The theory has often been put forward that religion evolved slowly over many millennia, beginning with very primitive ideas and gradually developing into today’s concepts. Wrapped up in this theory, and an important element in the thinking of many atheists, is the idea that monotheism (belief in one God) is a comparatively recent refinement. In the nineteenth century, two anthropologists, Sir Edward Tyler and Sir James Frazer, popularized the notion that the first stage in the evolution of religion was animism (which involved the worship of spirits believed to inhabit natural phenomena), followed later by pantheism (the idea that everything is divine), polytheism (belief in a multitude of distinct and separate deities) and eventually by monotheism.1
However, recent studies in anthropology have turned this scenario on its head and show, for example, that the hundreds of contemporary tribal religions (including many which are animistic) are not primitive in the sense of being original. Writing from long experience in India, and after extended studies of ancient religions, the modern scholar Robert Brow states, ‘The tribes have a memory of a “High God”, who is no longer worshipped because he is not feared. Instead of offering sacrifice to him, they concern themselves with the pressing problems of how to appease the vicious spirits of the jungle.’2 Other research suggests that tribes ‘are not animistic because they have continued unchanged since the dawn of history’ and that ‘The evidence indicates degeneration from a true knowledge of God.’3 After working among primitive tribes for many years, one modern expert says, ‘The animism of today gives us the impression of a religion that carries the marks of a fall,’4 while another bluntly refers to ‘the now discredited evolutionary school of religion’ as being ‘recognized as inadmissible’.5
The evidence of modern archaeology is that religion has not evolved ‘upwards’, but degenerated from monotheism to pantheism and polytheism, then from these to animism and atheism, a finding confirmed by the Scottish academic Andrew Lang in The Making of Religion: ‘Of the existence of a belief in the Supreme Being among primitive tribes there is as good evidence as we possess for any fact in the ethnographic region.’6 In History of Sanskrit Literature, the Oriental expert Max Muller, recognized as the founder of the science of the history of religions, came to the conclusion: ‘There is a monotheism that precedes the polytheism of the Veda; and even in the invocations of the innumerable gods, the remembrance of a God, one and infinite, breaks through the mist of idolatrous phraseology like the blue sky that is hidden by passing clouds.’7 In The Religion of Ancient Egypt, Sir Flinders Petrie, universally acknowledged as one of the world’s leading Egyptologists, claimed, ‘Wherever we can trace back polytheism to its earliest stages, we find that it results from combinations of monotheism.’8 In Semitic Mythology, the Oxford intellectual Stephen Langdon, one of the greatest experts in his field, said, ‘In my opinion the history of the oldest civilization of man is a rapid decline from monotheism to extreme polytheism and widespread belief in evil spirits. It is in a very true sense the history of the fall of man.’9
These statements make it clear that the scenario suggested by Tyler and Frazer will not fit the facts. There is no convincing evidence for any development in nature religions from animism through polytheism to monotheism. The idea that religion itself is something man invented has proved just as baseless. When the British naturalist Charles Darwin went to Tierra del Fuego in 1833, he believed that he had discovered aborigines with no religion at all. There are atheists today who still lean heavily on this, in spite of the fact that a scholar who went to the region after Darwin, and spent many years learning the language, history and customs of the Fuegians, reported that their idea of God was well developed and that he found ‘no evidence that there was ever a time when he was not known to them’.10
The same overall picture emerges in studies centred on the traditions of the oldest civilizations known to man: original belief in a ‘High God’, followed by degeneration into polytheism, animism and other corrupt religious notions.
To trace all the currents in the ebb and flow of man’s religious thinking over the centuries is beyond anyone’s ability, but it is possible to track down some of the people whose ideas not only made a marked contemporary impact but still affect the way many people think today on the issue of the existence of God. In this and the next eleven chapters we will make a high-speed pass over the last 2,500 years or so and identify some of the most influential characters and concepts. One point before we begin: animism, pantheism, polytheism (and some of the other ‘-isms’ we shall touch on as we go along) are usually treated as facets of theism, but for the purpose of this book I want to draw the line elsewhere and to treat them as aspects of atheism, on the grounds that they fail to square with the definition of God proposed in the introduction.
Let me interrupt myself at this point. Readers with little or no exposure to philosophical thinking may find parts of the next few chapters a little difficult at first reading. However, it is important to realize that modern atheistic and agnostic theories are often a reworking of ideas put forward over previous centuries. In many cases, modern thinkers are standing on the shoulders of those who went before them, rather than producing totally new ideas. As recently as 1998, a survey carried out among students and academics found that the philosophers who have contributed most to the advancement of human understanding lived over 2,500 years ago, while the well-known contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida headed the list of thinkers ‘whose contribution to the subject has been most overrated’.11
Getting even a general picture of how modern atheistic and agnostic ideas developed over the centuries will, I believe, prove a great help when reading the later parts of the book.
From myths to monism
Questions about the physical world in which we live and the nature of reality have fascinated men of all ages and cultures. The first written evidence we have of this is the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from 2,000 B.C. and tells how the eponymous hero scoured the earth in his search for the meaning of the universe, life, death and immortality.
Other ancient writings record mythical accounts tying the origin and meaning of the cosmos to the forces of nature, with magic as the greatest force of all. In the eighth century B.C. the famous Greek poet Homer wrote of gods and goddesses who were personifications of nature, presided over by Zeus, ‘the Father of gods and men’. The distinction between these gods and human beings was one of power, not virtue. One writer says, ‘They connived, cheated and lied to help themselves and their favoured patrons among men,’12 while another adds, ‘Among their normal activities were perjury, war and adultery.’13 Not surprisingly, in Homer’s scenario man was a meaningless and helpless nonentity, separated from the deities by an impassable gulf and doomed at the 28 Does God believe in atheists? end of his miserable life to complete annihilation. Anyone tempted to dismiss these polytheistic notions as ancient and irrelevant history, nothing more than crude steps in man’s early development, should think again. As we shall see in chapter 11, some of today’s largest world religions are clearly polytheistic.
A sea change in men’s thinking took place around the sixth century B.C. and was centred at Miletus, a Greek colony on the coast of Asia Minor. These so-called Milesian philosophers were headed by Thales (fl. c. 585 B.C.), usually thought of as the father of Greek philosophy, who rejected mythological explanations of the origin and nature of the universe and substituted the basic ideas of natural science, believing that the physical world contained rational and intelligible evidence as to its origin and meaning. Within this general framework, Thales embraced monism, the theory that all reality consists of only one basic stuff or essence out of which everything in the cosmos was made. He believed that this primal substance was water, which was said to contain the cause of motion and change, and therefore of life itself. In this sense it could be said to be ‘divine’. This may be what lay behind his well-known saying, ‘All things are full of gods,’ though scholars have disagreed as to precisely what he may have meant by this. Similar uncertainty in being able to nail down the precise meaning of their statements leads one modern philosopher to say of the Milesian philosophers that ‘Their place in the history of unbelief is ... ambiguous.’14
Other philosophers of the same era focused their monism elsewhere. Anaximenes (fl. c. 550 B.C.) taught that the primal substance was air; Heraclitus (fl. c. 500 B.C.) saw fire as the first principle of reality, from which everything flowed in a constant state of flux, guided by a kind of universal reason; Parmenides (fl. c. 480 B.C.) believed that the only reality was ‘being’, of which nothing can be said other than that it is. Empedocles (c. 495 – c. 435 B.C.) taught that all matter was composed of four elements — earth, water, air and fire — and that their interaction explained all motion and change.
Monism has taken various other forms over the centuries, some regarding the primal substance as material and others as spiritual, but it is in direct conflict with theism for several reasons. Firstly, the totality of things includes evil, whereas God is without evil of any kind. Secondly, the process, structure, substance and ground of monism are impersonal, whereas God is personal. Thirdly, monism implies that there is no essential difference between good and evil, because eventually everything flows into a single unity, an idea which runs counter to theism and has serious implications. Os Guinness says of monism, ‘There are no moral absolutes; moral values are only relatively true or sociologically useful and the question of ethics is only the question of the optimal ground rules.’15 But to say that right and wrong are ultimately the same is to destroy any basis for law, order and morality in society. We will look more closely at this in a later chapter.
There are modern echoes of monism’s ancient ideas in the New Age Movement, which begins with the assumption that there is only one essential principle in the cosmos, into which all things, including humanity, are destined to merge. In the 1970s the hugely successful film Star Wars made use of the idea that good and evil were two facets of the same reality (the so-called ‘Force’) with the film’s hero, Luke Skywalker, making use of its good side and its villain, Darth Vader (ultimately revealed to be Skywalker’s father), tapping into the dark or evil side.
The next landmarks were put in place by the three giants of ancient Greek philosophy. The first of these was Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.) who rebelled against the natural approach adopted by his predecessors and changed the whole direction of philosophy. Although possessing ‘one of the keenest minds of all time’,16 he left no written record of his ideas, but we know of these from his brilliant pupil Plato, who used Socrates as the main character in a series of Dialogues, or dramatized discussions on philosophy, and from the Greek historian Xenophon.
Socrates differed from the natural philosophers in that he was primarily concerned with ethical matters rather than the nature of the universe. In his own words, ‘I have nothing to do with physical speculations.’17 Socrates claimed to be driven by an inner voice to search within the human soul or psyche for a solid foundation for knowledge, though this ‘inner voice’ would have borne little or no resemblance to the God outlined in the introduction. Socrates was an optimistic rationalist, believing that reason was the only path to knowledge and that humanity could be perfected, not by the external influence of a divine Creator but by the acquisition of true knowledge. He also believed that evil would eventually disappear from an educated world: in the words of his famous dictum, ‘He who knows what good is will do good.’
Socrates also held that the human soul was a prisoner of the body and that death released it to inhabit the eternal world of ideas. His views outraged many influential Athenians and at the age of seventy-one he was brought before a jury of 500 of his peers on a charge of disbelieving in the gods (in their view, atheism) and corrupting the youth of the city. By a narrow majority he was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock within twenty-four hours, the form of capital punishment then prescribed by law. Gathering his friends around him, he continued to argue for the immortality of the soul until the poison took effect. Incidentally, Socrates provides us with an almost humorous example of the need to define our terms, because it could be said that an atheist was condemned by atheists for refusing to embrace atheism!
The second of the three Greek giants was Plato (428–347 B.C.), now acknowledged as one of the greatest thinkers of all time, who taught philosophy at his renowned Academy, the prototype of our modern university, which he established in Athens and which lasted for 1,000 years. His enduring influence is such that the twentieth-century British philosopher and mathematician A. N. Whitehead, one of the founders of mathematical logic, commented that all subsequent philosophy is merely ‘footnotes to Plato’.
According to Plato’s famous Theory of Forms, the world is divided between ‘reality’ and ‘appearance’, an idea that has percolated throughout the entire history of Western culture. He taught that whereas we can have nothing more than opinions about tangible things (‘appearance’, or the world of the senses) we can have true knowledge of things that can be understood by reason (‘reality’, or the world of ideas).
Within this world of ideas, he said that ‘All mankind, Greeks and non-Greeks alike, believe in the existence of gods,’18 though he qualified this by writing of ‘the malady of atheism’, an atheist being defined as ‘a complete unbeliever in the being of gods’.19 In his blueprint of the ideal state, Plato made ‘impiety’ a crime punishable by five years’ imprisonment for the first offence and death on a second conviction.20 Although he rejected relativism and believed in absolutes such as good and beauty, he did not believe in a transcendent Creator who brought the world into existence out of nothing, but in what he called a ‘Demiurge’, a divine architect who designed the world out of pre-existent materials.
With Socrates, he held that evil came about by ignorance rather than malice and that to know good was to become good. In this model, men and society were perfectible by the development of the moral values inherent in human nature, but every era of human history has shown this utopian idea to be a mirage.
Plato’s most famous pupil, and the third of the Greek giants, was Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), a prolific philosopher who wrote extensively on most branches of learning, including ethics, politics, logic, rhetoric, psychology, botany, zoology, astronomy, history, mathematics and poetry. He founded a school in Athens, the remains of which were unearthed during excavations in 1997. Aristotle’s Lyceum was an alternative to Plato’s Academy and they became the Oxford and Cambridge of the ancient world. His direct influence, drawing the whole field of knowledge into a philosophical unity, extended well into the Middle Ages, and the discovery of the Lyceum’s ruins in 1997 prompted the Sunday Telegraph to say that he has ‘seldom been out of the news these last 2,000 years and more’.21 One modern writer calls him ‘not only the last of the great Greek philosophers’, but ‘Europe’s first great biologist’,22 and many of his principles can be traced in the thinking of contemporary atheists.
Aristotle began by defending Plato’s views, but he later became critical of them and eventually rejected all the essential features of his teacher’s metaphysics. Although he covered a vast field of learning, his major contribution to our subject was his complete explanation of reality without any reference to a personal God. Aristotle rejected the idea of a transcendent world of changeless forms or principles and emphasized instead the existence of individual, material objects. Human beings, like all other objects, were a mixture of form and matter, though reason made them unique and able to attain union with the divine. God, on the other hand, was pure form, existing without matter and, as such, was separate from all material things and not subject to change. This ‘Unmoved Mover’, or ‘First Cause’, set the world in motion and would draw everything to its final end or purpose.
There are glimmers here of elements present in traditional theism (which certainly says that God is not less than the ‘Unmoved Mover’ or ‘First Cause’) but, as with Plato, Aristotle’s notions of a Supreme Being were ‘abstract, coldly intellectual, impersonal, detached, and unconcerned about the world’.23 He once defined God as ‘thought thinking itself’24 — something far removed from a personal and transcendent Creator and Sustainer of the universe with whom people can have a living relationship.
Other philosophers developed ideas which were variations on these themes. One was Democritus (c. 460–370 B.C.) who believed that reality consisted of empty space and an unlimited number of invisible, eternal and unchangeable building blocks which moved because of their own innate powers and for which he coined the word ‘atoms’ (the Greek atomos, from the negative a and the verb temno, ‘to cut’, means ‘indivisible’). As to ideas of deity, he assumed the existence of extra-terrestrial beings which had more or less human forms but no interest or involvement in human activity.
Another atomist was Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) who, like Democritus, believed that even the human soul, thought and emotion could be explained by the movement and collision of atoms, while at death the soul’s atoms disperse ‘and when death is present we no longer exist’.25 For these philosophers, man could be understood only as the sum of his physical parts. Epicurus believed in an infinite number of worlds, but no gods.
These atomists were among the Greek philosophers who laid the earliest foundations of the scientific approach to the cause, course and climax of human history that was to be so dominant many centuries later. Their philosophy was a basic form of naturalism, a view of the world that places it firmly in the atheistic camp because it totally excludes the supernatural or spiritual. Naturalism, which has been called ‘the oldest philosophy in Western civilization’,26 says that our universe is a closed system in which everything has a ‘natural’ explanation. Not only does every event have its cause within the system, but no events within the system have any effect beyond it. Man’s thoughts, ideals, attitudes and actions are all determined by biochemical laws, which in turn are governed by physical laws.
For the naturalist, the word ‘nature’ includes everything that exists, as philosopher William Halverson explains: ‘If you cannot locate something in space and time, or you cannot understand it as a form or function of some entity or entities located in space and time, then you simply cannot say anything intelligible about it... To be is to be some place, some time.’27 As the naturalist cannot allow the possibility of a theistic world, the existence of God is ruled out a priori, and any discussion about his being, nature or behaviour is futile; in other words, the naturalist pronounces the answer before he asks the question.
We will pursue this further in a later chapter, but we have already uncovered enough to know that the questions raised by the atomists and their ilk come not in a trickle but in a torrent. If man is part of nature, where, as human beings, can we find any personal significance for our existence? What is the meaning of ‘purpose’, or the purpose of ‘meaning’? What basis is there for corporate or individual morality? What reference-point is there to distinguish good from evil? How can there be any rational sense of obligation to do or to be anything? If even our thoughts are predetermined, what is the sense in speaking about choice, opinion, values, responsibility, self-awareness, convictions, or even aesthetic appreciation? If human beings are no more than sophisticated machines, what sense is there in trying to construct or defend a concept of personal freedom? C. S. Lewis hit the nail on the head: ‘If naturalism were true then all thoughts whatever would be wholly the result of irrational causes. Therefore, all thoughts would be equally worthless. Therefore, naturalism is worthless. If it is true, then we can know no truths. It cuts its own throat.’ 28 We are also entitled to ask how naturalists can possibly know that their beliefs are correct, when in order to be certain they would have to transcend this world.
American author George Roche dismisses naturalism like this: ‘Contriving the theory required a great deal of thought and the finest scientific reasoning, only to conclude that thought and reasoning are meaningless. If the conclusion is correct, the theory is nonsense and no one need believe it. If the conclusion is false, it is just that, false; the theory is again nonsense. Naturalism, looked at philosophically rather than through the truncated thought of science, is an insult to the intelligence.’29
As we have seen, early Greek philosophy produced or promoted a bewildering array of religious and philosophical ideas, many of which flatly contradicted previous or contemporary theories. One Roman satirist suggested that it was easier in Athens to find a god than a man, while Xenophon called the city ‘one great altar’. If it is true to say that this era was the first to aim at certain knowledge about reality, it is equally true to say that its legacy ‘was one of uncertainty and confusion’.30 It should therefore come as no surprise to discover that there were many thinkers who balked at the idea of religious and philosophical certainty and refused to commit themselves to any of the propositions on offer. One of the most important of these was Pyrrho (c. 360–270 B.C.), the prime mover in a school of thought whose adherents became known as the ‘sceptics’. Pyrrho is hardly a household name today, but he is a highly significant figure in the history of scepticism. Until about 100 years ago Pyrrhonism was the name given to his particular position, which says that man is unable to know the real nature of the world or how it came into being.
According to the modern scholar James Thrower, Pyrrho’s scepticism (the word is based on the Greek skepsis, meaning enquiry, hesitation, doubt) was motivated ‘primarily by the search for tranquillity which he believed would follow from realizing perfect suspension of judgement’.31 In other words, the violent clash of ideas gave Pyrrho a philosophical headache and he saw scepticism as the perfect pain-killer. Dogma was a disease, and the cure was to suspend judgement, not only on logical and metaphysical questions, but on those relating to moral values and conduct. One would then be able to live a peaceful life, following one’s own instincts and inclinations and refusing to be threatened by other people’s convictions.
That rings a very loud bell in our day, which has been called ‘the age of scepticism’.32 As the contemporary apologist Ravi Zacharias puts it, ‘Never before has scepticism had such a brilliant halo around its head. There is a glory about “not knowing”. A high premium is placed on the absence of conviction, and open-mindedness has become synonymous with intellectual sophistication.’ 33 In the face of a barrage of religious and philosophical ideas offering a staggering variety of options in belief and behaviour, millions of people have reached for Pyrrho’s pain-killer and decided that the best decision is indecision. In historian Paul Johnson’s assessment, ‘Scepticism towards or denial of the existence of God is the hallmark of modern homo sapiens — Thinking Man.’34 Scepticism says that nothing can be known with complete certainty, and that the only sensible thing is neither to affirm nor deny anything. Even when faced with the massive implications of the issue, the sceptic adopts the popular political phrase and says, ‘I am ruling nothing in and I am ruling nothing out.’
Scepticism obviously falls foul of both theism and atheism, each of which says we do have sufficient data to come to a judgement. The issues are so important and complex that scepticism sounds commendably humble and perfectly reasonable — but is it either? It can hardly claim to be humble. No reasonable theist, however zealous, would seriously suggest that anyone can know everything there is to know about God, and such a person will freely admit that there are grey areas within his overall belief system. Yet that is not the same as scepticism; there is a difference between a mystery and a mirage! The sceptic, on the other hand, makes the bold claim that he alone has a clear picture, in which the truth is that no truth is knowable. Yet this makes the sceptic every bit as dogmatic as the theist (or, for that matter, the atheist). He is a believer; he is convinced that we can know nothing about God. But surely nobody can ever know that he can know nothing about God? After all, the sceptic can hardly shelter behind the principle that the burden of proof lies with the theist, because the burden of proof is always on the one who believes any idea — and the sceptic is a believer. Far from being a modest position, full-blown scepticism is exactly the opposite.
More importantly, is it reasonable? The modern philosopher B. A. G. Fuller points out that ‘The role of scepticism is to remind men that knowing with absolute certainty is impossible.’35 But if this is the case, how can we know this statement with certainty? Scepticism claims that there is no objective truth, but in doing so it trips over its own feet. If the claim is true, then we can be sure about at least one thing, the claim itself, and if we can be sure about the claim, the claim itself must be false. Scepticism is self-contradictory, yet it seems happy to live with this, as it avoids the need to defend a dogma. It says that we must accept as certain truth that there is no such thing as certain truth and that we must cast doubt on everything except the statement that we must do so. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, two professors of philosophy, pinpoint the clear contradictions in all forms of scepticism: ‘They all amount to saying that it is true that there is no truth, or we can know that we cannot know, or we can be certain that we cannot be certain, or it is a universal truth that there are no universal truths, or you can be quite dogmatic about the fact that you can’t be dogmatic, or it is an absolute that there are no absolutes, or it is an objective truth that there is no objective truth.’ 36
For all their superficial attraction, Pyrrho’s ideas never became a settled part of the philosophical establishment and it was to be well over 1,000 years before scepticism resurfaced as a significant philosophical movement. We will pick up the threads of this in the next chapter.
The cosmic cop-out
The influence of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Greek philosophy was so powerful that in this high-speed survey we can jump 500 years to Plotinus (c. A.D. 205–270), who radically reshuffled the ideas of Plato and others, added a significant dose of mysticism and formulated the philosophical system which became known as neo-Platonism.
Plotinus’ solution to the Greeks’ age-old problem of trying to reconcile what they called ‘the one and the many’ was to say that ultimate reality is the one from which all existence flows and to which it strives to return. These ‘flowings’ are in the form of a kind of descending or widening stream — first ideas, then soul and finally matter, a system which was later to become known as ‘the Great Chain of Being’. In this scheme of things, there is no essential distinction between a creator and his creation. Although the divine image becomes fainter as one moves ‘downstream’, everything that exists has divinity within it, or it could not exist at all. It also means, as Henry Morris notes, that ‘There is no true beginning and no ending, neither of the cosmos nor of individuals.’ 37
What we have here is one of the earliest formal statements of pantheism, although the word, from the Greek pan (all) and theos (God), was not coined until 1705, when the Irish scholar John Toland used it of philosophical systems which identified God with the world. Fifteen years later he developed his idea into his famous statement: ‘God is the mind or soul of the Universe.’38 Stripped down to its bare essentials, pantheism is the idea that God is everything and everything is God. To put it even more concisely, all that there is is God. This makes it easy to see why pantheism can properly be called a form of atheism, because if God is everything in general, he is nothing in particular.
Although pantheism is one of the earliest philosophical theories known to man, it mixes well with modern, man-centred religious concepts, not least because it gets rid of a God to whom we are morally answerable. Yet that in itself proves nothing. After debunking the evolutionary religious model which sees pantheism as a development from more primitive ideas, C. S. Lewis warned, ‘The fact that a shoe slips on easily does not prove that it is a new shoe — much less that it will keep your feet dry. Pantheism is congenial to our minds, not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is almost as old as we are.’39
After speaking of ‘the human impulse towards pantheism’, Lewis added, ‘It is nearly as strong today as it was in ancient India or in ancient Rome.’40 It has certainly remained one of the world’s most pervasive philosophies; as we shall see later, Buddhism, Hinduism, Theosophy and the New Age Movement are all basically pantheistic. So is the so-called Gaia hypothesis, first proposed by the British scientist James Lovelock and increasingly popular among environmentalists and others. This says that the earth is one single living organism, with the entire biosphere as a self-regulating system which controls and maintains the conditions for life.
Although Lovelock is ‘regarded as something of a crank in the orthodox scientific community’,41 the Gaia hypothesis has attracted massive support. Pursuing its ideas has led many to personify ‘Mother Nature’ or ‘Mother Earth’ and others to speak of the earth as ‘God’s body’.42 The Secretary-General of the United Nations told the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, ‘To the ancients, the Nile was a god to be venerated, as was the Rhine, an infinite source of European myths, or the Amazonian forest, the mother of forests. Throughout the world, nature was the abode of the divinities that gave the forest, the desert or the mountains a personality which commanded worship and respect. The Earth had a soul. To find that soul again, to give it new life, that is the essence of Rio.’43 In her plenary address at a conference held under the title ‘Re-imagining God, the Community and the Church’, Chung Kyun Kyung summoned ‘the spirit of Earth, Air and Water’ and declared, ‘For many Asians, we see god in the wind, in the fire, in the tree, in the ocean. We are living with god, it is just energy ... it is in the sun, in the ocean, it is from the ground and it is from the trees... If you feel very tired and you feel you don’t have any energy to give, what you do is to go to a big tree and ask the tree, “Give me some of your life energy!”’44 These are just two striking examples of a modern mixture of animism and pantheism which goes far beyond the respect we should properly have for the natural world and the corporate responsibility we have to care for it. Encouraging the sensible conservation and development of the earth’s resources has a rationale that has become increasingly clear as the twentieth century has run its course; treating nature as a divine entity which calls for our worship has none. It is no coincidence that in Greek mythology Gaia was the name of the earth goddess.
In spite of its widespread appeal to concepts of unity and harmony, pantheism has seriously negative implications. Theologian Gene Edward Veith gives one example: ‘If God, other people, pieces of quartz, individual dolphins, different planets and one’s own soul are all the same, then loving God, loving other people and loving nature become just glorified ways of loving oneself. The whole universe becomes sucked into the black hole of introversion and egotism.’ 45
In that it posits God as immanent but not transcendent, pantheism is essentially one form of monism and faces the same kind of awkward questions. If there is no distinction between God and the world, between God and self and between self and the world, what is the basis for objective truth? If God and the universe are one, what is the source of human freedom? If we are nothing more than drops in a cosmic ocean, where do countless millions of people get their irresistible sense of individuality and personal identity? Where in nature can we discover a rationale for ethical principles? If we are part of nature, how can we have any moral dimension? How do we explain the existence of evil, alienation and ignorance? If these things are illusions, how can they at one and the same time be part of an indivisible whole? Kreeft and Tacelli add this clincher: ‘If all is one, as pantheism claims, and if manyness is an illusion, where did the illusion come from? If all is a dream, who is the dreamer? Would a perfect God dream an imperfect dream? And if an imperfect, unenlightened human mind is the dreamer of this illusion of manyness, then these non-divine minds do exist, and not everything is God; thus pantheism is abandoned.’46
Plotinus did not invent pantheism, but he did give it an impetus which has lasted over 1,700 years and shows no signs of falling out of fashion. There are millions of people today whose philosophy, religion and world-view are pinned to pantheism. Finding evidence for its popularity is child’s play; finding evidence for its credibility is another matter altogether. Paul Johnson comes to the conclusion that pantheism ‘is the negation of belief, an escape, a cop-out from all the difficulties of theology’. 47
In passing, we should also include a note on panentheism, which is a kind of compromise between theism and pantheism. Panentheism denies on the one hand that God is eternal and transcendent, yet it does not identify him with the material universe. Instead, God and the universe are dependent on each other; God needs the world, because he exists only as its vital force, and the world needs God, because it cannot exist without his vitalizing power. In this scheme of things, God is no longer the Creator, but merely some kind of cosmic energy, and questions as to how the material world came into being and why it exists are ignored.
For all their prodigious output (Epicurus alone produced some 200 volumes) and the many valuable insights they brought to the world of their day, these ancient Greek philosophers left behind more questions than answers.