Atheism vs Pantheism

candles in the darkI 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.

8 thoughts on “Atheism vs Pantheism

  1. I think pantheism is a great philosophy, and I definitely agree that most who consider themselves spiritual non-theists or atheists are for all practical purposes very close to pantheism. It’s just that ‘theism’ part that is the sticking point for me! I do like your conclusion that the label is not the most important thing, something I need to remember.

    • I know, it can be quite a stumbling block! It’s funny, I would have thought that having a very clear idea of where you stand with theism would be the first question to answer when embarking on a spiritual path, but it really is turning out to be a lot more uncertain than I would have expected. So yes, I think letting go of that strict label can be liberating or helpful sometimes.

  2. I just came across you blog today and wow, I have read a handful of entries and I am super impressed. I want to read all of them and make more comments. :) I am a Naturalistic Pagan who is studying Satanism at the moment which is also a Non Theistic religion. I see The Universe and Nature (all that which is natural) as being Sacred, Holy and Yes Divine, I will even on occasion call This Divinity-The Goddess.

    I do not follow the Pantheist label because 1. They are of the belief that EVERYTHING is Divine and I cannot make sense of that, the ocean is divine but so is the oil slick? The candy wrapper is divine so it’s ok to throw it on the beach? No, I see Nature as The Goddess, Not man made destructive forces.

    My Beliefs and Practices are still a serious work in progress though, for example when it comes to Magic. I believe magic is applied psychology for the most part and yet I have sent out energies to attain a certain result and had the result happen to me…..so….?

    I Guess for now that is all I can say….I will read more and comment as I see a need, sorry if I comment on posts you made ages ago but I want to get to know you and your blog better so that is what works best for me. :)

    • Hi Terry! Thanks for checking out the blog, I’m so pleased you like it! :) I have to say I know very little about Satanism, it’s one of the few subjects or areas around Paganism and witchcraft that I’ve never delved into.

      I understand your problem with seeing the oils slick or the candy wrapper as being divine – but I have to say that this is one of the main places where I definitely have that pantheistic outlook. I definitely feel sad and angry to see the damage that is done to the environment, but to me even human-made or destructive forces are natural – because humans are natural. And to me, anything that exists is inherently natural. It is divine to me not because it is good, or beautiful, but because it is an expression of the amazing thing that is existence itself. It is divine because it is.

      Magic is definitely a complicated subject. I too see it as applied psychology, but at the same time I think there is a vast amount that is yet not understood about the human mind and our capabilities. And I think cause and effect can be immensely subtle and powerful. So although I’m not currently engaging in anything that I consider to be magic, I can see the place for it on a naturalistic path. And I also am open to the idea that unexpected and even *seemingly* unnatural things may be achievable!

      You’re very welcome to comment as you see fit! The blog isn’t too old anyway, there aren’t so many posts here yet. Looking forward to talking with you more!

  3. “I definitely feel sad and angry to see the damage that is done to the environment, but to me even human-made or destructive forces are natural – because humans are natural. And to me, anything that exists is inherently natural. It is divine to me not because it is good, or beautiful, but because it is an expression of the amazing thing that is existence itself. It is divine because it is.”

    That’s my take too. FWIW I call my way of looking at things pandeistic (deist because it seems to me to avoid the personal God issue to and because I like to think its based on reason rather than authority, revelation or emotion – but who knows?) In the end I think you’re right – the label is about the least important part, but sadly, as often as not, the most divisive. Anyway just wanted to say I enjoyed this post. Thanks.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, thanks for commenting! Pandeist, I like that. I suppose the problem with labels is that they try to fit so much into one little word. Language is already so complicated and divisive, it’s no wonder that the religious or spiritual labels we choose for ourselves can get quite convoluted and even contested.

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