Many years ago and after much study, I left the religion of my birth; the religion of my forefathers.
“So what do you believe now?” I am often asked. In attempting to answer that question in a comprehensive way, I realized that I needed to first define some terms. In this post, I will relay some definitions and sprinkle in my own commentary regarding the terminology of belief.
After covering terminology, I’ll provide a cursory overview of the more popular arguments for the existence of a Supreme Being. I’ll explore how Deism can be somewhat of a middle ground in the God debate.
This post is part primer on terminology and part resource guide.
In a subsequent post, I’ll build on this terminology to discuss the specifics of my own positions on religious belief.
There is a lot of ground to cover when it comes to beliefs and the labels that we ascribe to them. This is especially true when dealing with ideas that are not neatly codified by governing bodies of authority like you might have with for example, the Roman Catholic Church.
There are dozens and dozens of terms to describe various degrees of human belief or disbelief in religious deities. Some of these terms can be qualified with additional adjectives. As such, it would be naive to assume that you can describe all of the nuanced implications of a person’s belief system with a single-word label that they might employ for expediency.
In this post, we’ll look at the definition of some foundational terms from the Oxford Dictionary. As we do, I will sprinkle in commentary with my own views as well as additional resources worth exploring.
This is the general term for the view that a God or Gods exist, and that religions were revealed in some form to human beings. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Zorastrians, etc. are all theists.
Late 17th century: from Greek theos ‘god’ + -ism.
Theism comes in several varieties, such as monotheism, pantheism, etc. In some systems of classification, deism (defined below) is considered a particular subset of theism. Classical theism is what most people actually mean when they simply use the word “theism”. In classical theism, the deity is a personal deity who interacts with the Creation.
I myself use the term theism as a colloquial abbreviation for the more precise term classical theism. As such, whenever I refer to non-theism, I tend to group deism and atheism together as markedly and meaningfully different from (classical) theism.
Classical theism is variously defined by the religions of the world. As such, resources defining varieties of theism would be too broad to include here.
Consequently, I’ll provide you with resources on the worlds two largest religions (Christianity, Islam) as they refute one another, as well where each presents a counter to their mutual challenger: atheism.
With my focus on Islam/Ahmadiyyat, references for Islamic positions are sourced from the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (whether the official website or its authorized affiliates). Christian positions will be provided by David Wood, a Protestant Christian.
Christian Rebuttals of Islam.
- Video: Islam: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religion
- Video: Why the Quran was Revealed in Arabic
- Video: Who Killed Muhammad
Muslim Rebuttals of Christianity.
- Book: Jesus in India
- Book: Christianity: A Journey from Facts to Fiction
- Audio: Q&A with Mirza Tahir Ahmad: What is the Muslim view about the Christian principle of Atonement?
Christian Arguments Against Atheism.
Muslim Arguments Against Atheism, from Ahmadi Muslims.
This is probably one of the most misunderstood of all belief labels as many positions with important distinctions can fall under this umbrella term.
Late 16th century: from French athéisme, from Greek atheos, from a– ‘without’ + theos ‘god’.
Often times, atheism is incorrectly simplified to imply an absolute conviction that no God could possibly exist. Atheists have repeatedly clarified that the general term ‘atheism’ (without a qualifier) is simply a rejection of the proposition, “There is a god”.
Professing an absolute conviction in the rejection of any and all deities is known as strong atheism. Strong atheism carries an initial burden of proof, just as theism does. Weak or ‘implicit’ atheism does not carry an initial burden of proof.
For non-theists of any kind who view religion as dangerous and harmful to society, the term anti-theist applies. Not all atheists are anti-theists. By way of example, the late Christopher Hitchens was a popular anti-theist.
Antitheism has been adopted as a label by those who regard theism as dangerous, destructive, or encouraging of harmful behavior.
To be clear, an anti-theist is not one who is bigoted against theists; the term only refers to being against the ideology of theism.
The term New Atheism has become popular in the early twenty-first century. New Atheists are those who, unlike the atheists before them, are no longer content to quietly reject religion. They are outspoken proponents of atheism as a morally superior position vis-a-vis the questions of God and religion.
The New Atheists are authors of early twenty-first century books promoting atheism. These authors include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. The “New Atheist” label for these critics of religion and religious belief emerged out of journalistic commentary on the contents and impacts of their books. A standard observation is that New Atheist authors exhibit an unusually high level of confidence in their views. Reviewers have noted that these authors tend to be motivated by a sense of moral concern and even outrage about the effects of religious beliefs on the global scene. It is difficult to identify anything philosophically unprecedented in their positions and arguments, but the New Atheists have provoked considerable controversy with their body of work.
Whereas New Atheism is concerned with being vocal about the superiority of atheism over (classical) theism, Anti-theism is concerned with raising awareness about the dangers of (classical) theism. In practice, there is much overlap in the New Atheism and Anti-theism movements.
For more information on negative and positive atheism.
In everyday use, to be an agnostic is to convey the sentiment, “I don’t have an opinion either way” or “I don’t know that we can really know”. This would be in response to the question, “Does God exist?”
In Einstein’s rejection of both theism and atheism, he has been quoted as allowing others to use the label agnostic for his beliefs.4 Many would argue that Einstein’s views align more closely with deism. Indeed, there is some interplay between aspects of both agnosticism and deism. In my understanding, this is mostly due to how they both reject the knowledge claims5 of theism and positive atheism.
For additional definitions of agnosticism.
Additional context on Thomas Henry Huxley and his explanation of the term ‘agnosticism’ — which he originally coined.
On disambiguating the labels ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’, Matt Dillahunty explores why most important for any such discussions are the concepts behind the labels, and not the labels themselves. In this video, common usages for these words are juxtaposed and contrasted.
This is where one can believe in a higher intelligence while still rejecting claimants to prophethood and scriptures professing to be divine. God can be a higher force of intelligence — the creator of the universe — without revealing anything to humanity except nature itself.
Pronunciation: /ˈdēˌizəm/ /ˈdāˌizəm/
Late 17th century: from Latin deus ‘god’ + -ism.
It is through a deistic conception of God that one can most clearly assert a sense of spirituality — the belief in a creative force greater than each of us — whilst still rejecting traditional “revealed” religions.
For additional definitions of deism.
Formal Arguments for a God
There are numerous classical arguments for the existence of God. Most of these arguments are still used today, albeit with modern refinements and upgrades applied.
A synopsis of some of the classic arguments for the existence of a God:
- The Teleological Argument: This is the intelligent design argument, also known as the argument from design. It suggests that there is evidence of deliberate design in the universe and in nature, and that therefore, evidence of an Intelligent Creator.
- The Ontological Argument: This argument states that God is a being of which no greater being can be conceived in the mind, and that it is greater to exist in reality than to only exist in the mind. Therefore, God must exist.
- The Cosmological Argument: This is the argument from universal causation. Many variations exist. It suggests that since everything that begins to exist has a cause, and that since the universe began to exist,6 the creation of the universe must have been caused. Ergo, God is that cause.
This is not a comprehensive list by any means. It is only meant to hint at the richness of the philosophical thought and debate on the topic. For an index to the myriad arguments in philosophy for the existence of a God, this wikipedia entry is a good starting point, as is this more accessible overview.
One of the most popular modern arguments for the existence of God, is the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). It is a variation on the original cosmological argument. Of course, to all of these formal arguments, counter arguments have also been proposed.
For example, an explanation of the Kalam Cosmological Argument and objections to it are relayed in this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. You can also watch this short clip on how atheists and theists can’t even agree on the validity of the starting premises of the underlying syllogism. These disagreements are more formally showcased in excerpts from a debate held between William Lane Craig (Professor of Philosophy) and Sean Carroll (Theoretical Physicist).
Navigating the Debate with Deism
A deist can accept most arguments put forth for the existence of God, and still reject the world’s religious movements and their purported holy scriptures.
I would surmise that variations on the cosmological and teleological arguments are what gives the deist their grounding to the concept of intelligent, creative forces behind our universe.
For the deist, it is however, not about a personal God. It is not about religion.
Rather, the deist argues that although we can infer God7 in the creation of the universe and in our own existence, there is no good evidence of a Being who interacts with the human race, contravenes his own laws of nature, or who intervenes against evil and suffering.
For this reason, deists will often have common cause with atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. Classical theism stands alone to defend the value of religion and religion’s truth claims.
Exploring Labels and Logical Arguments
Matt Dillahunty and Aron Ra discuss the Kalam Cosmological Argument with Stephen Knight on Episode 56 of the GS Podcast. They also delve into the view that there are many more atheists than those who actually self-identify as such. Aron argues that if you don’t believe in a God with certainty, you’re technically an atheist.8
They also discuss how there’s been a negative stereotype associated with atheism, and how that is slowly changing now. The professed views of luminaries like astronomer Carl Sagan easily fit into implicit atheism, although he rejected the term. It was too toxic to use in his day. Slowly, that is changing as people realize it is simply a rejection of the premise that there is “definitely a God” of some kind. By default, atheism does not state that there is definitely no God.
For understanding the burden of proof, negating propositions and the agnostic middle ground, see the Atheist Debates Project video on The Burden of Proof. It covers, with systematic detail, terms like the null hypothesis and propositional logic.