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The Range of Religious Belief
Humans have a pressing need to classify and label. Dewey decimal system, taxonomy and musical genres touch the surface of a world labeled, bordered and ordered by man. When meeting someone new we ask what they do- Job classification. Second only to occupation in the interest we harbor is religious preference.
In society’s view, the first has to do with success in life while the second deals with success in the spiritual realm. Yet despite the attention we pay to theological leanings, most people have an incomplete understanding of the many different categories of belief. This essay will attempt to explain the major classifications religious thought falls into and dispel any gross misinterpretations commonly held.
Consideration of where an individual stands regarding the supernatural falls into three main categories: Theism, Agnosticism, and Atheism. Visually the continuum quite simply runs from belief in a god or gods to a belief there is no god. Agnosticism sits noncommittally in the middle.
As defined by Webster, “Theism” is the “belief in the existence of a god or gods.” In this general sense, theism includes any religion that allows for at least one god as the designer and sustainer of the universe.
The narrowest aspect of theism is the belief in just one god who observes his (her, it) creation and intervenes from time to time on behalf of his (her,it) faithful. This rendering of the definition includes the big three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Polytheism is the belief in multiple gods- a pantheon- yet they are still active agents in the world and can be called upon to influence events. Greek mythology, Hinduism and Smartism are examples.
Deism can be lumped into this category if we take the first, broad definition. Deists believe there is a god who created the universe but since then, he has sat back and observed as his work unwinds. As such, Deists discount prophecies and other divine interventions. A majority of the American Founding Fathers were deists: Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, to name a few.
At the other end of the spectrum lies atheism. According to Webster, “atheism” is defined as “a disbelief in the existence of a deity.” There are several different subcategories of atheism (strong, weak, practical, theoretical), but they all center around denying any supernatural intelligence(s) originating, inhabiting or maintaining the universe. 18% of the European Union population classify themselves as atheist.
Diagoras, a 5th-century BCE Greek philosopher, is the first known atheist and around the same time Critias, another atheist, viewed religion as a “human invention used to frighten people into following moral order.”
Immanuel Kant, giant of the Enlightenment, held a rationalist view in that the gods are not subject to any form of investigation and, as such, cannot be known to exist. In short, if he couldn’t subject the gods to rational, scientific inquiry, it was foolish to posit anything about them.
Voltaire, an Enlightenment Deist, wrote in 1768 that “If god did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. And Sigmund Freud, in the early 20th-century, argued that religious belief was invented in response to psychological and emotional needs.
Some famous atheists included John Dewey, Carl Sagan, Ron Reagan, H.G. Wells, Napolean Bonaparte, Woody Allen, Gene Roddenberry, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
Webster defines an agnostic as “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable.” This term can be generalized to mean a person unwilling to commit an opinion about something, but it is most commonly used in reference to religion.
To be clear, agnosticism is not a religious belief. It is, however, an assertion about religious beliefs. And being an agnostic does not mean he or she is denying the existence of god; agnostic and atheist are not the same thing.
Agnostics have not simply decided to not make a choice. They have made a choice: Not to Have a Choice. Or as the band Rush in their song “Freewill” put it- “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
David Hume contended that humans are limited in how far they can push understanding and that any assertions about the universe is always accompanied by a portion of doubt. So, in short, agnostics are awaiting more information before they make a decision about things which are currently untestable and unfalsifiable (the two key components in any scientific theory).
Protagoras, Immanuel Kant, Mark Twain, Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Brad Pitt have all professed publically their agnostic leanings.
If you are enamoured with classification as well, this brief look at religious categories is woefully incomplete. Each of the three branches have many subbranches that further delineate patterns of belief and allows you to pinpoint exactly where you stand on divine existence.
The first and most difficult step, though, is to want to come to independent decisions about the supernatural. Most are satisfied to adopt the prevailing religion; so instead of investigations into their intellect they opt to simply wrap themselves in a known and secure blanket.
Know what you believe why you believe it.
As of 2005, 2.35% of the world population claimed to be atheists, 11.92% were non-religious, while the remaining 85.73% fell into one of the over 4000 distinct religious systems that exist today.
Where do you stand?