Who is God? Comparing Atheism, Theism, Deism, Pantheism, and Polytheism: A Closer Look

Note: To see our post called Five Approaches To The Existence of God, see here: 

Note: Another post that may help with this topic is Who is the One True God? A Look at Prophecy as a Verification Test

Or, see Edward Feser’s post called “The one God Further Objection”

From my own experience I would say most discussions about God are centered around  Atheism, Theism, Deism, Pantheism, and Polytheism. So let’s take a look at some of the differences:

1. THEISM

Christianity, Judaism, Islam, are all theistic faiths. One of the major areas of disagreement between these three faiths is the issue about the identity of Jesus. In Orthodox Christianity- Messianic Judaism, Jesus is both God and man/Jesus is an uncreated being. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah as foretold in the Tanakh (the acronym that is formed from the first three parts of the Hebrew Bible) the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), Nevi’ im (the Prophets), and K’ tuvim (the Writings) as well as the second person of the Godhead, equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit (John 1:1; Col. 1:15-19; Phil. 2: 5-11).

Traditional Judaism says Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah as foretold in the Tanakh. Jesus may be simply regarded as a prophet or teacher but not divine. See more here: 

Islam, which says Jesus is a prophet also states Jesus was never crucified, and therefore, never risen. The Qur’an was written some six hundred years after the life of Jesus which makes it a much later source of information than the New Testament. So given Judaism, Islam and Christianity/Messianic Judaism all make contradictory claims about Jesus, they all can’t be right. I tend to view Judaism as a true religion but incomplete since the majority of traditional Judaism is missing it on the Messiah issue. See more here: 

Theism says that the physical universe is not all there is. There is a personal God who created it, sustains it, and can intervene within it in a non-natural way. While God is the primary Cause of singularities, He also uses secondary, or natural causes for the operation of the world.

2. ATHEISM

Atheism is the denial of the existence of a god or gods and is sometimes associated with worldviews as materialism or naturalism. Generally speaking, atheists have argued for atheism because of the lack of evidence and the problem of evil. There have also been atheists that have offered non-evidential arguments for atheism such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.

PROBLEMS WITH ATHEISM

Here are a couple of things to think about in comparing atheism and theism. I am being rather general and know there is much more to discuss about this issue. What kind of atheism are we talking about? Strong atheism, also sometimes referred to as explicit atheism, goes one step further and involves denying the existence of at least one god, usually multiple gods, and sometimes the possible existence of any gods at all. Weak atheism, also sometimes referred to as implicit atheism, is the absence of belief in any gods. A weak atheist is someone who lacks theism and who does not happen to believe in the existence of any gods — no more, no less.

If atheism is the same thing as naturalism- meaning that all the effects we observe in the world can be explained purely by natural causes alone, then here is something to think about: First, natural laws do nothing and set nothing into motion. A “law of nature” is a description of what happens when no agent (whether it be divine, human, etc) is interfering or intervening into the casual order. So while natural laws are descriptive, they not prescriptive.

If we posit that every effect we observe can be explained by chance and randomness let’s think about this:
Some view chance as a real cause itself, only a blind, rather than an intelligent, cause. For example, Both Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick both admit that while the world shows every indication it is designed and have purpose, they add one qualification; it only looks that way. In other words, while the design is evident, it can be explained without resorting to any Designer.

To see some more critiques of atheism, see our resources page here and reading list here. 

3. DEISM

Deism is the belief in a God who made the world but who never interrupts its operations with non-natural events. It is a theism minus miracles. God does not interfere with his creation. Rather, he designed it to run independent of him by immutable natural laws. In nature, he has also provided all that his creatures need to live.

PROBLEMS WITH DEISM

Since the universe is dependent in its being, it needs something independent on which to depend- at all times. The universe never ceases to be dependent or contingent. Once contingent always contingent; a contingent being cannot become a Necessary Being, for a Necessary Being cannot come to be or cease to be as a contingent being can. Furthermore, the assertion that miracles do not occur is even more problematic. (1)

Natural laws describe how nature generally behaves. They do not dictate how nature must always behave. As I said, natural laws do nothing and set nothing into motion. A “law of nature” is a description of what happens when no agent (whether it be divine, human, etc) is interfering or intervening into the casual order.

Furthermore, if God has already acted (i.e.,He did create the universe- the life permitting universe can’t be the result of chance), it begs the question as to whether He has intervened into the world He brought forth. And since there is good evidence He has intervened in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah, the question becomes  whether people want a God who still intervenes in the world. For if this God does intervene into the world (as seen in Jesus), we as humans are accountable to him.

4. PANTHEISM

Pantheism is the worldview held by most Hindus, many Buddhists, and other New Age religions. It is also the worldview of Christian Science, Unity, and Scientology.

There are many types of pantheism:

Absolute pantheism is represented by the thinking of the early Greek philosopher Parmenides, who lived in the fifth century before Christ and by the Advainta Vedanta school of Hinduism. This type of pantheism teaches that there is only one being in the world, God. All else that appears to exist does not actually exist.

Emanational pantheism, as set forth by Plotinus in the third century after Christ, holds that everything flows from God, just as a flower unfolds from a seed.

In developmental pantheism, as reflected in the thinking of G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), the events of history are viewed as the unfolding manifestations of Absolute Spirit.

Modal pantheism, as espoused by the rationalist Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677), argues that there is only one absolute Substance in which all finite things are merely modes or moments.

Multilevel pantheism is found in some forms of Hinduism, especially as expressed by Radhakrishnan.12 This view proposes that there are various levels or manifestations of God, the highest level manifesting God as the Absolute One and the lower levels successively manifesting God in greater multiplicity.

Finally, there is permeational pantheism where the Force [Tao] penetrates all things. This kind is found in Zen Buddhism and was popularized in the Star Wars films.

All of these types of pantheism identify God and the world, but they vary in their specific conceptions of this identity. That is, all pantheistic views believe that God and the real world are one, but they differ as to how God and the world are to be identified. (2)

PROBLEMS WITH PANTHEISM

There are several problems with pantheism, but I will mention one. Pantheism fails to adequately handle the problem of evil. To pronounce evil as an illusion or as less than real is not only frustrating and hollow to those experiencing evil, but also philosophically inadequate. If evil is not real, then what is the origin of the illusion? Why has man experienced it for so long, and why does it seem so real? Despite the pantheist’s claims to the contrary, he, along with the rest of us, experiences pain, suffering, and eventually death. Even pantheists double over in pain when they get appendicitis. They also jump out of the way of an oncoming truck so as not to get hurt. If the world is not real, then why, when I sit upon a pin and it punctures my skin, do I dislike what I fancy I feel? (3)

Are good and evil are illusory? If so, it seems that they are not real categories. This is what most pantheists believe. But if evil were only an illusion, then ultimately there would be no such thing as good and evil thoughts or actions. Hence, what difference would it make whether we praise or curse, counsel or rape, love or murder someone? (4) Furthermore, Buddhism and Hinduism say the universe is eternal. This means they fail the test of factual adequacy. The latest cosmological evidence has shown the universe has a beginning. In pantheism, if divinity and matter are mystically “one” (so you can’t have god without matter), how is the pantheistic god capable of producing the effect in question such as the origin of space, time? Also, what evidence is there for reincarnation?

Furthermore, since modern pantheism denies miracles, a pantheist does not have to be accountable to a God who is not personal, knowable and has intervened in the person of Jesus Christ. Sounds easier to me!

5. POLYTHEISM

Polytheism is the worldview that many finite gods exist in the world. There are differing versions of polytheism. In some forms, all the gods are more or less equal. Each has a personal sphere or domain. In others, the gods form a hierarchy. Henotheism has a chief god, such as Zeus. In some forms, such as the Greek and Roman pantheons, the number of gods is limited. Mormonism supports an indefinite number of gods. Some forms of polytheism stand alone, unconnected with any other worldview. In Hinduism, however, polytheism and pantheism go hand-in-hand with one impersonal Brahman and 330 million-plus personal manifestations of the one impersonal ultimate Reality. (8)

PROBLEMS WITH POLYTHEISM

If God is infinite, there can’t be more than one infinite Being. To distinguish one being from another, they must differ in some way. If they differ in some way, then one lacks something that the other one has. If one being lacks something that the other one has, then the lacking being is not infinite because an infinite being by definition, lacks nothing. So there can be only be infinite Being. Also, is it more simple to posit that there are many gods instead of one God? Polytheism fails the Ockham’s razor test. To see some of the problems with Mormonism, click here:

Other common internet objections: (i.e., Thor, Zeus, Santa Claus,  Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc.)

  • These are created gods/they are part of the universe
  • They are contingent gods
  • The God of the Bible is necessary, not contingent, and he transcends the universe- he is not part of the universe! To compare the God of the Bible with Thor, Zeus, Santa etc. is a category mistake.
  • There is 0.0 evidence for Thor, Zeus,  Santa or FSM. Perhaps someone may find the evidence for the God of the Bible to not be sufficient, but that is not the same as having zero evidence. Those who say there is “no evidence,” or “zero evidence” have a very naive view of epistemology  and classical theism.

THEISM 
If theism is true, then all forms of non- theism are false. God cannot be both personal and impersonal or beyond the universe and not beyond the universe, or able to perform miracles and not able to perform miracles. To read more on theism, see William Lane Craig’s article called The Coherence of Theism here:

Also, allow me to give a brief description of the God of the Bible/The God of Israel.  As Marvin Wilson says:

 ” The God of Israel was distinct in other ways. Yahweh had an invisible presence; he was pure spirit (John 4: 24). On occasion, however, he manifested himself in visible form. Appearances of the angel of the Lord, and the pillar of smoke by day and the fire by night in the wilderness, were external manifestations of the presence of God. God himself is an incorporeal being; he does not have a body. But the Old Testament often describes God in anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language. The Torah strictly forbids images and idols of Israel’s God (Exod. 20: 3-6). Yahweh could not be represented in material form. Since Yahweh was incorporeal, Israel’s religion could not be destroyed. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in a.d. 70, Judaism was not destroyed. Judaism simply became a religion of the home, a new “temple in miniature.”  Throughout Israel’s history, it was God’s intention that his people grasp that he was different from other deities. He was an infinite, invisible, transcendent Being, not some local, destructible, concrete entity shaped by human hands. Divine Presence was not to be equated with physical form or works of art. Yahweh could be worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem or he could be worshiped away from the Temple. When Israel worshiped by the waters of Babylon in captivity, God was there. Today,  in theological literature and ecumenical discussion, the Tetragrammaton is usually pronounced “Yahweh.” Whether this pronunciation is exact, or not, must remain uncertain. The lengthy tradition — from Second Temple times — of not taking this sacred name on one’s lips resulted in its pronunciation becoming lost. To avoid possible misuse of the name in synagogue liturgy and Scripture reading, Jews began to render the Tetragrammaton “Adonai,” a tradition that has continued to this day. Today, in addition to Adonai, sometimes other expressions are used in addressing God. These names include Ha-Shem (“ The Name”), Ha-Makom (“ The Place”), Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (“ The Holy One, Blessed Be He”), Shekinah (“ Divine Presence”), Ribono shel Olam (“ Master of the World”), Ein Soph (“ Infinite One”), and others. Many Christian scholars, when reading Hebrew texts, usually pronounce the Tetragrammaton “Adonai,” out of respect for the Jewish tradition. (Marvin R, Wilson, Exploring Our Hebraic Heritage: A Christian Theology of Roots and Renewal (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 139-140).”

Also,

A Theistic God is  more likely to explain:(note: Thanks to Wintery Knight for some of these resources). Also, see William Lane Craig’s reflection on the Sean Carroll debate

Because of these three theistic possibilities, we need to look at  Historical Revelation:

  • Revelation: a disclosure of something that has been hidden– an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.”
  • There are three  things are needed for a revelation to take place: God, a medium, and a being able to receive the revelation.
  • Communication : God does want to communicate with humans.

Why the need for revelation?

  • Man’s lack of knowledge: Aquinas offered a good case for the need for revelation. He set forth five reasons why we must first believe what we may later be able to provide good evidence for (Maimonides, 1.34):

1. The object of spiritual understanding is deep and subtle, far removed from sense perception.

2. Human understanding is weak as it fights through these issues.

3.  A number of things are needed for conclusive spiritual proof. It takes time to discern them.

4. Some people are disinclined to rigorous philosophical investigation.

5.  It is necessary to engage in other occupations besides philosophy and science to provide the necessities of life (On Truth, 14.10, reply).

  • Aquinas said it is clear that, “if it were necessary to use a strict demonstration as the only way to reach a knowledge of the things which we must know about God, very few could ever construct such a demonstration and even these could do it only after a long time.
  • Elsewhere, Aquinas lists three basic reasons why divine revelation is needed. 1.  Few possess the knowledge of God, some do not have the disposition for philosophical study, and others do not have the time or are indolent.2.  Time is required to find the truth. This truth is very profound, and there are many things that must be presupposed. During youth the soul is distracted by “the various movements of the passions.”3.  It is difficult to sort out what is false in the intellect. Our judgment is weak in sorting true from false concepts.

We also need to know the following:

  • Character of God: we need a concrete communication to establish the exact  nature of God’s character. Who is God and what is He Like?
  • The Origin of Evil/The Fall: Man needs to be educated concerning the reasons for our situation.
  • Man’s Origin: Without a clear revelation, people might think they are the result of a blind, naturalistic process instead of being created in the image of God.
  • Mankind’s Destiny: In the absence of a revelation, we might think that this life is all there is.

How would we defend the Bible is a true revelation of the true God?

  • We must admit that all the Holy Books contain contradictory revelations: To assert that the God of the Bible would give a clear revelation in the person of Jesus (33 A.D.) and then give another revelation 600-650 years later (Islam), which contradicts the one in 33 A.D is odd. Furthermore, what about the two other so-called revelations in the 1800′s (Mormonism and the Watchtower Society) that both contradict the Christian and Muslim claim. If anything, that would make the God of the Bible a very contradictory Being.
  • Wrong approach: The Bible is the Word of God because it says it is the Word of God (we quote 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Peter 3:15-16).  This is circular.

We would have to establish there is a God who can give a revelation to mankind: Theistic God (see above)

The Old Testament explains:

The New Testament explains:

The structure of the argument may be formalized as follows: Read a fuller form  from the book In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture here:

(1)  The New Testament documents are historically reliable evidence

(2) The historical evidence of the New Testament shows that Jesus is God incarnate/the Jewish Messiah.  God authenticated Jesus’ teaching/ claim to divinity by His miracles/His messianic speaking authority, His messianic actions, and His resurrection .

(3)  Hence, Jesus is God incarnate.

(4) Jesus (i.e., God incarnate) taught that the Old Testament is divinely inspired, and he promised the inspiration of the New Testament through his apostles.

(5) Therefore, the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is divinely inspired.

Note: To see a chart that shows how each of these “isms” answers the worldview questions- click here:

Sources:

1. See N. L., Geisler, N. L., and W. D. Watkins, Worlds apart : A Handbook on Worldviews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House. 1989, 146-182.
2. Ibid, 73-104.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Who is God? Comparing Atheism, Theism, Deism, Pantheism, and Polytheism: A Closer Look

  1. Knujon Mapson August 8, 2015 / 3:22 am

    There is a resurging sixth position — Pandeism. In Pandeism, the reconcilable aspects of Pantheism and Deism are indeed reconciled into a coherent whole, thereby curing the flaws of each. Our Creator, in Pandeism, possesses the power to actually become our Universe, which operates by designed laws of physics for so long as it is needed to exist for our Creator to obtain from it the experience which is useful to obtain from it. In Pandeism, there is no absence of a Creator, no absence of intentional design to the laws of physics; and there is at the same time an explanatory sustainment of our Universe for however many billions of years it must exist for our Creator’s intent to unfold through it. Since it requires extremely fine tuning to set forth a Universe which brings forth intelligent life through its physics, we may deem it extremely probable that the existence of being such as ourselves is necessary an aim of the Creation.

    And perhaps more impressively, Pandeism by its very nature fully accounts for all experiences interpreted by man as revelations, miracles, oracles, prophecies, egregores, spiritual feelings or happenings. Here is how. We can all acknowledge (if we are rational about it) that there is no way any human mind could possibly comprehend the mind of a Universe-creating power. So what happens to a human mind which by accident of fate inadvertently touches for a moment on the underlying mind of such a power? The human mind, confessedly inadequate to the task of actually understanding it, simply reinterprets what it can of it as something which it is able to understand — something which is consistent with the hopes or fears or biases of that mind. And the really great thing is that this accounts for all religious experiences of all faiths. These biases, once experienced, are so strong that it requires an uncanny exercise in reason to cut through them and acknowledge the ever-present possibility of Pandeism.

    And so any track towards comparing Deism and Pantheism is incomplete without additionally weighing the possibility of the revolutionary evolutionary theological theory of Pandeism.

    Blessings!!

    • Chris Kotting June 9, 2016 / 5:06 pm

      Knujon, while your exposition on pandeism is interesting, I’m having great difficulty seeing anything that it offers that theism does not, including the explanation of differing religious experiences of different faiths. Indeed, the Bible already makes essentially the same explanation, that all of Creation expresses the nature of God, and we, as limited humans only see what we understand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s