Many religions, but not all, are centered around the idea of a supernatural, usually anthropomorphic, deity, supreme being, or god. With regard to etymology, the word god is from Old English which is based on the Proto-Germanic *guthan. Going back farther in time, some linguists have suggested that the Proto-Germanic *gatham has its origins in the Proto-Indo-European *ghut- meaning “that which is invoked” while others feel it stems from the Proto-Indo-European *ghu-to- meaning “poured” which may refer to a ritual of pouring a libation on a burial mound. The common idea that the word god is related to the word good is in error.
In Greek, the word forming element theo- refers to “god or gods” and comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *dhes- which is used to form words for religious concepts. Using this Greek root, philosophers and others have formed a number of words relating various god-beliefs, including theism, pantheism, and panentheism.
Theism is basically a religious orientation which is centered on the idea of and belief in a god or gods. With regard to etymology, Theism comes from the word-forming element theo- plus the word-forming element -ism which is attached to nouns to imply a practice, system, or doctrine. Theism is first recorded in English in the 1670s with a meaning of “belief in a deity or deities.” By 1711, the word was generally used to mean a belief in one god and was seen as the opposite of polytheism. By 1714, it was used to mean the belief in God (the upper case G here implies a proper name for a specific god) who was the creator and ruler of the universe. At this time, theism was seen as being opposed to deism.
In today’s academic world, theism is generally viewed as the belief in the existence of one or more deities or divinities. Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, writes:
“A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation.”
Philosopher Ernest Nagel, in his essay reprinted in Critiques of God: Making the Case Against Belief in God, writes:
“As long as theism is defended simply as a dogma, asserted as a matter of direct revelation or as the deliverance of authority, belief in the dogma is impregnable to rational argument. In fact, however, reasons are frequently advanced in support of the theistic creed, and these reasons have been the subject of acute philosophical critiques.”
In the magazine Free Inquiry, Steven Lowe writes:
“Theism itself is a kind of psychological neoteny: the retention of juvenile psychological traits—dependency and powerlessness, the need for constant guidance and security from a powerful provider—into adulthood.”
Many people believe that theism is the default belief for all religions and all people. While this might be true for European cultures, it is not true of all religions or all cultures. Philosophy professor Michael Martin, in an entry in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, writes:
“Theism, however, is not a characteristic of all religions. While the theistic tradition is fully developed in Hinduism in the Bhagavad-Gita, the earlier Upanishads teach that ultimate reality, Braham, is impersonal. Thervada Buddhism and Jainism also reject a theistic creator god, but they accept numerous lesser gods. At most they are atheistic in the narrow sense of rejecting theism.”
Pantheism is the belief that god exists as all things of the cosmos, that god is one and all is god. There is no distinction between god as the creator and god’s creations. God is immanent. Allanson Picton, in his 1905 book Pantheism Its Story and Significance, writes:
“…if Atheism be taken to mean a denial of the being of God, Pantheism is its extreme opposite; because Pantheism declares that there is nothing but God.”
Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, writes:
“Pantheists don’t believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings.”
In an entry in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, A. P. Martinich explain pantheism this way:
“Just as water might saturate a sponge and in that way be in the entire sponge, but not identical with the sponge, God might be in everything without being identical with everything.”
Panentheism is the belief that god encompasses all things of the cosmos, but that god is greater than the cosmos. God is both immanent and transcendent. In Europe, this is a philosophical viewpoint which was first elaborated by the German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781-1832). Jere Paul Surber, in an entry in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, writes:
“According to this, although nature and human consciousness are part of God or Absolute Being, the Absolute is neither exhausted in nor identical to them.”
Outside of Europe, the primary examples of panentheism are found in the sub-denominations of Vaishnavism. About half of the world’s Hindus are considered Vaishnavites. Vaishnavism has its origins in five major teachers who flourished between 1000 and 1500 CE. One of these teachers, Vallabha (1475-1530) taught a form of non-dualism in which individual souls are aspects of the divine.
Panentheism can also be seen in Taoism in which everything is a part of the eternal tao. Like Buddhism, Taoism does use an anthropomorphic concept or image of a deity to explain reality.
Religion 101 is a series about different aspects of religion in which the concept of religion is not restricted to the characteristics of the Abrahamic religions. More from this series:
Religion 101: Hidden Blasphemy
Religion 101: The Great Awakenings
Religion 101: Confucianism
Religion 101: Naturalism
Religion 101: The Evolution of Morality
Religion 101: Divination in Ancient Civilizations
Religion 101: Demons
Religion 101: Rites of Passage