Ross Douthat writing for the New York Times op-ed page, a week ago, made the case that hit Sci-Fi epic "Avatar" is the latest example of Hollywood's generation old tendency to push pantheistic religious views, i.e. the notion that God is nature, rather than some superpowerful superbeing apart from it.
Pantheism has a lot in common with the deist ideas that were popular among the Founders and their political class when the American Republic was founded, and with the transcendentalist ideas about spirituality a couple of generations later.
There are glimmers of it in mainstream Christianity as well. John Wesley, whose followers went on to be known mostly as Methodists, believes that reason and experience, in addition to scripture and church tradition, could provide religious insight. Martin Luther whose followers went on to be known as Lutherans, and less directly was the first major leader of the Protestant Reformation, hedged the Roman Catholic doctrine of the bread and wine communion elements as the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, by arguing that God infuses all of creation.
Pantheism fudges the divide between atheists and secular humanists on one hand, and monotheists, on the other. Nature, in the pantheistic view, is not a neutral and utterly indifferent force as deist proponents of a "clockwork God" who created the world and its rules and left would be. Instead, pantheists embrace ideas like "Gaia" that the Earth and the Universe as systems act in ways that favor a certain order of things and have the power to punish those who deviate too much from that order, for example, by responding to air pollution with global warming. But, a pantheist divinity is also not involved in the intimate day to day struggles in the way that any conception of God that a Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Baha'i or traditional Chinese religionist who believes in the power of prayer in our every day lives must implicitly embrace. The pantheist conception of God will not help you pass your math test, help politicians lead the country auspiciously, or cure your father of cancer because he was a good man.
Douthat makes the fair points that life in a state of nature is more Hobbsian (i.e. nasty, brutish and short) than it is an Eden, and that religions early achievements can be summed up as separations from nature that make us more civilized, not less so.
But, the case that he makes for Hollywood dominance of these ideas is not particularly solid. And, it misses a larger perspective of convergence and syncretism in American religious life. While scripture and theological writings are quite specific in their views of God, the popular consciousness is exceedingly vague among all but the most devout. For most people, religion boils down to the idea that good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell, prayers are sometimes answered, and that you should try to be good and defer to clergy in guiding you in doing so. Never mind that this contradicts many doctrines of the afterlife in many faiths that people who believe this are affiliated with.
Christianity co-exists with other ideas. The Santa Claus myth is more clear on justice and rewards than Christianity, and perhaps has more impact on our psyche's for its clarity. American Christians also believe in ghosts, retell myths of the Ground Hog and Easter Bunny, avoid walking under ladders and breaking mirrors, read horoscopes, have a feel for karma, and have expectations for relationships between men and women that are almost never met outside dime store romances.
Christmas has only had its modern form for about 180 years, and started out weaker in America than it was in England. Why did a disorganized, non-conspiratorial group of influential people glob on all at once to create the modern Christmas myth? I have no idea. But, they did. It was an atmosphere of massive invention in the metaphysical sphere. Perhaps it had someting to do with the realities of the industrial age. By comparison, it is easy to see where pantheistic inclinations could come from, without a lot of formal organization.
Yes, we are a people more concerned about preserving the environment than we used to be, and it doesn't take a lot of work to figure out why this might be the case. We have exhausted much of the world's oil in the last century. We have made a mass migration from farms and forests to cities and suburbs. We have polluted our water, our air and our land. We have been driving species, languages and cultures extinct with unprecedented speed.
We are in something of the position of my great-grandfather Matt Blomquist, who bought his first car before he was taught how to drive and discovered as he approached his home that nobody had told him how to stop the thing. He aimed it at his strongest fence post and never drove the car again. But, parting ways with technology entirely is hardly an option, even though we are taking a ride on technology before we've fully learned how it works and how to stop the harms we create. Concern about nature is instinctual when our modern culture has fallen so out of balance with it.
Christians aren't without increasing environmental emphasis as well. Sermons about stewardship no longer simply entail giving of ones time and talents to the church. Clergy now talk in earnest about our collective obligation as stewards of our natural world across the divides that otherwise split the faithful.
For most of humanity, we managed with a faith that probably looks something like what we know call animism or indigenous beliefs. With the Neolithic revolution (i.e. agriculture) perhaps spread by the proto-Indo-Europeans, perhaps by the Semites (not yet Jews), perhaps by other early civilizations, or perhaps created simultaneously in many places, polytheism that mirrored the crude specialization ad court politics of early monarchies court's emerged. As nations and empires emerged, monotheism came to the fore. And, perhaps, as we develop a global view of humanity, and a more scientific view of reality, we need a yet more abstract and more ecologically oriented spirituality to meet our new challenges.
I am not a pantheist. And, I doubt that pantheists have an organized grip on Hollywood either. But, there is a zeitgeist that people who make culture and succeed respond to, and if we are seeing pantheist trends in our movies, perhaps this is our collective soul telling us where we are headed theologically and most lean if we are to survive as a people.