We believe differently

Published 6:08 am Monday, January 25, 2010

When we ask a person, “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you not believe in God?”, the answer we get may not tell us much, and the person who answers may not actually know. We find many senses and degrees of “belief” in God, and we will understand each other better if we recognize these.

We encounter theist, polytheist, monotheist, pantheist, deist, atheist, agnostic, and variations of them all.

A theist (from the Greek “theos,” “god”) is one who believes in God or a god. A polytheist is one who believes in many gods (“poly” meaning “many”), and is most characteristic of ancient peoples or those in primitive areas, and monotheist (“mono-“ for “one” as in “monorail”) recognizes only one God. The great monotheistic religions are, in historical order, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A pantheist believes god is in everything (“pan-,” meaning “broad” as in “pandemic”). Some of the eastern religions hold to pantheism.

Having bought into Scottish common sense republicanism, many of America’s founding fathers were deists. They accepted it that God exists and that he (or it) creation and humankind. But they feel once God completed his created work, he left it to itself to run itself. I don’t often hear people claim this identity, but a good number have told me the nature of their belief in God is reasonably well so described. There is a God, but we and he have nothing to do with each other.

An atheist is one who does not believe in God, god, or gods. The prefix a- represents the Greek letter alpha and is used, as the technical term has it, as an “alpha privative.” It negates the word to which prefixed. A person who is amoral, for instance, simply does not hold to any system of morals. He is not necessarily immoral, which is negative. So, too, an atheist does not necessary believe against God but only does not believe in God. He is an unbeliever and not a disbeliever.

Theists cannot logically believe a classic atheist is his enemy or opponent. The atheist simply doesn’t believe what the theist believes.

An agnostic says he doesn’t know whether God exists. Moreover, if God does exist, many agnostics don’t know that we could ever know this. The alpha privative, as in atheism, forms also this term. “Knosis” is Greek for “knowledge” and, so, agnostic means no-knowledge.

I suggested there are variations in all these. Theism is intellectual knowledge. It mean nothing necessarily beyond the fact the individual knows that God exists. For some, shall we say, weak theists, God is not a person but a cosmic force or an idea, influence, or spirit. These may use the personal pronoun “he,” but the neuter “it” would be more linguistically appropriate. Such concepts strain the meaning of theism, and the person seems to me rather much an atheist.

Some believe firmly that God exists and that he is a personal God. But they sustain no personal relationship to him. Some think as theists but much act like atheists.

How one is or becomes personally related to God is widely disputed. At least Orthodox Jewish people feel it is by ethnic covenant. Others, such as the several Catholic churches, hold the same concept but it comes by corporate membership based on family. A modified form is held by the several Reformed bodies, such as Presbyterian and Lutheran. Still others, such as Methodist and Baptists, assert it can come only by an individual’s conscious choice to accept salvation through Jesus Christ. So, the term “born again” is used widely.

Polytheists have believed, variously, in many spirit beings or many natural forces as being gods. Pantheists understand that God absorbed himself into his creation and is, therefore, found not only everywhere but in everything. Others feel not so much that God is in everything but that everything is God. A current variation is expressed when some talked about Mother Earth.

Some agnostics are so epistemologically (theory of knowing), because they do not understand how a person could know one way or other. If a person has tried to think it through and just can’t reach a conclusion, this can be an intellectually respectable and logically reasonable position. However, others simply don’t want to bother to think about it. I guess I have more respect for an honest agnostic than I do for a dogmatic atheist.

I would encourage agnostics to keep thinking until they reach a workable conclusion. They may not know if God exists or not, but it makes a difference in life as to whether he does.

When we talk with each other about God or no-god — and we should — let’s each of us understand our own position and be selflessly concerned about each other.