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Pantheism is the religious belief that God is not merely omnipresent, but that God is the universe. Although some forms are very mystical and linked with New Age beliefs, it was in the 17th and 18th centuries associated with rationalism and even atheism, as a philosophy that denied a supernatural God existing outside the known universe. This latter version has continued to be popular with scientists.
Although associated with Giordano Bruno in the late 16th century and Baruch Spinoza in the 17th, the word "pantheism" was coined (or at least popularised) by John Toland (1670-1722), an Irish philosopher who like Spinoza tried to use reason to explain all aspects of the universe; his other influences included the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius and the empiricist John Locke. Toland was originally linked with Protestant dissenters, but became far more radical and attempted to explain how everything about Christianity could be explicable by science in works such as Christianity not Mysterious (1696), which earned him accusations of blasphemy and demands for him to be burnt at the stake. The word "pantheism" first appeared in Socinianism Truly Stated, by a pantheist (1705), although it's not clear how much he considered himself a pantheist - he was a believer in keeping private and public religions separate, and restricted his more extreme ideas to his most trusted friends (Socinianism was an eccentric non-Trinitarian version of Christianity in Poland and Transylvania in the 16th and 17th centuries that was later held as an exemplar of rationalism, with questionable accuracy). His Pantheisticon (1720) set out plans for a secret society of pantheists, including a moral code based on reason.
Proponents of pantheism may point to the fact that, if you define God as something that could create the universe and create and nurture life, then you do not need to leave the natural realm to find something that fits the description perfectly; the universe itself does so.
What pantheism means is often open to interpretation, but many versions call on God as the consciousness of all that is. A literal interpretation doesn't stray very far from conventional theology; indeed it builds upon the established God figure present in the Abrahamic religions. In this idea, a person's own individual consciousness is merely a part of the greater whole, the whole that is God himself, who may still possess personable characteristics and may still interefere with life, such as with miracles. St. Paul flirted with this idea of God when St. Luke recorded him saying (in Acts 17:28) "For in him we live, and move, and have our being..."
Pantheism has had a great deal of influence on neopaganism, even if most neopagans couldn't name a single pantheist.
Quite a few cosmologists and physicists generally lean towards the concept of pantheism, such as Stephen Hawking (we presume, as the cheeky git did not really clarify), Carl Sagan, and Albert Einstein (unlike Hawking, his quotes and writing are quite explicit that he did not "believe in a personal god," while he also made clear he wasn't a straight-up atheist). In the impersonal form, pantheism is taken as meaning that the universe itself fits the description of what God should be perfectly, so rather than inventing a character, it is best to refer to the universe as God. This belief distances itself from the world of dogmatic religion, but allows pantheists to use the vivid language of spirituality to express experiences of wonder, awe, and connectedness in the face of Nature. Baruch Spinoza refined the idea of pantheism in the late 1600's, and some later pantheists, such as Einstein, would credit Spinoza as being influential in the forming of their worldview. In this sense, pantheism is synonymous with the term "Spinoza's God."
Unfortunately, because many respected scientists call the universe "God" in a pantheistic sense, their statements are the unwitting target of creationist or fundamentalist quote mining. In particular, this is for use in appeals to authority, whereby the pantheistic "God" the scientist refers to is conflated with the Abrahamic God of the Bible. In reality, the pantheistic "God" usually has little to do with the Bible or any specific religion, even if the belief is that the pantheistic God is also personal, such as what is hinted at in Hawking's writings. This quote mining is especially true of Einstein due to his almost universal respect, and sometimes Hawking and his famous closing line of A Brief History of Time: "for then we should know the mind of God."
- Pandeism, according to which a creator becomes a universe
- Deism - belief in a non-personal god (a god not regarded as a person)
- Panentheism, which sees divinity in everything without conflating divinity and everything
- Theism, a belief in the existence of one or more gods
- Pantheism.net - towards a "naturalistic spirituality"