Religion vs. Theism

Is Religion Defined by Belief in God? Can Theism Exists Outside Religion?

Are religion and theism effectively the same thing, such that every religion is theistic and every theist is also religious? Because of some common misconceptions, many people are inclined answer that question positively. It isn’t uncommon even among atheists to simply assume that religion and theism are equivalent.

In reality, however, the two are very different — it is readily possible to be a theist without a religion and it is just as possible to be religious without also being a theist.

To understand how and why, it will help to examine a comprehensive definition of religion found in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In the article on religion, it lists some characteristics of religions rather than simply declaring religion to be one thing or another. The more markers that are present in a belief system, the more “religious-like” it is; below is a slightly modified version of it:

  • Belief in something sacred (for example, gods or other supernatural beings).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to have a sacred or supernatural basis.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with the supernatural.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

One thing that should be clear from the above is that mere theism alone cannot qualify as a religion. Certainly theism is a common characteristic of religions, but it isn’t a necessary characteristic.

When theism does appear, there still needs to be other features in order to have a religion. This means that a person who believes in the existence of a god but whose behavior and beliefs cannot be described by any of the other characteristics is, quite simply, not religious.

An important and practical consequence of this is that if you know that a person is a theist, you cannot automatically assume that they are also necessarily religious. Having a belief in the existence of at least one god does not require a person to also have, somewhere, several of the above characteristics of a religion. They certainly might and religion probably accompanies theism more often than it doesn’t, but that doesn’t entitle you to conclude that a religion is definitely present.

A particularly interesting possibility revealed by the above definition is that while gods can play an important role, they are not indispensable to a religion. This means that a religion without theism should be possible. Many types of Buddhism, for example, are effectively or explicitly a-theistic, either rejecting gods or simply not bothering with them in any fashion. Although Buddhism is perhaps the best known atheistic religion, there are others, such as Jainism and some mystical forms of Hinduism.

Chun Fang Yu has said of Chinese religions:

Unlike most other religions, Chinese religion does not have a creator God. There is no God transcendent and separate from the world and there is no heaven outside of the universe to which human beings would want to go for refuge.

If gods are not necessary for a religion, it is worth wondering what else might qualify as a religion but which is not normally placed in that category. Some modern philosophical systems which either reject or do not bother with gods might be able to count as religions even though they also lack other supernatural content which older atheistic religions like Buddhism retain. Except for the issue of gods, Communism, for example, has most of the characteristics listed above. Thus Communism — at least in some of its incarnations — might be one of a small group of modern non-supernatural religions.

What is important to understand is that while there is a high correlation between theism and religion and an even higher correlation between supernatural beliefs and religion, it is not legitimate to conclude that this correlation always and necessarily exists. Religion involves a lot more than a simple belief in the existence of a god or even more complex beliefs regarding supernatural beings and realms.

Instead, religion is an interconnected web of beliefs which involve moral values, one’s position in society, one’s position in the cosmos, the meaning of life, rituals, a focus on that which is sacred, and more. It is very possible for a person’s belief system to encompass a couple of these features, but only a belief system which includes most of them really qualifies as a “religion” in the sense we normally imagine.