The articles and by-laws were adopted on December 1, 1998, by the panel of directors of the World Pantheist Movement. This page is an explanation of the thinking behind our choices. It is best to read this page first before reading the articles and the by-laws.
The aims were all important in our choice of structure.
The primary aims are to make our naturalistic, scientific form of pantheism available to a wider and wider public as a religious option. This is partly to provide an alternative to the many forms of irrational belief that are being actively promoted around the world, often with huge financial resources backing them. These religions are gaining hundreds of thousands of new recruits every year. We genuinely believe that, when compared with other religious options on offer, this form of pantheism can help to improve people’s quality of life and mental wholeness, and help create the attitudes we need to save our endangered planet.
We also hope to foster a network of local, university and professional groups of people holding these beliefs, so that pantheists can find like-minded spirits to associate with.
A longer-term possibility is to make available facilitators or celebrants who could help design or conduct ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, so that pantheists can mark these occasions in ways that harmonize with their beliefs.
Why naturalistic, scientific pantheism?
Pantheism, according to dictionaries, considers the universe as its only divinity. However, there are several variants that fit this definition. Some of them believe in separate spirits, reincarnation, magic, even cosmic spirits.
We in the World Pantheist Movement share a more naturalistic vision of pantheism. We accept nature and the universe just as they are, and choose to revere them with intense emotional and aesthetic feelings that can be called religious. We don’t believe in any personal creator gods, or spirits separate from the body, or supernatural beings of any kind. Our version of pantheism is close to that of John Toland who coined the word pantheist, and is fully compatible with atheism, humanism, philosophical Taoism, and some forms of Zen Buddhism and paganism.
The World Pantheist Movement was set up around this naturalistic vision of pantheism, and its purpose is to promote this form of pantheism. Of course we do have certain things in common with most pantheists: in particular the feeling of unity with the cosmos, and love of and concern for nature. We will cooperate with other pantheists, and indeed with people of any religion, in promoting concern for human rights and for the conservation of nature.
The structural problems
There were a number of basic considerations we had to take into account in choosing our structure.
Anyone is free to join us. There is no creedal requirement for membership and we don’t think there should be. We hope people will read the belief statement first, and most people do. But we know from experience on our mailing list that some people join without considering the belief statement.
Our belief statement is revisable. We want to be able to improve the statement, or if necessary to change it in line with changing ethical or scientific advances.
We also value democracy as a basic human right, and also as an essential for organizations to stay in touch with their members. Organizations without any form of democracy often become rigid and unresponsive.
At the same time, we want to ensure that our basic naturalistic and humanistic orientation is safeguarded, because that is why we set the movement up, and we believe that all those who have joined us because they read our pages and share that orientation would wish it so. They would not want to find suddenly that their organization had begun to promote belief in reincarnation or separate spirit or cosmic mind, without any scientific basis for that.
We also wish to ensure that our form of governance is streamlined, effective, and capable of rapid action, and that the movement does not break down into factionalism and power politics.
These considerations presented us with serious problems in choosing our structure. We have somehow to combine a form of democratic input with strong safeguards for our naturalistic orientation.
Maintaining the naturalistic orientation: the panel of directors.
Democracy has risks for an infant religion, and most religious organizations are not democratic.
If the World Pantheist Movement expands at the rate of the Scientific Pantheism mailing list – which grew by 500% in the year from December 1997 – then at any one time members who have belonged for six months or less will outnumber those who have been members for longer. This introduces a serious risk of instability.
If the board of directors were elected, then it would be possible for pantheists who were out of sympathy with our naturalistic approach to gain a majority and alter the belief statement, or to change the underlying direction and purpose of the movement. This would be against the interests of all those people who join us fully aware of the beliefs that we stand for, and would nullify the efforts of those who have worked hard to build the movement up.
We hope to attract donations to fund expansion of our efforts. People who donate on the basis of our present belief statement, or who joined at one of the higher membership levels, would not be at all happy at the idea that their donation could later be used to fund promotion of a different set of beliefs. As a result, they might not donate at all.
Our international existence on the Internet also poses problems when voting for candidates. There is a risk of voting simply on the basis of frequency of posting to our lists, and there would be a danger of people posting frequently simply to get elected. Frequency of posting is no guide to a person’s commitment or suitability.
For these reasons we decided to go for a panel of directors that was co-opted rather than elected by the full membership. To ensure the consistent direction of the movement, directors are expected to agree to the belief statement before they join the panel of directors. Directors are usually co-opted on the basis of consistent enthusiasm for the ideas of the belief statement and for the idea of making those beliefs widely available. Intelligence, inventiveness, and good nature are also looked for. Usually they are people who have undertaken concrete actions to further this: we aim to have a working directorate.
We have between nine and thirteen directors (usually towards thirteen). This is a lot, but it does ensure that a wide range of opinion and expertise and viewpoint are represented. We have a good balance of genders and a wide range of ages and professions. So, even though they are co-opted, the directors are representative, and part of their responsibility is to represent members, not simply themselves.
The panel of directors is democratic internally. Most routine decisions are taken on a 51% majority basis. The belief statement and the by-laws can be modified with a 75% majority. However those sections of the by-laws that contain the safeguards for our direction can only be modified by a unanimous vote.
Changes to the belief statement
The belief statement is revised, usually at two-yearly intervals, after consultation with members. The aim is to improve or clarify the wording or to extend the scope. Changes to the belief statement may not alter its basic orientation with regard to reverence for the universe and nature, non-dualism, and belief in natural death. Just in case science one day comes up with evidence that makes our basic beliefs untenable for the majority of scientific opinion, we have provided for a committee of scientific experts to advise us when more basic changes might be needed. The question they would be asked to judge would not be: does a majority of the scientific panel believe the evidence for such changes are clear but: does the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion so believe? Only in the latter case would the change be made.
Encouraging democracy within the movement
However we do want to foster democracy within the wider movement. Members have a right to have a say over how their subscriptions are spent, over services that the movement should offer, and other matters. Members may also have better ideas for how we can advance the movement.
In May 2000 we introduced an element of formal democracy: the Membership Advisory Committee. This consists of between five and nine members elected by full WPM members. It advises the board of directors on WPM services to members, local group activities, celebrants – everything, in fact, except the belief statement and promotion, and even here its ideas are welcomed. It can also hear complaints by members who feel that their grievance was not properly dealt with by an officer. And any polls of members by the board must be drawn up in consultation with the MAC. The panel of directors is obliged by its bylaws to take full account of any recomendations by the MAC. There are other elements of democracy inherent in the WPM’s structures. Foremost among these are our unmoderated mailing lists. We can be called to account at any time in public for our actions and policies. The bylaws also require us to take full account of members’ wishes as expressed in our fora. The WPM is. essentially, in a state of permanent consultation with its members. When we were revising the credo at the end of 1999, we asked the full WPM members for input and the credo was modified to take concerns expressed into account.
We occasionally conduct polls of members via free web polling services – we already conducted one about what services the WPM should offer, in which the top choices were a Web-based bulletin board and a newsletter, followed some way behind by chat facilities and a membership badge. We already have all of these in place except the badge.
We have tried to strike a balance between democracy and the need for consistency and stability. We hope that we will succeed in marrying these two aims. We will monitor progress, and will change the by-laws as and when it becomes plain that change is necessary.