Harold Wood

Universal Pantheist Society: Why We Incorporated as a Church

December 6, 2018 in Views

Pantheist discussion boards on the Internet these days are rife with debates about whether Pantheism can be considered a “religion” or just a “philosophy,” with vigorous arguments by both proponents and opponents.

Observing these debates, I often find that opponents to the idea that Pantheism can be a religion have a very narrow, Eurocentric view, as if all religion is inherently authoritarian, theist, bigoted, intolerant, and based on a formal creed. That approach to religion is fairly common in the United States, though rare elsewhere in the world. Anyone who has studied even a bit of comparative religion quickly realizes that none of this is universally true. There are many religions that don’t have a god (Buddhism), nor a creed (Hinduism), nor are intolerant (Unitarian- Universalism), nor are authoritarian (Taoism). In most of the world, religion has nothing to do with creeds, beliefs, or theology. As Harvard theologian Harvey Cox says, most religion is simply, “a matter of seasonal rituals, ethical insights, and narratives handed down from generation to generation.” Certainly, Pantheism has all those elements, passed on by scores of artists, poets, scientists, and ordinary people, as we celebrate the turning of the seasons, the wheel of the galaxy, the rejection of anthropocentric ethics, using words, music, songs, and yes, perhaps most of all, the scientific study of Nature.

This article appears in the Winter 2018 printed edition of Pantheist Vision, Volume 35, No. 4. ‘Pantheist Vision’ is a subscription-based periodical offered by the Universal Pantheist Society. Please see http://www.pantheist.net/pantheist-vision—quarterly.html for details about the publication. The Universal Pantheist Society website is at www.pantheist.net.

Another common fallacy is that religion necessitates some kind of highly formal structure. Again, just because that is commonplace in Western culture, that doesn’t mean that it is universal. Hinduism and many indigenous religions around the world do not have a top-down structure; people just spring up to help each other with their spiritual journeys. Even in the United States, there are many religions, especially Unitarian Universalism (UU), that include not only those who attend a church or “fellowship” on Sundays, but those they call “free-range” – they self-identify with UU, but don’t attend church or become members. I don’t think we should consider people like that as not being part of a “religion” just because they don’t attend a church, Synagogue, mosque, or temple, on particular days of the week!

My own journey to Pantheism started in high school. Conventional religion just didn’t do it for me anymore, but I felt a need to set aside some time for religious study and inspiration. I began experimenting with adapting conventional worship services for myself in a Pantheist format, and wrote essays imagining what a Pantheist church might be like. I tried to promote the idea with some friends in college but I didn’t find anyone who was very interested. Then, in
1974, I met Derham Giuliani.

Derham was a well-known “desert rat.” We went on camping trips together in the White and Inyo Mountains of California during the summer of 1974. It was during one of those trips that Derham mentioned that he thought Pantheists ought to have a church of their own. I immediately agreed, and told him that I had long held such an idea. We felt it was just plain wrong that none of the churches in North America that we knew of embraced Pantheism. There, in Silver Canyon of the White Mountains, high above the little town of Big Pine, we resolved we would not wait for someone else to do it, but would immediately commit ourselves to founding such a group.

The entire point of forming the Universal Pantheist Society in 1975 for us was to establish it as a church. We were not attempting to establish it as a religion, because it seemed obvious to us that it already was a religion. Yes, it was a religion defined by its adherents, and eschewed any form of priesthood or authoritarianism, and likewise rejected any single writing (past, present, or future) as sacred scripture. But we understood that religion, from a global perspective, didn’t need any of those things. Religion is simply the heart-felt relationship of human beings to each other, to other life forms, and ultimately to the entire universe; which properly understood are all “sacred” – all divine. We saw no need to proselytize; all we needed was a church to help connect all those people who already understood themselves as Pantheists.

An early first step was to apply for non-profit status as a church to the Internal Revenue Service. We soon discovered that the civil servants running that agency had the same ignorance about the nature of religion as most North Americans, so we had some explaining to do. But ultimately, we prevailed and were incorporated specifically as a “church.”

As the IRS eventually ruled, in their legal-speak, we were accepted as: “an organization described in [Internal Revenue Code] section 170(b)(l)(A)(i) and 509(a)(l).” More about that later. But how did we get that ruling?

First, they wrote to us saying our application was “incomplete in certain respects.” They asked a series of some 13 questions in a detailed three-page letter. Some of the questions related to issues that might pertain to any organization, such as our staff, their qualifications and compensation; our operating facilities, whether fees are charged for services or publications, etc. But there were many questions clearly focused on whether we were a “church.” For example, they asked, “do you perform any sacerdotal functions such as funerals, baptisms, marriages or ordination?” Is there “a recognized creed or form of worship?” Do you have a “definite and distinct ecclesiastical government?” Is there “a formal code of doctrine and discipline?” Do you have “a distinct religious history?” Do you have “a complete organization of ordained ministers ministering to their congregations and selected after completing prescribed courses of study?” Do you have “a literature of your own”? Do you have “established places of worship?” Is there “a regular congregation?” Do you have “regular religious services” and “Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young?” “Please describe your ‘religious services’ in detail, including how these functions are carried out and by whom.”

And the “killer question” was probably this one: “As you have stated that you follow no systematic creed or belief please state what aside from an appreciation and respect for nature you hope to communicate to your members. Is there no systematic beliefs of any kind which a member must profess in order to be a member?”

You can see that all these questions seem to assume traditional Protestant Christian kind of organization for a church. From the overall tone of this lengthy missive, I believe they expected us to fail their test miserably. The questions seem to be less real “questions” than assertive “arguments” about why we couldn’t possibly be a “church” as we had requested.

But we answered with a detailed four-page letter that responded successfully to each of their questions.

With regard to “sacerdotal functions” we told them that we planned to offer such services to our members as weddings and funerals in the future. [We later adopted a “Sacerdotal Policy” which delineated how such services would operate. Part of that policy asserts “The Society disapproves any celebration, service, or ritual which is focused … on supernatural or occult subjects, or oriented toward a single leader with a dominant personality.”] We told them that our “ecclesiastical” form of government was defined in our bylaws – the typical structure of most non-profit organizations, with a President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, etc. We told them that we “have no formal creed in the sense of a listing of beliefs to which all members must adhere” and that we likewise had “no formal code or doctrine” other than as stated in the by-laws (which guarantees freedom of belief and prevents us from ever prescribing any kind of religious creed.) We quoted our bylaws: “Recognizing that freedom of belief is inherent in the Pantheist tradition, nothing in the purpose of this organization shall ever be utilized to require a particular interpretation of Pantheism or subscription to any particular dogma…”

We explained that we indeed had a “distinct religious history” in the Pantheist tradition, and cited a bibliography which included, among others, a reference to the 1878 publication in two volumes, each hundreds of pages long, by Constance Plumptre titled General sketch of the history of pantheism.

As for “clergy,” we explained that we intended to rely primarily on the use of lay clergy (as common in the Mormon and Catholic churches and other denominations), but planned eventually training and ordination of persons for the limited purpose of performing specific functions of worship and service to our members.

For the question about whether we had “established places of worship” we explained that “since worship is a highly personal affair to Pantheists, established places of worship are within the hearts and minds of the Pantheist, wherever he or she may be.” We explained that we did not envision “the construction of temples or edifices of human construction … as such would be contrary to the Pantheist spirit.”

We did not rule out the possibility of future “religious services,” but envisioned them as consisting of “distribution of literature, formal discussion, congregational singing, musical performances, readings, talks, walks, field trips, slide programs, guest speakers, films, etc.”

With respect to the “killer question” as to whether we had “no systematic beliefs of any kind?” we explained that our position on freedom of belief was similar to that of the Unitarian-Universalist church. But our purpose is fully clarified in our bylaws: “Members of the Society shall consist of those persons who wish to further their own understanding of Pantheism, and through fellowship with others find purposive means of expressing their faith in daily life.”

Moreover, since the purpose of our Society is to unite all Pantheists into a common fellowship, we expected that membership would consist of those who substantially agree with the definitions of “Pantheist” in our bylaws. That definition states that Pantheists are simply “individuals who feel that fundamental religious experience involves an individual relationship with Nature.”

So, no “belief” or “creed” required. In fact – a creed is prohibited! What is relevant instead is religious experience.

We explained this was much more than a mere “appreciation and respect for nature” as the IRS accused us of; “namely the improvement of personal relationship with the Universe as the fundamental religious responsibility we have.” We also expressed our opposition to anthropocentrism, considering humanly-created deities – even of our own species – to be idolatrous.

Our letter went into the mail. We found out a month or so later that we had succeeded in convincing the Internal Revenue Service that we were indeed organized as a “church.”

In our Letter of Determination from the Internal Revenue Service, dated April 27, 1976, we were informed that we are classified as a “a church or a convention or association of churches” as defined in section 170(b)(l)(A) (i). This is the part of the Internal Revenue Code that allows individuals to deduct contributions to churches as a charitable donation. It also included a reference to section 509(a)(1), which is a circuitous cross-reference to “an organization described in section 170(b)(1)(A) (other than in clauses (vii) and (viii)).” The excepted sub-sections apply to certain “private foundations” which do not apply to us.

We consider this determination from the Internal Revenue Service as a significant advancement of public understanding of what a “church” is and can be. A church doesn’t need a creed, it doesn’t need a venal priesthood; it doesn’t even need weekly Sunday services.

The Universal Pantheist Society is a “church” in the eyes of the IRS, and we hope can be seen as such, in a positive way, among our members and among other churches, inter-denominational organizations, and secular societies, even though we reject most of the traditional trappings of conventional Western churches. Since the Universal Pantheist Society eschews both doctrine and the supernatural, we believe we have established ourselves as a “church” which is ready to embrace the future.

This article appears in the Winter 2018 printed edition of Pantheist Vision, Volume 35, No. 4. ‘Pantheist Vision’ is a subscription-based periodical offered by the Universal Pantheist Society. Please see http://www.pantheist.net/pantheist-vision—quarterly.html for details about the publication. The Universal Pantheist Society website is at www.pantheist.net. Many thanks to its founder, Harold Wood, for sharing this article here!

The Practice of Pantheist Mindfulness

October 5, 2017 in Views

When it comes to religion, it seems that most people are asking the question, “What do I believe?”  Even if they aren’t engaged in this kind of self-inquiry, when they meet someone with an unusual faith like ours, they want to know what they believe. But it seems to me people are asking the wrong question.

Beliefs are things that change over time. That is a simple expression of fact – look at  history.  Any religion – whether it is paganism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or whatever – changes over time.  Theologians no longer speak in terms of absolute immutable truths and unchanging beliefs; they acknowledge “process theology.”

The same thing, of course happens in other academic disciplines. In science, in particular, our beliefs bout the nature of the universe are constantly changing over time.

A key part of the scientific spirit is to maintain an openness to change and new insights.

In fact, there is no branch of knowledge that doesn’t change over time – and that is a good thing!

I would go even further to aver, if your belief doesn’t change over time, something is seriously wrong with you!  Life is in the doing, not in the believing. Growth and evolution of thought and being is a life-long process.

Yet, today around the world, there appears to be a frightening resurgence of fundamentalism – which is a reaction against the progression of ideas, whether of religion or science. Christian Fundamentalists, it seems to me, are not merely against the idea of evolution because it conflicts with doctrine, but because the very idea of change over time is threatening to them. Islamic Fundamentalists, in the same way, are threatened by the change brought by exposure to ideas from other cultures, and so wish to return to an earlier time when everything was immutable and absolute.

As for me, I want the constant breeze of scientific knowledge to blow by me, with new information invigorating my mind and expanding my view of the universe. Like Gandhi, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.”

Asking someone to take  on faith a belief – any belief – is unacceptable, but it is particularly unacceptable in matters of religion. Beliefs can change – – or at least they darn well better, as we grow and learn new things throughout our lives. Tomorrow we may not believe the same thing we did yesterday.

Religions that ask their adherents to accept a non-changing belief system or creed are making a serious mistake. Even if the original belief system was appropriate for the time and place, there is no certainty that it will remain relevant as the decades and centuries pass. In fact, there is certainty that any belief will become outdated and outmoded, and will need to be changed as we learn and grow. Even if we adopt a completely up-to-date list of beliefs that work perfectly for our time and place, we must know the list will one day become obsolete. We can spend a lot of time trying to “think things through,” debating language and alternative ways of expression, only to have to abandon it all within days, months, or years, as our insights and appreciation for the wonder of the Universe grows. We will have spent enormous amount of time trying to decide what we truly believe – and in the meantime forget to smell the flowers. There must be a better way. And it turns out there is.

People who suffer doubt in religion are simply interpreting religion the wrong way – as a set of beliefs to adopt, rather than as a practice, or way of life to follow. Ideas can change, even ideas about Pantheism. I truly do not understand why most religious organizations seem to focus so much on “what we believe.” Whenever I read such statements, I instantly react against them, usually because of their ridiculous assertions, but also even in the more open-minded faiths where I can agree with 95% of what is listed, not only because they do not leave enough room to grow and change over time, but because they appear to be neglecting the whole point. The whole point of religion is one’s relationship with the sacred.

Unlike indoor philosophers, I don’t think you can enhance that relationship by concentrating on books and creeds and sermons. You instead have to go outside. A tree or a bird on the wing will give you a better sermon than any person can In the Universal Pantheist Society, we avoid any issues of doubt simply because we don’t ask anyone to adopt a set of beliefs. What a freeing that is! Instead, we think modern pantheists practice mindful living, which doesn’t require a belief, but is a kind of experiential faith. We don’t do it because of fear, or to avoid suffering, or because of the hope of going to Heaven or entering a state of Nirvana when we die. We do it because it brings joy and inspiration right here now, in this world, and by so doing it ultimately helps to make the world a better place.

In modern Pantheism, the source of our devotion is practice in our daily mindfulness, not acceptance of beliefs. Faith in an idea – any idea – is just too risky.

Unlike some systems of meditation which go by the name “mindfulness practice,” which may ask adherents to follow some complicated rituals or meditation practices, Pantheist do what comes naturally when a solitary person confronts the natural world in a quiet place in the out of doors. Most people – even non-Pantheists – readily say that they feel most “spiritual” when engaged in the most tangible – – taking a walk in the woods, climbing mountains, experiencing nature firsthand. That is the fundamental “Pantheist Mindfulness Practice.”

Many religions like to adopt 5, 7, 10 or 12 steps to follow to help implement a spiritual practice. Individual Pantheists may enjoy figuring out such a set for themselves. If Muslims pray five times a day, some Pantheists might want to follow a Pantheist-oriented set of five practice methods a day, to help us engage in a closer relationship with the natural world. Here’s a sample:

A Pantheist Daily Mindfulness Practice: 
1. Touch or engage with a flower, plant, or tree; really acknowledge its existence.
2. Touch or engage with an animal, an insect, or a companion animal.
3. Touch or engage with something of the earth – a mineral, a clod of dirt, some sand, or the soil.
4. Touch or engage the sky – look – really look – at the blue of the sky, or at clouds, or the stars at night.
5. Touch or engage another human being – acknowledge a loved one with a hug, or help a child or the sick or elderly, or pass on a word of cheer to another.

If none of these grab you – adopt your own! Or make a list of 10 or 12 instead! But most importantly, do them!

When Pantheists “take a walk in the woods” – we engage in our most fundamental spiritual devotion. By so doing we refresh ourselves, and we feel peace and joy in Nature. No one can tell us our beliefs or faith is wrong, because we have touched and engaged in the reality. There is no argument about “your beliefs vs. my beliefs.” We simply know from our own experience that the practice of Pantheist mindfulness enhances the relationship with the sacred that is the whole point of religion.

When we touch or engage other living things, we should try to deeply understand them. Mindfulness includes engaging the mind, as well as the heart. Enjoyment of the beauty is necessary, but not sufficient. We should try to understand them with all our capacities, including scientific understanding and the use of reason. Some say that scientific understanding seems to make things cold and unfeeling. It has never seemed so to me. When I acknowledge a fir tree, my appreciation of its beauty and joy in its being is hugely increased by having some understanding of its familial relationships, and its ecological relationships, taught by the science of botany. By knowing what family, genus, and species a particular fir tree is, helps me to see it no longer as just part of the scenery, but to help me better understand it as a living being whom I acknowledge. The more I know about taxonomy or ecology of a plant or animal, the better I can appreciate it. For a Pantheist, a nature guidebook to local flora and fauna is like the Book of Common Prayer for an Episcopalian, or a Sutra to a Buddhist.

These concepts also work in reverse. Scientific understanding and the employment of reason is necessary, but not sufficient. We are aided in our appreciation of the world through decidedly non-scientific methods as well – art and poetry and music all have their place. I recently saw a sculpture of a frog, and though it was not absolutely anatomically correct, it seemed to express the essence of frogginess. It helped me to better understand how a frog moves and stretches as it leaps. It put me in touch with the other – the sacred outside of myself, ultimately helping me to find the sacred inside as well.

With expanded mindfulness – increased understanding – comes an increase in responsibility. As we learn more about other life-forms, their relations, their problems, their environments, we cannot help but become concerned. We develop a desire to treat other living beings with compassion and respect. We learn to work for environmental protection and a more sustainable world, as one practice of mindfulness expressing our religious faith. I’m not going to try to tell you what brand of environmentalism to follow, if you need to even call it that, but if the essence of religion is in the doing and being and not just the believing, we must find ways to practice the ethical application of religion. We must take back the idea of “moral values” to incorporate how we treat the Earth and all living things. Take your walk in the woods today, then find something you can do to help address a local, state, national, or global environmental concern!

This article first appeared in Pantheist Vision (Vol. 24, No. 2, February, 2005), a regular newsletter offered by the Universal Pantheist Society. Harold W. Wood, Jr. is the editor of Pantheist Vision, and a co-founder of the Universal Pantheist Society. 

For more, visit Universal Pantheist Society at: http://www.pantheist.net/

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