One or Many Gods: the Varieties of Theism

Cambodia—Angkor Wat
A visitor climbs the steps of the 12th Century temple of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Jim Dyson / Getty Images

Most—but not all—of the world's major religions are theistic: having as the basis of their practice a belief and faith in the existence of one or more deities, or gods, that are distinctly separate from mankind and with whom it is possible to have a relationship. 

Let's look briefly at the various ways in which the world's religions have practiced theism. 

Classical/ Philosophical Definition

Theoretically, there is an infinite variation in what people might mean by the term “God,” but there several common attributes are frequently discussed, in particular among those who come from a Western tradition of religion and philosophy.

Because this type of theism relies so much upon a broad framework of intersecting religious and philosophical inquiry, it is often referred to as “classical theism,” “standard theism,” or “philosophical theism.” Classical/ Philosophical Theism comes in many forms, but in essence, religions falling into this category believe in the supernatural nature of the god or gods that underpin the religious practice. 

Agnostic Theism

Whereas atheism and theism deal with belief, agnosticism deals with knowledge. The Greek roots of the term combine a (without) and gnosis (knowledge). Hence, agnosticism literally means “without knowledge.” In the context where it is normally used, the term means: without knowledge of the existence of gods. Since it is possible for a person to believe in one or more gods without claiming to know for sure that any gods exist, it's possible to be an agnostic theist.

Monotheism

The term monotheism comes from the Greek monos, (one) and theos (god). 

Thus, monotheism is the belief in the existence of a single god. Monotheism is typically contrasted with polytheism (see below), which is a belief in many gods, and with atheism, which is an absence of any belief in any gods. 

Deism

Deism is actually a form of monotheism, but it remains distinct enough in character and development to justify discussing separately.

In addition to adopting the beliefs of general monotheism, deists also adopt the belief that the single existing god is personal in nature and transcendent from the created universe. However, they reject the belief, common among monotheists in the West, that this god is immanent— presently active in the created universe.

Henotheism and Monolatry

Henotheism is based upon the Greek roots heis or henos, (one), and theos (god). But the term is not a synonym for monotheism, despite the fact that it has the same etymological meaning.

Another word expressing the same idea is monolatry, which is based on the Greek roots monos (one), and latreia (service or religious worship). The term appears to have been first used by Julius Wellhausen to described a type of polytheism in which just a single god is worshiped but where other gods are accepted as existing elsewhere. Many tribal religions fall into this category. 

Polytheism

The term polytheism is based on the Greek roots poly (many) and theos (god). Thus, the term is used to describe belief systems in which several gods are acknowledged and worshiped. Throughout the course of human history, polytheistic religions of one sort or another have been the dominant majority.

The classic Greek, Roman, Indian and Norse religions, for example, were all polytheisms. 

Pantheism

The word pantheism is built from the Greek roots pan (all) and theos (god); thus, pantheism is either a belief that the universe is God and worthy of worship, or that God is the sum total of all there is and that the combined substances, forces, and natural laws that we see around us are therefore manifestations of God. The early Egyptian and Hindu religions are regarded as pantheistic, and Taoism is also sometimes considered a pantheistic belief system. 

Panentheism

The word panentheism is Greek for “all-in-God,” pan-en-theos. A panentheistic belief system posits the existence of a god that interpenetrates every part of nature but which is nevertheless fully distinct from nature. This god is, therefore, part of nature, but at the same time still retains an independent identity.

Impersonal Idealism

In the philosophy of Impersonal Idealism, universal ideals are identified as god. There are elements of impersonal idealism, for example, in the Christian belief that "God is love," or the humanist view that "God is knowledge." 

One of this philosophy’s spokesmen, Edward Gleason Spaulding, explained his philosophy thus:

God is the totality of values, both existent and subsistent, and of those agencies and efficiencies with which these values are identical.