Whenever I take one of those quizzes that tell you what religion/ philosophy melds best with your beliefs, pantheism always ends up close to the top. That makes sense.
I've got a naturalistic view of the universe, but I also have a powerful sense of awe when I contemplate the cosmos -- either in its incomprehensibly vast totality, or the mystery of how a single flower has come to be.
Today I came across a mention of John Burroughs in "The Quotable Atheist," a book I pick up regularly for some churchless inspiration. The Burroughs quotes I liked the most were mostly drawn from this passage in his' "The Scheme of the Universe."
When I look up at the starry heavens at night and reflect upon what it is that I really see there, I am constrained to say, "There is no God." The mind staggers in its attempt to grasp the idea of a being that could do that. It is futile to attempt it. It is not the works of some God that I see there.
I am face to face with a power that baffles speech. I see no lineaments of personality, no human traits, but an energy upon whose currents solar systems are but bubbles. In the presence of it man and the race of man are less than motes in the air.
I doubt if any mind can expand its conception of God sufficiently to meet the outstanding disclosures of modern science. It is easier to say there is no God. The universe is so unhuman, that is, it goes its way with so little thought of man. He is but an incident, not an end.
We must adjust our notions to the discovery that things are not shaped to him, but that he is shaped to them. The air was not made for his lungs, but he has lungs because there is air; the light was not created for his eye, but he has eyes because there is light. All the forces of nature are going their own way; man avails himself of them, or catches a ride as best he can.
Burroughs also said:
"Science has fairly turned us out of our comfortable little anthropomorphic notion of things into the great out-of-doors of the universe. We must and will get used to the chill, yea, to the cosmic chill, if need be. Our religious instincts will be all the hardier for it."
"Science kills credulity and superstition, but to the well-balanced mind it enhances the feeling of wonder, of veneration, and of kinship which we feel in the presence of the miraculous universe."
"Man’s craving for the supernatural is as natural as our discounting of the present moment... The natural becomes trite and commonplace to us and we take refuge in an imaginary world above and beyond it."
Burroughs has been described as a literary naturalist, someone who had a marvelous capacity for describing a relationship with the natural world that almost everyone senses to some degree, but which most of us don't feel as intensely as he did.
I can relate to his mention of getting used to "the cosmic chill."
For most of my life I was seeking the warmth of religious consolation (Eastern mysticism variety). I didn't like the chilling idea of death: that one day little me would return to the nothing that I was before my conception and birth. I wanted a promise of everlasting beingness.
Living onward as me after I die still seems much more appealing than non-existence. But I no longer am able to embrace a religious fantasy of life after death. If that dream comes true, great. If not, I'd rather live life in its chilling reality than cozy up to an imaginary faith-flame.
And Burroughs reminds us that if we identify ourselves as part and parcel of nature, not some disembodied soul, then it is impossible for us to die. It all depends on how we view the "we" that is "us."
This vital Nature out of which we came, out of which father and mother came, out of which all men come, and to which again we all in due time return, why should we fear it or distrust it? It makes our hearts beat and our brains think. When it stops the beating and the thinking, will it not be well also? It looked after us before we were born; it will look after us when we are dead.
Every particle of us will be taken care of; the force of every heart-beat is conserved somewhere, somehow. There is no stoppage and no waste, forever and ever. My consciousness ceases as a flame ceases, but that which made my consciousness does not cease. What comfort is that to the me?
Ah, the me wants to go on and on. But let the me learn that only Nature goes on and on, that the law which makes the me and unmakes it is alone immortal, and that it is best so. Identity is a thought, a concept of our minds, and not a property of our minds.
I also liked Burroughs "The God of Pantheism," where he points out how much more sense it makes to call the totality of everything nature rather than God -- since we can worship (if we want to use that word) nature by kneeling in our garden and touching the earth, whereas an other-worldly God is, of course, utterly unnatural.
When we call the power back of all God, it smells of creeds and systems, of superstition, intolerance, persecution; but when we call it Nature, it smells of spring and summer, of green fields and blooming groves, of birds and flowers and sky and stars.
I admit that it smells of tornadoes and earthquakes, of disease and death too, but these things make it all the more real to us to conceive of God in terms of universal Nature - a nature God in whom we really live and move and have our being, with whom our relation is as intimate and constant as that of the babe in its mother's womb, or the apple upon the bough.
This is the God that science and reason reveal to us - the God we touch with our hands, see with our eyes, hear with our ears, and from whom there is no escape - a God whom we serve and please by works and not by words, whose worship is deeds, and whose justification is in adjusting ourselves to his laws and availing ourselves of his bounty, a God who is indeed from everlasting to everlasting.