THEISM (Social Science)

The Greek word theos means "god" or "divine power." Hence, theism is the belief in a god, or the view that there is a god. Generally, theists think of god as a very powerful, personlike being who has control over some or all of the natural universe. To say that a god is personlike is to say that god is capable of thinking, acting, and communicating with other persons, especially human beings. Hence, theists typically refer to god by using pronouns such as "he" or "she" rather than "it." Theists believe that god has a personality, that is, a set of character attributes or traits in accord with which god acts. To varying degrees, theists think of god as interested in some or all of the affairs of human beings.

Theism may be contrasted with atheism, deism, and agnosticism. Atheism is the belief that there is no god. Deism is the belief in a very powerful being who created or designed the world but who is not concerned with the affairs of human beings. Deists tend to conceive of this being as an impersonal force. Agnosticism is the view that one cannot know whether there is a god. Some agnostics hold that it is in principle impossible ever to know whether or not there is a god; others hold more provisionally that it is currently impossible to tell whether there is a god.

There are various forms of theism. Polytheism is the belief in more than one or many gods. Monotheism is the belief in one god, usually capitalized as "God" and used as proper noun to refer to this one being. This convention is used in the discussion that follows.

Many people in the ancient world were polytheists. Polytheists developed elaborate belief systems according to which there are many gods who rule over different parts of nature. Often, one god is thought to be the supreme ruler, such as Zeus for the ancient Greeks or Jupiter for the Romans. In some cases, a human king or emperor could be identified as a god himself. Polytheists tend to understand the gods as imperfect in both their power and moral qualities. The gods are not in complete control of nature or themselves, and they do not always act with moral consistency. They are not interested in all the affairs of mankind, but they do intervene on occasion, especially if propitiated by worship and devotion. A hallmark of polytheism is the practice of representing the gods in the form of idols or graven images, which are then used in the context of ritual worship.

The most populous form of polytheism in the world is a certain form of Hinduism. However, at least one form of Hinduism (articulated by Ramanuja in the eleventh century) is monotheistic. If the traditional Hindu gods are viewed as ultimate and independent entities, Hinduism is polytheistic; if the gods are viewed as outward manifestations of one underlying, personlike reality, Hinduism is monotheistic. Buddhism is generally polytheistic, but some forms of Buddhism, such as Zen Buddhism, are usually understood to be atheistic. If the gods are viewed as ultimate powers, Buddhism is polytheistic; if the gods are considered illusory or unreal, Buddhism is atheistic. Aside from Hinduism and Buddhism, many other forms of polytheism are still found elsewhere, such as in sub-Saharan Africa and among Native Americans.

While polytheists tend to understand the gods as limited and imperfect, monotheists tend to understand the one God as unlimited and perfect. Many monotheists think of God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good. God is thought to be the creator, king, and judge of the universe. Generally, monotheists believe that God has made certain demands on all humans, and that God directs human history with providence toward some great cosmic end.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the most well known forms of monotheism. In Judaism and Islam, God is conceived as not having bodily form. Linked with this view is a strict ban on any representation of God in the form of an idol and a ban on any form of idol worship. Although the sacred scriptures in these two traditions use bodily language to describe God, these are generally interpreted as metaphors. In Christianity, the oneness and nonmateriality of God is complicated by the belief in the divinity of Jesus, who is understood by traditional Christians to be both divine and human. Traditional Christians maintain that in some sense God is a nonma-terial being who became incarnate in the person of Jesus. Others tend to view the incarnation less literally.

For theists, the highest purpose in life is for humans to develop an interpersonal relationship with God. Precisely what form that relationship takes and how one goes about attaining that relationship differ from one tradition to another. In Judaism, the most intimate relationship with God is found through the observance of the commandments of the Torah, which Jews believe to be God’s revealed teaching to the people of Israel. In Christianity, the most intimate relationship is found through good works and through faith in Jesus as the manifestation of God. In Islam, the best relationship is found through submission to God and obedience to divine law as expressed in the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be the revelation of God’s word to the prophet Muhammad. All three forms of theism teach that respect or love for one’s fellows is part and parcel of respect and love for God. At the same time, these forms of theism traditionally teach that those who reject God or his commandments are in some sense deserving of punishment.

Over the centuries, philosophers, theologians, and others have debated whether it is rational to believe in God. Some insist that belief in God is not supposed to be rational; it is a matter of "faith." Others argue that it is rational to believe in God. The most popular arguments for monotheism are based on the existence and orderly nature of the cosmos, on the phenomenon of religious experience or revelation, and on purported miracles. Some have argued that it is rational to believe in God because of the potential value of living the life of a believer. Still other philosophers have argued that belief in God is not rational. They argue that the cosmos can be sufficiently explained without belief in God and that religious experience is not a valid source of truth. They point to the existence of evil and suffering in the effort to show there is no God, and they argue that life is meaningful enough without a belief in God. The question of whether it is rational to believe in God remains a contested question to this day.

Next post:

Previous post: