The Diversity of Faith

by Michael C. Kelly, MA


Many ethical arguements invoke theisms to underscore moral ideas and applications. But what is theism and what about its variations - deism, fideism, atheism and antitheism? It turns out there’s quite a diversity of theisms out there. The diagram below gives us a visual account of them. 

It’s important to introduce a basic, subjective notion central to all theisms. Listening to arguments from religious and atheistic fundamentalists,1 it seems a leap of faith underscores many peoples' willingness or even unwillingness to acknowledge or deny the existence of the intangible or unprovable. The religious leap through their particular denominations, while the atheists among us often seem to stumble when confronted by unverifiable speculations and wonder. Still, they leap.

Now, on to our roster ...

Theists believe in a god or collection of gods that supernaturally reveal themselves to humankind. Their belief is typically associated with a design notion of the universe. In other words, god or gods created the universe in all its proclivities according to a plan they alone follow.

Theists can be subdivided into many other "ists." For example there is the animist who believes that every object in the universe is in some way alive. The above diagram focusses on two subsections of theism - deists and fideists.2 Deists believe in a supreme being that does not intervene in the universe. Benjamin Franklin, the British/American printer, inventor and statesman, was a deist.3 Fideists believe in a supreme being that does intervene in the universe and that makes itself known through revelation. This revelation exists outside the scope of rationalism. In other words there is no need to apply the principles of reason to explain a revelation.

An atheist is someone who does not believe in a god or gods. Richard Dawkins and Samual Harris are perhaps the best know atheists in the western world.4

An agnostic is someone who believes nothing can be known about the existence of a god or gods and so remains uncommitted. There is always an element of doubt in their approach but there is no leap of faith. They are still trying to figure things out.

An antitheist, not to be confused with atheist,5 is someone who is opposed to all forms of theism. The late Christopher Hitchens, a pugilistic polemicist, fashions himself a anti theist. "I am not even an atheist,” he once said, "so much as I am an Antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches and the effects of religious belief, are positively harmful.6 Interesting and characteristic of Hitches, but I wonder if his definition is limiting. Could it apply to atheists too?


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Notes:

  1. Not all arguments are comfortable to listen to. For example, I remember watching a disturbing episode on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect. He hosted four astonishing guests - an Atheist, a Rabi  an evangelical Minister and an Imam. As the group’s discussion developed I was struck by the reactions of some participants. The Atheist and Rabi, for example, seemed pensive and non-threatening. Their answers were rational, well spoken, even-toned, and fused with the wisdom of their perspectives. The other two were vitriolic toward each other … to the point where it was difficult to hear the logic through their emotion. It was a curious match of personalities, perhaps orchestrated by Maher for dramatic effect.
  2. These two are selected because of their contrasting levels of supernatural intervention.
  3. "Franklin's theology had changed over the years, from borderline atheism to rationalistic deism." See H. W. Brands. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.  New York: Anchor books, 2002. p. 380.
  4. See Sam Harris. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004 and Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
  5. A simple look at the two words is enough to make the distinction. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the "a" prefix on atheist means not or without. The prefix "anti," on the other hand, means opposed to or against.
  6. See Christopher Hitchens. Letter to a Young Contrarian. New York. Basic Books, 2001.
© 2011  Michael C Kelly