • @285e8208779346e258179bb7442cc6b5:disqus , I self-identify as a Christian because that is both the context within which I had a religious experience that set me on the path that led to me studying religion, teaching about it and blogging about it – not to mention other ways in which my life was changed as a result. But I tend not to use the term “theist” since I definitely don’t mean by God an anthropomorphic entity of the sort traditionally associated with that term and with the major monotheistic and polytheistic faiths.

      I do think that one can be a Christian deist, a Christian panentheist, a Christian agnostic, or a Christian atheist, and probably many varieties of those, just as there are many different views among Christian theists.

      • Scott__F

        If you “don’t mean by God an anthropomorphic entity of the sort traditionally associated with that term”, I would be curious to hear your view of Jesus and his own possible take on theism – in as far as it can be determined with the sources available, of course. 

      • Scott__F

        I would think that the anthropomorphism of God is a bright line.  I have trouble imagining many mainstream Christians reading this and accepting you as a fellow believer.  Perhaps this is a failure of imagination on my part 🙂

        Don’t you attend and teach at a Baptist church.  What is the reaction among your fellow congregants to your position?

        • It is an American Baptist congregation, and so quite diverse in the views one can find within it – moreso than say the Southern Baptists.

          I think that we use the language of personhood in reference to God because we as human beings transcend in certain respects all else that we have encountered. And so I am not saying that the use of personal language in reference to the transcendent is inappropriate, I’m saying that it is (in my opinion) a mistake to think that it is literally true.

          There are plenty of conservative Christians today who would be horrified by this statement, but they would be equally horrified by various church fathers and historic theologians who saaid something along the same lines, too! 🙂

  • @spinkham:disqus , you wrote “When I get frustrated that you won’t come out and say what you really think about Paul, that’s the issue at hand.  I believe our society is greatly harmed by what primarily reduces to how many people read the work of Paul (and the writer of the Johannine Gospel), and that’s an issue most liberals don’t want to touch with a 10′ pole.  Genesis and Revelation seem to be fair game, but nobody wants to talk about the middle.” 

    I’d be interested to know what you think that I, as a progressive Christian and New Testament scholar, ought to be doing more of or talking about more. I know it may seem like I never fail to have something to blog about, but that doesn’t mean that specific suggestions aren’t welcome – indeed, they might lead to me blogging about things that are of more interest! 🙂

    Thanks to everyone who has commented so far!

    • spinkham

      In regards to what I would like to see you write, I’d love to see what
      to do with Paul’s writings.  I think Peter Enns makes an excellent case
      that the only reason anybody cares about YEC or the more general  view held by most American protestant Pastorsthat there was a literal specially created first man named Adam specially who
      fell from grace, is because Paul did.  I think the reason so many Christians are futurists are because it fits better with Paul’s view of
      cosmic history and Christs place in it than preterism.  It seems clear
      to me that how Christian Fundamentalists read Paul, coupled with the
      higher Christology of the writer of John, leads to what ultimately makes them
      downright dangerous IMHO.

      You can argue against YEC or futurism until you’re blue in the face, and
      I doubt it will change much. It seems to me Romans is the head of the
      fundamentalist hydra, and without dealing with that there will be no
      progress. I’m convinced if you can explain Paul and the Gospel of John
      in a way that convinced people to be more like Mark’s Jesus, the world
      would be improved for it.  Unfortunately, the only reasonable attempts I’ve seen are
      postmodernist in character, which right out of the gate will be ignored
      by fundamentalists.

      Maybe you’ve done so in the past and I’ve missed it, or maybe it’s an impossible task. 🙂

      I suppose what I would say is this: I’m sympathetic to progressive
      Christians/Christian mystics, but it also seems fairly clear to me and
      many others that Paul was not.  If your goal is to put forth a compelling case for progressive Christianity, it seems to me Paul
      should be up there pretty largely in your tag cloud.

      Put one last way, if I was to become a New Testament scholar, it would be primarily so I could understand what to do with Paul.  I don’t think I have the time for that, so I’ll try to goad some scholars I appreciate into doing it for me 😉

      • @spinkham:disqus and @6bc81068f2fa62438ee252e07e9733a4:disqus , is this the sort of thing you had in mind? It is a post entitled “When Paul gets it wrong”  

        • spinkham

          Yes, that’s an excellent article.

          If I could commission a book(which sadly I can’t at the moment, so I’m reduced to groveling for a blog post or two;-), it would be called something like “Repaving the Roman’s Road”, and would cover what a progressive has to say about the favorite view of salvation offered by fundamentalists.

          From things like these:



          It seems you would say they have *something* wrong.  From the comments on the second one, it seems people are pointing out that trying to reduce Romans is at best an inkblot test for your preexisting views, but to my admittedly limited study, and certainly somewhat biased by my fundamentalist upbringing, Paul seems more clear than that.

          What’s wrong with it?  Do they read Paul wrong? Is Paul wrong? Or some combination or other POV I have not considered?  Or are they right after all and I should start building up a hot sulfur tolerance? 😉

          • I think that the “Romans Road” approach excerpts some “memory verses” from Romans but misses the context of Paul’s argument in his letter, and his theology, which focused on the imminence of the end and the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God.

            Be that as it may, building up a tolerance to hot sulfur, like building up a tolerance to iocane powder, is always a good idea…

  • Tim

    Dr. McGrath, there is *no* transcendent. This is a certain, hard *fact* of *science* proved by *reason*. I’m sorry, I really mean no offense by this, but I’m in the camp that “pantheism” is pure BS. Again, I mean no offense, I’m trying to understand you, but I just don’t get your point.

    • spinkham

      All of those words you used emphasized are much less obviously defined in one manner then you seem to want them to be, and even if they were not, what you claim is not a hard fact.  That there’s no YHWH in the heavens above the crystal dome over the earth, as Ezekiel states clearly in his vision and many other places in the OT state or imply, is such a fact that has been so demonstrated, but the complete lack of something larger than us is not and cannot be demonstrated.

      If you want to understand other perspectives better such that you can more charitably and effectively interact with them, I highly recommend The God Debates by John Shook and the podcast Conversations From the Pale Blue Dot,which features an interview with Dr. McGrath as well as many other people worth hearing out.

    • Tim, exactly how does science prove that there is no transcendence? I don’t see how this is anything other than reductionism, saying for instance that since the study of subatomic particles shows no evidence of mind, therefore at higher levels of organizations of those particles, such as in the configuration found in a human brain, there is no such thing as mind. Have I misunderstood you, perhaps? 

  • angievandemerwe

    I do not like “supernatural” or “spiritual” terms. So, I suppose I am not a Pantheist. I much rather talk about the natural aspects of understanding things, which involves the disciplines, not some “mystery”. Reason, not revelation is what I think can ground me in my understanding of life, not “faith”. Choice is about rational assent to personal values, which has little to do with “God” or “faith”.

    • Therese Monteath-Carr

      I would agree with that also. Unfortunately the term pantheism is frought with ambiguity- the permentation of pantheism I adhere to does not favour mystery, faith or the supernatural either. Only an extreme awe and reverence for all things in the natural world (for there is no other world).

  • PorlockJunior

    How pleasant to find that spinkham has saved me the trouble of advocating more Paul-blogging by doing that in some detail. Not really saving the trouble, because I don’t agree entirely with the point of view, but I’m too lazy tonight to do more than a Me Too.

    Actually, at times I like St. Paul, despite his well-known failings. High among these would be his misogyny, which makes me quite interested in the indications I’ve seen that serious scholarship blows away much of the ugly text as pseudepigraphical and may undermine much of the rest. (Yes, I’ve read Garry Wills’s book, but I suspect there’s more to the subject.) There’s also the little matter of incomprehensibility, which commonly is attributed to the funny old language of the AV. But it’s a funny thing: I can read Shakespeare, and I do, for fun; and I know, or am told, that the AV language is more antiquated and more odd than Shixpur; yet the parts that seem to resemble gibberish don’t smell to me like mere funny old language when I compare a couple of passages in modern translations, which can make real sense, with the same stuff in AV. BTW, who makes a good translation? Is Phillips, who started out by doing the Epistles, as good as Lewis thought he was, or anywhere near?

    And that, having suggested several topics, is enough of not saying more than Me Too. All I have to add is that the person who wrote I Corinthians 13 had something more going on that superstition and misogyny. (If he existed 🙂 (Have you ever noticed the smiley in one of the Epistles?)

    Oh well, back being more or less on topic. One reason for shying away from talking of Pantheism was stated well by Alan Watts: what people hear is something like “I am God, you are God, everything is God, and God is a boundless and formless mass of vaguely conscious tapioca pudding.”

  • PotterT

    I’m an atheist and a pantheist.

    Atheism defines what I do NOT believe, but pantheism describes what I feel. I’m an atheist in the sense I don’t have a belief in any deities, but I’m a pantheist in my worldview and practice. Pantheism describes the deeply emotional response I feel for reality, especially nature.

    I made peace with my atheism long ago, but hungered for a way to express the feelings I had about life and living. While I know non-pantheistic atheists are completely capable of experiencing and analyzing the complexities and emotions of life without any additional “flavorings,” I found I needed something more.

    I think part of the problem is that many atheists have so little patience for what they perceive as an innate flakiness about a pantheistic worldview. This is understandable. I, too, find it problematic that reality is called “mystery” by some pantheists. Science bursts the mystery bubble. Reality is not some nebulous entity. It is matter.

    On the political front: I’m an atheist, but there’s more to life than being secular. I am not anti-religion. I don’t care about theistic language in the Constitution. Religious symbols don’t fill me with rage.

    • Therese Monteath-Carr

      Yes, yes, yes! I TOTALLY agree with your first 4 paragraphs. Pantheism is how I FEEL, in addition to my atheism. I don’t think naturalistic pantheism is a religion- it’s just a description of the strong feelings of awe and reverence some atheists choose to concentrate their focus on.

  • Michael Porcelli

    Perhaps Religious Naturalism fits better here.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_naturalism

  • dominicancoke

    i am both actually.i am an atheist cause  i don’t believe in god or religion i am 100% sure of that. but i am a pantheist cause all of my life i have been connected to nature i love it when it rains i like seeing forest parks water falls rivers the sea. i believe in spirits and call me crazy iv’e see some.people who identify them selves as pure atheist are closed minded we can’t explain everything that goes on beyond this galaxy. and even though i don’t believe in god i truly believe in my self and feel that i am connected to the universe i don’t believe in the universe cause it actually exist.just stating that something  does not exist is an empty statement  because in reality you can’t explain everything.

  • Pantyist

    Speaking of “sexed-up” I like to call my self a secular pantyist…

  • Just Me:)…

    I have come to an understanding that I am certainly a Pantheist. I used to boldly proclaim myself an Atheist when I was a Nichiren Buddhist as when people chant, it is the Law of cause and effect, symbiotic relationship with the self and environment, behavior modifications, so on and so forth, right set of circumstances happen which intersects with ones life and the “prayer” is “answered”. I was dead set that I was an Atheist as I didn’t like the term Pantheist even though it was more appropriate. To me the universe/reality WAS “God”-more like a giant “Holodeck” like in Star Trek. I eventually created a mantra that has no meaning(six syllables), downloaded lots of generic mandalas from the net(have even used pictures of the mountains before but settled on one that reminds me of Hal 9000 from 2001 A Space Odyssey) and get the same results without religion. I feel that when a person figures out that they truly are a Pantheist, terms like Atheist or Theist start to have no meaning. I believe that the universe will become whatever a person perceives it to be, we obviously can’t manipulate solid matter by simply wishing it to be something else such as saying that a table is a million dollars, but my emotional state, world view, beliefs, feelings about groups of people, morals, etc etc all based on the past will dictate how I interact with reality. So, if a Christian perceives Jesus/Jehova, although neither being actually exists independent of an observer they will be 100 percent real to the person perceiving them. Likewise, someone like Richard Dawkins would call mantra chanting superstitious nonsense, reality will dictate that to him that that WILL be his experience. If I believe something will work(along these lines), then it will and the flip side is true also. Therefor, Atheist or Theist are meaningless in my opinion. Took me a LONG time to figure that out. Finally, Atheist states what a person doesn’t believe and Pantheist states what a person does believe.

  • James

    I definitely adopt pantheism — it’s Spinoza’s God for me. In my particular case, it’s just a matter of how I see and relate to the world, which is very emotionally. Furthermore, honestly, given all of the scientific knowledge I’ve gained, it seems to me that the more natural view of things is pantheism, and I only adhere to strict atheism when I feel pressured to do so by others — it’s living incongruently with myself.

  • Michael

    You should believe something if you find it’s true, not because it’s “sexed up.” I don’t know for sure, not having read his book, but I imagine Dawkins intent was to say that a pantheist god is very close to no god at all, thus “sexed up.” I am an atheist as I don’t find any gods existence, including a pantheist entity, to be convincing.

  • Frederick Jacob Kohn

    When I think of the difference between atheist and pantheist, my mind keeps coming back to a famous Einstein quote. I see the atheist as somebody who believes nothing is a miracle. I’d rather believe that everything is a miracle.

  • Nothing

    Well lets face it, atheists are still the most hated and distrusted group left where it is ok in our society to discriminate against them with little to no backlash. That being said, I am an atheist who claims the right to call the universe God so that my kid can join Boy Scouts and I can be a member of a business network without being ousted. So yesterday and today I am pantheist, which isn’t a lie. I agree with Stephen Hawking, Einstein, and Spinoza after all. But I am also an atheist.

  • morgwar

    When atheists hear the word God the knee jerk reaction is a feeling of oppression brought on by images of various religious doctrines. It is nearly impossible for an atheist to imagine a person identifying with a god that is neither good nor evil and possibly ambivalent which is in fact my perception of god.
    To date I have not found a system more complex than the animal brain with the exception of the system of existence itself. Logically the more complex the system, the higher the likelihood that it is sentient. that is not to say it is to be worshiped or is even aware of our presence. I feel as we evolve and progress we may one day be able to communicate but that communication may or may not be beneficial.
    I do not believe in religion because it is clearly responsible for stunting progress which is why after 200000 years we only recently have had any notable technological achievement.
    Religion is an excellent tool for slavery and oppression using false enlightenment and blind faith as well as shame and threats.
    However understand that if we overcome religion and oppression and devote ourselves to achievement and progress, One day we will stand as the deities looked to as gods elsewhere or even by other life that steps into our shoes here.
    How we treat them at this elevated level of existence will probably be seen as ambivalent us knowing that natural selection and non intervention are the best method of improving a species after years of trail and error.
    countering pantheism You cannot assume that all life need be preserved Panda’s for instance are a ancient marsupial species that has many genetic anomalies preventing them from surviving in even a natural state not to mention refusal to care for there young or even breed. the same can be said of the Tasmanian tiger. though we are responsible for the end of many species we are also a tool of nature and environment and if we were to get out of hand the system would remove us from the equation regardless of intelligence or technology.
    A summation is simply that religion is the enemy despite squabbles of non belief and the goal is total mastery of ourselves and environment.

  • Veggie dancer

    I identify myself as pantheist. I find it strange that it is sometimes considered the same or similar to atheism. That is like saying that “everything is full” is the same as “everything is empty” or “everything is alive” is the same as “everything is dead”

    I also identify myself as a neo-pagan.. Sort of… Though I don’t particularly identify with any of the particular factions of paganism that I have managed to find out about.. The deities just seem a bit too separate/specific for me to wholly accept at the moment. But pantheism as I understand it is the belief that all nature is divine/ magical / full of spirit, maybe even conscious.

  • Laura H

    I see pantheists as a part of the larger atheist group. I’m still an atheist, but I direct the reverence and awe that I used to direct to an imaginary god, instead to the breathtaking and humbling reality of mother nature and the universe as a whole, and therefore, am pantheist.

  • guest

    Very late comment; I found this post through a google search.
    I identify as Atheist and not Panthiest because I don’t think personifying the Universe helps to understand it. If anything, it gets in the way. For me, the Universe itself is not self-aware and does not care about us. So, it’s not possible to have a two-way relationship with it. I might look at the stars and find them beautiful and awe-inspiring but they don’t look back at me, or feel for me. As humans, we’re hard-wired to see agency everywhere, and it’s a tendency which needs to be fought, rather than fueled, if we’re going to see the world accurately.

    Now there are parts of the Universe we can have relationships with, parts that are self-aware. I value those parts, all 7 billion of them. That’s why I’m a humanist.

  • TheDude

    recently converted from atheism to pantheism: had already known that “living” and “nonliving” matter are composed of the same substance; used to thus believe that everything is dead, but now realize that my very awareness of my existence (“I think, therefore I am”) proves that everything is NOT dead, and therefore everything must be alive

  • From a different order of operations to pantheism, I didn’t know there was any “sexed” up allegation concerning choosing between atheism and pantheism. I believe in something more than nothing and I am humbled by nature and the universe, so I cannot just claim atheism. I also see much of the truth of nature and humanity, both good and bad, reflected in the religious literature of the ancients. Because I started seeing the Bible as more of a metaphor for the universe and science and how things just “are”, my path to pantheism was natural and I am happy at rest there. Not out of fear of calling myself an atheist, but out of reverence for the value of life and beauty in the universe. Who am I to say there is nothing at all? At least, for me, that is how I came to rest on pantheism. I didn’t know it had a name until I already believed in it on my own, with no other person influencing those beliefs. One day, I ran across it and just said “hmmm…interesting…that’s my category or label if we are wearing them”.

  • De Ha

    It’s not LITERALLY sexed up Atheism. If it was I’d be right there with you. By “sexed up” he means, technically, Pantheists believe the same things Atheists believe, but they use religious language to describe non-religious things. What Pantheist call “God”, to me, is a bunch of spinning rocks and gas balls.