In a recent post, I gave thought to the trying to define what Atheism is. My conclusions were that this is more difficult to define then it first appears. Nevertheless, here was my tentative definition of ‘idealized rational atheism.’
Tentative Definition of Atheistic Rationalist (aka An Ideal Atheist): An atheistic rationalist is someone that seeks out the right kinds of explanations, namely ones that have survived the strongest criticisms and are highly (preferably computationally) specific and hard to vary, yet is always open to new ideas no matter what the source.
However, they do not accept any beliefs on mere leaps of faith and would rather not have their judgment (possibly) clouded by such faith-based beliefs. They’d rather see things as the naturalistically really are. Truth comes first for them. So they eschew all leaps of faith on the grounds that they may cloud our ability to find truth.
A few other key thoughts I came up with:
- Atheism and Theism have multiple and overlaping definitions. (One important example I used was that of Buddhism, a religion that most consider “Theistic” but some consider “Atheistic” because it worships no God.)
- Atheism and Theism can both be rational (i.e. use correct epistemology)
- Theism might be best defined as making a leap of faith that the universe/reality is just
- We considered the possiblity that Atheism was therefore a lack of taking such a leap of faith (presumably to not have their judgment clouded.)
- So, we considered the possiblity of “Atheism” actually being a spectrum
Based on these views, I suggested a potential ‘boundary’ between atheism and theism: knowingly making leaps of faith for non-rational (not necessarily irrational) reasons.
A Certain Kind of Leap of Faith
But, of course, when we speak of “Theist” we don’t have in mind merely anyone that makes a leap of faith for non-rational reasons. Imagine, for a moment, a Rational Atheist that believes that Psi might be real (though wants to see it demonstrated only through rigorously applied scientific methodologies.) In fact, militant atheist Sam Harris – does anyone doubt his Atheistic qualifications? — suggested that there is some evidence that Psi is real.
So just imagine one step further. Imagine a prototypical Sam Harris has seen – in non-scientific settings – strange things that seem like they require Psi as an explanation. So this scientist, on a leap of faith, decides that Psi is probably real. So he dedicates his life to trying to uncover the existence of Psi via scientific means. What would be wrong with this so long as he was still committed to finding scientifically reproducible (and controlled) results?
In fact, such scientists do exist. We might be tempted to not call them Atheists, but I doubt we’d be tempted to call them Theists either.
Faith as Belief in Myth
So we can narrow the definition down. Modernly, a theists isn’t someone that makes any leap of faith, they are someone that makes a certain kind of leap of faith, namely they are someone that (on faith) believes in the ‘myth’ (be it a true of false myth) of the existence of some sort of “God” even if that belief can’t be justified by scientific means (at this time). This seems, on the surface, like a fairly straightforward way to define Theism. But, as with Atheism, looks can be deceiving.
“God” is Something-Like-God
But what do we mean by “God” (in quotes) in the above paragraph. This is our next point of introspection. For the word “God” is one of the most emotionally loaded words in existence.
Remember back to the idea of Buddhists as atheists? I think the reason we don’t normally see Buddhists as atheists, even if they believe in no gods, is because Buddhists still believe in “something-like-God.”
To Buddhists (you may want to read more in this post about Tibetan Buddhism), reality is a sort of self-correcting process between reincarnated lives. Yes, life seems unfair (and thus meaningless, since we connect morality and meaning) when taken from within the view of a single mortal life time. But in Buddhist belief everyone passes out of their current life and into a new life at some point. In this new life “Karma” will catch up to them. This means that we all will suffer in this life for our past wrongs or be rewarded in a future life for our diligence in following the path of Buddhism. Or, as the Dalai Lama said:
When you are confronted with trouble, do whatever you can to overcome it, but it if is insurmountable, then reflect on the fact that this trouble is due to your own actions in this, or a previous life. Understanding that suffering comes from karma will bring some peace as it reveals that life is not unjust. Otherwise sorry and pain might seem to be meaningless. (p. 131 -132)
The Buddhist set of beliefs, for all intents and purposes, has “reality” or “the universe” playing the same role that “God” does for a Christian. There is still a “Something-like-God” that plays the role of dispensing justice and creating inherent moral meaning. The real difference is that within Buddhism it is an impersonal force rather than a personal God like the Christians believe in.
So I propose the following as a working concept:
Theism: Modern Theism is faith in a supernatural Something-like-God that makes sure there are appropriate (negative and positive) consequences for our actions (i.e. justice) served in the long run. 
It does not matter to our current discussion if this is belief in “Something-like-God” is the Christian God, ‘The Universe’, Zeus and his buddies, or anything else. If the end result is that there is a mythical belief that in the end things will be set morally right (and meaningful), then we will label that belief as a belief in Something-like-God. And, in fact, we’ll use “God” (the spelling G,O,D within quotation marks) as a short hand for this “Something-like-God” so that I don’t have to keep spelling it out the long way. 
 Nate, in the comments, pointed out that over the ages there have been other views of divinity, such as a view that explains good and evil as equal and locked in battle, so as to explain the state of things in the world. There have also been many views of divinity that had no moral basis at all. These are more like the Buddhist concept of “gods” (see note in previous post) that have power, but are neither moral beings (necessarily) nor creators. However, this post is specifically meant to explore the way we modernly use the terms “atheist” and “theist.” And I reminder the reader that in my last post I spent considerable time discussing the impossibility of definitively defining terms like “atheist” or “theist.” So we’re really narrowing the scope of our exploration to modern uses of the terms and then only seeking out ‘common’ understandings, not comprehensive possible uses.
 I take a serious risk in referring to the Buddhist concept of the justice, inherent in the universe, as “God” because of the extreme emotions associated with the term “God”. But, to be honest, this provoking of emotions is what I am after. Nevertheless, I predicate that many will misunderstand what I am saying multiple times and after multiple explanations just because they can’t get past their idea that the word spelled “G”, “O”, “D” refers only to something-like-the-Christian-God.
In modern language, many new age spiritualists have taken to calling “God” (i.e. Something-like-God) “The Other.” But this just isn’t emotionally provoking in the way I need it to be and doesn’t really communicate my real point.