Wednesday, July 30, 2008

God's third party

The most poorly understood philosophy about God is pantheism. To pantheists, God isn't the creator of the universe, God is the universe. To other people, this sounds more like a semantic trick than a coherent philosophy, as if pantheists are simply calling the universe by a different name, without making any unique statements about reality.

Curiously, many self-described pantheists almost seem to agree with that characterization of their beliefs., for example, approves of Richard Dawkins's description of pantheism as "sexed-up atheism." According to the website, "our beliefs are entirely naturalistic, and compatible with atheism, humanism and naturalism. Also with those forms of paganism that see magic and the gods as symbols rather than realities."

Hard-nosed skeptics find pantheism infuriating. They don't know how to deal with a system that renders proof irrelevant. Not that all traditional theists claim their beliefs are provable. But the statement "God exists" at least qualifies as a truth claim. The statement "God is the universe," on the other hand, merely redefines God as something which even atheists admit exists. Yet a fellow blogger makes a strong case that pantheism and atheism do in fact differ in their beliefs about reality:
The major difference lies in the appreciation for existence. What is existence really? Is it some random backdrop in which we find ourselves or is it an integral part of who and what we are?

Pantheists are generally philosophical Monists [who believe that] everything is 'one thing' and all comes from the same source. All things within the universe are interconnected....

The ultimate difference lies in what each side considers the basic substance of the universe to be like. The atheist conceives of nothing but subatomic particles whizzing about or random quantum fluctuations while the pantheist imagines a fundamental well-structured ground of being.
In practice, there is a fine line between pantheism and the views of traditional believers. Western forms of mysticism have challenged the simple assertion that "God exists." To the mystics, God is beyond existence in the usual sense. Many of them have come to think of God as the totality of everything, including, but not limited to, the universe. This view is called panentheism. It's pantheism with an extra syllable, which apparently makes all the difference as to whether it's acceptable to mainstream Judaism and Christianity.

The raison d'être of pantheism concerns two interrelated questions about the universe. Why does anything exist? And why is the universe that does exist capable of producing conscious beings--in effect, becoming aware of itself? Theistic philosopher Roger Scruton ponders this second question in a recent essay:
Dawkins writes as though the theory of the selfish gene puts paid once and for all to the idea of a creator God -- we no longer need that hypothesis to explain how we came to be. In a sense that is true. But what about the gene itself: how did that come to be? What about the primordial soup? All these questions are answered, of course, by going one step further down the chain of causation. But at each step we encounter a world with a singular quality: namely that it is a world which, left to itself, will produce conscious beings, able to look for the reason and the meaning of things, and not just for the cause. The astonishing thing about our universe, that it contains consciousness, judgement, the knowledge of right and wrong, and all the other things that make the human condition so singular, is not rendered less astonishing by the hypothesis that this state of affairs emerged over time from other conditions. If true, that merely shows us how astonishing those other conditions were. The gene and the soup cannot be less astonishing than their product.
Since atheists have no answer to the question of why anything exists, all they can do is neutralize it by asking "Who created God?" But the idea of an uncreated Creator as the conscious source of everything raises fewer questions than the idea of an uncreated universe which happens to have the properties needed to become conscious of itself.

It's no wonder so many atheists fall back on the hypothesis of multiple universes, even though an infinity of time and space in which anything can happen is little different in effect from an infinite Creator. Others pretend the question isn't objectively meaningful. "The world exists because it exists," they say, and they go on to suggest that our ability to come up with such questions must have evolved in our primitive ancestors.

That's a major point of divergence from pantheism, which attempts, however imperfectly, to bridge the gap between theism and atheism. Its tenets superficially resemble those of atheism, but it has a greater appreciation for the mystery of existence. The consequence of viewing existence as one interconnected whole, of which conscious beings that can reflect on the matter are an integral part, and not just a byproduct, is subtle but real.

1 comment:

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