Define Theism and atheism

The definitions of theism and atheism should both be very clear. Yet at times because of the heat of debate in which theism and atheism are discussed the real meaning of each becomes blurred. Dictionaries are often considered the arbiters of definition, though reaching for a dictionary should be a last resort. Dictionaries are not definers of words. Dictionaries list words and how they are used in common speech. As a philosopher it is quite legitimate to define ones own terms provided one is clear that is what you are doing. If a philosopher defines a term to have a specific meaning then the dictionaries definition is irrelevant. Should a philosophers use of a term become standard then it will be the dictionary that adapts to the new usage. It is not the public who adapt to a dictionary definition, rather the dictionary changes to how words are used.

Theism can be a difficult word to define because theists themselves have so many different ideas of what their theism entails. Not only are there three primary theist religions, there are a number of sub groups within each religion further diluting any notion of there being a clear and distinct definition.

Atheism is easy to define. Atheism is the belief that theism is false. But as that definition rests on our understanding of what theism entails we are back to the problem of seeking a clear definition of theism. So for the purpose of this blog I shall make clear precisely how I define the concept of theism and by default how atheism then becomes defined.

There are two basic principles that are common to most who profess a theistic belief.

  • The first principle is that God is a distinctly separate entity from the rest of nature.
  • The second principle is that God is the architect or creator of the universe or nature.

These two definitions are crucial to distinguish theism from deism or pantheism. Deism considers the deity to be a transcendent feature of the universe and pantheism is where God and nature are considered to be the same. In deism the universe is considered to be a part of God, in pantheism the universe is considered to be god. In theism then, a distinguishing idea is that god is distinct from the universe that he has created.

An atheist is someone who either rejects principle one or principle two, though usually an atheist is likely to reject both principles. A theist is not committed to believing anything else, though he probably will add a whole range of additional premises and ideas to embellish his belief network. An atheist is not required to disbelieve (or believe) anything else though many atheists will add on extra concepts to their world view and class it as an atheist perspective.

It is the embellishment of these definitions and the adding on of other ideas and principles that can lead to so much confusion and conflict within the debate. Some theists identify themselves as creationists for example, but that is the view of individual theists and not necessarily of theism in general. Some theists believe the universe was created in the last ten thousand years. Such a claim is not something that theism entails. Some theists may make that claim, but theism as a whole doesn’t. Proving the universe is 14 billion years old does not defeat theism. It only defeats those theists who claim the universe is much younger.

Atheism is a Broad Church

If atheism defines itself as the negation of theism, atheism becomes the home of all those who believe theism is false. Consequently any non-theist is by definition an atheist. Pantheists, Deists, Buddhists, Spiritualists, Pagans and everybody else who does not believe in theism should on this definition be classified as atheist. They have a belief in something other than theism, but few would call themselves atheist over and above or instead of referring to their beliefs as Buddhist or Deist for example.

Now this leads to the perplexing idea that atheists could actually hold God beliefs. Pantheists believe that there is a God who is identifiable with the universe as a whole for example. There are also non-theists who define themselves as say spiritualist. They may have the view that the universe is fundamentally spiritual though there is no theist god involved.

Somebody who calls himself an atheist is likely to reject pantheism and spiritualism. But in doing so that person is claiming more than merely the negation of theism. An atheist, who insists on rejecting pantheist and spiritual beliefs amongst others, is actually defining a specific philosophy within the broad church of atheism. They are usually supporting the position of materialism. Materialism is the view that all things are reducible to matter; that minds are no more than complex arrangements of molecules. Arguing for a specific position within the broad realm of atheism is very different from merely denying theism.

A material atheist then is not merely expressing a disbelief in theism; he is expressing a positive belief that science, one day, will demonstrate an explanation for mental phenomena in purely materialist terms. Such a position is not a negation of theism but a positive belief. Materialist atheism is a philosophical belief that expresses a definite view about the world and is not a necessary consequence of a denial of theism. Unfortunately all too frequently this fact is ignored.

In conclusion then we can define theism and atheism in a nutshell; theism is the belief that there is a God who is separate from the universe that He alone has created. Atheism is the position that there is no such God. Atheism entails no more than this.