by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I take great issue with your saying pantheism and atheism are somehow intellectually related. It shows a great ignorance of what pantheism actually is, the diversity of pantheist theology currently and historically, and it belittles pantheists by lumping themselves with people who are against the concept that is core to the word panTHEISM.

 I'd like the mention that most Sufis, the most well known among them being the great poets like Rumi and Hafez, are and were pantheists. Sufis have their theological roots in Gnosticism, which is itself deeply pantheist, and not in the cop-out, pseudo-intellectual mode that you seem to think of pantheism in. I'd like to point out that one of the canonical gospels, one of the very gospels associated with "non-atheistic" thinking, is a Gnostic gospel with heavy pantheistic overtones: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)" (Just read through John again. It's full of this kind of winding, subtly subversive thought. Easy to see why Gnostics loved it.)

There are two well known brands of pantheism, one being in the Hindu/Gnostic/Mayan mode (if I listed them all, you'd see there are more pantheistic religions than monotheistic), where there is a pantheon that represents intellectual aspects of the supreme being, who is supposed to represent the universe. I've never thought of as true pantheism anyway, but as more of a transition from polytheism to pantheism, since it's still so encumbered by pre-pantheistic thought. The other kind people know about is related intellectually to deism, in a mold. It's philosophical, not theological in its roots (though I think that distinction in fields should one day be destroyed), and the most well known pantheistic thinker in that mold would be Spinoza. First of all, out of these two, only the second could arguably be linked somehow with atheism, and only if you're being very simplistic. In reality there is more the pantheism than even these two models, and I take great, great offense to you simplifying something as diverse as an entire form of thought about the nature of existence, to the point where you can just slap it together with something completely unrelated.

It's true, if you develop pantheism far enough, the concept of "godhood" itself ceases to be a relevant concept. In that regard it is possible to associate it with atheism, but at their core they come from completely different places, and most atheists, if they talked with pantheists, would reject pantheism as another form of theistic nonsense. As someone who has to hide my pantheism from my agressively atheist friends, I resent what you said greatly. Pantheism is not the removal of God or gods, it is the elevation of divinity to the point where everything IS God. The only reason to use the word "God" at that point is to talk with people about it. I could easily argue (and have done so among my friends) that monotheism is more closely associated with polytheism than pantheism is with atheism. After all, the only real difference there is the number of gods. In both the being(s) is/are classified in the same way, just with more power as the number decreases (like The One of religion). Pantheism is about the nature of existence, and what a truly divine being would actually have to be. (For example, I've argued passionately in philosophy classes that a non-pantheistic concept of God isn't really "God" according to monotheistic standards, even though I dislike the term because of it's simplifying and misleading nature.)

I considered myself a Gnostic for a while, and then moved in and out of Sufism, mostly because I'm still not sure if I can subscribe to the Qur'aan, and I have to much respect for Islam than to jump in just to fudge it to my liking. I still think about converting to Islam constantly, and I struggle with my spirituality as I feel my passion lessen as I get older, just like millions of other people who would call themselves Catholic or Protestant. And I have thought about atheism, in the way that any serious person of any belief has to if they truly want to say they believe what they believe. If it we so similar, I wouldn't find the concept as distressing. I find myself getting along more with monotheists and agnostics than atheists, because at least with them conversations about theology don't devolve into socio-political discussions about religion.

Heh. And here I was, thinking how dispassionate I've become about my belief, but I still have enough to get perturbed. Of course, it's easier for you to be so insensitive to pantheists. We don't have a mass to harass you with like the monotheists and atheists do. Of course, fundamentally, I'm not just harassing you, I'm harassing myself, because you are me. We're not atheists.

I did not mean to offend. I was thinking of pantheism more along the lines of Poulos and Tocqueville or Douthat. There are many varities of pantheism, and people who identify with patheism alone, rather than a religion based in pantheism, are usually talking about naturalistic pantheism rather than classical patheism.

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