Theist, Deist, or Atheist

“The difference between the deist and the theist is that the deist says
‘it may not make sense without some kind of designer,’
the theist says ‘When I tell you what to do, I have God on my side’”.
~Christopher Hitchens

Language regarding Atheism has constantly evolved, and indeed people often confuse theism and deism (sometimes intentionally), and atheism and agnosticism. Indeed, the vast majority of theistic apologists, from Aquinas to the modern time, when asked to demonstrate that God exists, will, in debates and discussions, almost universally fall back to deistic arguments (which is to say that a god or higher power exists, but not necessarily the Abrahamic God) which can be (and have been) applied to every god man has ever dreamed up, from Neptune to Osiris.

Theism: The belief in the existence of a god or gods. Usually, this is belief a particular god or gods, and in a personal relationship between that god and mankind, with specific commandments and injunctions from the god(s) which one must follow. These commandments were somehow passed to man, and there are direct punishments or rewards associated with them. Christianity, some Jewish sects, ancient Greek and Norse traditions are all theistic.

“I don’t believe in a personal God to whom I look for comfort or for a natural on the next roll of the dice… Christ is revered as the Prince of Peace, but more blood has been shed in His name than any other figure in history. You show me one step forward in the name of religion and I’ll show you a hundred retrogressions…. Remember that leering, cursing lynch mob in Little Rock reviling a meek, innocent little 12-year-old Negro girl as she tried to enroll in public school? Weren’t they — or most of them — devout churchgoers?” –Frank Sinatra

Deism: This is the belief that there is a higher power of some kind. It may be responsible for creating the universe, also may bind all people and or all living things together. It may or may not know we exist, and may or may not care. For the most part does not interfere in our affairs, does not tell us what to do. A deist does not believe in the tenets of any one religion, per-se, but believes in something greater than us, or that we’re all a part of something bigger (agnosticism is usually considered a kind of deism). Buddhism, some sects of Judaism, and Pantheism are deistic “religions”. Deism is sometimes thought of as a logical subset of theism, a kind of theism. However it can also be used in contrast to theism, where theism is more narrowly construed to mean only religions with an intervening god, and deism only religions without one. This is the definition as currently used on the Codex.

Agnosticism: Formally, it means to not know or be certain, to make no claim. In practice, however, most people identifying as agnostics are actually mild deists: they tend to think that there must be something out there bigger out there, they just don’t know which religion, if any, has it right (and use the title of agnosticism to stay out of the fray).

Atheism: The absence of any theistic beliefs, which is to say a belief in any god or gods.. Formally atheism is usually considered a subset of agnosticism: where the agnostic says “I do not know if there is a god or gods”, the atheist says “While it can not be said for certain that there is not God or Gods, there is no compelling evidence for any, and one is not able to believe in things for which there is no evidence”, and therefore does not believe.  

Anti-Theist/New Atheist/Evangelical Atheist: The belief that not only is there no evidence for god(s), but that false, irrational belief in god(s) actually harms society, and must therefore be opposed.

Now these are broad strokes. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, but lets break down these terms a bit more….

There are two common types of atheism:

Implicit Atheism: This is the condition all human beings are born into. We do not have any theistic beliefs, because we’ve not yet learned about theism, deism, religion.

Explicit Atheism: This is when someone knows what gods and religions are, has examined the arguments for them, and concluded that they are not real.

 

Implicit atheism can not be further divided… having zero knowledge of something is not further divisible. However Explicit Atheism can be further divided into the following:

Gnostic/Strong/Positive Atheism: Most often, the assertion that god does not exist. Sometimes taken a step further to argue the belief that it is impossible for God to exist, or that the concept is self contradictory.

Agnostic/Negative Atheism: As stated earlier, the position that while it may be impossible to disprove the existence of god or gods, there is insufficient evidence to make belief in gods tenable.

 

Irrespective of the two flavors above, atheism can also be divided into sub groups such as:

Humanist, Skeptic, Freethinker, Pantheist, Militant, and Deist (Appears here again because deism is occasionally used to mean a type of atheist who may have vague spiritual beliefs, but is an “atheist” with respect to any claim of there being any a particular god.)

If this seems confusing, it gets worse, because most people in one or more of these categories tend to view the other categories somewhat differently, and often dogmatically (mine is the only proper definition of…) . If Ted does not believe god is “impossible”, but is none the less utterly convinced there isn’t a god, to some people this makes Ted a positive atheist. But if you’re a positive atheist who believes not just that there is no god, but that God is a logical impossibility, you might call ted a negative atheist. If Ted is a week deist, maybe a humanist or pantheist, he might oppose the notion of formal theistic belief (there being a particular theistic god that one may know or that cares about us)–so much that he would actually be an anti-theist, but to many other atheists, this could be a non-sequitur, since many would only accept deism as a subset of theism, not as a contrast to it. To a week atheist or agnostic, there may be no difference between evangelical atheism, anti-theism, and militant theism. But to any of the atheists in any of these categories, the difference is as wide as the Mississippi.

 

One would hope that people could debate positions, not definitions. But most debates between atheists and theists, and debates within these two camps, seem to be more about the definitions and who belongs in what box and what that means you can assume about them, than about the actual ideas that person is putting forth. Dogmatism rears its ugly head quickly.

Labels are important, as they are the only thing that helps us break up an infinite number of ideas into manageable chunks. It is impossible to manage all of the variables of life without breaking things down into manageable sizes, and labels help you do that. But they are productive only so long as they are used to elucidate and describe something (or someone), not force something (or someone) into a neet little box which you demand it must reside in.

 

First of all, a great many people have a number of personal preferences one way or another, towards a more formal, common, or esoteric usage of these definitions. Some atheists, for example, argue that atheism is not the lack of belief in a god, but rather the certainty that there is none (an indefensible position, as far as I can tell).

Now, the prefix “a” means “absence of” (“amoral” for example, does not mean immoral–being bad–but rather not measurable in moral terms. A rock, for example, is amoral–you can not accuse the rock of either moral or immoral behavior). Now “atheist” technically means to not have any theistic beliefs. You can be an atheist and an agnostic at the same time, since agnostics don’t make theistic claims. Indeed, this means that you can technically have an agnostic atheist deist–and I, like many others, consider agnosticism to be a form of atheist–both claim no allegiance to theism. The difference, if there is one, tends to be nothing more than one of degree.

Further, this means that etamylogicaly,

But this becomes important in relation to deism. Many atheists are also adeist, meaning that they don’t believe even in a higher power. Because this is common in atheism, many people confuse it with atheism, and assume that atheists are not or cannot be deists. This is a problem because most theistic attacks on atheism are actually attacks on adeism, not atheism; this is to say that arguments like Prime Mover (found here), God of the Gaps (here), and Intelligent Design, are deistic arguments; they argue for a higher power, and are no more proof of a Christian God than of Kukulcan or Zeus. This is important because to disprove atheism you must both show that there is a higher power, and that that higher power is a theistic one.

Too many times a theist will posit deistic arguments to persuade the atheist. Too many times the theist will rely on these arguments to deflect from the true complaint of the atheist–“how do you know your god is the right one?”

Most atheists have absolutely no complaint against deism, it’s a personal belief with no significant consequences for others. However, theism, almost a priori, in one way or another attempts to force its beliefs onto third parties. This is what many atheists object to–that there’s a god, and that you know what he wants  people to do (and that you have been empowered to explain it for him). For that reason, many atheists, even adeist ones, may not quarrel with deists–it’s really their personal choice and there is no benefit to challenging them on it. But the corollary must be understood–a theist challenging the atheist on deistic grounds does him or her no good. You could fully convince the atheist of a deistic god, and your claim to theism is no stronger.

This codex includes many counters to deistic arguments. This is not out of any desire to challenge people’s deistic beliefs, but rather because the vast majority of theists use deistic arguments. It behooves every atheist to understand the difference between these arguments, and where the burden of proof lies (here).

There is a staggering amount of evidence against any one theistic religion (in part because there have been so many religions. The theist must show why theirs is right to the exclusion of the others), but no evidence against deism (no evidence supporting it, but again, who cares). It must be remembered that an inability to disprove a deistic argument is in no way supportive of a theistic one.

Further remember that an atheist doesn’t necessarily not believe in god, but that there isn’t any evidence for one. An atheist should have an open mind, and always be willing to evaluate evidence. But part of being a rational being means that you need evidence before you’ll believe something, not believe it first and look for evidence that corroborates that belief.

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6 Comments on "Theist, Deist, or Atheist"

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Olivia Mark
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What is an atheist? Oh my. What is an online atheist who debates theists. I like to narrow my target group. They’re narcissists and are completely effing maddening who refuse to validate their opponent on even petty issues. About two out of every … idk… 30 or fifty… have any integrity at all. And I love to get them cornered. they stand on an ignorant cliché about ridicule being deserved and use a dictionary or a testimony to justify it while not even having a clue as to what a professional justification would embrace to substantiate ridicule being deserved …… And this is all the while sabotaging their efforts by ignoring the sciences which reveal ridicule to be reinforcing their opponent. I mean, really. How stupid is that? I’m not even that smart. Then behold this ideology that religion is a virus that poisons everything which is well… that’s one fine generalization there ALL the while denouncing my generalizations with their PC to the point of basically denying that inferential/descriptive statistics exist. I do have MS/abt in “Generalizing” and my opponents don’t catch on to whatever point I happen to be making. Their ideology is apocalyptic that actually mirrors the apocalyptic world view theists have. This is how fundy atheists mirror fundy xtians on so many levels . Atheism is a state of mind. Fundy atheism is a state of… Read more »
Russell Harris
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2500 major religions. Yep, all but yours is wrong.

Ken Hoover
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Joel Winsett…You should put garlic around your door to prevent vampires….If you are wrong…A mighty price to pay

Joel Winsett
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If they are wrong, a mighty big price to pay.

Chuck Harris Hitchens Darwin
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I’d rather go to hell than spend time with someone as evil as Yahweh. http://www.evilbible.com

James Corbett
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Someone who believes that when you die you are dead. It’s That Simple.