What is Theism? Is Theism the Same as Religion?

Greek God Poseidon
Greek God Poseidon. Harald Sund / Getty Images

To put it simply, theism is a belief in the existence of at least one god of some sort - nothing more, nothing less. The only thing all theists have in common is that they all accept the proposition that at least one god of some sort exists - nothing more, nothing less. Theism does not depend on how many gods one believes in. Theism does not depend on how the term 'god' is defined. Theism does not depend on how one arrives at their belief.

Theism does not depend on how one defends their belief or if they ever defend it at all. Theism certainly does not depend on what other sorts of beliefs one associates with their belief that a god exists.

 

Theism and Religion

That theism only means "belief in a god" and nothing more can be difficult to understand at times because we don't normally encounter theism in such isolation. Instead, when we see theism, it is embedded in a web of other beliefs - often religious in nature - which color not only that particular instance of theism itself, but also our perception of that instance of theism. The connections between theism and religion are so strong, in fact, that some have difficulty in separating the two, even to the point of imagining that they are the same thing - or at least that theism is necessarily religious and religion is necessarily theistic.

Thus, when considering and evaluating theism, we are normally engaged in considering and evaluating a variety of interconnected beliefs, ideas, and assertions, most of which aren't a part of theism itself.

At least, that is what happens "in real life" when debating the merits of theism and/or religion - but to do that well and not make mistakes like those mentioned above, we need to be able to step back and take a look at theism in isolation.

Why? Because if critics wish to argue that something about a theistic belief system is valid or invalid, rational or irrational, justified or unjustified, we need to be able to identify what exactly we are accepting or criticizing.

Is it something inherent to theism, or is it something introduced by something else in a person's web of beliefs? That, in turn, means that we need to be able to separate the different elements because we have to take the time to consider them both individually and jointly.

 

Limitations of Theism

Some might object that a broad definition of theism causes it to become meaningless, but that isn't quite true. Theism is not meaningless; however, it also isn't as meaningful as some might typically assume - especially those for whom their theism is an important part of their lives and/or religions. Because theism does not automatically incorporate any beliefs, attitudes, or ideas beyond the proposition that at least one exists, its meaning and implications are necessarily limited.

Of course, the exact same thing is true about atheism, too. The only thing that all atheists have in common is that they don't accept the proposition that at least one god exists - nothing more, nothing less. Atheists aren't all necessarily rational, ethical, logical, or anything else. Some are religious while others are anti-religious. Some are politically conservative while others are liberal. Generalizations and assumptions about all theists are just as invalid and unwarranted as generalizations and assumptions about all atheists.

In practical terms, this means that atheists and anyone else critiquing theism cannot fall victim to intellectual laziness. Generalizations about all theists and theism overall may be easy, but they aren't valid. On the other hand, critiques and evaluations of specific theistic belief systems are valid when a critique takes into account the particular truth-claims, ideas, and methodologies beyond theism itself. This requires work - it requires a careful study of the belief system and an evaluation of a complex web of ideas.

As difficult as it might be, however, it is also ultimately much more rewarding and interesting than facile generalizations made without the slightest consideration for the differences or similarities between believers and belief systems. If one isn't interested in investing the time and effort needed to gain the requisite understanding, that is of course just fine - but that means that one also lacks the intellectual standing needed to judge the specific beliefs in question.