Frequently Asked Questions about Pantheism
by Paul Harrison.
This page deals with some FAQs and misapprehensions about pantheism
and answers some of the most common criticisms.
What is the central belief of pantheism?
Why do pantheists believe in pantheism?
What's the evidence for pantheism? How do you know the universe is worthy of reverence?
If I accept pantheism, what difference would it make?
Is pantheism just theism in disguise?
Is Pantheism just atheism or humanism in disguise?
What is the difference between pantheism and panentheism?
Does pantheism have anything to do with pantheon or polytheism?
What is the relationship between paganism and pantheism?
Has pantheism got anything to do with animism?
Does pantheism believe that all things are one?
Does pantheism believe that humans are one with nature and the cosmos?
If you revere everything, then surely all actions are good, and there is no distinction between good and evil?
Does Pantheism believe in an afterlife for the individual soul?
Without the hope of heaven, what incentive is there to morality?
If there is no personal creator God, wouldn't the universe and human life have no meaning or purpose?
Nature and the universe are changeable, and sometimes hostile. Doesn't that mean they are not worthy of reverence?
How can we feel gratitude or love or worship towards impersonal matter?
How can we pray to the universe and nature?
Isn't it idolatry to worship the creation and not the Creator?
How can I help?
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Pantheism believes that the universe and nature are worthy of the deepest religious reverence. Understanding them, appreciating their beauty, and preserving nature, should be the central focus of our lives.
There are several compelling reasons.
1. Most traditional religions have elements which are hard to believe or to reconcile with common sense, evidence or modern science. Most pantheists are reared in another religion, and as they mature come to question what they have been taught. This leads many people to atheism or humanism.
2. Atheism and humanism don't suffer from the logical or empirical problems of traditional religions - but many people find them too cold and dry. They don't provide a sense of positive belonging to nature and the universe.
3. Nearly everyone feels religious feelings when looking at nature or the night sky. Most people explain those feelings in terms of the religion they were taught as children.
Pantheism believes that those feelings are older and more basic than any traditional religion: they are a natural part of our existence as natural material beings. They are a recognition of our participation and belonging as members of nature and the universe.
Pantheism takes those feelings as its basic foundation.
We choose to regard the universe with awe, reverence, love, feelings of belonging and a recognition of tremendous power, beauty and mystery. This is an aesthetic/emotional choice and basically lies beyond any challenge from logic or evidence. But it is based on objective qualities of the Universe and Nature.
In fact almost everyone regards the universe or nature in that way but many are mislead by traditional religious teachings into seeing these things as evidence for deities they read about in their ancient scriptures.
We need no faith, no ancient books, to reveal these feelings and experiences to us. The visions are right in front of our eyes, the feelings are in our hearts. We only need to recognize them frankly to accept the universe and nature as primal focus.
The evidence for this approach is infinitely stronger than for belief in a personal creator God.
You would acquire the most positive attitude to existence on earth in a human body that any religion or philosophy can offer. You would focus your religious energy on nature and the universe. Instead of admiring these as evidence of a creator God's glory, you would love them for themselves. You would gain a much stronger basis for concern about the environment than any Western religion can offer.
You would overcome all sense of separation from the earth and from your own body. If you belong to a traditional religion, you would replace faith with common sense and science, and reconcile the religious and the everyday parts of your thinking. You would express Pantheism through seasonal rituals which would link you to the earth and universe of which you are part, and through meditation techniques which allow a direct mystical experience of nature and matter.
No. Theism means belief in a personal God who is greater and older than the universe. This God may or may not be present in the universe.
Pantheism says simply that the universe is worthy of the deepest reverence. This is a statement about the attitude we should adopt towards the universe and nature - an attitude which we have no choice but to adopt of we open our eyes to the full awe and mystery of reality.
The universe has some features in common with the God of traditional religions - its power, immensity, and mystery. But it is not personal. It has no mind apart from the minds of intelligent species within it. It is neither loving nor vengeful. It does not sit in judgement over us and mete out rewards and punishments in an afterlife.
Before we can really understand the "numinousness" of the cosmos, we must forget everything we have learned about traditional gods, and learn to look at what is in front of our eyes with an open mind.
Again: no. Like atheism and humanism, pantheism does not believe in a personal God separate from the Universe. Like them it is critical of beliefs that depend on faith in impossibilities, or unproven revelations in ancient books.
But atheism is essentially defined by a single proposition. It states that there is no God, and nothing more. Usually atheism implies respect for certain approaches, for example realism, physicalism, demand for very strong evidence of improbable claims, rejection of scriptural or priestly authority claims as a source of truth. Alll of these are valid and valuable. But these are the ways in which people arrive at atheism - they don't constitute part of the definition of atheism. Atheism does not claim to be a comprehensive philosophy. One can be an atheist and love nature, or detest nature, love life or hate it. In other words, atheism is like a starting point: if you want a system of ethics and attitudes to life, you have to add them on top, and from other sources.
Humanism has tried to develop a positive philosophy and ethics, but sometimes this has been too anthropocentric, too confident of human superiority, too nervous of appearing even remotely like anything called "religion."
Pantheism goes beyond atheism in offering a positive approach to the world and a a reverent and religious attitude towards nature and the universe. It affirms our unity with these, and rejects the idea of human mastery over nature or human pre-eminence in the cosmos. It takes our relationship to nature and to the universe as the centre of our religion, our ethics and our aesthetics.
Panentheists and pantheists share the view that the universe and every natural thing in it is in some sense numinous.
However, pan-en-theos means "all-in-God" - that is, the universe is contained within God, not God in the universe. Panentheists believe in a God who is present in everything but also extends beyond the universe. In other words, God is greater than the universe. Often they also believe that this God has a mind, created the universe, and cares about each of us personally.
Pantheists believe that the universe itself is the prime focus for reverence. They do not believe in personal or creator gods.
Only the etymology. In Greek pan means all, theos means god, while poly means many.
POLYTHEISM is belief in many gods.
The PANTHEON (=all gods) is the collection of classical deities like Zeus, Hera and so on, or a building in which they are worshipped.
PANTHEIST (all=god) is a term coined in 1705 by John Toland, for someone who believes that there is only only eternal being - the Universe. On this basis in 1732 the Christian apologist Daniel Waterland used the noun "PANTHEISM" for the first time, condemning the belief as "scandalously bad … scarce differing from … Atheism."
Very confusingly, many dictionaries give an alternative definition of pantheism as "belief in all the gods." However, this use is based on a nineteenth century misunderstanding. Pantheism was first recorded in this erroneous sense in 1837 - one hudred and five years after its first use in the original sense - by Sir Francis Palgrave. Palgrave wrote: "The great proportion of the Tartar tribes professed a singular species of Pantheism, respecting all creeds, attached to none." Probably Palgrave had heard the word pantheism and confused it with the word "pantheon" - a temple erected to all the Gods. Other people repeated his mistake, and their usage was recorded in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (published between 1884 and 1928).
It's important to note that this second "meaning" has nothing at all to do with the original meaning, with which it is incompatible and contradictory. It's also useful to note that "belief in all the gods" is not the same as "POLYTHEISM" which means belief in many gods. Polytheism usually means belief in the several gods of a particular national culture. Pantheism in its second sense means belief in all the gods of all nations. This second meaning of pantheism is never used today in books on religion or philosophy. It only persists in dictionaries because it crept into the OED, the mother of all dictionaries, consulted by every new dictionary-compiler. And it only crept into the OED because of a mistaken use of the word! Hopefully bolder dictionary compilers will soon begin to omit the second meaning, which is never used by anyone familiar with the first, original meaning.
There are many points in common between paganism and Pantheism. Most pagans say they are pantheists. They too revere Nature and the Universe and regard them as in some sense unified wholes. They too celebrate solstices, equinoxes and other natural passages. They too have a strong environmental ethic and a deep love of nature.
Many pagans are straight pantheists, using polytheism as a metaphoric way of expressing their reverence for the Universe and Nature. Some people feel the need for symbols and personages to mediate their relationship with nature and the cosmos. There is no harm in this, as long as the symbols help us to connect to Reality and do not block or distort our view of Reality.
Pantheists can also relate directly to the universe and to nature, without the need for any intermediary symbols or deities. The cosmos manifests itself directly to us in nature and the night sky.
However, many pagans are literal polytheists, and believe in magic, reincarnation, and the irrational. Modern pantheists are not polytheists, and do not believe in magic, or disembodied spirits. Most of them do not believe in a personal afterlife, whether through reincarnation or transport to any kind of non-material "heaven."
If by the irrational, people mean a strongly emotional and aesthetic approach to nature and the universe, then we support it just as strongly as any pagan. But we see no conflict in principle between this and science, reason or logic. The findings of science have often been abused to harm nature and humans, but to correct the harm we need better, more ethical science and better public control over science and technology - not an abandonment of science. Without science we would have no hope of saving the earth, and no hope of understanding the universe we live in.
However, if the irrational means abandonment of science, reason and logic, then pantheists reject it. Once these are abandoned, all beliefs are equally valid - including racism, fascism and the wildest superstitions.
Animism is the belief that every living thing in nature - including trees, plants and even rocks or streams - has its own spirit or divinity. In primitive societies animism often requires that before anyone can kill an animal or fell a tree, its natural spirit must be placated.
Pantheism is in a sense a natural development of animism. Pantheism celebrates the "numinosity" or awesomeness of the whole of the universe and nature. This whole possesses the power, the creativity, the awe and mystery that we need for a focus of our spiritual feelings.
However, the whole exists through and in its parts. Every natural thing from the sun to a grain of sand, from a giant sequoia to a bacterium, is a part of the whole. Every natural thing has a numinous quality of being a distinctive organization of matter with its own unique character and dignity. Some natural things - like the sun, or the ocean, or trees - possess that quality in larger measure.
Only animals have nervous systems. But all living things have communication systems, through which information about the external world is transmitted by way of chemical and electrical messages. In this sense they have "spirits." Even inanimate objects are shaped by and shape their environment and in that sense are responsive.
The pantheist attitude to all individual natural phenomena is one of appreciation of beauty, quiet and respectful observation, love and care. Since it is impossible for us to perceive or grasp the whole universe or the whole of nature at once, we can revere it in and through its constituent parts.
Spinoza, the first modern pantheist, believed that there was only one substance in the universe, and that was God. This position is known as substantial monism.
Most modern pantheists are monists in the sense that they believe there is only one type of substance - matter - rather than two different and distinct types, spirit and matter. They believe that all individual things have a common origin with humans, and are closely interlinked and interdependent in many ways. They and we interconnect through social systems and ecosystems and the greater system of Gaia, as well as through gravity and the universe-wide spread of signals and impacts.
However, few modern pantheists would agree with Spinoza's extreme form of monism. Anyone with eyes can see that matter in the universe is arranged into distinct individual things: galaxies, stars, planets, trees, people. This diversity is an essential part of the beauty of nature and the night sky. Without diversity everything would be drably monotonous.
Attempts to deny diversity usually end up in claiming that the visible world is mere illusion. Scientific pantheism believes the universe is vibrantly real.
So things are one in some senses, and many in other senses. They are linked in some senses, and separate in others. Anyone who claims that things are totally united, or totally separate, is flying in the face of everyday experience and of scientific evidence.
Yes, there is a fundamental underlying unity. Humans are made of the same substance as the rest of the universe. We don't have any magic spiritual ingredient just for ourselves.
We developed as part of nature, and remain part of local and global ecosystems.
However, humans do have consciousness, and that can be a blessing or a curse. The conscious mind evolved to help survival, and it can help us to relate to nature and the universe through love, appreciation, study and action.
But consciousness also means awareness of one's own individuality, so it can also give us a misleading sense of separation from and radical difference from the world. Our ideas can also develop out of tune with reality and with nature.
So it is important not just to state that there is a unity, but to learn to perceive that unity, to understand it, and to act upon it.
If you revere everything, then surely all actions are good, and there is no distinction between good and evil?
But remember that pantheism does not say that "God is everything", but rather that the universe is worthy of the most profound reverence. Within the overall whole of Nature, it is possible for intelligent species or individuals to become separated from the whole and to act in conflict with it, by harming nature or other people.
Modern pantheists are not amoral. They have strong ideas about right and wrong in relation to environmental ethics and social justice. They would consider environmentally destructive or unjust and oppressive actions as "evil."
But there is no logical link between scientific pantheism and determinism. Many pantheists have not been determinists, and many believe in free will.
No-one could completely exclude this possibility. But there is no scientific evidence for such beliefs.
Most modern Pantheists believe that the mind is an aspect of the body, and at death dissolves with the body to merge into the elements from which it was formed. If there is any validity at all to near-death experiences, then this is what they are expressing.
For environmental as well as religious reasons, Pantheism strongly prefers natural burials in special woodlands, at sea, or in other natural areas, where the individual can be reabsorbed into the nature of which they were, are and always will be a part.
The idea that the hope of heaven is the only guarantee of moral behaviour is absurd. Highly ethical behaviour is found among peoples who do not believe in heaven - for example, many Chinese, or Japanese. Conversely, crime and corruption are rife in Christian societies. Nowhere was the hope of heaven stronger than in medieval Europe - yet few places on earth have seen injustice, oppression, and violence on such a scale, much of it in the name of Christianity.
The strongest stimuli to moral behaviour in all human societies are parental and social discipline, either externally imposed, or internalized. Plus the direct rewards for good behaviour - love and social recognition. These factors ensure that we are often punished and rewarded for our deeds before we die - though chance and social injustice can often distort the outcome.
Of course, religion can provide support for ethics, and Pantheism provides better support than religions which believe in heaven.
Pantheism believes that we live on in nature where we are re-absorbed, but also in people's memories and in the achievements we leave behind. Therefore we have a powerful incentive to be good and kind to people, and to achieve lasting good in our lives. The kinder we are, the more good we do, the longer will be our "afterlife" in people's memories. If we do harm, then our memory will be execrated.
Contrast this with the God of Christianity who forgives mortal sins even on the deathbed and can reward mass murderers with heaven if they are truly penitent. What kind of incentive for lifelong morality is that?
If there is no personal creator God, wouldn't the universe and human life have no meaning or purpose?
There are two meanings for the word purpose. One is purpose in relation to something external. By definition the Universe comprises all that exists: there is no outside in relation to which it could have purpose. If God existed, we could include him/her in this All, and in that case the totality "God plus universe" would have and could have no conceivable purpose. Theists claim that God is self sufficient and can exist without purpose. So why can't the universe?
But we can have purpose in the second sense: purpose and goals for our lives which we freely choose for ourselves, in the light of the needs of others humans, animals and ecosystems. The fact that our lives have no external purpose designed by some dictator in the sky liberates us to create our own purposes! For the pantheist, the purpose of life is to connect more deeply and harmoniously with the universe, nature and other humans, and to help others to do so.
Finally consider the so-called "purpose" the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam has planned for us: to struggle through a miserable brief spell on a stage designed as a testing ground for eternity, and prove we are good enough to get into the real show which only starts when we're dead. What on earth would be the "purpose" of setting up such a show, creating little puppets and seeing whether they're good enough and burning the ones that aren't for all eternity? The truth is that theists cannot provide any convincing purpose for life or for the universe either.
Nature and the universe are changeable and sometimes hostile.
Doesn't that mean that they are not worthy of our reverence?
Change and flux are facts of life throughout the cosmos. So are the risks on earth of disease, accident, collision with meteorites and so on. [See God and Reality]
It is true that these attributes of the universe and nature are not compatible with pre-conceived ideas about God as an unchanging, loving being. But pantheism does not believe in such a God, and accepts the universe as it is - wonderful, mysterious, creative, exuberant, joyful, and yet also at times chaotic and destructive. Evil and pain exist for theists too, and they are extremely difficult to reconcile with the idea of an omnipotent, yet loving God. Christian apologetics have still not come up with any satisfactory explanation of why God should have created them.
Matter is not impersonal: it is our very substance. If we cannot love matter, then we cannot love ourselves as we are. Almost everyone loves nature, even though it is impersonal, and often seems indifferent or cruel. We can feel gratitude, too, to nature and the universe, for giving us the privilege of conscious life. People love mountains, oceans, stars - even though they know these things are material and impersonal and cannot love them in return.
Consider the reverse of the coin: how can Christians feel love and gratitude towards an all-powerful God who has created disease and pain; a God who has given humans the free-will to do evil, and then if they use it punishes them for all eternity; a God who is planning to wrap up creation, destroy the earth violently, and create a new heaven and a new earth?
The short answer is that we can't. But can we pray to a God and realistically hope that out of nearly six billion humans in an immense universe he will come to our personal assistance? Could we really expect any kind of just God to alter his decisions and laws simply because we asked him to do us a favour?
Apart from outside forces, it is we ourselves - our thoughts, our feelings, our determination, our action - who decide what happens to us. So Pantheists can meditate on the right course of action, and pray to themselves, to summon up the determination to act.
They can also meditate on nature, and achieve states of mental union with nature and the universe akin to mystical states.
It is not idolatry at all if there is no Creator. Even supposing there was a Creator who has left no visible trace of himself, if he were just then surely he would not punish us for worshipping his visible works? Creation itself cannot be an idol or a graven image.
If this is the case then the true idolatry is to worship an imaginary Creator rather than the visible and vibrant reality that surrounds us.
If you would like to help spread pantheism, then please:
- Use the words pantheism and pantheist as often as possible. There are millions of people who may already be pantheists, but who are not even aware of the name, or of the fact that their beliefs are shared by many others.
- Include a reference to
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