IN THE 19th century, it really seemed that pantheism - the belief that there is no God other than the universe and nature - might sweep all before it.
Many of the greatest 19th- century writers and thinkers in the English- and German-speaking worlds were pantheists, at least for part of their lives. Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley were indisputably so; Coleridge flirted with pantheism for a time; Tennyson and Wilde wrote pantheist poems. Hegel and Schelling espoused pantheism; Goethe had a life-long love affair. Over the Atlantic Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman were all pantheists.
It is easy to see why. Pantheism required (and still requires) no belief in improbable doctrines or impossible events, no submission to religious authorities, no mortification of the flesh. It offered the perfect theology for the romantic feeling of oneness with nature, while at the same time providing an optimistic and creative outlook for the human future and embracing the advance of scientific knowledge. Yet it remained a philosophy rather than a religion. It inspired and informed individual attitudes and actions, but never reached a position where it could create a serious challenge to established religion. The only serious attempt to create an organised movement came in 1906, when the distinguished German biologist Ernst Haeckel founded the Monist League. At its peak the league had perhaps 6,000 members. But Haeckel contaminated its religious aims with his eugenic politics. It was dissolved in 1933. The grim 20th century proved infertile ground for pantheism. Totalitarian ideologies brooked no opposition. Two world wars and two revolutions in Russia and China created hecatombs of dead and refugees. Inclusive ideologies were discredited by association. Existentialism and post- modernism questioned whether any objective truth was attainable - choose whatever belief or religion suits you, it makes no difference. …