Respecting the sacred in nature and humanity

A brief history.

Pantheist religions and philosophies have often developed systems of ethics in keeping with their view of the universe. Stoics like Marcus Aurelius urged people to live according to nature and to accept fate as the will of the cosmos. Taoists such as Lao Tzu said we should live according to the Tao or Way (in some ways close to the Stoic idea of Nature). We should avoid violence, take up soft and flexible positions, moderate our desires, and achieve our goals through minimal action.

More recent pantheists from Christian backgrounds have reacted against Christianity’s negative approach to the world and excessive stress on self-sacrifice and self-abnegation. Ernst Haeckel claimed that self-love was a necessary counterpart to altruism. For D. H. Lawrence affirmation of life and the body and human sexuality were essential. Modern Pagans adopt the permissive Wiccan rule: An’ it harm none, do as ye will.

We can learn from all of these positions, and from other humanist forms of ethics. Pantheist ethics are not imperialistic: they do not attempt to provide principles for all human actions. But what pantheism can provide is a solid religious basis for ethics. In the case of environmental ethics and of human rights that basis is far more solid than anything that traditional Western religions can offer.

Grounding ethics in reality.

Ethics is perhaps the most difficult area of philosophy. It is not like logic, where you can build up a set of rigorous arguments based on solid premises. It is not like science, where you can deduce theories from what you discover about reality. It is deeply affected by varying human passions, pleasures, social structures. It is an area of intellectual risk, of leaps in the dark, and of unending controversy.

One of the most fundamental problems of any ethical system is how to ground its principles. Ethics is forced to look beyond itself for its most basic assumptions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam use the basis of divine command – though many people question whether any divine commands were ever issued (see Religions as a basis for ethics. Utilitarianism takes the greatest pleasure of the greatest number as its ultimate goal. Again, many wonder whether this could be used to justify the ditching of all fundamental principles of right and wrong.

Pantheist ethics have the clearest grounding of any ethical system. In a sense they are the ethics that the universe and nature themselves evoke directly from us.

The ethical appeal

This comes about in two related ways. The first is through a direct emotional appeal, based on the objective qualities of nature and the universe.

The logic of this process is simple. The Universe is divine. When we say divine, we are talking about objective properties of the universe – its overwhelming power, mystery, beauty, unity – commonly associated with divinity (see The real divine attributes). If we perceive these properties clearly and directly, they are bound to awaken in us feelings about and attitudes towards the universe and nature which oblige us to act in certain ways.

This “oblige” is not a command backed up by the threat of punishment. It is not a duty implied in a contract. It is more like a call, an appeal. The original stimulus comes from the Universe and nature, as it reveals itself to us through our senses and perceptions. This revelation is transmitted continually: each one of us can hear it if we listen attentively. Our own emotional response is what turns the revelation into a message, a call to action.

The rights of the sacred

The second approach is through a recognition of the equal value of our fellow members of the total divinity. All natural objects – all galaxies, stars, planets, rocks, oceans, rivers, trees, plants, animals – are participants in the divinity, just like we are as natural human beings. This recognition provides a powerful basis for respecting the rights of humans, animals and other living things, and the integrity of ecosystems and the biosphere.

Since all natural beings stand on an equal basis with us to the divine universe, we are called on to respect them, to recognize that they are sacred, beautiful, and mysterious. In philosophical terms we acknowledge that they have religious, aesthetic and cognitive value.

They also have ethical value. Recognizing their ethical value means recognizing them as ends in themselves, not just means for us to use.

With inanimate objects like stones or streams, it means recognizing their beauty and mystery, independently of any use we plan to make of them. It means pausing to admire a pebble before you throw it into a lake.

What does it mean for living things to be ends in themselves? It means that they are ends to themselves: they have certain basic life goals linked to their survival and reproduction, and we must recognize these as well as our own goals in all our dealings with them.

The ethical call of the universe.

Let’s examine how the ethical call and the concept of rights applies in the main areas, from the universe, through life and ecosystems, to humans.

The universe obliges us to respond to it in certain ways. For its power we have reverence, and acceptance of whatever fate nature holds in store for us as our part in the adventure of reality. That does not mean acceptance of the results of human injustice – only of death, accident, disease and so on.

The unity of the universe gives us a feeling of belonging, to which we respond by cultivating mystical union. The mystery of the universe awakens our curiosity, which we seek to satisfy through science and exploration. The universe’s beauty inspires us with love and requires us to contemplate it and express our wonder through painting, photography, and other art forms. Finally, we express all of these emotions and responses through celebration and ritual.

The issue of rights does not arise with the universe – at least not at our present technological level. There is nothing we can do to harm or alter anything in the universe except for our own planet. Nor does the universe have any goals that we could respect or disrespect.

The ethical call of nature.

Nature is part of the divinity of the universe. It is an expression of the astonishing power of matter to organize itself into more and more complex forms and associations.

Nature too has power, unity, mystery, and beauty. So it awakens in us similar feelings of reverence, belonging, curiosity and love, and their linked responses of acceptance, union, exploration and contemplation.

But nature has additional qualities which require other responses. These qualities have to do with our dependence on and interdependence with nature, and with nature’s vulnerability.

We have a dual relationship with nature and the ecosystems of which we are part. We depend on them, and now that we have the power to wreck them, they depend on us not to use that power.

We emerged from nature like children, and like children we remain dependent on her for food, water, soil, medicines, and other materials. In this sense nature is our womb, our mother, our home. We are called on to respond as her children, with love and a feeling of belonging.

It is not a difficult obligation: most people love nature without prompting. But before we can fulfil it we need to unlearn the damaging messages we have been taught by the religions of agrarian societies, especially Judaism and Christianity: the Genesis message that nature was put their for humans to dominate and use; and the Apocalyptic message that the earth is only a temporary installation that God himself will shortly destroy. [See The Bible and environment].

We are not superior to nature but part of her. We are not the pinnacle of creation nor the vanguard of cosmic evolution, but a part of the ongoing experiment. Other living things were not put on earth solely for our sakes, but exist for their own sake. Earth and nature are long-term ventures.

Because of the extraordinary technological powers we have acquired, natural ecosystems now depend on us for stability and survival. Not in the sense that they can’t survive without us: left undisturbed, they are perfectly able to regulate themselves. But our current level of intrusion in natural processes is so invasive and so pervasive, that we have undermined their ability to adjust (see Gaia’s mind. They depend on us to exercise forbearance, to reduce our interference, to limit the burdens of resource demands and pollution loads that we impose. Where we have already damaged and undermined their diversity and stability, they depend on us to restore their ability to regulate themselves.

The call and rights of living things.

If we are nature’s children, then other species and individual living things are our siblings. We are part of the same family, and they are our brothers and sisters, with equal rights. We are called to have a feeling of kinship with them. Most people do not find it difficult to respond to this call: they do so instinctively. They love plants and keep plants near them in their homes and gardens. In modern societies many people keep animals as part of their families.

Recognizing the fellow-sacredness of other living things, acknowledging their ethical value, means respecting them not just as means to our ends, but as ends in themselves. We must recognize their basic goals as well as our own in all our dealings with them. We must accept their basic right to pursue their natural goals.

These goals are related to their own perpetuation. Though they lack nervous systems, plants and single-celled animals develop and struggle to survive, to get the food and water they need, to avoid stress, and to reproduce. These are not conscious goals: but they are the ends to which they strive. Animals have wider goals: drives to forage and feed, to avoid danger and pain, to find mates and to breed.

These goals make up the natural life of each living thing, and through them wider ends are served – the transmission of genes, the survival of species.

We must recognize the rights of living things to survive and thrive, to fulfil their natural drives and to live their natural lives in natural surroundings.

Recognizing the rights of life does not mean providing a cast-iron guarantee: nature herself often subjects living things to stress, pain and death. But it does mean accepting our own duty not to infringe the rights. So we should not impose suffering on animals or unnecessary stress on plants. We should not expect animals to live in conditions where they cannot satisfy their basic instincts.

At the same time we have to accord to humans the same natural rights as other species: the right to survive and thrive, the right to eat, the right to avoid danger and pain and threats to life.

Respecting and preserving species and ecosystems.

Living things do not develop alone, but in association with members of their own species, with other species, and with non-living things. These communities form and evolve over hundreds, thousands or millions of years, and each species evolves to fit until the whole meshes together in a complex interlocking web. All ecosystems are linked with the earth’s waters, rocks and atmosphere in the larger system of Gaia.

These larger groupings, species and ecosystems, don’t have goals of their own, so strictly speaking they cannot have rights. But they form the basic framework for the prosperity of all their living members. Individual animals cannot be thriving if their numbers are dwindling to danger levels. Preserving a species is fostering the rights of all its members.

If an ecosystem is harmed, then many of its members will be harmed. Conversely, conserving habitats is the very best way of conserving the species that live within them. Respecting the stability of ecosystems and of Gaia is part of respecting the rights of the living things that make them up.

But there are wider issues involved in the overall diversity of species. Biodiversity is a unique value with many dimensions: aesthetic, ethical, cognitive, economic. Laboriously built up over hundreds of millions of years, it is the supreme expression of the infinite creativity of matter and life. Mass extinctions have halted its rise, but every time life has bounced back and climbed to new heights. At the present time some 1.75 million species have been catalogued and described. Cautious estimates suggest that the total figure may be between seven and twenty millions.

Clearly we cannot guarantee that every species will survive: not even nature does that. The average mammal species in the Cenozoic era had a life-span of around one million years. But we should at least do everything in our power so that we ourselves do not become the agents of mass extinction. Instead we should become agents for the preservation of biodiversity.

The ethical call of other humans.

It goes without saying that we have a relationship of kinship and interdependence with other human beings – indeed studies of mitochondrial DNA suggest that we may all be descended from a single family.

We must treat other humans as members the same family. We must preserve and care for them when they are vulnerable or needy. We must help to eradicate poverty and social exclusion in our own societies and in the world as a whole. In these areas pantheist ethics echo the ethical systems of most societies.

What pantheism adds, perhaps, is an extra intensity of recognition of other humans, an extra strengthening for the idea of human equality. We see other people as other sparks of the one divine fire, other waveglints on the one divine ocean, other facets of the divine diamond.

Every one of us is an participant in divinity, not in some distant future after death, but right now. Every one of us is a potential focus of consciousness of divinity. So we are called to respect others humans as sacred, fellow members of the divinity.

We should also help others to realize their kinship with nature and their belonging to the universe – realize in the dual sense of “to become aware of,” and “to make real.” Helping others become aware of the connection is a matter of spreading the message of pantheism. This is an obligation of pantheists which is important for the environment and for human welfare. At the same time we should cooperate with changes in environmental attitudes in more traditional religions.

Even if people are aware of the connection, there may be obstacles that prevent them making it real.

These include physical factors such as separation from nature and the night sky. We must work to increase everyone’s right to at least some piece of natural area within walking distance of their homes. And we must join the struggle against light pollution, which is gradually blotting out the glorious vision of the heavens. For city dwellers the stars are disappearing one by one, like lights being put out. Often it is difficult even to make out the great constellations. Increasingly we are shut in our own little box, cut off from our own galaxy and the rest of the universe. Visit the International Dark-Sky Association to see about joining campaigns in your own country.

There are also psychological factors – especially those feelings that preoccupy us for long periods and undermine our enjoyment and belonging on this earth. These include obsession, addiction, anxiety, excessive grief. Some of these are under our own control, and with the help of pantheist meditation and the pantheist approach to natural death, we can learn to free ourselves.

They also include emotions caused by the structure of society: feelings of injustice, exploitation, oppression, envy. These are natural emotions, designed to help us overcome unfair situations. We should work to eliminate the sources of these emotions in economic insecurity, violence, lack of democracy and participation, and gross inequality.

The ground of human rights.

Many religions talk of the equality of humans. The US Declaration of Independence states: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Yet traditional religions don’t provide a solid grounding for such statements.

The fact is that we don’t know that God created us equal. Humans are unequal from birth – not just in their social situation, but in intelligence, motor skills, drive, looks, health. If God himself handicaps people in this way, before they have made any conscious actions in life, then why should we believe that he requires us to treat people equally?

Eastern religions have different problems. If the state in which we are currently incarnated is the result of our past actions, then our present inequalities are merited, and we deserve to be treated unequally.

Pantheism provides a far more solid basis for human equality. We are all equal parts of the divinity. Every individual consciousness is an equal focus of awareness of the divinity. Whatever our talents or failings, whatever our abilities or disabilities, we are all absolutely equal in these central respects.

Recognition of this equality implies that we should treat other humans as ends and not means. We should respect their ends for themselves, that is, their legitimate life goals. Of course human goals are far more complex again than animal goals. These legitimate goals have been summarized in the body of international human rights, probably our greatest ethical achievement as a species, and the most inclusive common ethical system in existence in the world today. See Human rights.

Pantheism provides the solid religious basis possible for human rights on the basis of equality.

See also Modern pantheism as an approach to environmental ethics by Harold Wood.

Suggestions, comments, criticisms to: Paul Harrison, e-mail:

© Paul Harrison. Posted 26/6/1997.