Haeckel's Monism.

A history of pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

Featured, December 16, 1996.

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In pantheism God, as an intramundane being, is everywhere identical with nature itself, and is operative within the world as force or energy … Pantheism is the world system of the modern scientist.

Radiolarian (Solenosphaera familiaris) from Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature Dover Books, New York, 1974.

Scientific Pantheism condemns Haeckel's political views.

The Scientific Pantheist group wish to make it clear that we find Haeckel's views on race, nationalism, aristocracy, eugenics, euthanasia, and the powers of the state utterly abhorrent. These views are a travesty of true pantheism, which places all human beings of all races, genders, social classes and abilities on an equal footing as participants in, and reverent observers of, the Universe and nature.

Haeckel's views on these topics are not valid deductions from evolution theory, and they contradict Haeckel's own acceptance of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would wish they should do unto you," and his criticism of Christianity for cruelty to animals. We condemn these views outright, and we condemn Haeckel for endorsing them.

Ernst Haeckel is a monstrous paradox. On the one hand he was a courageous critic of Christianity, who formulated one of the most complete versions of pantheism, fostered a deep aesthetic appreciation of nature, and made the first attempt at founding an organized pantheist religion. Yet his misguided interpretation of Darwinism led him to a brutal social ethic which influenced and gave spurious scientific legitimacy to the Nazi programme. This political side to Haeckel's thinking distorted and ultimately destroyed his religious efforts.

Haeckel's background helps to explain this bundle of contradictions. He was born in 1834 in Potsdam, Germany, the son of a senior civil servant. His formative adolescence occurred during the abortive 1848 revolutions in German principalities, when an early attempt to unify Germany failed. These experiences coloured his conservatism and his strong German nationalism.

Haeckel took a medical degree, but became interested in zoology after his professor took him on an expedition off the North Sea coast, to study marine creatures. After graduation he travelled to Italy, where he painted and even considered taking up art as a career. The dual interest in science and art stamped the nature of Haeckel's pantheism as a profound aesthetic response to the beauty of the world he investigated through science. In 1865 he became professor of zoology at the University of Jena, where he remained until his retirement, in 1909, after a long and distinguished scientific career. He died in 1919.

From 1860, when he read a German translation of Darwin's Origin of Species, Haeckel became a committed evolutionist. His own speciality was the study of marine invertebrates and protozoa, but he constantly spread out far beyond this base.

From studies of taxonomy and comparative embryology, he developed his famous but now discredited "biogenetic law." This states that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny - the development of the individual sums up the evolution history of its species. In other words, during embryonic development higher creatures pass through the main rungs of the evolutionary ladder that lead up to them. Haeckel notoriously faked some of his drawings to make human embryos look more like fish and monkeys - a faking which he flippantly admitted in 1908, and which seriously damaged his standing in the eyes of many scientists.

Haeckel had a very modern view of the continuity of life, the community between humans and other creatures lower on the evolutionary scale and the "essential unity of organic and inorganic nature." [The Riddle of the Universe, trs Joseph McCabe, Buffalo Books, New York 1992, p255] Haeckel originated the term ecology, which he defined as "the relation of the animal both to its organic as well as to its inorganic environment."

Humans were not separate and different from the rest of nature. Everything in the cosmos - all inorganic matter, and all life including humans - had material, energetic, and psychic aspects. Even atoms had "souls" of a kind - though by this Haeckel meant only attraction, repulsion, crystallization and so on. Life was different from inorganic matter only in its degree of organization. Whereas Darwin suggested that all life might have originated from a single God-created organism in a warm rocky pool, Haeckel boldly suggested that life emerged from non-living matter.

A "long scale of psychic development ran unbroken from the lowest, unicellular forms of life up to the mammals, and to man at their head." [Riddle, p103] Haeckel dreamed of a future science of "phylogenetic psychology" tracing psychic phenomena from the "crystal soul" or inorganic materials, through the primitive "cell-soul" of protists, up to the central consciousness of higher vertebrates. (From this starting point, Carl Gustav Jung would later develop his theory of the collective unconscious.)

Haeckel rejected the dualism which believes that matter and spirit are two separate substances, and developed his own world view called Monism. This was materialist in the philosophical sense, though Haeckel sometimes denied this, since he believed that matter as widely infused with "psychic" sensitivity. He was also a determinist, and did not believe in free will.

Haeckel expounded what he called the "Law of Substance" - "the eternal persistence of matter and energy, their unvarying constancy throughout the entire universe." He regarded matter and energy as "two inseparable attributes of the one underlying substance" which he identified with God.

Haeckel's pantheism was essentially rational and aesthetic. His God was identical with the material universe, and the main ways of relating to it were through science (discovering its true nature) and through art (appreciating its beauty). His own feeling for the aesthetics of natural form was powerful, and he did exquisite drawings of radiolaria, diatoms, sponges, corals and other creatures.

Haeckel accepted physical death and saw the yearning for spiritual immortality ("athanatism") as a delusion. He also outlined a monistic ethic which - in contrast to Christianity - endorsed self-love as much as love of others, sexual love between man and woman, cultivation of the body, and love of animals. He did endorse the Christian Gold Rule - do unto others as you would they should do unto you - although his own ideas on euthansia contradicted this principle in a galring fashion.

In 1892 Haeckel began calling for the creation of a monistic religion to spread these beliefs. Unfortunately Haeckel was so attached to his conservative, racist and eugenic political programme that it became entwined in his Monist religion. Indeed it often overshadowed the religious side and eventually led to the dissolution of the Monist movement and its longterm discrediting in Germany by association with Nazism.

In 1906 he launched the Monistenbund, the Monistic Alliance. Within five years the Alliance had a membership of 6,000, with branches in 42 cities and villages of Germany and Austria.

The Alliance had multiple aims. In part it attempted to be a pantheistic church, though Haeckel himself frowned on the more irrational aspects of ritual. It was actively anti-clerical, and brought under its umbrella many freethinkers, including the physicist Ernst Mach and the sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies.

Fatefully, the Alliance became deeply concerned with advancing Haeckel's social programmes, including his abhorrent ideas on eugenics and euthanasia.

These ideas were taken up by the Nazi party - but the Nazi religious programme, closer to Teutonic paganism than to pantheism, did not coincide with Haeckel's. In 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor, the Monist League was disbanded.

Unless otherwise indicated, the selections below are taken from Haeckel's classic Riddle of the Universe (translated by Joseph McCabe in 1900). Page numbers below refer to the edition by Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1992.

Selected passages.

Dualism v Monism.

Dualism, the widest sense, breaks up the universe into two entirely distinct substances - the material world and an immaterial God, who is represented to be its creator, sustainer and ruler. Monism, on the contrary … recognizes one sole substance in the universe, which is at once "God and nature"; body and spirit (or matter and energy) it holds to be inseparable. The extra-mundane God of dualism leads necessarily to theism; and the intra-mundane God of the monist leads to pantheism. [20]

Pantheism and atheism.

Pantheism teaches that God and the world are one. The idea of God is identical with that of nature or substance … In pantheism God, as an intramundane being, is everywhere identical with nature itself, and is operative within the world as force or energy … Pantheism is the world system of the modern scientist. [288]

The monistic idea of God … recognizes the divine spirit in all things … God is everywhere … We might, therefore, represent God as the infinite sum of all natural forces, the sum of all atomic forces and all ether-vibrations. [Lecture at Altenburg, 1892]

Atheism affirms that there are no gods or goddesses, assuming that god means a personal, extramundane entity. This "godless world-system" substantially agrees with the monism or pantheism of the modern scientist; it is only another expression for it, emphasizing its negative aspect, the non-existence of any supernatural deity. In this sense Schopenhauer justly remarks: "Pantheism is only a polite form of atheism." [291]

Monism, materialism, hylozoism, panpsychism.

Pure monism is [not] … identical with the theoretical materialism that denies the existence of spirit and dissolves the world into a heap of dead atoms. On the contrary, we hold with Goethe that "matter cannot exist and be operative without spirit not spirit without matter" … Matter, or infinitely extended substance, and spirit (or energy), or sensitive and thinking substance, are the two fundamental attributes or principal properties of the all-embracing divine essence of the world, the universal substance. [20-21]

Our own naturalistic conception of the psychic activity sees in it a group of vital phenomena which are dependent on a definite material substrate… . Our conception is, in this sense, materialistic. It is at the same time empirical and naturalistic, for our scientific experience has never yet taught us the existence of forces that can dispense with a material substratum, or of a spiritual world over and above the realm of nature. [91]

An immaterial living spirit is just as inconceivable as a dead, spiritless material: the two are inseparably combined in every atom. [Speech at Altenburg, 1892] All substance, inorganic as well as organic, possesses life. All things are ensouled, crystals as well as organisms. [Kristallseele, Leipzig, 1917, Foreword]

The Law of Substance.

The universe, or the cosmos, is eternal, infinite and illimitable. Its substance, with its two attributes (matter and energy) fills infinite space, and is in eternal motion. This motion runs on through infinite time as an unbroken development … [13]

Law of the persistence of matter: The sum of matter, which fills infinite space, is unchangeable. A body has merely changed in form, when it seems to have disappeared.
Law of the persistence of energy: The sum of energy which is at work in infinite space and produces all phenomena, is unchangeable … No particle of living energy is even extinguished, no particle is ever created anew.
[The] fundamental unity of the two laws is self-evident … , since they relate to two different aspects of one and the same object, the cosmos [212-213]

Evolution is the source of design in nature.

The struggle for life is the unconscious regulator … it is the great "selective divinity" which by a purely "natural choice", without preconceived design, creates new forms …

Truth lies in studying nature,. not revelation.

Truth unadulterated is only to be found in the temple of the study of nature, and … the only available paths to it are critical observation and reflection - the empirical investigation of facts and the rational study of their efficient causes … The goddess of truth dwells in the temple of nature, in the green woods, on the blue sea, and on the snowy summits of the hills - not in the gloom of the cloister … nor in the clouds of incense of our Christian churches … The paths which lead to the noble divinity of truth and knowledge are the loving study of nature and its laws, the observation of the infinitely great star-world with the aid of the telescope, and the infinitely tiny cell-world with the aid of the microscope - not senseless ceremonies and unthinking prayers. [337.]

The true revelation - that is, the true source of rational knowledge - is to be sought in nature alone … Every intelligent man with normal brain and senses finds this true revelation in nature on impartial study, and thus frees himself from the superstition with which the "revelation" of religion had burdened him. [306-7]

The art of nature

The remarkable expansion of our knowledge of nature, and the discovery of countless beautiful forms of life which it includes, have awakened quite a new aesthetic sense in our generation, and thus given a new tone to painting and sculpture … There were thousands of forms of great beauty and interest … the peculiar beauty of which far transcend all the creations of human imagination …
A man needs only to keep his eyes open and his mind disciplined. Surrounding nature offers us everywhere a marvelous wealth of lovely and interesting objects of all kinds. In every bit of moss and blade of grass, in every beetle and butterfly, we find, when we examine it carefully, beautiful forms which are usually overlooked …
It should be the aim at every school to teach the children to enjoy scenery at an early age … The infinite wealth of nature in what is beautiful and sublime offers every man with open eyes and an aesthetic sense an incalculable sum of choicest gifts. [341-3]

Whether we marvel at the majesty of the lofty mountains or the magic world of the sea, whether with the telescope we explore the infinitely great wonders of the starry heaven, or witch the microscope the yet more surprising wonders of a life infinitely small, everywhere does Divine Nature open up to us an inexhaustible fountain of aesthetic enjoyment. Blind and insensible have the great majority of mankind hitherto wandered through this glorious wonderland of a world: a sickly and unnatural theology has made it repulsive as a "vale of tears." Monism (speech at Altenburg, 11892) 85-86

Earth is our home - Nature is our church.

Monism teaches us that we are perishable children of the earth, who for one or two or at the most three generations have the good fortune to enjoy the treasures of our planet, to drink of the inexhaustible fountain of its beauty, and to trace out the marvelous play of its forces. [344]

The modern man who "has science and art" - and therefore religion - needs no special church, no narrow, enclosed portion of space … his church is commensurate with the whole of glorious nature. [345]

Ethics: the need for self-love as well as love of others.

Ethical monism "regards as the highest aim of all morality the re- establishment of a sound harmony between egoism and altruism, between self-live and the love of one's neighbour. [350]
The Golden Rule says: "Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you." From this highest precept of Christianity it follows of itself that we have just as sacred duties towards ourselves as we have towards our fellows … The supreme mistake of Christian ethics, and one which runs directly counter to the Golden Rule, is its exaggeration of love of one's neighbour at the expense of self-love. [350-353]


is a profound feeling of reverence for Nature and the wider Universe
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides 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.

Pantheist pages: index.
History of pantheism.

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© Paul Harrison 1997.
Last update December 18, 1997.