Religion after the death of God?: the rise of pantheism and the return to the source
Avatar was a straw in the wind; this piece lays out the new spirituality which is already partly here, and which is so badly needed if there is to be a world to come in this world…
“The way you use the word “God” does not show who you mean, but what you mean”. — Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Religion is and always has been much more and much other than just g/God, and certainly than the God of the Abrahamic religions. It is an awesome mistake to tie religion closely only to God, let alone to God as a lone super-person. As the philosopher Wittgenstein once, wonderfully, put it: It is very important that we talk of God’s eye, but not of God’s eyebrows — or eyelashes.
If we look back to the beginnings of religion, what we find is far indeed from theism. What we find is animism. Everything being alive, everything en-spirited. Animism makes great sense as a religion for hunter-gatherers, who exist in a roughly egalitarian relationship with all the beings around them.
Polytheism came next: polytheism fits the Agricultural Revolution, where the human connection to particular great spirits of fertility and of the weather and so forth takes centre stage. While wild animals and so forth fade rather into the background.
Eventually, one of the gods becomes jealous of the rest: the stage is set for mono-theism. A form of practice and belief best-suited to large-scale, non-local, pre-scientific agricultural civilisation.
That time is ending. What form of religion best suits our own time?
Well, what is our time?
It is a time where religion itself is under great threat. And a time of potentially-truly global consciousness: of epic struggle between ecology and destruction. To vary Oppenheimer, varying Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita: we are become death. To stop our polis become a necropolis, we must find a way of thoroughly embracing a new humility. We simply must recognise, in our politics and economics, the reality of planetary limits to growth. We must abandon the currently-dominant fantasy of growth without limit, and the utter hubris and ecological illiteracy of projects of geo-engineering or of space-colonisation. Instead we should allow ourselves to re-enchant our world; we should return again to recognising the glory and sacredness of it all.
This is something like pantheism. I believe that pantheism is the coming meta-religion of and for our time. If we are to be for life, on the side of life, then we need to find ourselves feeling that everything is sacred. Everything is God.
Are there any signs that this is any more than just my personal dream? There certainly are. One extremely striking such sign is the fact that Avatar was recently nothing less than the highest grossing film of all time (and this, even despite the biggest country in the world, China, having effectively banned it. The Chinese government recognised the potential power of the incendiary message of the film: its defence of the land against the military-industrial complex). And the world of Avatar is (and this is essential to the film’s marvellous neo-mythic plot) thoroughly pantheistic (Or rather, strictly speaking, panentheistic: in Avatar, God is literally earthly and is in everything). Its tremendous resonance around OUR world offers hope.
And now here’s the curious and rather wonderful thing about pantheism and panentheism: they bear some striking similarities to animism. In animism, each thing is in a way a special mini-god. Animism gives us as it were the God in everything. Once again, this seems right: this is what our time needs. Again as in Avatar: we are living in a historical moment when, if we are to survive at all, let alone to flourish in the true sense of that word, we need to some extent to go full circle. We need to cease our rapacious Prometheanism, we need to learn from the indigenous peoples of the world, we need to reduce our collective impact and to leave real room for nature. If the coming religion is a little like animism, that suggests we may be heading in the right direction: ‘back’, as well as onward.
Pantheism/neo-animism, will be truly global, as well as locally-rooted. The parochialism of animism and of most polytheism has something important to teach us about rootedness, but it isn’t enough. Nothing less than a global consciousness, and a consciousness that re-learns truly long-termist thinking, will be enough. And thus the contemplative tradition in all religions is now of great value. Above all, perhaps, Buddhism, a non-theistic practical spirituality for our time.
Contemplativeness without denial of the body or denial of the world: that is now the great challenge before us. The religion of our time, this pantheism perhaps taking shape right now, will be world-respecting, world-preserving, and thus (in relation to our existing, grossly-deficient institutions) world-changing, as well as thoroughly grounded in the present moment and in the wonder of our physical being. In short: It will be engaged.
If I am at all on the right track here, then I have great hope for the future of religion. And a good thing too: for it would be reckless to allow secularism to take over our world completely. For we simply do not know whether it is possible for we humans to live in balance with our world without religion. We do not have good evidence that it is possible. A properly precautious attitude would urge us not prematurely to cast religion onto the junkheap, even if God is indeed dead. Instead, let us make religion fit our time. Let us choose life; let us have faith in ourselves-and-everything, in this amazing Universe … as Romanticism and science alike, properly understood, help us to do. (Though nothing could be further from what we need than scientism: the worship of science. Such worship disenchants the world and leaves us with no bulwarks with which to resist the industrial-growth juggernaut nor the delusion that technology will save us).
The choice before us, it seems to me, is between a more complete take-over of our world by the fundamentalism that is materialistic individualism, with its pseudo-religion of the self and its cult of Mammon (N.B. this fundamentalism helps breed opposed ‘religious’ fundamentalisms, such as the Islamo-fascism of I.S.) — on the one hand — , and the alternative now taking shape, an alternative that owes a debt to Spinoza (from whom Deep Ecology crucially inherited), that draws on the best of post-theistic Christianity, of mysticism, of Buddhism, and most certainly of inspired social and political engagement with the world — on the other. This pantheism is rising, and at the same time returning us to the source that we first found when the great drama of religion began, with animism. This sense of the sacredness of everything — this eco-logical pantheism of connectedness in action — is a worthy replacement for theism. It is nourishing, it is hope. It might yet enable us to do what seems otherwise so unlikely: to save us from ourselves and from the machines and systems we’ve created that are killing our kin and finishing our future … and instead to give our children’s children a meaning, and a life.
So let us return to the source. Let us take inspiration from animism, and from what is perhaps its telos, pantheism (or, better still perhaps, panentheism). When we find everything sacred, when all nature strikes us thus, then we are finally placed to be present. To be in our consciousness, rather than in compulsive thinking-and-doing. That will truly be: a return to the source. To the awareness we all (potentially) share, which our dream of thought has suborned, but which is rising again, in this time of direst need.
[Dr. Rupert Read is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a long-time practitioner of Buddhist meditation. He teaches philosophy of religion at the University of East Anglia. He has written several books, including his popular work Philosophy for life.]