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Why organize pantheism?
by Paul Harrison
Pantheism by the very nature of its beliefs can only be a flexible, non-hierarchial, tolerant religion relying on reason and evidence not on psychological blackmail.
Pantheism can be practised at any time, in any place, by any person, through direct connection to nature and the universe. To do this no priests or church buildings or sacred texts are needed. So why do we feel the need to organize?
In our mailing lists and in direct mail, people sometimes make objections to the idea of pantheism as an organized religion. For the most part these are not based on knowledge of our specific plans and methods. They derive from negative experiences of fundamentalist groups which use aggressive techniques to proselytize and retain members, and from knowledge of intolerant hierarchical dogmatic religions.
These approaches are utterly foreign to the beliefs of pantheism. Pantheism will make and can make no threats or bribes, and has no supernatural rewards or punishments to hold over people. And since every individual can have direct access to divinity at any time, there can never be a privileged holy caste of priests or saints or gurus. Pantheists also tend to be individualists and independent thinkers, so to appeal to them through a hierarchical dogmatic organization would be foolish.
Nevertheless, we do feel that organization as a religion can bring considerable benefits. This page explains why and how.
Our central aims are three:
1. To give people the option of pantheism among their religious options by providing information as widely as possible, about the beliefs and practices of non-dualistic, scientific pantheism.
2. To create a broad network of groups in local areas and universities, so that pantheists can celebrate and find mutual support with like-minded friends.
3. To create a network of pantheist "ministers" or facilitators who will be able to perform legal weddings and funerals, so that pantheists will be able to have ceremonies that harmonize with their beliefs instead of being forced to use the priests of other religions, or to have a straight civil ceremony. It is not envisaged that these ministers will have any other functions or powers, nor that they will be permanent paid professionals. They will certainly not be "priests" with any kind of sway over people's minds.
Why call this a religion rather than a philosophy?
Like Buddhism or Taoism, it is both. It is clearly a philosophy. However, it deals with areas of life - especially our feelings of awe and wonder at the universe and love for nature - which are emotional and aesthetic and go beyond philosophy. These are the proper realm of religion. Unlike straight philosophical systems, pantheism also has its own characteristic approach to meditation and religious ceremony.
Being a religion brings legal benefits. Religions are allowed to perform legal marriage and funeral ceremonies. Philosophies are not.
Religions enjoy special tax advantages - they do not pay tax on their income, and in some countries contributions can be tax-deductible. Philosophies do not enjoy these benefits. These tax benefits will increase the income available to achieve the three aims above.
It would be impossible to achieve the three objectives above if we did not organize.
1. Pantheism would remain what it always has so far: a well-kept secret that is accidentally discovered only by a very small number of people. The overwhelming majority of people would never come across it or wonder what it was or have the chance to explore it: their religious options would be limited to those religions or sects which are prepared to organize.
2. Local groups can only come into existence where there are sufficient pantheists in one place. But if we rely on the slow process of people discovering the Scientific Pantheism web site, this will simply not form local groups in the majority of smaller towns, and individual pantheists will continue to find themselves religiously isolated.
3. No system of facilitators for weddings or funerals that would satisfy civil authorities could be set up without some form of organization and minimal licensing.
Dealing with misconceptions
Religion is always dogmatic.
Let's be clear about what "dogma" means. It means "a body of religious doctrines formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church or faith." For most people dogma is a term of abuse. Dogma implies unchanging inflexibility, which is invariably based on a claim of divine authority of some sort. It also implies a central authority to pronounce the dogma and "enforce" it on believers.
Not all religions are dogmatic. Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, for example, are expressed in a wide variety of different approaches. Scientific Pantheism does have a credo. This credo was produced originally by a group of 15 members of our mailing list. It represents our shared beliefs. It stands as a statement of those beliefs, and as a guide for other people wondering whether Scientific Pantheism is right for them.
But it is not dogma.
First, it is not inflexible. The credo will be revised at intervals, with input from members of the World Pantheist Movement.
Second, it does not claim any divine authority whatsoever. Pantheism can never claim such authority. It is an attempt by fallible humans to express as best as they could at the time their religious beliefs about the mysterious universe and nature that is the context for their lives.
Third, it is not imposed on anyone but it is a guide for people thinking about joining us. Naturally, it would be illogical for people who disliked the credo to join us, just as it would be illogical for conservatives to join a liberal party.
Organizing a religion must lead to intolerance.
Not all religions are intolerant. Islam tolerated non-moslems - as long as they paid extra tax. Buddhism has always tolerated dissent. Hinduism is infinitely varied and has no authority structure to monitor dissent.
Scientific Pantheism will not be an intolerant religion either in a personal or a religious sense.
In a personal sense it is non-judgmental, especially in the areas of sex, gender, intoxicants, gambling and so on. On these topics it is neither strict nor permissive. Behaviour that harms no-one is essentially a private matter.
Religious tolerance is written into our credo as a firm principle. We will argue our corner and present our information and evidence vigorously, but we will never descend to abuse or violence.
We will also cooperate with closely related religious groups such as humanists, Unitarian Universalists, atheists, Zen Buddhists, Taoists and Pagans.
An organized religion leads to coercion.
Physical coercion was routine during the Christian Middle Ages. Dogma was enforced by violence against those who disagreed with it. Today such coercion is illegal in Western countries - though coercion by violence does still continue in a few fundamentalist Moslem countries.
Of course fundamentalist sects and some mainstream churches do exert psychological coercion, by threatening hell or supernatural punishment to those who do not accept their views - and heaven or supernatural rewards to those who do. This type of coercion can be very effective among nervous or less educated people, especially when it is backed up by material bribes, as it often is in developing countries.
We utterly condemn psychological coercion and blackmail. These approaches will never be used by the World Pantheist Movement. Indeed they can not be used by us, because pantheist beliefs provide no basis for coercion or blackmail. We do not believe in reincarnation, heaven or hell, or punishment and reward by supernatural agencies, so we can't ever make any such promises or threats.
All we can do is provide information about Scientific Pantheism and its advantages for personal mental health and for the environment.
Religion always involves proselytization and doorstepping.
It is part of human nature for people to want to communicate to other people ideas that have benefited themselves.
We want to make Scientific Pantheism known to as many people as possible. We believe it can benefit the wellbeing of individuals and of the earth.
We are already making those beliefs known by way of the web, and by handing out leaflets in appropriate places. We will set up stalls at festivals or fairs. When people stop by to discuss, we are happy to engage in debate or answer questions.
But this should not be confused with aggressive doorstepping and harassment. Harassment is an insult to a person's intelligence and no-one with any intelligence will ever be persuaded by it. What we provide is simply information, education and communication. Without these any set of beliefs will remain a rose blossoming unseen.
You should never try to "convert" another person. What they believe is up to them.
Of course what a person believes is always their own choice. Since we have no means of psychological coercion, we would never and could never exert pressure on anyone to change their religion. Any religion that gains members by pressurizing people is ultimately damaging their mental health and reducing their autonomy.
However, that does not mean that no-one should ever try to change a person's mind on any topic. We do this all the time in our daily lives, about politics, about philosophical or scientific questions, or even about trivial matters of fact or ways of doing things.
People do often change their minds on the basis of evidence or arguments presented to them. If they did not, then the world would be rigidly ruled by tradition and habit and there would never be any progress.
People often change their religion. Christians ridden by doubt begin seeking alternatives, others "find" Jesus and become Christians, and so on.
So we will present evidence and arguments to people in favour of pantheism. We will not leave the field free for repressive or authoritarian or irrational religions.
What people do in reaction to our information is quite obviously up to them. We would never harass anyone to change their mind.
Members will be pressured into being active in proselytizing
Many of us who feel the personal benefits of pantheism, and believe that it will benefit the planet, feel an urge to spread pantheism. Many of us believe that the logic of pantheism entails some obligation to spread the beliefs to others, so that they can better appreciate and care for nature and the universe.
But this will always be a matter of individual conscience. No-one will be pressurized to do this or any other type of environmental or social activity. Activism will always remain a matter of personal choice.
A religion must involve an authoritarian hierarchy.
This is historically untrue. Many sects of Buddhism have no such hierarchy. Hinduism has none.
Pantheism is the least likely of all religions to develop an authoritarian hierarchy. Our beliefs state that everyone has direct access to divinity. No priest or leader has any more access than anyone else. There is no doctrinal basis for religious authority.
Of course every functioning organization requires leadership. The World Pantheist Movement, once it has the required momentum and size to protect it from instability, will be an organization in which members can elect their representatives in the governing structure.
We do plan to have facilitators who will be legally able to perform pantheist ceremonies so that pantheists can get married, name their babies, and have funerals in harmony with their beliefs. But these will be just ordinary folk like you and me. There will be no laying on of hands, no sacred or secret transmission.
Organization is unnecessary.
"All we need to do is come together and share our words and feelings."
Ideas do not spread themselves through the ether: they are spread by human beings. Almost everyone who has pantheist beliefs today was helped towards them by some piece or other of writing they came across, or by a conversation with a friend at the right moment. We aim to make more of that information more widely available, so more people get the same chance we had to find out about pantheism.
Local groups will not come into existence in most places without a central organization to provide resources for people wishing to set these up. Ministers for weddings and funerals will not be possible without organization.
People will find these beliefs on their own if they look for them, just like I did.
You probably found this site by searching the Internet for Spinoza, or Einstein, or pantheism. You may have stumbled across it by chance while surfing, and found it corresponded with your beliefs.
But the majority of people have never even heard of pantheism. It is just not available in their list of religious options. Many people do not have access to the Internet and need to get information by other means such as books and leaflets.
Unless they know what they're looking for, people find only what is lying around on their path. The Gideons make the Bible available in many hotel bedrooms, so many people will "find" Jesus in this way. The overwhelming bulk of religious material that is lying around for people to "find" is not pantheist, and the pantheist share is only a tiny little squeak in a distant corner. We aim to correct that balance so that more and more people will have pantheism as an option.
Members will be squeezed financially.
Organized activities can be undertaken purely with volunteer manpower and resources provided by individuals. But the more funds that are available, the wider we can broadcast and inform people about the option of pantheism, the more local groups we can create for mutual support.
Like most other societies, the new World Pantheist Movement will have a membership subscription.
Compared with what people are routinely expected to put into collection boxes at any type of church, the subscription will be very modest, and there will be reduced rates for students and people on low incomes and people in low-income countries.
People will of course have the option of contributing larger amounts, but no-one will be subjected to any kind of pressure to do so.
All the funds will be used either for services to the membership, to disseminate pantheism, or to provide resources for people trying to form local or university groups.
As a charity the World Pantheist Movement will be obliged to provide annual accounts to tax authorities to show that all its income is spent on the purposes of the charity. There will be stringent safeguards against financial irregularity.
No regular membership subscriptions to the World Pantheist Movement will be used either to pay pantheist clergy, or to build pantheist temples. If some local groups get very large and feel like supporting a permanent minister or having a permanent meeting place, then they may do so, though hiring would usually be a cheaper option. If the movement as a whole grows large, we may need to have one or more permanent employees, but this is not likely to happen until we exceed 3-5,000 members or receive donations to cover the costs.
Large bequests or donations may on occasion, according to donors' wishes, be used to create buildings for specific purposes such as museums of natural form, planetariums, or telescopes accessible to ordinary members of the public. Any such buildings would in all cases be at the leading edge of low cost environmental friendliness and harmonization with natural surroundings.