Compare Theism and Atheism

There are a number of ways that we can compare theism and atheism. In a debate that is increasingly politicised, in the USA at least, it is important to understand the objective or emotion of any person who is engaged in such a debate. This post is a brief look at the charge levelled against atheists that they too are expressing religiousness.

The simple view would be that to compare theism and atheism is trivial as one side (theism) offers a position of belief, whilst the other (atheism) counters with the negation or rejection of that belief. However, there are a number of different ways we can make a comparison particularly when we see either side stray from the real notion of what they are in fact supporting or denying.

Emphasised in earlier posts has been the point that theism is the assertion that there is a God who exists separately from the universe that he has created. Atheism is the denial of this claim. This is the “in a nutshell” definition of what theism and atheism entails.

Many theists and atheists assume that a belief in the theistic God also necessitates a belief in the literal interpretation of the bible. It does not. Other add-ons to the basic idea of theism could include the existence of miracles, the power of intervention, and a punishment regime in the afterlife or a requirement of selfless devotion. None of these things are a requirement for a belief in theism. They are only a requirement of some particular brands of theism. You can be a theist and still not adhere to any of the principles just outlined.

Atheism has its own set of baggage which some atheists and some theists assume is a part of the denial of theism. Again, they are not.

Two of the most oft claimed notions for atheism are materialism and a particular bunch of ethical (or lack of) ethical principles. Materialism is no more a requirement of atheism than literally interpreting the bible is a requirement of theism. Atheists can have any number of beliefs concerning the underlying structure of the universe. The only thing an atheist needs to assert is that there is no theistic God. The make up of the universe from there is a subject that has no bearing on atheism. If an atheist supports the concept of an immaterial mental realm then that is quite consistent with a lack of a belief in a theistic God. So is the negation of a realm of mental phenomena.

Similarly a denial of theism no more commits an atheist to any form of moral code, nor does an atheist need to be told that he lacks a moral code. A disbelief in the god of theism does not commit an atheist to anything; other than the denial of a god who exists as a separate entity to the universe that he has created.

We can further investigate and thus compare theism and atheism from the perspective of religion. Religion is often defined by our view of God or our belief system concerning God. If we attend closely to the detail of a definition of religion however we find that it is a very difficult idea to pin down.

For example, a mere belief in God can hardly be said to make one religious. If I state that I believe in God, yet take my belief no further, neither acting on that belief nor behaving in any manner different to an atheist say, can it be said that I am religious? I would say not. A mere belief is not enough to class a person as a religious person, even if we clarify the term ‘belief’ with the caveat that we mean belief in God. Beliefs in themselves are not enough to make a person religious, if they were then we would all be religious because we all have beliefs, and that would make the term vacuous.

There are other definitions of religion which are more interesting and revealing. One such idea of religion is embraced not by a set of beliefs concerning our worldview, but with regard to our commitment to such a view, measured in terms of our devotion, the time that it consumes and our insistence in what we express being correct above all else. Further the religious have a propensity to display symbols of their belief and to engage in artefact worship.

A football supporter might be said to follow his team religiously. He will display his teams’ colours or badge and perhaps view a special programme of a previous big game as a priceless artefact. The home ground of his favourite team becomes a place of worship. The attributes we expect to be displayed by the god worshipper can often be found expressed in a person who is devoted to any number of different things. The nature of religion is very difficult to define so that it applies only to theists.

So can an atheist ever be considered to be religious? If the definition of religion is given this broad feel then I think that it can; for example, the atheist who devotes a lot of time to promoting his view, or lack thereof. Who wears a spaghetti monster badge or bumper sticker and who dreams of making a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem of atheism, Galapagos. Finally the atheist who insists that science will at some future time explain everything or who insists that at some future time it will be proven that mental phenomena are fully reducible to matter. All of these things indicate a religiosity or blind purpose which is a manifestation of belief.

So when we compare theism and atheism, it is not just a comparison of the bare facts of each we should investigate. Theists who believe in a god who created the universe and who is a separate entity to that universe can be benign and not particularly religious. An atheist who denies theism but attaches a string of irrelevant ideas to his atheism whilst promoting his world view with zeal can manifest as more religious than the god believer. The dealing of the notions involved can be dealt with in a calm and rational way. It is those who become emotionally involved who tend to become religiously involved, and that kind of person can surface on both sides of the debate.

When we compare theism and atheism, the religious nature of the combatants is of interest. It is not merely the system of belief which dictates a person’s religiousness, but also the determination and emotional commitment which a person invests in to that belief. To that end, it is clear that some atheists can quite readily be classed as religious just as some theists could be viewed as irreligious.