Atheism vs Pantheism
May 12, 2013
I have found, within my culture and even the Pagan community at large, that a dominant perception of the divine is some form of personal god. Deity is often perceived as a conscious being or presence, or certainly an entity that can be related to on some level that is comparable to consciousness. But existing alongside this perception is the very different but also commonplace concept of “The All”, the absolute, a perception of the divine that is anything but personal. The latter is represented, among other world-views, by pantheism.
The problem with this concept of divinity is that it is much harder to define, to get a mental hold on. Some impersonal concepts of the divine still maintain divinity as a force external to the physical, some energy form or force of will or other tangible theoretical construct. But within pantheism – the only theism that has ever really stuck for me – it is difficult to know what it is we’re pointing to. If everything is divine, and the divine is everything, then why does it need another descriptor? And as Bryan Lake pointed out in a recent youtube video, if we can’t quite put our finger on what it is that makes The All divine, how can we call ourselves theists?
So what is the divine? And what constitutes a belief in it?
I have been happy for many years to identify as an atheist, and my reclaiming of my Paganism has thus far been qualified by either atheism or “non-theism”. It has become easy for me to forget that my deep connection with the term “pantheism” was what set me firmly on this path in the first place. Atheism has been comfortable for me, because my embracing of it immediately indicates a lack of a belief in a personal god or conscious, willful deity. It immediately separates me from the “woo” (if you’ll excuse the slightly derogatory term) of many forms of theistic Paganism.
But as I continue developing my spiritual practice, the feelings it evokes reminds me that I am engaging in this ritual, in this reverence, for the very reason that I am not entirely an atheist. For me, I feel the Cosmos to be divine. I feel a divinity in its mystery, its vastness, its connectedness, in the very fact of its being. But I have yet to define for myself what this concept of the divine really means for me – and if the reverence and connectedness I feel can be called theism of any kind.
So I have to ask myself – is pantheism very different to spiritual atheism? And if, so in what ways?
They are obviously, semantically different – one defines a type of theism or belief in the divine, the other defines an absence of theism or lack of belief in the divine. In some ways, they could be considered to be opposite. But when I read about the feelings, practices and even beliefs of spiritual atheists such as naturalistic Pagans, they can be remarkably similar to those of some pantheistic Pagans.
Spiritual atheists usually feel a need or call to reverence, or ritual, or even forms of prayer. They usually see the Cosmos, the unfolding of the universe, as worthy of reverence. And all of this, really, sounds to me very similar to pantheism.
Rediscovering pantheism was what firmly drew me back to Paganism. My feelings of intense reverence for the Cosmos are what inspire me to do ritual, to observe my spirituality.
So can I in all honesty call myself an atheist? But conversely, can I call myself a pantheist if I can’t quite define what theism really is? It seems to me that the definition of what is or is not divine may be a very personal thing. It may even depend on how you feel or think on any particular day.
Perhaps the most important element to this exercise is to let go of using labels self-consciously. As useful as spiritual labels may be to concisely describe your beliefs and practices, I think there is a danger in allowing yourself to eschew one label or don another purely because it fits some persona that your ego would like to portray to your peers. If I’ve learned anything on my path so far, it’s that spirituality is intensely personal, and only truly works if you are completely and utterly open and honest with yourself about it – it has to come from a true and pure place.
In the end of the day, maybe the label isn’t important, as long as the feeling is there.