Re-post: Is Richard Dawkins right that ‘pantheism is just sexed-up athetis’? (from 2007)

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam: London, 2006

"Pantheists don't believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the desit God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist's metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.... Einstein was using 'God' in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. So is Stephen Hawking, and so are most of those physicists who occasionally slip into the language of religious metaphor." (pp. 18-19)

Some thoughts:

A helpful corrective for scientists. Dawkins avoids using 'God' in this sense, and considers it confusing and politically expedient. He has a point. Francis Schaeffer warns of the same thing is liberal Christian theology, where people who have basically denied the existence of God continue to use God-language in order to smuggle in greater emotional and spiritual significance to their otherwise-atheism.
It is not fair to say that all pantheism is merely sexed-up atheism. I can think of at least four ways that this comment could be engaged with:

  1. Some atheists use pantheistic language, and mean nothing by it, as Dawkins suggests. At worst, they are doing this is a politically expedient way, for which his derision is perhaps justified. Such pantheists are really de facto atheists.
  2. But properly speaking, pantheism is an ontological claim. It is the belief that there is a quality or value to the natural world that is more than the sum of its parts. There is something spiritual about the natural world. This is not merely sexed-up atheism, but a philosophical system.
  3. However, some atheists use pantheistic language because they truly want to say that there is something meaningful, valuable and significant about the natural world, while still denying a spiritual world. At times I feel that Dawkins wants to speak of good and evil with a force that really goes beyond his scientific naturalism. I think that this is because we do have an innate (not psychologically/biologically required) understanding that there is more to life than the merely physical. You could say that these atheists are de facto pantheists.
  4. But you could say that pantheism has no proper ground for its belief in a spiritual dimension to the created world. You could say that when taken to its logical conclusion any belief of supernatural value to the created world is intangible and meaningless. You could thus argue that intentionally or not, all pantheism is ultimately atheistic.

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