Monday, December 01, 2008

Understand the Difference Between Theism and Atheism - wikiHow

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Understand the Difference Between Theism and Atheism - wikiHow

How to Understand the Difference Between Theism and Atheism
from wikiHow - The How to Manual That You Can Edit

Throughout human history, there have been people of faith, and people who do not believe in any supreme being. Problems occur when one side misunderstands the other. This article will help you avoid those problems.


  1. Understand what the terms "theist","atheist", and "agnostic" mean. The theist believes in a god or gods; the atheist does not have such a belief. This does not mean that the theist defends a deity or deities, or the atheist attacks deities. The atheist simply does not share the theist's belief. An agnostic is one who believes that the answer to such questions can never be known. That is, one can be an agnostic theist if one believes that a god/gods exist, but this cannot be proven. Likewise, one can be an agnostic atheist if one believes that there is no god/gods, but this cannot be proven. In a strict philosophical sense, some scholars would argue that we are all agnostics about everything (epistemology) because we can never truly know anything, including our own existence.
  2. Recognize that theists believe in a particular god or gods, but not all gods. In a sense, all theists are atheists about gods they do not believe in. This is an example of the pigeonhole principle in that an individual only has a logical pigeonhole for a single god or set of gods, but there exists additional gods. Necessarily, a theist must be an atheist about certain gods that do not fit into his or her pigeonhole. For example, no modern humans hold Zeus as a member of the set of true deities, so we are all atheists with respect to Zeus. The choice of gods for a particular theist is often determined by where he or she was born and the wishes of his or her parents or community, rather than by conscious choice. There are (relatively) few Buddhists in the United States; likewise there are few Christians in Japan.
  3. Keep in mind that an atheist does not necessarily hate the theist’s god, or any god; he or she simply lacks a belief in such a god/gods. An atheist cannot hate something in which he or she does not believe. Atheists may think theists foolish for believing in such things, be frustrated with theists who do destructive things in the name of their gods, or disagree with theists' moral principles, but he or she doesn’t hate a religious entity anymore than a theist hates the Tooth Fairy.
  4. Understand that atheism is not a religion. By definition, a religion is a belief in a superhuman controlling power. An atheist (as well as a secularist, humanist, or deist, among other ideologies) does not share this belief. As such, these ideologies are not religions.
  5. Notice that proponents of each ideology hold their beliefs strongly. Theists may view atheists as immoral because they do not believe in a god/gods, while atheists may view theists as immoral for believing in a god/gods. Both hold their beliefs strongly and necessarily make sacrifices by subscribing to one over the other. Understanding this will lead to more productive and personable debate which will further human understanding and community.
  6. Find a common ground. Notice that if you remove the supernatural elements of most religions, their moral code is very similar to that of atheists. Most ethical elements of many religions are agreeable to theists and atheists alike, e.g. the golden rule of Jesus: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or as Rabbi Hillel put it, “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you." Most people agree with that. Recognizing this common ground provides a buffer for the emotional issues surrounding belief vs. disbelief.
  7. Study your "opponent". Most atheists were once theists (or were raised in a theist tradition), but those who were not should consider the ideas of various forms of theism before discounting such ideas, and those who were raised as theists should study theist ideas with which they are unfamiliar. Many theists have been theists all their lives. As such, they have never considered the possibility that there is no god/gods. Before satisfying debate can occur, both parties must understand their opponent by critically examining their ideas.


  • To come to a broader understanding of human beliefs and understanding of life through folklore and religion, read Joseph Campbell’s works, including Hero With a Thousand Faces, and his series on Primitive, Creative, Occidental, and Oriental Mythologies. Whether theist or atheist, these works will help you recognize the common human experience, and the similar ways mankind has developed for understanding it across ages and cultures.
  • Some people promote the idea that atheism is a religion. It is not. It is simply the absence of belief in any god or gods.


  • Anytime you come to a balanced view on such issues, there will be people who try to put you back on an imbalanced path, e.g. "But what about all the horrible things (theists/atheists) have done?!" Just counter with the fact that throughout history people have done wonderful and horrible things regardless of belief or ethnicity, so there seems to be no correlation.
  • Likewise remember that just because someone in a certain religious group did something awful does not mean it's the religion's fault. People are individually responsible for their actions (and inaction), and many are inspired by their faith and courage into amazing acts of self-sacrifice and love.

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