December 21, 2009

Monotheism vs. pantheism in Avatar

Heaven and Nature

By Ross DouthatIn Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing.

If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”
Why Douthat thinks this is a problem:The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.
Comment:  Douthat seems to think "pantheism" means "spirituality." In other words, he's an ignorant twit who needs to check a dictionary.

It's ironic that he defends traditional religions such as Christianity. With its holy trinity; angels, seraphim, and cherubim; and thousands of saints, Christianity is a lot closer to pantheism than godless "nature worship" is.

Indigenous life is worse?

The "human societies that hew closest to the natural order" are indigenous societies. Douthat is claiming that "primitive" people who worship a pantheon of gods and spirits are worse off than "advanced" people who worship a single god--e.g., Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

For starters, I'm glad to see a conservative such as Douthat has a high opinion of Allah-worshiping Muslims. Most conservatives stupidly brand all 1.3 billion of them as terrorist wannabes who hate the West and want to conquer the world. That isn't true, but if it were true, Douthat's lofty monotheism would largely be to blame for it.

No doubt Douthat has fabricated his claim about "uncivilized" vs. "civilized" people without a shred of evidence. But he referred to "nasty, brutish and short" lives, so he's apparently thinking of a measure such as life expectancy. I don't know if such data exists, but let's imagine how the analysis would go.

Here are several civilizations or cultures and their religious beliefs. Can anyone tell us if there's a correlation between life expectancy rates and monotheistic beliefs?

  • Typical American Indian culture:  Pantheistic.
  • Ancient Greece:  Pantheistic.
  • Ancient Rome:  Pantheistic.
  • Ancient China:  Pantheistic  [ancestor worship fits Douthat's erroneous definition of pantheism]
  • Ancient India:  Pantheistic.
  • Medieval Europe (especially during the Black Death):  Monotheistic.
  • Renaissance Europe:  Monotheistic.

  • Apparently Douthat believes that life in most of the founding civilizations--China, India, Greece, Rome--was "nasty, brutish and short." He thinks people in medieval Europe led longer and fuller lives than their pantheistic contemporaries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. I haven't seen the stats, but I'm guessing he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.

    The most significant changes in life expectancy came with the Industrial Revolution, which brought an increase in urban sanitation and the eventual understanding of disease. These developments happened mainly from the 17th century to the present. They happened worldwide, in pantheistic as well as monotheistic cultures. They have nothing to do with religious beliefs.

    I suspect life expectancy rates have a lot more to do with one's economic class than one's religious beliefs. People in agrarian societies around the world probably had similar life expectancies, as did people in urban societies. I'd be surprised if the pantheistic lords of Cahokia or Tenochtitlán lived shorter lives than the monotheistic peasants in Europe's feudal system.

    In 1850, the life expectancy for white males in the US was 38.5. I can't imagine that pantheistic Asians had much of a lower life expectancy than that. In the modern era, Asians have routinely come out on top in life-expectancy rankings. Perhaps not coincidentally, they've continued to practice their traditional "pantheistic" religions.

    Asian urbanization and pantheism

    Undoubtedly Douthat equates the monotheistic West with civilization and the pantheistic rest of the world with barbarism. Here's some evidence of how ignorant this belief is:

    Top 10 Cities of the Year 1500

    1. Beijing, China  672,000
    2. Vijayanagar, India  500,000
    3. Cairo, Egypt  400,000
    4. Hangzhou, China  250,000
    5. Tabriz, Iran  250,000
    6. Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey  200,000
    7. Gaur, India  200,000
    8. Paris, France  185,000
    9. Guangzhou, China  150,000
    10. Nanjing, China  147,000

    Oops. Seven of the top 10 cities at the time of the Renaissance practiced some form of "pantheism." Two cities practiced Islam and only one practiced Christianity.

    For the most part, monotheistic Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in humble towns and villages. They were physically closer to nature than the pantheistic Asians who filled the urban centers of their great civilizations. So where's the evidence that monotheism has anything to do with a longer or better life?

    Incidentally, the results wouldn't change significantly if we chose almost any year before 1900. Until the 20th century, the world's greatest population centers were in the pantheistic East, not the monotheistic West. The only thing we can conclude from this is that pantheism correlates strongly with civilization.

    For more on the differences between civilizations, see Multicultural Origins of Civilization and The Myth of Western Superiority. For more on Avatar, see White Guilt in Avatar and Army vs. Indians in Avatar.

    Below:  Primitive, superstitious Europeans get close to nature during a Saturnalia rite.


    dmarks said...

    "Most conservatives stupidly brand all 1.3 billion of them as terrorist wannabes who hate the West and want to conquer the world"... might be painting too broad of a brush.

    I know it is too many conservatives, and probably so many liberals that the liberal-vs-conservative difference probably does not matter. We do know one person, who frequents this blog, is a sort of conservtive that hates Muslims.

    But do you have any polling data or hard facts that such a hardline view is near universal among conservatives?

    Jake Freivald said...

    Pantheism doesn't just mean acceptance of many gods, and thus the original article doesn't just position monotheism vs. polytheism. I think the confusion stems from the word "pantheon" -- but "pantheism" doesn't means simply "a religion with more than one god in its pantheon".

    Here's a definition from Wordnetweb at Princeton: "the doctrine or belief that God is the universe and its phenomena (taken or conceived of as a whole) or the doctrine that regards the universe as a manifestation of God". (Find it here: ) With that in mind, nature worship is a lot closer to pantheism than the Trinity, the various angels, the saints, etc.

    Stephen said...

    "He thinks people in medieval Europe led longer and fuller lives than their pantheistic contemporaries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. I haven't seen the stats, but I'm guessing he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about."

    Actually the Norse and Basques are examples of egalitarian and free European cultures; Norse Udal law for example gave people total control over their land. The Basques owned their land free of the church or the crown and like the Norse they practiced a form of democracy. Then we have the three Gaelic nations, for example the Manx Tynwald is one of the oldest examples of democracy on earth, the idea that Europe was one big feudal hell is a dishonest stereotype.

    Stephen said...

    Also Rob your criticism of the history and cultures of European is dishonest juvenile, basically you focus on the very worst of European history (ie feudalism) and compare it to the very best of Native history.

    dmarks said...

    Rob did seem to be cherrypicking when he chose the Black Death to exemplify the Middle Ages lifespan.

    I suppose one could also in the same sort of argument pick the fall of the Maya civilization (which was probably a bad period for lifespan) to exemplify New World life.

    Stephen said...

    His arguments are very similar to the methods anti-Indian bigots use; Rob equates Europe to such horrors as the inquisition just like how racists equate all Indian cultures to such atrocities as the Jamestown massacre.

    Anonymous said...

    Ancient Greece and Rome were not Pantheist, they were hard polytheist pagans. Despite the confusions of some under-read new ager's definitions, pantheism and polytheism are not the same thing.