Newcomers to the study of religion and spirituality, whether they approach such a study academically and objectively (as my own students do, in a college classroom) or more personally and subjectively (perhaps during moments of private religious reflection, or as part of a more sustained spiritual search), are very much like newcomers to the study of any new topic or unexplored territory. There are bound to be some unfamiliar new concepts to become acquainted with, and some new vocabulary terms to learn which relate to these new concepts.
In other words, one must begin by learning some of the jargon, the lingo, the argot, the nomenclature.
Accordingly, it may be helpful for some readers (those with little or limited previous knowledge and experience in comparative religion) if we first take some time to define a few very basic “technical terms” — some essential terminology which is likely to appear fairly frequently in many future Religion 101 blog entries.
By no means, however, is the following brief list of “-isms” exhaustive.
After all, the very names of many religions or spiritual paths themselves constitute “-isms” (Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Neopaganism, Rastafarianism, Sikhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, etc.). On the other hand, not all religions are themselves labeled formally as “-isms” (for example, Baha’i, Christianity, Islam, Santeria, Scientology, Shinto, Voodoo, Wicca, etc.).
Likewise, many denominations within Christianity, along with similar sects, branches, and other subdivisions within other religions, also constitute so many additional “-isms” (Catholicism, Protestantism; Episcopalianism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Presbyterianism; Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, Unitarianism; Shi’ism, Sufism, Wahhabism; etc.).
And then, of course, there are a great many other kinds of relevant “-isms,” such as those that relate not to specific individual religions or denominations but instead to certain general types of philosophical positions or theological stances or metaphysical movements of various sorts which may be found, to varying degrees and in various combinations, among many religions (for instance, animism, apocalypticism, Calvinism, creationism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, humanism, inerrantism, mysticism, occultism, Pentecostalism, premillennialism, Puritanism, revivalism, sacramentalism, secularism, shamanism, trinitarianism, unitarianism, Zionism, etc.).
We will be exploring at least some of the above “-isms” in future blog entries, but we can hold off on defining such terms as those until we get to the relevant future entries.
The following terms are not specific to any single religion. Rather, they broadly represent different fundamental ways of conceptualizing, understanding, and responding to the divine (or to the sacred), however it may be conceived of among various specific religions. Hopefully this will all become much clearer as we look at each of these basic terms, one by one. In my experience, students sometimes get some of these terms and concepts a bit mixed up, and are often a bit unclear or hazy as to the precise meanings of some of them, so it may be helpful to run through them thusly:
1. Theism. This term comes from the Greek theos, which simply means “God,” or “a god.” Theism therefore literally translates simply as “god-ism,” e.g. a belief in God, or in a god. (Likewise, the term theology literally means “words about God,” e.g. the study of God and related matters.) On its own, “theism” is a pretty generic term; strictly speaking, theism per se need not necessarily specify which god, or what kind of god, or how many gods, or any other additional details. In common parlance, however, theism is often used as a virtual synonym for the more narrowly precise term monotheism, which specifically denotes belief in just one single God alone (see its own entry below). Most religions (although, perhaps surprisingly to the uninitiated, not all religions) are theistic, insofar as they believe in some sort of God (or gods), however variously conceptualized or defined.
2. Atheism. The negative prefix “a-” (meaning essentially “non-” or “not”, or perhaps “without”), when applied to any term, generally negates that term, and more specifically denotes the absence of what the original root term refers to. Common examples of this linguistic device at work include such terms as amoral (meaning “non-moral,” or the absence of morality), ahistorical (“non-historical,” or the absence of historicity), asexual (“non-sexual,” or the absence of sexuality), asymmetrical (“non-symmetrical,” or the absence of symmetry), and atypical (meaning “not typical,” or the absence of “typicalness,” as it were). Atheism (“a-theism” or “non-theism”) is therefore simply the opposite of, or the absence of, theism (hence an absence of belief in God or gods, as defined above). An atheist, then, is just someone who is not a theist — someone who is simply without any belief in God (or gods). Many atheists further emphasize that atheism itself is not “a religion,” but quite the opposite, being instead the simple lack or absence of any “religion” whatsoever. On the other hand, some religions such as Buddhism and Jainism can be characterized as “atheistic” in nature, insofar as they do not recognize the existence of God.
3. Agnosticism. This term comes from the Greek gnosis (meaning “knowledge”), but modified with that same sort of negating “a-” prefix that turns theism (the belief in God or gods) into atheism (the lack of belief in God or gods). So, agnosticism (literally “a-gnosticism,” denoting a lack or absence of gnosis or knowledge) simply refers to being “without knowledge,” one way or the other, regarding God (or gods). Strictly speaking, agnosticism technically refers to the view that definite knowledge about God is impossible or unavailable; colloquially, however, agnosticism is often used more loosely by many people to refer to their persistent personal uncertainty, one way or the other, about the existence of God. Many agnostics so identify themselves simply as a shorthand means of indicating their own noncommittal indecision — a kind of “the jury is still out” position, somewhere midway between theism and atheism, neither fully believing nor fully disbelieving but suspending judgment and remaining open to either possibility.
4. Monotheism. The prefix “mono-” is Greek for “one” (as in monochromatic, monogamous, monophonic, monopoly, monotonous, monounsaturated, etc.). So, “mono-theism” is literally “one-god-ism,” or the belief in the existence of a single God (to the exclusion of any other additional gods). Monotheistic religions believe in one, and only one, Supreme Being. Many monotheists typically go even further, usually regarding this singular Deity as the divine Creator of all things, and commonly characterize it as being in some sense “personal” (having intelligence, memory, and a “will,” expressing moral preferences, communicating commandments and other divinely revealed information, expressing emotions such as love or wrath, entering into personal relationships, etc.). Monotheism is a prominent characteristic of such major Western religions as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as some smaller Western faiths such as Baha’i. However, monotheism can also be found among some of the major Eastern religions as well; Sikhism is monotheistic, as are certain branches and forms or interpretations of Hinduism.
5. Polytheism. The prefix “poly-” is Greek for “many” or “multiple” (as in polygamous, polyglot, polygon, polymath, polymer, polyunsaturated, etc.). So, “poly-theism” is literally “many-gods-ism” (or “multiple-gods-ism”), the belief in more than one god. Often the gods of a given polytheistic religion are arranged in a sort of pantheon; some readers may be familiar with the classical pantheons of Greek gods (Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc.), Roman gods (Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Minerva, Diana, etc.), Egyptian gods (Amun, Anubis, Bast, Hathor, Horus, Isis, Osiris, Ptah, Ra, Thoth), Norse gods (Odin, Freya, Frigg, Thor, Loki, Tyr, etc.), and various others. The number of such gods can vary widely; the ancient Greeks identified twelve “Olympians” (so named due to their residence atop Mount Olympus), whereas one traditional Hindu formulation specifies some 330 million gods! Apart from long-vanished classical religions of remote antiquity (including also Sumerian, Canaanite, Celtic, Aztec, Incan, Mayan, and many more), polytheism in one form or another continues to thrive today, in a number of contemporary religions. Some forms of Hinduism and Taoism, as well as some forms of Neopaganism such as Wicca, have their popular polytheistic aspects, although some of their followers also believe that the various gods and goddesses of these faiths are actually subordinate to (or subsumed within) an even higher and singular divine Reality, a perspective that we shall explore in greater depth in future posts. Shinto, Santeria, and Voodoo are additional examples of complex polytheisms still current today.
It may also be worth noting that some avowedly non-polytheistic faiths are sometimes accused by outsiders as evincing what, for all intents and purposes, comes across as a sort of “practical polytheism.” Buddhism’s pantheon of multiple buddhas and bodhisattvas, for example, or Catholicism’s devotion to Mary and veneration of its own pantheon of saints, are sometimes targeted in this manner as being to some degree “polytheistic” — at least in practice, if not in theory. Somewhat similarly, the exclusively Christian theological doctrine of the Trinity, which simultaneously affirms the monotheistic unity of God while insisting that God is nevertheless somehow constituted by three distinct “Persons” (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) strikes many non-Christian theological critics as amounting to a kind of “tri-theism,” all protests to the contrary notwithstanding.
(This list of “Ten Essential ‘-isms’” will continue in Part Two.)