Theism (pronounced THEE-ism) means “belief in one or more gods.” It covers a huge range of religious beliefs, notably the Abrahamic monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Theism refers to any kind of belief in any god or gods, so it is difficult to make any other generalizations about it. Two people may both say they believe in God, so they’re both theists; but what they mean by “God” could be completely different. This does however raise the interesting question of what all gods have in common—in order to be called gods; but since this is a matter of belief, not fact, we shall not attempt such a definition here.
Belief in God is also normally attached to other beliefs, such as belief in an afterlife or the soul. However, theism can also refer to religions with extremely different beliefs, such as reincarnation.
II. Types of Theism
You can subdivide theism in many ways. For example, you can divide it into separate historical / cultural traditions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam (and each of these could be subdivided still further).
You can also define types of theism by number of Gods:
- Monotheism: one god
- Polytheism: many gods
- Ditheism: two gods, usually one good and one evil
- Henotheism: one main god with many minor gods
Alternatively, you can divide it in terms of different ideas about the nature of the god or gods:
- Pantheism: God = everything or the universe
- Deism: God created the whole universe but does not interfere in events
- Autotheism: God = the self or is within the self
- Eutheism: God is entirely merciful and just
- Misotheism / Dystheism: God is evil
- and many others
III. Theism vs. Atheism vs. Agnosticism
The opposite of theism is atheism, or the belief that there are no gods. Atheism was once rare in the Western world, but it has grown rapidly over the past two centuries since traditional theistic beliefs and organized religions have been threatened both by science and by exposure to alternative belief systems from around the world.
Atheists deny the existence of God, but often embrace other religious teachings, especially regarding morality and compassion; and atheists argue that true morality springs from reason and compassion rather than the will of God or the fear of disobeying God.
Although atheism is relatively new in the west, various atheistic belief systems have been popular in Asia for thousands of years. While some forms of Buddhism (from India) and Taoism (from China) are theistic, other forms have no gods, and can be considered atheistic. And Indian and Chinese atheism are very different from Western atheism in their rituals, traditions, and general philosophical outlook.
Agnosticism is quite different from either atheism or theism; it is not a belief, but rather an acknowledgement that we don’t know whether gods exist or not; or at least the agnostic claims that he or she doesn’t know! Most reasonable people are at least a little agnostic: some theists acknowledge that they don’t know for a fact that God exists, even though they have faith; and some atheists, conversely, acknowledge that they can’t be certain there is no God. However agnostics consider both theism and atheism to be irrationally based on faith.
IV. Quotes About Theism
“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” (Isaac Newton)
Isaac Newton was a theist and one of the greatest scientists of all time. Newton’s vision of the universe was extremely orderly and rational, like an elaborate and beautiful machine. His ideas gave rise to deism, or the view of God as a cosmic watchmaker who designed the universe and then left it alone to unwind according to its own laws.
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” (Søren Kiergkegaard)
Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, and a Christian, who tried to argue philosophically for monotheism. He argued that faith alone was not a reason to believe in something, and tried to develop a more philosophically rigorous understanding of God and Christian practice. Part of his argument was that we should give up on the idea of asking God for help and instead take responsibility for our own lives and actions.
IV. The History and Importance of Theism
No one knows when human beings began to worship gods. Most scholars speculate that early humans believed in nature spirits and ancestor-worship, much like many tribal people throughout the world still do today (in fact, most modern Chinese still carry out the rituals of ancestor worship). There is physical evidence throughout the world for ancient nature worship, such as paintings and carvings of half-human / half-animal beings. However, this is still mostly speculation. Tribal groups in the 21st century have been evolving and changing for just as long as modern city-dwellers, so we can’t assume that their lifestyles or beliefs are similar to the lifestyles of our ancient ancestors.
We mostly have to guess and infer what people in the deep past believed, but around 2100 BC our ancestors developed a new technology that completely changed our understanding of their religions — literature. Ancient civilizations began to produce poetry based on their myths, which allows us to learn in more detail about their beliefs. Most of the earliest literature is polytheistic, with multiple gods. Most well-known, perhaps, are the ancient Greek gods, who controlled various aspects of nature and human life (Zeus = sky / weather, Athena = wisdom, Poseidon = the sea, etc.) However, there were many more ancient religions, and, other cultures did not necessarily have the same sorts of gods. The ancient Celts, for example, worshipped various gods who had different powers and attributes but were not committed to certain parts of nature in the same way as the Greek gods.
Monotheism developed in several places out of various kinds of polytheism; in India, for example, Hindu philosophers developed Vaishnava, a monotheistic belief system that coexisted alongside Hindu polytheism. Around the same time, Middle Eastern cities began to worship individual deities associated with particular cities. While this religious system was in some ways polytheistic (with many different city-gods), from the perspective of any one city is was more like henotheism, worshipping only one god while accepting that the others might exist.
Judaism, the first of the Abrahamic monotheisms, probably started out as a kind of henotheism; in other words, the Jewish ‘one God’ was originally simply the god of the Hebrews, while other gods were believed to exist. But from there it was a simple jump to say that the other gods were not only unworthy of worship but really didn’t exist at all. Jewish monotheism eventually gave rise to Christianity and, indirectly, Islam, and as a result it is often referred to as the “first” monotheism, but this isn’t accurate since there were other monotheisms in India and the Middle East at the time.
In the West, we sometimes imagine that there is a natural progression from polytheism to monotheism (and, some people add, from there to atheism), but this progression has not held true in other parts of the world. In China, for example, monotheism never developed but various forms of atheism did. The philosophy of Confucius was not based on the existence of any gods, so some Confucians believed in polytheism while others were atheists. Similarly, Buddhism has always had some polytheist strains, some monotheist, some henotheist, and some atheist!
V. Theism in Popular Culture
Theism plays a major role in the God of War games. In these video games, you play a demigod (half-god, half-human) seeking revenge against various gods from Greek mythology. It’s somewhat debatable whether the theism in these games is polytheism or henotheism; it’s polytheistic because there are many gods, but it’s henotheistic because one of the gods (Zeus) rules over all the others and is worshipped above the rest. In any event, the game definitely has the feel of misotheism, because the gods are your enemies and portrayed as evil and manipulative.
“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”
“No, no, I… don’t…”
“Listen to me! You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, He hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen.”
“No! We don’t need Him!”
(Jack and Tyler, Fight Club)
In this exchange from Fight Club, Tyler is laying out a misotheist position. This is a form of theism, because it implies that God exists. But unlike most theists, Tyler claims that God hates mankind. Of course, Tyler’s argument is meant to make a point about our attitudes towards ourselves and our lives; he is probably not a true believer in misotheism.
Faith and Theism
Faith plays a major role in most forms of theism, especially monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam. According to most widely-held definitions of God, the existence of such a being is impossible to prove; therefore, theists have have to base their beliefs on something other than proof: faith (meaning belief in spite of a lack of evidence). Conveniently, most sub-sects of these religions have come to assert that faith is spiritually superior to reason.
Can faith be justified philosophically? Philosophers are divided on this issue, but the majority say that faith is not enough by itself. Others point out that most beliefs require some amount of faith; if you really look with a skeptical eye, it’s hard to prove anything at all outside of math and some hard science. So, according to this argument, you might as well have faith in God, because most of your beliefs are already faiths anyway. However, this argument will probably never convince an atheist, since it doesn’t give you any reason to believe in God (other than wishful thinking)! It only implies that you have no reason not to believe in God.
On the other hand, many philosophers of religion argue that faith is not about “believing” anything; it’s about making a commitment to moral behavior and diligent religious practice. For these theists, God is not necessarily a being at all, but rather an idea that brings happiness and spiritual peace. For example, when these philosophers read the Bible, they don’t believe that it’s true in the normal sense; rather, they understand it as expressing abstract moral, philosophical, and spiritual truths—not literal ones.