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Theism 101: What is Theism?

Defining the Concept

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To put it simply, theism is a belief in the existence of at least one god - nothing more, nothing less. Theism does not depend upon how many gods one believes in. Theism does not depend upon how the term 'god' is defined. Theism does not depend upon how one arrives at their belief. Theism does not depend upon how one defends their belief.

That theism only means "belief in a god" and nothing more can be difficult to understand at times because we don't normally encounter theism in such isolation. Instead, when we see theism, it is embedded in a web of other beliefs - often religious in nature - which color not only the theism itself but also our perception of that theism.

Thus, when considering and evaluating theism, we are normally engaged in considering and evaluating a variety of interconnected beliefs, ideas, and assertions. At least, that is what happens "in real life" when debating the merits of theism and/or religion - but to do that well, we need to be able to step back and take a look at theism in isolation.

Why? Because if we conclude that something about a theistic belief system is valid or invalid, rational or irrational, justified or unjustified, we need to be able to identify what exactly we are accepting or criticizing. That, in turn, means that we need to be able to separate the different elements because we have to take the time to consider them both individually and jointly.

Some might object that a broad definition of theism causes it to become meaningless, but that isn't quite true. Theism is not meaningless; however, it also isn't as meaningful as some might typically assume. Because theism does not automatically incorporate any beliefs, attitudes, or ideas beyond the proposition that at least one god exists, its meaning and implications are very limited.

Of course, the exact same thing is true about atheism. The only thing that all atheists have in common is that they don't accept the proposition that at least one god exists - nothing more, nothing less. Atheists aren't all necessarily rational, ethical, logical, or anything else. Generalizations and assumptions about all theists are just as invalid and unwarranted as generalizations and assumptions about all atheists.

In practical terms, this means that atheists and anyone critiquing theism cannot fall victim to intellectual laziness. Generalizations about all theists and theism overall are easy, but not valid. On the other hand, critiques and evaluations of specific theistic belief systems are valid when the critique takes into account the particular truth-claims, ideas, and methodologies beyond theism itself. This takes work - it requires a careful study of the belief system and an evaluation of a complex web of ideas.

As difficult as it might be, however, it is also ultimately much more rewarding and much more interesting than facile generalizations made without the slightest consideration for the differences or similarities between believers and belief systems. If one isn't interested in investing the time and effort needed to gain the requisite understanding, that is of course just fine - but that means that one also lacks the intellectual standing needed to judge the specific beliefs in question.


Varieties of Theism
One of the ways in which mere theism is transformed in religion is in the nature of the theism itself. In addition to the obvious addition of beliefs like what the gods want and where the gods come from, theism itself can be focused upon a single god (monotheism), many gods (polytheism), and so on. Understanding the differences between these types of theism is necessary not only for understanding the religious systems in which they appear, but also for understanding the variety and diversity which exists for theism itself.

•  Classical / Philosophical Theism
•  What is Monotheism?
•  What is Pantheism?

Arguing About the Existence of God
Does God exist? If so, what type of God exists and what does God want? Are any religions valid? If so, which one(s) and why? These are the sorts of questions debated by visitors to this site - learn more about these questions, the terms involved, and how the debates proceed.

•  What is God?
•  Arguments for Gods
•  Arguments against Gods

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