God and the cosmos: the real divine attributes.

Principles of scientific pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

Descriptions of God are based on the real properties of the universe. When theists worship gods, they unknowingly worship the cosmos.

Lava lake in the crater of Nyiragongo, Zaire, 1994. Photo Frank Lockwood, US Geological Survey.

God as metaphor for Cosmos

In the three major Western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is described as omnipresent, infinite, eternal, transcendent, creating, designing, omnipotent, mysterious, awe- and love-inspiring.

However, there is no reliable evidence that God possesses these qualities or even that he exists. All these descriptions of God are also true of the cosmos, but with much stronger evidence and greater clarity. In this sense every altar could carry the inscription that St Paul saw on an altar in Athens - "To the unknown God." The unknown God is the divine cosmos.

The traditional divine attributes are based on observable properties of the Universe: God is metaphor for Cosmos. Metaphors can be useful - literary metaphors enhance our perception of the reality they describe, allowing us to see facets we had not seen before. But God is a dangerous metaphor for reality, for he tends to supplant reality. Instead of revering the reality, we revere the metaphor, and in so doing we diminish the reality. The metaphor diverts attention away from this world, towards imaginary worlds that exist only in the human brain.

The divinity in front of our eyes.

Pantheism - the belief that the universe must be treated as divine - avoids this trap.

Scientific pantheism starts from the unquestionable existence of the external physical world. When we say: "The physical universe is divine," we means no more, and no less, than this: the material universe is divine in exactly the same sense that God or gods are divine - that is, it possesses the attributes that we generally require in order to call something divine. If we can prove this statement, then we have proved that the universe is divine.

This is not a purely theoretical statement, It has implications for action. Those implications are that we should relate to the cosmos and to the natural world as theists relate to their gods - that is, with love, humility, submission, and deep reverence.

Instead of believing in invisible gods who require enormous leaps of faith, we should start reverencing the visible divinity in front of our eyes. We should regard the preservation of its most fragile forms - in nature - as a direct act of homage to an existing divinity - not a stratagem to get us a better seat in heaven.

Defining the cosmic divinity.

In the scriptures of theistic religions God is said to possess special characteristics in relation to space and time - he is omnipresent, infinite, eternal, and transcendent. He has special powers over the universe and humans - he designs, creates and manages the universe with unlimited power. And he has the capacity to inspire us with special religious emotions of mystery, awe and love.

Statements like these are made by believers, or by authors of scriptures. They are made a priori - that is, we have no direct evidence about God. The "evidence" that most apologists provide derives from the cosmos or from abstract philosophical argument. Even those inner experiences which mystics claim give them direct access to God are no proof of God's existence. They may be, and in the pantheist view are, none other than experiences of the physical cosmos: for the cosmos exists inside of us, in our atoms, and in our mental images of the external world.

Life is much simpler if we recognize that the universe itself possesses the divine properties. If we seek a divinity, we need look no further than what is in front of our eyes.

So let's go through each of the divine attributes and show how the universe possesses them. Two other sets of attributes will be dealt with on other pages:

  • Attributes such as love, mercy, omniscience, justice, are purely fictitious projections of qualities of human beings or human societies - these will be dealt with in God and society: the imaginary divine attributes.

  • Other attributes of the universe, such as constant flux, destruction as well as creation, or randomness, are not normally reckoned among the divine attributes and indeed conflict with the imaginary ones - but since the universe is divine, they are divine attributes too. These will be examined in God and reality: the unacknowledged divine attributes

God's extension in space and time.

God is omnipresent. We are part of God.

Not all religions state this point clearly, but the three main Western religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - do. God is present in some way throughout the universe, in all living things, and in all humans.

There is no evidence for this other than scripture.

Certainly, most people feel a sense of the divine or numinous in the presence of nature or the night sky.

Take this experience of the divine presence by a clergyman, related in William James' Varieties of Religious Experience:

I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hill-top, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer . . . I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit with his . . . The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not any more have doubted that He was there than that I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.
The presence that was felt more probably the cosmos and nature themselves, rather than some invisible and undetectable being that lies beyond the physical world. We know that the universe of physical matter and of nature was present to this man. We know that nature and the sky alone are capable of evoking these feelings. We do not know, and have no real reason to believe, that a third party was present - an invisible entity whose name and nature is known only from ancient texts.

We know that the Universe - which is made up of all things - is present to all things. We know that humans are an inseparable part of this whole and of nature on this planet. The Universe is omnipresent, and we are inseparably part of it.

God is eternal and infinite. He has no beginning or end in time or space.

The tenth century Sufi martyr Al Hallaj said of Allah:

"Before" does not outstrip Him,
"beyond" does not interrupt Him . . .
"when" does not stop Him. . .
"behind" does not limit Him . . .
"after" does not cause Him to pass away . . .
"is" does not bring Him into being
"is not" does not deprive Him from Being . . .
His pre-existence preceded time,
His being preceded non-being,
His eternity preceded limit . . .
If thou sayest "before", before is after Him . . .
If thou sayest "where", His being preceded space . . .
He is hidden in His manifestation, manifest in His concealing.
He is outward and inward, near and far.
[From: Arberry, A.J., The Doctrine of the Sufis.]

Al Hallaj was speaking of God in and out of the universe, but he could just as easily have been speaking about the universe alone.

The word universe derives from the Latin "universus" - entire, whole, all things taken collectively. All includes all time and all space and all matter. There can be no "before" preceding the Universe, and no "outside" beyond the Universe.

There may be other universes, with a small u, beyond our own, and perhaps inaccessible from our own. If so, then these universes are all contained within a greater whole, which we can call Universe with a capital U. If other universes or states of matter preceded ours, or follow ours, they are all contained within this whole.

There may have been a specific point in time when the universe we know began in its present form. If the density of matter is high enough, there may come a point in time when this universe (with a small u) will end.

Even if there is only one universe, and even if beginning and end are final - if there was literally nothing before or after - then time and space began with the universe and will end with it. Even then the universe is practically infinite in time and space - that is, as infinite as is practically feasible.

If something existed before, and will exist after, our present universe - either as a different form of our own universe, or as other universes - then this more encompassing whole is practically infinite in time and space.

God is transcendent. There are parts of God that are beyond our reach, that we cannot know.

The universe itself is transcendent in relation to our present science and technology. There are times and places - both at the micro and macro scales - that are beyond the reach of all our present-day instruments and theories.

And there are always likely to be limits to the reach of our instruments. Even if our telescopes view the outer rim of the universe and the fireball of creation, we can never know if there is anything beyond those limits. Even if our detectors could directly view the smallest particles, and still more than are presently known, at ever shrinking scales, we could never know for sure that we had reached the end and that there were no further levels inside them. However far we progress, it is likely that there will always be such limits to our knowledge of the Universe - hence the Universe will probably always transcend our explorations.

God's powers over the universe

Have you not seen how God drives along the clouds, then masses them together, then stacks them up in layers?

You see a downpour coming from them. He sends down from heaven mountainous masses of hail and strikes whom He will, and avoids whom He will. The flash of his lightning almost takes your sight away.

God causes the cycle of night and day . . .

God has created every animal out of water. Some crawl on their belly, others walk on two legs, still others walk on four.

God creates anything He will; God is able to do all things.

Koran, Sura 24: 43-45.

God is the creator of all that exists.

When the Old Testament and the Koran were written God was thought to have created every element and every species, exactly in their present form, and within a reckonable span of generations. The doctrine of creation was an explanation of how each separate thing originated.

Today we have a longer perspective. We know that each thing developed from an earlier set of causes. Who created each one of us? Our parents. Who created our parents? Their parents, and so on back to the first reproducing organism and the elements from which it was formed. Who or what created the elements? They were built up by fusion inside stars from hydrogen and helium.

We are led back through a long chain of causes and causes of causes. We no longer look for a creator of each species or each element.

All species and all elements in existence today were created by the Universe itself in the course of its development. In that real and very broad sense, the Universe is the true creator of all that exists

But now we have a more sophisticated query: we look for a creator of the Universe, a first cause of all causes. A separate page is devoted to this question (see The self-originating universe.)

In brief, we can say first, that it is not at all evident that causes cannot go back in time ad infinitum, with no first cause. If the universe contains all time, then there was no "before" in which a first cause could be located. In other words, the universe or its predecessors have always existed and need no creator.

If a beginning is needed, then quantum physics allows minute amounts of matter to appear from nothing. The universe may have inflated from such an event. In other words, the universe was its own creator.

God designed the universe.

The argument that the universe and nature must have had a designer is a favourite "proof" of God's existence.

But we know that natural things are not being designed by any outside force at the present time. On the contrary, we know that evolution - the constant adaptation of each species to its environment - is capable of "designing" the most sophisticated organs and organisms and processes (see The self-organizing cosmos.

The process is continuing visibly today. The peppered moth biston betularia, developed a darker, melanic form so it would not be visible against smoke-blackened tree trunks in polluted industrial areas. Bacteria are rapidly developing immunity to modern anti-biotics.

We know that in many situations even inanimate matter can organize itself into patterns of order that seem to be designed.

We see galaxies and stars and planets condensing out of dust-clouds under the pull of their own gravity. We see stars and planets forming solar systems through gravity and centrifugal force.

In other words, we no longer look for a designer of each individual thing. We know that every individual thing in the universe, from galaxies to bacteria, in a sense designs itself from its own material, in the context of the environment in which it exists. The community of things is the designer.

But now we ask: who designed the whole? Who made the basic particles as they are? Who set the laws that would govern their behaviour?

There is no easy answer to that question. One approach might be to suggest that there is no such thing as a law separated from the matter to which it applies: the law is simply a description of the regular way in which matter behaves.

New alternatives are emerging. Lee Smolin suggests that evolution might apply one the scale of universes. The matter inside black holes may pinch off and explode to form new universes, each one with slightly altered basic conditions and laws. This process would favour the development of universes in which more black holes formed - and the conditions required to form black holes are the same as those required for life to emerge.

God is omnipotent.

We have no direct evidence that God is all-powerful - we have only the evidence of what happens in the universe.

But we know that the Universe is omnipotent. The Universe can create and it can destroy. It can bear white-hot suns from clouds of dust. It can spawn life in undersea vents and hot springs. It can explode suns in supernovae and send meteors or supernovae to annihilate planets and all that live on them.

In our individual lives the unfolding history of matter can bring life and death, health and disease, joy and grief, good fortune and tragic accident. We can and should struggle to change those things that depend on human agency, but there are some things we cannot choose but to accept.

It is not - as the Stoics (see Marcus Aurelius) suggested - that we should accept destiny because the universe is rational and good and harmonious. Sometimes, from a human point of view, the unavoidable things that happen are an unmitigated disaster, with no redeeming features whatsoever. However, we have no choice but to accept them, in a spirit of humble submission, as part of the great adventure of matter.

God's power to evoke human emotions.

On God's power to evoke human feelings of mystery, awe and love, see God and human response: The Idea of the Holy.


is the belief that the universe and nature are divine.
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most realistic concept of life after death,
and the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.
For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.

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Pantheist pages: index.
Basic principles of scientific pantheism.
The divine cosmos.
History of pantheism.

Suggestions, comments, criticisms to: Paul Harrison, e-mail: pan(at)(this domain)
© Paul Harrison 1996.