Sunday, January 17, 2016

Pantheism and religion

Sandwiched between articles on human flatulence and the hazard posed by pigeon-droppings to electricity pylons, the 2015 Christmas/New Year edition of New Scientist contained an article by theologian Mary-Jane Rubenstein. The main thrust of the article attempts to draw parallels between some ancient philosophies and modern multiverse proposals in cosmology.

Specifically, Mary-Jane argues that the atomists were proposing a type of spatial multiverse, whilst the stoics were advocating a temporal one. Although it's stretching the point somewhat, the majority of the article is quite interesting.

However, as we reach the final paragraphs, Mary-Jane can be found citing a type of pantheism advocated by Nicholas of Cusa:

"Traditionally, Christian doctrine has taught that humans are made in the image of God. Cusa disrupted this idea by saying that the universe, not man, bears the image of God. And if humans are not particularly godlike, then God is not particularly humanoid. God doesn't look like a patriarch in the sky: he looks like the universe."

Now, pantheism is a rather strange notion. It's as if one has responded to the question 'Do unicorns exist as well as horses?' by replying 'Yes, they do, but they don't have horns, and can be identified with, or considered to resemble horses.'

But that's not the main problem with the article. The main problem comes in the final paragraph, where Mary-Jane concludes that because pantheisms "change what it means to be God...we don't need to chose between God and the multiverse...Is it possible that modern cosmology is asking us, not to abandon religion, but to think differently about what it is that gives life, what it is that's sacred, where it is we come from - and where we'll go?"

Whoa! Hold on a cotton-picking minute there, Mary-Jane. Perhaps there were some readers whose blood-flow was devoted more towards the stomach than the brain over the Christmas period, and under such conditions it might be possible to miss the sleight-of-hand here. Under most other conditions it's not too difficult to spot the sudden jump from the abstract metaphysical concept of pantheism to the introduction of religion.

The term 'religion' doesn't just entail a bundle of metaphysical concepts: it means a human institution; it means scripture, liturgy, a priesthood, a dogmatic moral code, the indoctrination of children, and the amplification of tribal behaviour.

That's rather more than pantheism suggests, I fear, and certainly not the answer to any of the questions posed by multiverse cosmology.

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