Created | Updated Sep 5, 2007
Ah, beliefs. Every single human has them, although due to some hideous mistake, perhaps related to us all coming down out of the trees in the first place, we are all very bad at distinguishing between our own personal beliefs and the indisputable truth. Nietzsche once described this particular dilemma quite succinctly:
You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.
With so many different ways to choose from, it was pretty much inevitable that mankind would end up having numerous petty squabbles over which way was best. While this sort of thing is less common than it used to be, it still happens more than it should. The aim of this Entry is to briefly describe a number of different beliefs people might choose to hold, so that the reader can get a head start on understanding and accepting those who have chosen a different indisputable truth to themselves. Failing that, at least you'll be able to tell the difference between a monist, a monotheist and a monolatrist.
Note that this Entry tries to avoid mentioning specific religions except as examples. While humanity can generally be split into just a handful of different religious groups, these religions tend to come with complicated histories and tend to be split further into subgroups of people who believe slightly different things to other followers of the same main religion. For instance, Christianity can be split into Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Restorationism, Baptism, Anabaptism, Anglicanism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Nontrinitarianism, Fundamentalism, Pentacostalism, Evangelicalism, Presbyterianism, Methodism and many more, and the precise attributes of and differences between these denominations are not the intended subject of this Entry. Instead, the following are terms that can be used to help describe such differences.
Belief in a God
Let's start with what would seem a reasonably simple topic. The average religion tends to involve at least one all-powerful being of some description, usually referred to as a 'deity' or 'god':
Atheism is the lack of belief in any form of deity or god.
Agnosticism is the belief that there is insufficient information to decide whether a deity or god exists or not.
Theism is the belief in any number of deities or gods in any form. Antitheism is the stark opposition of theistic beliefs.
Monotheism is the belief that a single deity or god exists, or that there are several parts or personalities in existence that effectively make up one single god. Examples of monotheism include Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Monotheism can be split into several alternatives:
- Unitarianism is the belief that there is a single deity with a single personality. Islam falls into this category, with the act of 'shirking', or believing in another god or personality in addition to Allah, being an unforgivable sin. Another example of unitarianism would be the Unitarian Christian movement, which is based on the belief that Jesus was in some way not divine, and that only the Christian God was really a proper deity.
- Binitarianism is the belief that there is a single deity consisting of two personalities. According to some historians, there were times when either the Jews and/or the Christians worshipped both a 'Father' and a 'Son', thus making their beliefs binitarialistic.
- Trinitarianism is the belief that there is a single deity consisting of three parts, and is the basis of most strains of Christianity.
In Christianity, several attempts have been made to somehow combine or resolve these different viewpoints:
- Modalism accepts all three parts of trinitarianism as being divine, but claims that they are three guises of a single unitarian personality.
- Adoptionism accepts Jesus as a deity, but claims that this status was granted by a unitarian Christian God.
- Arianism claims that the Christian God started as a single unitarian deity, with Jesus being created later on, following which Jesus created the Holy Spirit.
Deism is the belief that there is a single god and an afterlife, but that humans are left to their own devices and that the god does not have any power over the universe, despite having created it. Deists reject all revealed religions along with the accompanying belief systems and creation accounts.
Gnosticism is the belief that the universe was created by a demiurge, an evil or imperfect god that has trapped the divine souls of humans in an imperfect reality. This reality is watched by a good and more powerful god, but humans require enlightenment or 'Gnosis' to escape the imperfect reality.
Duotheism is the belief that two separate, complementary forces or deities exist. Duotheism also comes in different flavours:
- Ditheism is based on the age-old fight between good and evil, such as in Zoroastrianism or Manicheism. Note that this term does not apply to Western god versus devil sets, as in these cases the devil has a lower rank and is therefore less powerful than the god.
- Bitheism is based on two equally-powerful forces such as the Yin and Yang of Taoism or the God and Goddess of Wicca. Unlike the good and evil approach of Western dualism, these forces usually co-exist in harmony in order to create a balance.
- Marcionism is based on the idea that a lesser and generally quite evil Hebrew god created the world and governed the timespan of the Old Testament, following which a Christian god turned up to save the day and write the New Testament in its spare time.
Polytheism is the belief that there are many deities or gods, with the religions of Ancient Greece and Rome being good examples. Muslims consider belief in a Trinity and the worship of saints to constitute polytheism. Types of polytheism include:
- Inclusive monotheism is a sort of fuzzy border between polytheism and monotheism in which multiple deities exist but are all part of the same god. Some schools of Hinduism could be said to fall into this category.
- Monolatrism is the worship of a single god deemed suitable for worship while still acknowledging that others may exist.
- Henotheism is the worship of a god while acknowledging that there may be other gods equally deserving of worship.
- Kathenotheism is the worship of whichever one of several gods is deemed to be the ruling force at a particular time.
- Polydeism is the belief that several gods were responsible for the creation of the universe but have long since lost interest and disappeared.
Pantheism is the belief that the universe and everything in it forms part of a single deity. Forms of pantheism include:
- Classical pantheism is the belief that existence is equal to a god without somehow changing the definition of either reality or the god. A good example is Hinduism, although this form of pantheism could be said to fit to any religion with an omnipresent god.
- Naturalistic pantheism is the belief that all of existence is somehow connected and is a source of mystical enlightment, but that there is no conscious god present to muck around with things. The Jedi movement is a good example of this.
- Pandeism is the belief that a god gave up their status as a god to become the universe, and is thus based on the ideals of deism (see above).
- Panentheism is the belief that there is a god that both controls the universe and is the universe, with the god's presence being inherent in the existence of everything. This approach is taught in Orthodox Christianity, which contrasts with the more strictly monotheistic Western approach which has a god controlling the universe without being part of it.
- Panendeism is a combination of panentheism and deism whereby a god exists and is both part of the universe and greater than the universe, but does not intervene in matters.
- Transtheism is the belief that a god or gods came into existence at the same time as the universe, with these two events being somehow linked, but that any deities that exist have no direct connection to or influence upon reality.
Totemism is the belief that a certain species of creature acts as a source of protection and should be worshipped and treated with reverence. The animal may even be believed to be the common ancestor of those who worship it.
Paganism is a term used to cover a wide range of practices based upon the Pagan religions that predated the modern theistic religions. Paganism thus includes a range of theistic beliefs including monotheism, duotheism, polytheism and pantheism.
Satanism is not a belief in any form of deity, but a belief system which states that it is impossible to avoid sin, and thus uses Satan as a mascot.
Nihilism is the belief that there is no higher power, no meaning to life, that everything is pointless and that all paths are equally right or wrong.
Properties of Belief Systems
Belief systems may be monist, dualist, pluralist or a rough combination of the above. Monism is the belief that all of reality consists of one basis and has one set of rules, although this single reality can sometimes be claimed to be different to the one we see, in which case it is claimed that the physical universe we are living in is a false or imagined one - this is known as acosmism. Dualism is the belief that two separate planes exist, with one being the physical world while the other fulfils the role of either a metaphysical plane or a place in which the mind, soul or consciousness exists. Gnosticism is usually dualistic in nature as it claims that humans are trapped in the physical world but are actually divine souls that rest in a metaphysical plane. Pluralism is the belief that the universe consists of many different parts or substances.
The belief that humans, animals or plants have souls is known as animism and is technically a separate matter to theism, although most religions that include a god also include a belief in souls and the afterlife. Meanwhile, spiritualism is the belief that it is possible to contact the dead, who live on some higher plane, via a medium.
Eutheism is the belief that a god exists and has good intentions, while dystheism is the belief that a god exists but either has a vicious streak or is completely evil. Dystheist gods and deities can also appear in duotheistic and polytheistic situations.
Immanentism is the belief that a god exists and is able to act within the physical world or within people's minds, with this property being known as immanence. Meanwhile, transcendance allows a god to exist at a higher level outside of the physical world, with this belief being known as transcendentalism. However, these two attributes can coexist in the same belief system.
One common property found in belief systems is mysticism, also known as the search for enlightenment. Examples include belief in Nirvana in Buddhism; Gnosis in Gnosticism; Moksha in Hinduism, Sikhism and Janism; Irfan in Islam; and the Kingdom of Heaven in Christianity. Such mystical searches for the 'truth' are criticised by deists. Meanwhile, there also exists the field of esotericism, in which societies such as Freemasons reveal more and more of the 'truth' to members as they climb to higher ranks.
Finally, while the complex battle of Free Will versus Determinism takes place in a separate Entry, it is worth mentioning here that both atheists and theists are capable of adopting deterministic beliefs. On the one hand, determinism can be used to show that everything can be traced back to a single starting point such as the Big Bang - this sort of argument makes some theists unhappy as it can preclude the existence of a god. However, on the other hand, those who believe in theological fatalism claim that the fact that a god exists and knows all means that their fate has already been decided by that god, thus preventing any form of free will.
Holding the Beliefs
As well as many different possible belief systems, there are also a number of ways in which different people may hold the same beliefs.
Sectarianism is the rigid adherence to a particular denomination of a religion, often leading to opposition between sectarians of different denominations. Examples of sectarian opposition include Protestantism versus Catholicism and Sunni Muslims versus Shia Muslims.
Fundamentalism is a strong and often controversial belief that a particular religion's ancient laws and texts are ineffably true, that all other belief systems are ineffably false, and that everything the fundamentalist doesn't agree with is the work of the devil. Fundamentalists are generally quite right-wing and conservative, and their presence in just about every religion would suggest that it is the individual's political leanings that make them a fundamentalist and not their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, this means that some members of the population will forever be against just getting along with everyone else. Worse still, the high volume of text contained within the holy books of most religions means that a fundamentalist can usually find a passage or piece of scripture to justify any action they choose to take. It should be noted that the most important thing when dealing with an outrageous fundamentalist is to avoid becoming a fundamentalist yourself - there are enough of them already.
Fanaticism is an extreme form of fundamentalism in which a small minority of followers of a religion go as far as using threats and violence against those who they do not agree with or who they deem to be 'sinners'1 or 'infidels'2. It is important to note that these people are militant fundamentalists who misrepresent the bulk of the followers of their religion, and their actions should not be allowed to drive a rift between fellow human beings of different beliefs or religions.
Liberalism is the opposite of fundamentalism - liberalists may hold their own beliefs dear, but at the same time they are open-minded and will usually accept the views of others, provided that they are not overly extreme. Although this means that liberalists generally have to accept the existence of fundamentalism, some tend to get pretty ticked off with it.
Scepticism is the questioning of one or more aspects of a religion or religious authority, such as the legitimacy of miracles, religious pratices or claims made in holy books. A sceptic isn't necessarily an atheist or agnostic, nor are they necessarily anti-religious.
Humanism is the rejection of the idea that supernatural forces can interfere with human affairs, but not necessarily the rejection of religious beliefs. Humanists generally avoid using faith as a basis for decisions, are often mildly sceptical, and believe it is up to them to find the 'truth' as opposed to looking for it through mysticism and revelation.
If all the above 'isms' are getting too much for you, you might just want to look into Discordianism, Invisible Pink Unicornism or Flying Spaghetti Monsterism.