Monday, March 5, 2018

A Plea for Pantheism by John Shertzer Hittell

Plagued by drunk-uncle reasoning
Pantheism is the belief that god exists in all matter and the entire universe is divine. This god is not the anthropomorphic god of the Judeo-Christian tradition but rather something more like a force of nature or an eternal universal intelligence. Pantheism has been around since ancient times, with some traditions taking the form of pagan nature worship and others philosophically approaching atheism. The 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza is considered the father of modern pantheism. With his concept of monism, he asserted that the universe is only made up of one substance (matter), thus denying the dualism of matter and spirt that is fundamental to so many religious traditions since Plato.

The scientific advances of the 19th century brought a resurgence in Spinozan pantheism, led by scientific-minded writers rebelling against the superstitious dogma of organized religions. One such writer of this “Golden Age of Freethought” was the historian and journalist John Shertzer Hittell. His book A Plea for Pantheism was published in 1857. In its first printing, the book only ran about 64 printed pages, but the prose and the typesetting are both dense enough to amount to a fairly substantial read. The contents consist of a brief preface and four chapters in which Hittell refutes the existence of the following: an afterlife, an anthropomorphic god, any ideal ethical basis for right and wrong, and the ability of man to ever discern any absolute truth about the universe.

For the most part Hittell’s reasoning is sound, but he occasionally lapses into antiquated prejudicial statements that resemble the kind of cringeworthy bigoted statements someone’s embarrassingly drunk uncle might spout after a few too many beers. In the first essay on the afterlife, Hittell uses physiological evidence to support his argument that the human mind is a function of the brain and therefore ceases to exist when the body dies. In doing so, he manages to offend just about everybody. For starters, he refers to non-Caucasian races as “the lowest tribes of savages” and emphasizes the similarity of these “brutes” to apes. There is also a stunning mention of human-animal hybrids which seems like a bizarrely out-of-place bit of science fiction until you realize what he’s talking about are interracial relationships. Hittell also points out that the average woman’s brain is ten percent smaller than the average man’s, and suggests that “their mental faculties may be that much weaker.” It’s a shame to find such repellent views in an otherwise well-reasoned philosophical argument. To some extent, such remarks are typical of European and American writers of this time period. The evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel, for example, lets one slip from time to time in his pantheistic writings, but never so blatantly or egregiously as Hittell does here.

The book is further hampered by an overall tone that is more antagonistic than inviting. Hittell writes the book as if he’s preaching to the converted. Though the text reinforces the arguments in favor of a pantheistic worldview, this tract is unlikely to win any new recruits to the cause. While Spinoza and Haeckel manage to work some optimism into their pantheistic proselytizing, Hittell is blunt and bleak throughout. He asserts that there is no right or wrong in the universe, only the indifference of natural forces, but never bothers to propose an alternate code of ethics by which mankind might live. Likewise, his essay on epistemology so strongly emphasizes the fallibility of human thought it makes one wonder why anyone would ever bother to write or read a book. I admire Hittell for tearing into age-old superstitions, but he doesn’t offer any alternative wisdom in place of the beliefs he debunks. For much better texts on pantheism, read Spinoza’s Ethics or Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe.
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