Something-Like-God: Defining Theism

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. Atheism and Theism can both be rational (i.e. use correct epistemology)
  3. Theism might be best defined as making a leap of faith that the universe/reality is just
  4. We considered the possiblity that Atheism was therefore a lack of taking such a leap of faith (presumably to not have their judgment clouded.)
  5. 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. [1]

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. [2]


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

35 thoughts on “Something-Like-God: Defining Theism

  1. Your working definition of theist seems to focus on the idea of a “just” God. But aren’t there some theistic traditions which are not focused on creating a paradigm which brings justice into the world, but rather explains the world in it’s imperfect state, by positing an imperfect God, or rather, a God or gods which encompass both light and darkness, good and evil? Even those which believe in a just God, like the Hebrews, frequently refer to God in unjust terms like: “I am a jealous God…I make rain to fall on the just and the unjust…I hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” And evangelicals ignore glaring questions of injustice inherent in the proposition of a creation ex nihilo, in which the majority of the creations are destined for eternal hellfire. In these traditions God is an agent of grace or fortune, not justice.

  2. Nate,


    But how many modern such religions are there now?

    There are other concepts of ‘divinity’ that have existed through out the ages too, from what I understand. But there does seem to be a strong link to most modern religions and morality today. Certainly all the large world religions this is true of.

  3. Nate,

    I modified my post a bit to make it clear this is soley an exploration of modern views of atheism and theism. And I included a footnote that gives a nod to you for bring this up.

  4. I think in a previous post you mentioned that the problem in having atheism and theism as binaries are things like deism, pantheism, etc., So, as you start to create definitions for various terms, I would ask:

    would “deism” count as a modern atheistic or modern theistic sort of paradigm?

    (My thoughts normally would be that deism is neither atheism or theism, but if I had to put it in one or the other, I’d put it as theism, even though the “something like God” doesn’t necessarily make sure there are appropriate consequences for our actions served in the long run.)

    For me, the line to divide theism from other sorts of things is whether the “something-like-god” is in some sense a separate being. So, in pantheism, where the universe is posited to be the “something-like-god,” I don’t see that as theistic. However, deism, even if it is described in a way that would make it function just like pantheism, would be theistic, because the clockmaker is a separate being from the clock, so to speak.

    So, like, with the Buddhist example, if “reality” or “the universe” is the something-like-God…then I don’t think that’s theistic precisely because, as you say, “within Buddhism it is an impersonal force rather than a personal God.” (Actually, that’s not really the same distinction. It’s not about it being an impersonal force, but rather an indistinct force.) Anyway, I think the real issue with Buddhism is not karma, etc., but rather that some versions of Buddhism do make reference to external beings which could be described as gods. I think that’s where people wonder if it’s atheistic or not.

  5. Andrew,

    You echo my thoughts throughout. I even considered the very Deism example you did.

    And following through with your distinction of whether or not “Something-like-God” is distint from the universe or not seems like a fair (if perhaps less useful) distinction between theism and atheism.

    Bear in mind I have no delusions that there is one all encompasisng way to define atheism and theism.

    But to answer your question for me personally as *I* tend to think of Deism. I have no doubt that Deism is really identical in every way with atheism. (I hear assume we’re talking about Deism that has not consequences in the long run.)

    I honestly can’t think of a single practical difference between Deism and Atheism other than a completely unnecessary positing of some separate entity or being that plays no role at all in our universe other than to get it going, and therefore is functionally identical to the big bang or whatever Atheists use as their ‘starter.’

    Because they are functionaly identical, I think making a split on being a distinct being is entirely possible, philosophically interesting, and completely without practical value. In short, to me a Deist (of the variety we are discussing) is just an Atheist with a label change.

    I make my life easier by making my split in a way where the distinction is always meaningful. But that is not to say that you are wrong in any way. The split you suggest still seems valid to me, if that makes any sense.

  6. Bruce,

    I probably should take your last paragraph as a cue to go about my merry way on this issue, but I’ll be obnoxious for one more comment. I understand that there can be different typographies for splitting these things, and one doesn’t have to be “right” while the others are “wrong.” However, I don’t know where you’re going with your typography, and at the end of the day, I feel like I’ll be at the point of saying, “well, you know, that’s just like, your opinion, man.” (And I don’t think your intention is for that to happen on a general basis.)

    I guess what I’m saying is that to me, the most immediate, relevant, necessary attribute for something to be “like God” (and therefore theism) isn’t that that something makes sure there are appropriate consequences to actions…it’s really more about the positing of a separate being. So, for me, saying “The universe is God” (pantheism) is not in any way a theistic statement. Even saying, “The universe(, which actively works to make sure that there are appropriate consequences for our actions, therefore) is (or serves as) God” (which appears to be your summation of what you think Buddhism’s “something-like-God” is) is not a theistic statement in any sense to me. In this respect…maybe there’s a poll that has been conducted somewhere…but I would think that most people would view Buddhism as an atheistic religion, NOT as a theistic religion as you have written in previous posts. To the extent that people feel that Buddhism is theistic, I would repeat: it’s not because of a universe that has a kind of moral justice built into its cause and effect relationships. Rather, it is because you can find in several Buddhist texts mentions of external beings that could be conceived of as gods and goddesses and whatnot.

    So, when you say, “I honestly can’t think of a single practical difference between Deism and Atheism other than a completely unnecessary positing of some separate entity or being that plays no role at all in our universe other than to get it going,” my thought is: that is the practical difference, so you don’t need another one “other than” that one. My thought is that an atheist wouldn’t make that “completely unnecessary positing,” while a Deist would. That atheist may make claims about the universe, but wouldn’t externalize to a being external to the universe. It doesn’t matter that the deist’s separate entity doesn’t do anything on a continuous basis, and only “gets it going.” That’s not the critical distinction.

    …you say that making a split on a distinct being would be without practical value. I guess my question would be, what is your definition of “practical value” here?

    Let’s turn to something like the Founding Fathers. So, the history is complicated. Notwithstanding the Christian denominations to which they ascribed, many of them simply weren’t evangelical Christians like many theists today might assume. But they aren’t really atheists either. However, when people look at their (deistic) statements, I think that most people (and maybe we should have another poll here) tend to view their deistic statements in a theistic light. Why? Because having a “Creator” or “Architect” external to the “Creation” is a more immediate, relevant, and pressing distinction of theism from atheism than whether or not that “Creator” is actively involved in the moral justice of the universe today.

    [FWIW, probably in the same way that you view deist as being an atheist with a label change, I would probably view a pantheist (especially a “naturalistic pantheist”) as an atheist with a label change…but I would not view a Deist as such…more like a Theist without faith in dogma, revelation, etc.,]

  7. Thanks for including me in your posting! Just want to add that for me, the Mormon God is more like this ancient God that transcends justice. I don’t believe that God is “just” according to any measure we could rationally make up here in mortality. I personally prefer religious traditions that emphasize the mystery, grace, and depth of God. When I look at how terrible and incomprehensible the world is, I see a God who reflects that terror and incomprehensibility, the glory of God in the Leviathan that Job worshiped, or William Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright…Did he who made the lamb make thee?

    Modern Mormons go to great lengths to add the little caveat “everything will work out in the next life” to any potential problematic element we find in the gospel. But I ask myself, what if inequality and “unfairness” is a characteristic, not just of mortality, but of eternity? What if fortune and grace really are eternal universal truths? What if modern notions of justice are an infection brought about through secular Democracy and have nothing to do with God?

    People turn to God to find explanations that can make all this muddiness clear. They see something wrong, and they think their explanation of God can make it all right. But in every case, this is simply an idol, made after the image of whoever’s particular rational judgement. It is pride to worship such a God. True humility is to worship a God who does not conform to our rational judgement, to bow to something we can’t understand.

  8. Andrew says: “my thought is: that is the practical difference, so you don’t need another one “other than” that one”

    I understand your concern here, Andrew. But I’m hoping you’ll see that I’m being intentionally provocative to get you and others to think in a different way then you’re used to here.

    If two views are really the same except one posits the existence of something that they also posit will never make a difference, then for all intents and purposes there is no reason to worry about that ‘extra being’ that they say exists. This is simple epistemology.

    But if there is some difference that that extra being makes (other than merely happening to exist) then it’s a different kind of Deism than what we’ve been talking about. In that case, Deism is a form of Theism as I’m defining the term here.

    Did the Deistic founding fathers believe in an afterlife? I don’t know. Maybe Thomas Jefferson didn’t, though even that isn’t clear.

    That’s the problem. I clearly stated “a certain type of Deism” and you’re now struggling with the fact that the founding fathers were “Deists” and yet seemed like “Theists” to you, so I must be wrong and you’re trying to explain to me that I am. But is it possible you’re confusing the underlying conceptual difference because of a word?

    Anyhow, if what you are trying to tell me is that my defintions won’t match ‘the common usage’ of the term in a case like “Deism that has a God that does nothing and plays no role” I’d actually agree with you.

    But that is my whole point! The way we use terms is often muddled and contradictory. I doubt that even the idea that Theism and Atheism divide on ‘the existence of a separate being’ will get you far without considerable objection from some quarter. Karen Armstrong (who my definition would consider an atheist) would NOT consider herself either an atheist nor as believing in the existence of another separate entity as per your definition. She would claim that she believes in existence itself. (Whatever that means… she never really defines it well.) So your divide fails probably in as many cases as mine does — not because there is some problem with either of our definitions, but because the ‘common usage’ is iteself muddled and contradictory.

    Andrew, the only claims I’m making are these:
    1. My definition fits approximately as well as yours — that is to say, it works pretty well intuitively for most cases and fails intuitively for a few marginal cases
    2. Mine is more useful than yours on a case by case basis because it never calls two people that believe in essentially (for practical pruposes) identical beliefs by two different labels. Yours potentially does.

    But there is no reason for you to adopt one definition or the other if, for any reason, it doesn’t work for you. If you really really can’t see Theism and Atheism as splitting based on “God” being actually “good”, then don’t. Just realize that I’ll have little to say that you’ll be interested in in this series because you won’t be able to follow the concepts I’ve labeled this way. (Being human, you’ll probably never even realize that I’m using the terms differently from you even though I stated upfront that I was defining them somewhat differently from the way the terms get used in some cases due to the inconsistency of usage.)

    Anyhow, I am honestly trying to help you see where I am coming from. But honestly, it’s up to you to accept or reject it for yourself. Based on what you’re arguing with me, it seems fairly clear to me that you’re getting ‘stuck on words’ as it were. You can’t accept any definition of “Atheism” that includes any form of “Deism” since you have made a mental model of Deism that is simply not Atheistic. My attempt to split the words differently from you is an attempt to suggest that maybe that is too simple a way to look at it and maybe you’d be better off rethinking your intuitive view of Deism as *always* implying Theism. But that is just me.

  9. Nate,

    I’d like to avoid a debate over what ‘justice’ means. Especially since we all have a strong intuition for it, but it can’t actually be definitively defined. Plus, as you correctly point out, the modern usage is probably recent and not what God has in mind.

    So let me just ask if you consider God to be wholly “Good” (though not “tame” as Lewis would say) however you define the term? For I was just trying to use “just” as a synonym for “good” and not in the modern democratic sense at all.

    If not, then I am disagreeing with you and I can state with fair confidence that you are not describing the God Mormons believe in. If, yes, then we are probably agreeing and there is likely just a labeling problem here that isn’t of any real substance.

  10. I guess to put things succinctly, that if you have to be “intentionally provocative to get [me] and others to think in a different way than [we’re] used to here,” then that really undercuts your claim that your definition “works pretty well intuitively for most cases and fails intuitively for a few marginal cases.”

    Unless Nate and myself are both marginal or outliers (and the population of comments for this post is admittedly not large enough to draw a statistically relevant conclusion), you basically have a post where 100% of the people who aren’t you take exception to your definition.

    You say that I’m getting “stuck on words,” that I can’t accept any definition of atheism that includes any form of deism. I don’t think that’s true: I can conceive and even accept such alternative definitions — I just don’t think those definitions fit very well, I don’t think most people would accept those definitions, and consequently, I don’t believe those definitions would work “pretty well intuitively for most cases.”

  11. Andrew S,

    The thought occurred to me that you’ll probably take my Karen Armstrong example, claim that “believing in existence” is identical to Pantheism, and then try to claim that your definition works for Armstrong as an atheist.

    So let me cut you off at the pass.

    She holds up Thomas Aquinas as prototypical of what she believes.

    (My guess is that you can’t really seriously try to tell me that Thomas Aquinas was actually an atheist.)

    So your definition really isn’t going to work in all cases either. None will. This is about exploring ideas, not trying to come up with definitive definitions. You are mistaking my intent.

    The question I’m exploring is (in part) “what can we learn if we think of atheism as disbelieving in a just/good reality and theism as believing in it.”

    But you’ve skipped right over the fact that I actually have offered several possible definitions for ‘atheism’ so far. I actually offered up the idea that maybe it’s not a definitive defintion at all, but a spectrum. You’re only concentrating on one of my various ideas because you don’t like the implications for (some forms of) Deism.

  12. Andrew S,

    I only meant that if you think of it the way I’m suggesting, you’ll label ‘atheist’ and ‘theist’ in most cases exactly the way most people would in most cases. I think this is true. It fits (most of) our ‘intuitions’ in that it comes close to labeling correctly in most cases if we were to just ‘intuit it.’ (And this is what I meant, contrary to the way you tried to interpret me.)

    I’m being ‘provocative’ in that I’m avoiding a definition that sounds intuitive and precise but actually is very vague. By being precise, I’m hoping to stimulate discussion and challenge the idea that there is a single precise yet intuitive way to define our terms here.

    I liked your definition because it was precise too. But because it was, it also is going to be provocative too. I think any well defined definition for Atheism and Theism would lead a person to think of cases where it doesn’t apply and thus lead to (some) objections 100% of the time. So forgive me if I’m not convinced this means much other than I actually am getting people to think about it and discuss it in a way that they aren’t used to, and thus hopefully leading to deeper introspection over these ideas.

    Andrew, honestly, you are coming across as angry now. So I should just bow out on this because that isn’t my intent at all and I didn’t mean to accidently rile you up. This series is clearly not going to be for you. You’re free to define as you wish and do as you wish. I never meant to suggest otherwise.

  13. Bruce,

    re 11:

    Actually, for Karen Armstrong, I was going to respond (but decided to limit my response) by asking whether or not you had written posts disagreeing considerably with many of Karen’s statement about history, the changes in theology over time, and her overall narrative…I seem to recall that you’ve written posts about Karen, and I had thought that you weren’t really in agreement with her narrative.

    And even if it wasn’t you, there are others who disagree with Karen about her narrative.

    The point here is that using Karen Armstrong to argue that “[my] divide fails probably in as many cases as [yours]” doesn’t really work, because I don’t think Karen Armstrong is really that conventional, or well accepted even. And you know, maybe I’m underestimating her clout and influence…after all, she does sell plenty of books, I guess, and they can’t all be from people who just want to rip them to shreds intellectually. And you know, I think it’s fair for you to challenge Nate and my critiques in the same way — with you saying of Nate’s critique that it probably doesn’t apply to many *modern* religions.

    You say:

    So your definition really isn’t going to work in all cases either.

    Let’s not move goal posts. It’s not about whether my definition or your definition “work[s] in all cases.” I’m not claiming such, and of course, I recognize you aren’t either. Rather, it’s about which works in more cases. So, in pointing out exceptions, you also have to assess whether or not those exceptions are big ones (frequency wise) or not so big ones. At times, you want to disdain common definitions and common usages of terms, and that’s cool…but it just doesn’t really support your other claims that your definition works in more cases, or that it is intuitive.

    re 12:

    I guess I fell completely for the thing that you even warned me about earlier

    (Being human, you’ll probably never even realize that I’m using the terms differently from you even though I stated upfront that I was defining them somewhat differently from the way the terms get used in some cases due to the inconsistency of usage.)

    Yep. I totally never even realized that you’re using the word “intuitive” differently from me. I guess I didn’t see the part where you said you were defining it differently along with atheist, deist, theist, etc.,

    I’m sorry that I am coming across as angry, because I’m really not. Even though it seems like our conversations always get heated up, I feel like I’m improving a lot from our discussions…in terms of argumentation and whatnot. But I understand that what I’m doing is really not fair, since I’m kinda using you, in a way, to get better at this whole “logic” and “rationality” and “argumentation” thing when that really wasn’t your goal.

    You shouldn’t have to bow out of your own blog. In fact, I KNOW that I shouldn’t publish this comment. I should let you have the last word. But I understand that even though I’ve progressed a lot, I still have flaws like this.

  14. Andrew,

    I should just shut up myself, but your third to last and second to last pargraphs are pretty good examples of why I preceive you as ‘angry.’ Or at least just rude for no apparent reason.

    Anyhow, time to move on my friend. I can’t even come up with a good response that seems worthwhile at this point since you’re being rude on purpose while I’m trying to be friendly and to express understanding (and even agreement) with your point of view. Oh well. We all make our choices.

  15. “If, yes, then we are probably agreeing and there is likely just a labeling problem here that isn’t of any real substance.”

    Yes I believe that God is “good.” But I also think labels are significant, because they inform perceptions. God is great, expansive, and transcends anything we can understand. All we have is narrow perceptions and imperfect labels.

    Religions invent a God who “fixes” the injustice of life, through various after-life theologies. We invent God because of our own insecurity, our own inability to deal with paradox and darkness.

    But the Mormon God is a revealed God, not an invented God. And this revealed God asked Joseph Smith to do things that don’t make sense and have nothing to do with assuaging our insecurities about the unfairness of life. A revealed God asks us to step into darkness, not light.

    That’s why I don’t like the idea of a theology which focuses on “justice.” It plays to our modern insecurities about unfairness and paradox. Even if abstractly, justice is one of the characteristics of God, it is not His raison d’etre. The justice of God is not the justice of man, so it can be misleading to speak of justice as justice.

    And justice is proud. We always think of ourselves as “right.” We think God gives us rights. God makes everything fair. This is great pride. But accepting God’s arbitrary grace is true humility, because it asks us to believe without seeing, to exercise true faith: “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” Or like the poem says:

    “Even if there were no heaven, I should love Thee;
    And even if there were no hell I should fear Thee.”

  16. Sorry Bruce, I got railroaded back onto the subject of justice, when you confessed it was a word you used as a stand-in for “good.”

    Just wanted to add that regarding “God is good,” this doesn’t really work for me either. We don’t decide what is good, God does. And if it sounds evil to us, but God asks us to do it, then it is still good, and we should do it. Joseph Smith said that whatever God asks us to do is right, whether it is “thou shalt not kill, or thou shalt utterly destroy.” Good is not something we can define ourselves. Good is something that is defined by the revealed God to us.

    I don’t think this is just something that applies to exceptional cases, like the commandment to practice polygamy. We constantly mistake light for darkness and good for evil. Good is not self-evident. Evil is not self-evident. So again, we don’t invent a God which corresponds to self-evident notions of “good.” We worship a revealed God who defines for us what is good and what is evil.

  17. Nate,

    Since I don’t always (or usually, it appears) get Bruce, I may be off on this, but I think that when Bruce says “God is good,” he means in an eternal, long-term sense. So whereas in mortality, we “constantly mistake light for darkness and good for evil,” I think that a major point is that with theism, in the eternal perspective, what ultimately is good is defined and enforced by God. God and the afterlife are mechanism for which all humans will eventually come to recognize that God’s word, God’s morality, God’s justice, is final and ultimate — or if we don’t, then we’ll have to accept eternal consequences.

  18. Your definition of theism would appear to exclude Calvinists, especially high Calvinists.

    Many founders who were called Deists weren’t–they rejected Christ and the sacraments, but they believed in an active God who took an interest in human affairs and promoted the keeping of oaths, morality, and in some cases the promise of a hereafter.

  19. Very interesting analysis!! Let me just throw in my two cents as an atheist-Humanist who attempts to be as rational as possible.

    I suggested a potential ‘boundary’ between atheism and theism: knowingly making leaps of faith for non-rational (not necessarily irrational) reasons.

    The boundary between atheism and theism that I normally go by is the following: Which do you think is more likely: God/gods exist(s)? Or not? Yes = theist, no = atheist. The tricky part is defining “God” and “gods” — the definitions vary wildly. For myself, I’d say that what most people think of when they think of God/gods, it is unlikely that such beings exist. However, since it is well-nigh impossible to reach a consensus on the attributes, properties, and characteristics of God(s), it is correspondingly impossible to analyze the question rigorously.

    Note that from my definition, atheists are not necessarily rational at all. For example, I think Scientologists are technically atheists.

    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.)

    Well, yes. If you think you’ve seen evidence that some theory might be right (even if others have dismissed it), the rational thing to do is to test it out and examine the evidence.

    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?

    I hesitate to use the word “faith” for this. I wrote a post trying to pin down the definition of “Faith” — and this was one of the ideas that came up (I can link to it if you like) — but I don’t really care for it. A scientist may come up with a theory that he thinks is brilliant, and may stake his career on trying to prove it right. We’re only human, and what scientist doesn’t want to be the one who came up with the brilliant theory that’s remembered for generations? Yet the scientific ideal is not to set out with a desired outcome, but rather to be capable of accepting the results of the experiments, regardless of whether they prove your pet theory wrong or right.

    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.

    I agree that this belief is typical of modern Theism, but I don’t think it’s the base definition. There have been religions in the past (and even modern Theists) that believe in God(s) that created us and the universe and control our lives, but aren’t necessarily concerned with justice. It’s a little like your definition of the divide: I think that confidence in scientific reasoning (as the best tool for understanding how the world works) is typical of modern atheists, but it isn’t universal, hence shouldn’t necessarily be the definition.

  20. Nate,

    I actually agree with everything you are saying. I’m probalby going to go back and remove teh word “justice” because of the potential for misunderstanding that I meant “Good.” Justice *can* mean good, but does not always.

    But I hope I clarified my real meaning.

  21. Adam G,

    Do you mean I exclude Calvinists because the outcome (everyone goes to hell save those God chooses to worship him) is not good and just?

    If that is what you mean, I guess I’ll counter with the point that Calvists *believe that is a good and just outcome* (even though obviously it is not) and leave it at that. For now I was avoiding getting into the weeds over defining what “good” is.

    If you meant something else, please explain.

  22. chanson,

    I personally have no doubt that there is no defintive way to define “God” and so there is no defintive way to define atheist and theist. (Which is my whole point.)

    I am *suggesting* that *one really good way* (though still imperfect) is to define “God” based on the existence of some morally ordered reality we can’t currently see. As you point out, not everyone will agree throughout time or even today. But I am betting my way of defining God works in so many more cases then anything else you can come up with, that we might as well accept is as a pretty darn good definition.

    And, if you can’t, then see my olive leaf post to Andrew where I make the split without defining God that way.

    In any case, I agree with you, it would seem. This is my attempt to provactively suggest an approach that is clearer than most in my personal opinion. But obivously many will disagree with me.

  23. Bruce N, It seems like your description of atheism would be more appropriate of agnosticism. Atheists tend to make a leap of faith in the opposite direction.

  24. Andrew S,

    I really tried to accomodate your point. It’s too bad. Apparently even a total capitulation to your definition didn’t satisify you.

    On the other hand, I suppose that doesn’t suprise me. I think you don’t so much want me to accept your definition as agree with you that it matters. I suppose I didn’t do that.

    If I am not misunderstanding you (and probably I am) it’s a strange way to have a conversation though, Andrew.

  25. Mark D,

    You’re probably right. But, if true, I do think atheists aren’t always aware of that fact.

  26. re 27


    I mean, I probably deserved all the rudeness and condescension for how I’ve commented in the past, but I just didn’t need that in my life. So, that’s where things stand.

  27. I suppose I agree with CHanson’s take on this. If we think of “atheist” as “not believing in God” and “theist” as “believing in God” then the real ambiguity is all found in how one defines “God” in the first place.

    It seems evident to me that we could easily have someone that honestly sees themselves as believing in “God” as they define that term that to someone else, as they define the term, would seem them as an outright atheist.

    I sometimes think Karen Armstrong falls into this category. She seems like she might honestly see herself as a Theist, but views “God” in such a completely non-literal way that it is not suprising at all that others see her as an atheist.

    This might express what I was saying better.

    Mark D, your point is interesting. Perhaps an “agnostic” is the correct label for someone with ‘no faith’ and atheist is someone that has faith there is no God. But, as I said before, they would not recognize this as the truth about themselves. I was trying to ‘understand their view’ right or wrong that this point. I wanted to get into the mind of an atheist (to Andrew’s point, perhaps one type of atheist… a common type…) and see how they might see the world.

    I wonder, though. I am not sure if I always see the difference between an agnostic and an atheist. I think many atheists hesitate to say “I know there is no God.” Even militant ones like Richard Dawkins won’t say it so outright. It seems to me that we make a mistake to insist that someone like Richard Dawkins is “really an agnostic.” I think he is blatantly what we mean when we say “atheist.”

    But if an atheist isn’t really claiming to know for certain there is no God, doesn’t that largely collapse the difference between an agnostic and an atheist?

    Perhaps the difference is more political. An atheist is taking a definitive belief stance and an agnostic is indifferent. But I’ve met too many agnostics that either seem to ‘believe’ there is no God or at least do not seem at all indifferent.

    So I am not sure the two words, as they get used in real life, are really all that different.

    Also, I think of Fideists. Aren’t they, after a fashion, the flip side of an agnostic? Someone that doesn’t believe you can rationally prove there is a God (just like an atheist) but has a commitment of belief in God anyhow?

  28. Andrew,

    I was not trying to be rude at all until the final comment after I thought you were intentionally being rude to me. It was a condescending (i.e. dismissive) comment that I made at the end. Given the nature of text, I might have misunderstood you. Or maybe not.

    But either way, let me just say I regret that comment. I should not have been dismissive of you like that. I apologize.

    My later post was meant to ‘take you seriously’ so to speak as an apology. I was hoping actions spoke louder than words. But here also are words for what it is worth.

    But honestly, I understand the whole “just didn’t need that in my life” comment also. I think you have no ‘obligation’ to me on this front. We blog for fun and if a discussion is bothersome (for ANY reason), I’m fully in favor of just avoiding it. I think that is right and proper.

    But I hope you’ll at least accept that I do feel bad for my dismissive comment. I hate the whole concept of ‘accepting apologies’ so I won’t ask for that as it’s often meaningless anyhow. (i.e. people feel obligate to ‘accept’ even if they don’t really feel that way.) I just want you to know I was trying to take your view that yours might be the better definition (even if I am not convined of that yet) seriously but still felt that my point was coherent without me trying to in any way ‘own’ the definition for ‘atheist.’

  29. You’re right. I apparently don’t understand. I am saying that honestly and sincerely. Worse yet, I apparently *thought* I understood.

    Anyhow, since I don’t understand (I’m being sincere) I am not sure what to say. Too much risk of me even making a guess. So I’ll leave it at that.

  30. Bruce Neilson,
    high Calvinists would say that we receive eternal salvation only because God wills it and for no merit of our own, not even because God willed that we act meritoriously. At its most extreme form, Calvinism is about rejecting any constraints on God’s will whatsoever.

  31. Adam G,

    Yes, I agree.

    But I think they’d also say that “good” is defined by God. So the high Calvinists I’m friends with makes a huge point about the perfect love and goodness of God. When asked how to reconcile that with his views of salvation he says “I don’t know and I admit it sucks, but it’s what the Bible teaches.”

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