Why not split the difference between the traditional forms of theism and atheism? By traditional theism I mean the worldview featuring the personal, transcendent, benevolent “omni-everything” deity. By traditional atheism I mean the materialist/physicalist worldview (essentially “billiard balls all the way down”).
I make the following two observations:
1. The most compelling arguments atheists make against traditional theism have little or no force against a deity which lacks some of the usual attributes of being, say, personal, transcendent, and omnipotent. I’m thinking of the argument from evil as well as the general argument from the absence of evidence for ad hoc supernatural interventions.
2. The most compelling arguments made against materialist atheism point to a need for “something more” but they don’t require a deity with all those classic attributes. Here I have in mind the arguments from the irreducibility of first-person experience and intentionality and a modified version of the Thomist cosmological argument (the existence of things requires a unifying ground or force).
I’d also note that, in my opinion, religious experiences provide authentic evidence which points toward theism, but they don’t provide much support for specific religions (I’m skeptical that a person who never heard of Jesus would ever have an explicitly Christian religious vision).
So, what about pantheism? Pantheism is the idea that God is identical with nature or the universe, or alternatively God is a ubiquitous force or presence uniting entities in the universe. What God is not is a person or being distinct from the world. I thought this SEP article on pantheism by Michael Levine provided a fine, sympathetic summary.
His article shows that a difficulty with pantheism is that (not surprisingly) there are many versions, and it appears that few have been fleshed out in detail. There doesn’t seem to have been a leading figure in Western thought who was a pantheist since Spinoza (Levine lists some figures who are “possible” pantheists). So there is no metaphysical program to sign on to. On the other hand it seems pantheism is an idea which is all too easy to invoke in a fuzzy new-age way.
Actually, I would highlight two issues which need to be addressed. First, and to me most important, what problems does pantheism help us solve? Specifically, what are the metaphysical features which improve on the perceived limitations of atheism without broaching the problems of classical theism? The second issue is a question about why the worldview entails invoking something divine. What makes it a religious as well as a philosophical worldview?
To bring out the issues, let’s look at a particular simplified version of pantheism which identifies God with the natural world (with no further detail). On the first issue, one would have to say this worldview adds no “metaphysical value” to a naturalist philosophy which lacks God. On the second issue, it begs the question of why it would make sense to treat the natural world as something divine. What type of religious practice (worship or prayer) makes sense if there really is nothing supernatural? Traditional theists have understandably criticized this sort of pantheism as atheism with window dressing.
It seems to me it may be possible to form a more successful version of pantheism to address these issues. In the article, Levine highlights the concept of unity as something important to pantheism. Let me sketch something building on this concept. Perhaps God/World has two modes of presentation. The entities and properties studied through third-person investigations are one mode. The second mode is a unifying force which binds and connects individuals in the world-network and also endows them with the gift of first-person experience (minimal for simple entities, robust for humans). So, we’ve given the God/World some features beyond the usual worldview of naturalism, and also have a mode of existence (a uniting “world-mind”) which may be worthy of religious feeling. Obviously this sketch leaves many unanswered questions. What accounts for the dual modes? Is it a monistic system or really a dualism? Is the ontology one of substance, like Spinoza’s, or not? What are the implications for ethics, etc.?
Given the deficiencies in both poles of the traditional theism-atheism debate, these seem to be ideas and questions worth exploring.
One last note on a variation of pantheism: that is, panentheism. This is the idea that while our world is part of God, it does not exhaust God. God extends beyond our world. Given that even physicists speak more and more about multiple universes and/or dimensions, it seems reasonable to think that God could be a repository of many real or possible worlds, of which ours is a particular manifestation.