Does Atheism Lead Back to the Superstitious World of Pantheism?

I have long been a student of world-views and have been interested in which ones historically led to the next one, and so forth in the West [For a great discussion of this see James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic World-View Catalog (IVP 2000)]. I know that Deism historically led to atheism, and atheism leads some people to pantheism or New Age philosophy. I just don’t think it has to. I have to stop this slippery slide somewhere, and so I do so at atheism. I just don't think atheism leads back to the superstitious beliefs of pantheism, with its omens, crystals, holistic healing, astrology, automatic writing, psychics, necromancy, reincarnation, spirit gods, and the occult. But some argue that it does.

Does this surprise you? C.S. Lewis: “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…it is immemorial in India. Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks…It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself.” [Miracles: A Preliminary Study, Macmillan, 1947, (pp. 84-85)].

According to Douglas R. Groothuis, “the New Age (Western pantheism) and secular humanism (atheism in action) are more like cousins than strangers, and the competition between the two world views is more of an in-house feud than a dispute between opposites. A better metaphor might be to view the One as taking the baton from a once robust but now failing secular humanism so that the race to win Western civilization might be won by a new kind of humanism—cosmic humanism.” [Unmasking the New Age (IVP, 1986, p. 52)]

Why is this? It’s because both pantheists and atheists agree on one basic idea. Both world-views agree that reality is of one substance, unlike the theist or deist who believes there is a creator/creation distinction. Pantheists will say that the One exists, and atheists will say that all that exists or will ever exist is matter. They may use different words like “Spirit” and “Matter.” But they both agree on Monism, that is, everything is One (substance), so why should it matter what word someone uses to describe the One?

They may also both agree that there are no universal truths or absolute standards in ethics, from some perspectives. The pantheist will say that ethics disappear as a category, while the atheist may claim that man creates his own truth or ethics.

They both may agree that human beings have no intrinsic value above anything else in reality. The pantheist will say that we are all spirit beings; incarnations of the One, while atheists will claim human beings are merely highly evolved animals.

They both see humankind’s problem as that of ignorance of our true potential which is hindered by the theistic view of God. For the pantheist, this ignorance hinders the Cosmos from being One, while for the atheist this ignorance inhibits scientific progress, creates class struggles, mass neurosis, intolerance and environmental disasters.

They both see the solution to be the same too, from opposite poles. The pantheist’s solution is to exalt ourselves as the gods we truly are, while the atheist wants to dethrone God as creator. “Gods in Disguise,” or “Naked Apes,” all reality is being ultimately equalized.

Death too, is seen the same, from some perspectives, as the end of personal existence. For the pantheist, that which is reincarnated is just another incarnation of the One, while for the atheist death is the end of the individual as it is known.

“The key problem for the secular humanist is the genesis of mind in the universe. How can mere matter in motion produce mind? How can inanimate chance give birth to animate purposeful beings such as animals and people? Lifeless matter could never transcend itself. Thus, philosophical evolutionists asserted that consciousness emerged from latent potentialities in matter. Matter is not lifeless, but spiritually potent. This latent consciousness (mind) becomes actualized in evolution and conscious of itself in man. The difficulty of matter producing mind disappears, but what is left is more than materialistic humanism. Materialism evolves into pantheism.” “In the end, the supernatural is not really supernatural, but another dimension of the natural.” [Unmasking the New Age (IVP, 1986), pp. 53-54]. Or, according to Charles Hodge, “If matter becomes mind, mind is God, and God is everything. Thus the monster Pantheism swallows up science and its votaries.” [quoted by Groothuis, p. 54]. In other words, once matter is all there is to account for consciousness, then matter is consciousness is some sense of the word. And if that’s so, matter has some very unusual characteristics, in that it can be aware of itself and can think. So matter could possibly be described as being “alive” in some sense of the word, and atheists are pushed in the direction of pantheism.

As an atheist I feel the general force of this argument, but in the end I must reject it. I’ll share a few of my reasons and open it up for discussion. In the first place it is scientific investigation and reason which leads me to atheism. It is what has worked to produce technology, space flight, and micro-surgery. It has been used to basically eliminate polio and tuberculosis from the industrialized world. But when we look at the possibility of abandoning the scientific pursuit in favor of returning once again to superstition we abandon the very things that have produced what we now experience. Returning to witchdoctors and acupuncture and crystals and tea leaves is simply not an option to modern scientifically thinking people. It is to abandon what got us here in the first place.

The thing that probably separates atheism from pantheism is the belief that this universe exists by chance. Once someone accepts this he can no longer have any leanings toward pantheism, contrary to the Christian critics. There is nothing in a chancistic universe that can lead to the idea that nature is "alive" even if we have evolved as conscious thinking human beings and can reflect upon this chancistic universe. This is the non-sequitur. Among others, Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained and Francis Crick in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, are attempting to explain consciousness by non-purposive explanations.

Besides, pantheism is just unbelievable to me. Pantheists claim everything and everyone is One. The One is what we may call “God.” There are different “in house” arguments within pantheists but I must simply reject their whole worldview outright, although people are not being irrational to believe it, for rational categories fly out the window from their perspective. If God is the changeless absolute and we are God, then why must we go through the process of attaining enlightenment in order to reach the awareness that we are God? Doesn’t that require change, something the pantheist God does not do? Moreover, if all distinctions are lost in God, then what is it that distinguishes between an unenlightened person and one who is enlightened? Why bother being enlightened when the unenlightened person is just as much God as the one who is enlightened?

Then too, if all is God, and God is beyond spirit-matter dualisms, then everything we experience with our five senses all throughout our entire lives is simply wrong—an illusion—Maya. It’s hard to believe a world-view that says everything I experience all my life is nothing but an illusion, although I understand it, especially as a philosophy instructor, when we consider that we use filters to see and hear reality. With our eyes and ears, we do not see or hear the whole electromagnetic and sonic spectra. What is visible or audible to us is a small portion of reality. We don’t see cosmic rays, gamma rays, x-rays, ultraviolet or infrared light, and we don’t hear radar, radio, television and ultrasonic waves. I liken reality in my classes to “white noise” coming from a weak TV signal. But I still cannot believe “reality” is nothing more than the filters themselves.

Pantheists also say God is beyond our concepts to describe. Their goal is to go beyond all conceptual viewpoints. But that seems to me to be a contradiction, because when they describe God or this process they must use concepts, and the end result is that God becomes void of any meaning at all.

Furthermore, the whole concept of reincarnation is an extremely depressing thought to easterners. To see why I reject reincarnation see here.