The practical incoherence of Pantheism

Luke Wayne
3/27/17

The idea that the universe itself, at its very essence, is an impersonal substance said to be "God" has been a part of many religions since ancient times and still persists throughout the world today. This position, known as pantheism, states that everything is sacred because everything is made from one material, one elemental foundation. That substance they call "God," and therefore they call everything made out of it divine. The problem is that when we get past the spiritual language and look beyond the "we are all one with the universe" sentimentality, pantheism isn't offering any distinct truth claim about reality at all. At best, pantheism is a poetic expression of run-of-the-mill atheism.

If God = the universe, the universe = God, and the universe/God is all that exists, then the pantheist is really saying the same thing as the western atheist. Inserting words like "god" doesn't actually add any new concept or meaning to the discussion if "God" just means "the universe." We're still just talking about a material universe and saying that the universe is all that exists. Pantheism, then, is really little more than an emotional appeal without any actual substance. The pantheist wants to feel different about the universe than the atheist does, but does not actually believe anything different about the universe.

Some will argue that this is being too simplistic. "The universe = God" may describe some crude forms of pantheism, but most are saying something more nuanced than that. They are saying that there is an ultimate essence to everything, and that ultimate, impersonal essence is "God." A good example of this is from a sacred text in Hinduism called the Chandogya Upanishad. In it, a father is explaining reality to his son Svetaketu. At one point, he provides his son an example:

Father: "Bring me a fig from over there."
Svetaketu: "Here it is, sir."
Father: "Divide it."
Svetaketu: "It is divided, sir."
Father: "What do you see there?"
Svetaketu: "These rather small seeds, sir."
Father: "Okay, please divide one."
Svetaketu: "It is divided."
Father: "What do you see there?
Svetaketu: "Nothing at all, sir."
Father: "Truly, my dear boy, from that finest essence which you cannot see arises this great fig tree. Believe, my dear child. This finest essence, the whole universe has it as its self. That is the real. That is Atman. That you are, Svetaketu."1

The modern Pantheist might explain it similarly. Everything is made of atoms. These atoms are composed of subatomic particles. The subatomic particles consist of even smaller particles. Eventually, we arrive at the essential substance of all matter. This is the essence of the universe from which everything arises and of which everything is composed. We are all varying expressions of this same elemental substance, this same unifying material reality. When we dig deep enough, the universe is really made of this one essential thing. That foundational substance of all being is "God." In this seemingly more nuanced fashion, the pantheist believes they have avoided the problem. They haven't.

Once again, the pantheist isn't really saying anything. Pretty much everyone agrees, and takes for granted, that the universe is made of some kind of matter. Everyone further agrees that matter has a set of basic components, and that these have their own components, on down to the most essential building blocks of the material universe. The only thing the pantheist says differently is to use the word "God" to describe this, which still doesn't actually add anything to the discussion except subjective emotions and a bit of confusion. By using the word "God," the pantheist is not asserting that this essence is actually a personal deity or that it has a divine will or supernatural power. They are simply saying that it is the material out of which the universe is composed, which is exactly what everyone else is saying that it is. The word "God" might make the pantheist feel more subjectively "spiritual" about the whole thing, but when they say "the essence of the universe is God," they aren't saying anything substantively different than just saying, "the universe is made of matter." Both merely mean that there is one basic substance out of which the diverse things in the universe are made. When the pantheist goes further and insists that the material universe is all that exists, they may take comfort in using the word "God" to describe it, but their position is really no different than the person who denies God's existence entirely. They are sentimental atheists.

The final push back might be to point out that many pantheists, especially of the ancient varieties of the East like the pantheist forms of Hinduism, do believe in all kinds of gods, ghosts, and spirits. How could they be called "atheists." In so much as they believe these gods actually exist, they are not atheists. They are polytheists. But in this case, their alleged pantheism doesn't add anything substantial to their polytheism either. Other than their religious vocabulary about the substance of the universe, they are not asserting anything about the nature of that universe that non-pantheistic polytheists do not already affirm. However, if they are saying (as many pluralistic pantheists are saying) that the gods do not really exist but are just relatable representations of the impersonal essence of the universe, then it is again a mere sentimental cover for what is ultimately still the same atheistic assertion that the substance of the universe is all that exists.

So where does this leave pantheism? It leaves it in a position worse than just being false. Pantheism isn't really even a position. For all its popularity and ancient pedigree, pantheism is a semantic shell game that shifts the meaning of words without actually saying anything meaningful at all. One can meaningfully (and rightly) say that the universe has a God. One can meaningfully (though incorrectly) say that it doesn't have a God and that the substance of the universe is all that there is. But once you say that the substance of the universe is all that there is, proposing to call that impersonal substance "God" doesn't change the reality you are describing.

 

  • 1. Chandogya Upanishad, Book 6, 12:1-3