Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Let's Not Conflate Theism with Religion!

It is a recurring problem that too many in their desire to attack unbelief, or even agnosticism, invoke the too generic brand of "theism" to oppose it when they really mean something much more specific (e.g. fundamentalism). Why they're not more specific is a mystery, but it is important here to clear up meanings and definitions lest people become confused.

1. What is Theism?

I define Theism as any form of deity recognition that may or may not be backed up or formalized by a sacred book or “revelation”. If this last condition, especially, is fulfilled- then I say that the proposed Theism and God-concept also has a theology. Theism is therefore the advocacy of a belief in a particular God-concept, which incorporates a theology if a sacred text is integrated into its belief system.

For example, Yahweh, the Jewish deity, is set out in their sacred book, the Talmud. Thus Juadaism qualifies, and one can say that it is based on a "Talmudic Theism". So also does the Christian God, set out in the Bible, though there are various interpretations depending on which Christian sect one belongs to. Hence, it is dangerous here to postulate a "Biblical Theism" simply because no two Christians (unless they belong to the same sect) will agree on what that means. To the evangelical, it will mean biblical literalism or inerrancy, but I already noted the inherent problems with this:


Islam also qualifies, since Allah is explicated in the Qu’ran and the role of Mohammed his prophet. Similarly, Hinduism, since Brahmin is articulated in The Upanishads.

All of the above are therefore forms of Theism. That, however, is where similarities end. To fix ideas, the typical western Christian regards his or her deity as a personal God, while the typical Hindu regards his or her deity (Brahmin) as impersonal. Even if all other things are equal, how can there be such a vast gap in human perceptions? The fact of such a perceptual chasm must mean either: a) God does not exist - at least as specified by either group, or b) God exists, but no human mind is capable of grasping even the most elemental conception accurately. Philosopher Joseph Campbell observes[1] :

"’God’ is an ambiguous word in our language because it appears to refer to something that is known. But the transcendent is unknowable and unknown. God is transcendent, finally, of anything like the name of "God". God is beyond names and forms.”

James Byrne[2] is equally adamant:

"The idea of God as Being is the creation of the philosophical gaze, a result of the drive to objectification which is the hallmark of the history of metaphysics. It is the ‘God’ which is argued about in theism and atheism, and which can only be a projection of humans"

This is the first hint that "God" does not really exist other than as a construct in the human mind, so when humans invoke the word "God" they are really objectifying something they don't have a clue about. (This is buttressed by the fact that so few are able to provide the necessary and sufficient conditions for it to exist, yet expect atheists to take their claims seriously!)

Byrne then goes on to cite the work of French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion (from his work, ‘God Without Being’, 1991) who challenges people to think of -G-O-D- or God in a non-conceptual way. That is, only with a strike through when the word is written, to indicate no one has the capacity to describe, grasp, conceptualize or manipulate the underlying entity. In effect, as Byrne observes, “to think -G-O-D- is unthinkable is to reject the entire basis of onto-theology.”

If then the entity is de-conceptualized it can’t be debated. Note, this is a different thing from being “beyond knowledge” as the agnostic would define it. It is rather, beyond any capacity for human thought at all! Thus, while the agnostic can insist his position is one of “impossibility of knowledge” of God (or supernatural) this new category prohibits even writing anything.

The questions raised here go to the heart of basic theories of knowledge. How does one "know" something? And more importantly, how does one know that he knows? Or, in the absence of knowledge, does faith enter as a kind of substitute? Citing the Bible is no kind of response, because Christians from differing sects will cite different knowledge or none at all based on it. (Those who cite none, will follow the rational example of the Jesus Seminar, which has shown that 88% of it can't be historical and hence must be either mythological or later additions)

2. Theism and God-concepts:

If Theism (which I will always capitalize) means different things to different peoples and cultures, how can one examine it with any uniformity or standards? There is one way, and that is to compare its God-concepts. If one were to take a random sample of 100 people from the phone book, and ask each to define God in his or her words, what would result?

I had occasion to do this in an informal survey prior to writing a newspaper article entitled Science and God.[3] In Barbados, I had phoned 100 people at random and asked each to articulate his or her notion of God. Amazingly, no two descriptions matched in every respect. The most startling aspect was that fully 56 were Christians (as opposed to 6 Hindus, 8 Muslims, 10 Jewish, 18 no religion identified, 2 agnostics). Some of the responses I received:

"Jesus is God"

"Jehovah is God"

"God is love"

"God is our Father and the creator of the universe"

"God is an impersonal, physical energy."

"Yahweh is God: the I-AM-THAT-WHICH-I-AM"

"God is the principle of creativity and action"

The great diversity of conceptions of God led me to conclude that what people really meant when they professed "belief in God" was a personal allegiance to a particular concept. Invariably, the concept was flawed and limited because it was abstracted from a personal background of awareness and conditioning, as opposed to a total comprehension of actual being. In other words, the lack of understanding of the underlying entity (assuming there is one underlying at all) renders all concepts relative! (Which also comports with James Byrne's contention that it is a "creation of the philosophical gaze").

There is simply insufficient information to distinguish one person's concept as the "one true God" to the exclusion of all others. This means that the Jewish concept of Yahweh, the Muslim concept of Allah, the Hindu concept of Brahmin and the Christian concept of the Trinity all stand in the same ontological relation. From an informational point of view, none can be selected as "true" to the exclusion of the others. If this be so, then it makes no sense to distinguish Theisms based on their respective scriptures, e.g. "Talmudic Theism", "Biblical Theism", "Upanishadic Theism" ..because all differences are collapsed and made relative.

As a corollary, the faith that people express is really faith in their own concept of Theism, fashioned from their own God concept(s). There is no Theism that is absolute, or uniquely true or valid in and of itself and moreover (given the subjectivity) one form of Theism can always be totally rejected by another on the basis of “sacred text” analysis and respective revelations.

This is completely analogous to there being inadequate information to distinguish one religion's claims as true to the exclusion of all others. In the case of individual religions, or religious traditions, the embodiment of the respective truth claim is found in a "sacred revelation," or holy book. For example, the Holy Bible for Christianity, the Talmud for Jews, the Koran for Muslims and the Upanishads for Hindus.

The problem is that the ancient writers, for each scripture, suffered from the same limitation of comprehension that their modern counterparts do. Their neural capacity was just as finite as that of present-day humans, and just as conditioned toward a particular conceptual allegiance. Take the account in Genesis and how it describes God's behavior: one instant creating the world and calling it "good" then becoming disenchanted and wiping it out in a flood, while bemoaning that a mistake was made. Now, a genuine God (God-GOD) can’t make mistakes (since perfection is surely a divine attribute). However, a human brain is quite likely to project its flaws onto its own concepts. Thus, the God making the mistakes in Genesis is actually an artifact: the projection of the ancient writer’s own ego onto his God concept, writ large.

It is truly amazing more otherwise intelligent people can't see this, something I can only atrtribute to intellectual blindness.

3. The Advantages of using the term "God-concept" rather than "God":

Is there any advantage to acknowledging that a God-concept is what people are talking about when they use the noun "God?” I believe so. For one thing, the acknowledged use of the term God-concept reinforces the attitude of cautious forbearance mentioned earlier. The implicit relativism acts as a restraint, backing the believer away from a militant absolutism. Ideally, this should dispose him or her to be more tolerant toward unbelievers, and tolerant toward those of different religions. Far from being "wishy-washy," this affords humanity a hope that religious conflicts will one day come to an end. No more Jews versus Arabs, Catholics versus Protestants, or Hindus versus Muslims.

Far from acceding to evil, this necessary acceptance of relativity offers an escape from evil. It’s an admission of intellectual humility. An admission that human brains are too limited in capacity and function to access the fundamental answers to life or to have an exclusive grasp of the "one, true God," somehow denied to all those of other faiths.

The use of the term God-concept also recognizes implicitly (by acknowledgment of a finite intelligence confronting an "infinite" entity) that the nearly universal allegiance to God-concepts is separate from the issue of a factual existence of a deity. In other words, the widespread use and appeal of God-concepts does not necessarily mean that there is a genuine correspondent in reality, supernatural or otherwise.

In fact, humanity's penchant for articulating God-concepts could be dictated by brain architecture. The prevalence of God-concepts therefore reflects certain propensities or innate characteristics associated with the brain's hard wiring, rather than an "unconscious recognition of God." One of the most compelling lines of research has been that of Michael Persinger, of Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, in Canada (See, e.g. Persinger.: The Neuropsychological Basis of God Beliefs, 1983.)

4. The Different Theisms:

Finally, it is instructive to examine the differing Theisms.


Monotheism represents a belief in one deity only, though that deity may also have human attributes. Thus, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are all examples of Monotheism. However, Christianity differs from the other two, in that it allows for a God-Man identity, and moreover a salvation role for that entity.

By contrast, Mohammed is a Prophet only, not a God-Man Savior, and Jesus is also regarded as a Prophet in Islam. In Judaism, there is neither a major Prophet (in the same central role of Jesus or Mohammed) nor a special Savior that has already arrived. Some have differentiated Christianity from Islam and Judaism by referring to it as a form of personal Monotheism. That is, one infinite and all-powerful God exists (or more accurately, a God –concept that articulates it!) but personal connection is afforded by an intermediary human. Thus, the infinite God is rendered a personal God.

Now, it’s possible to interject additional facts here. That is, Christianity is not the only God-Man religion[4]. Others have existed from antiquity including forms created by the Egyptians (Horus) and the Persians (Mithras). A number of similar attributes apply to all god-man mythologies:

1- A virgin mother who immaculately conceives.
2- Acclamation of the progeny as a "Son of God”
3- Reared in a foreign land.
4- He re-appears in his native land, working miracles and preaching
5- He's persecuted by his people, declared a criminal.
6- He's seized by authorities after a major betrayal, then put to death.
7- He rises from his grave, confirming he was the special divine being his disciples proclaimed.
8- His followers start spreading the God-man mythology and are often persecuted for it.

Take the Persian God-Man, Mithras, the Savior designated in Mithraism, who was born of the immaculate virgin Anahita, who conceived him from the seed of Zarathustra. Like Jesus, Mithras was condemned before a Tribunal but he subsequently ascended into Heaven. Mithraists recall his suffering and death with a ritual almost identical to the Communion practiced by Catholics and Anglicans.

This and other records from antiquity disclose that the personal God-Man foundations of Christianity are in no way unique or original but likely plagiarized by early writers from pagan sources. The degree of coincidence between so many of the actions, events (from the birth to wise men, to miracles, and suffering, Ascension) points directly to this conclusion.

This isn’t what most orthodox Christians wish to hear, but one that must be considered nonetheless. Especially since it undermines the favorite refrain of so many “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or perish in Hell!”


Polytheism represents a theology and belief in multiple deities, each of which is worshipped in turn. For the purposes of this book, I only note it here for completeness and in passing, and don’t regard it as a major theistic system in today’s world. So I will not elaborate on it or return to it.


This holds that nature and deity are bound up as one entity – most often either as a single oneness, or in terms of the regularities of natural laws. Thus, when one worships nature one worships God, or when one appreciates natural regularities – evinced in natural laws- one is indirectly worshipping God.

In terms of crude or unrefined pantheism, the totality of the universe, its energy and all relevant fields are equated to a “divinity”. This is, when one thinks about it, merely a mammoth expansion and extrapolation of Sun worship. Instead of worshipping one immediate celestial body, one is worshipping all of them as a collective.

A much more subtle form is natural law Pantheism which received much attention after Einstein referred to it as “Spinoza’s God”. When pressed to explain himself, Einstein went on to aver he didn’t believe in a personal God, but rather “Spinoza’s God, the order and harmony of all that exists.” In other words, the principle of regularity of natural law at work in the cosmos elevated to a kind of impersonal deity. However, it’s wise not to read too much into this, and it clearly doesn’t come across as anything to be worshipped!

Much more advanced than natural law Pantheism is Emergent Holism[5]. In this case, the universe emerges as more than the sum of its parts by virtue of being “holographic”. Perhaps the most important “deity” construct is David Bohm’s Holomovement, a higher-dimensional “implicate order” through which consciousness is enfolded as well as matter. Bohm’s “deity” at least has some scientific legs – sort of – since quantum mechanics has been used to fashion the end product. (Bohm uses a mathematical device he calls the “quantum potential”.)

The Bohm Holomovement and its consequences in providing a basis for miracles and so forth, has been popularized in books such as Michael Talbot’s The Holographic Universe. A neat thing that works out from cosmic holography, is that each and every one of us is literally a spark of the “divine”. So it kind of reintroduces a form of Gnosis through the back door!

It is hoped that this basic primer on Theism will help future bloggers in getting their facts straight about it, and also let them see that the claim that "theism is aligned with the reality of a transcendent God" is not valid, because one can only assert (based on what I've shown) that a particular Theism only embraces a relativistic God-concept which is based on objectifying a possible transcendant. Thus, the two claims are not the same.

As to the other canard often circulated about why Unbelievers "exhaust so much energy trying to disprove Theism, like trying to disprove the existence of unicorns or elves", this is a non-sequitur. The Unbeliever is not trying to disprove anything since it isn't his job to! He is not the one who's made the positive claim, he merely withholds acceptance of the Theist's claim already made.

It is the Believer's job to prove his entity exists, or more specifically in the context of my blog discussion on Theism, to show his God-concept is much more than mere relative concept and actually points to an abiding and REAL entity. We invest time and energy in this because, as Persinger has noted, God-concepts are too often invoked to wage bloody religious wars, kill doctors, or employ political force to suppress rights allocated to people (women and homosexuals come to mind).

Hence, there is absolutely NO similarity at all to "unicorns and elves"!

[1] The Power of Myth, Anchor Books, New York, p. 56.

[2] James Byrne, God, Continuum Press, 2001, p. 151.

[3] Barbados NATION, September 27, 1978, p. 14.

[4] For a full accounting of all “Christ” antecedents in pagan cultures and religions, see: J.M. Robertson, Pagan Christs, University Books, Inc., 1966.

[5] For a detailed accounting of the theories to do with this, see: The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes, Ed. Ken Wilber, New Science Library, 1982.

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