The first two chapters introduce science. The third and fourth chapters introduce some basic concepts about faith in general, and Christian faith in particular. We need this background before we can relate science and faith to each other in ch. 5 to 8. If this seems boring right now, perhaps it would be best to go on to ch. 4, and perhaps refer back to this when it seems necessary to understand things there and further on.
How many types of faith are there for us to choose from? Although it seems the choices are endless, we can divide them into several categories, so there are really only a few choices. There are many systems of classification; here is a simple one. This only gives definitions. Evaluation will begin in ch. 5, sec. I.
A Atheism/humanism/materialism requires this long label because there are various types of atheists. In the modern Orient an atheist is a person who may believe in many small gods but not in one supreme God. In the ancient Roman Empire, Christians were accused of being atheists because they believed in one supreme God but not in many small gods. What I mean here is modern Western atheism, which says there is no God or spiritual realm of any kind, no gods either small or supreme, so matter and the laws of nature are the only things that exist, therefore they must be eternal. This leaves the human race with only ourselves to decide everything about life and society.
The word “atheist” is derived from Greek, “a-“ meaning “not,” and “theos” meaning “god.” So it simply means the belief that there is no god.
B Agnosticism is more humble and cautious than atheism. Agnostics do not claim to know that there is no god, only to not know whether there is. But we can distinguish two kinds of agnostics, one who only says “I don’t know whether there is a God,” and the other kind who also says “and I know you don’t know either.”
The word is derived from Greek again, “gnosis” meaning “knowledge.” So an agnostic is professing no knowledge, or ignorance, about God. But the second kind is also asserting that this knowledge is inaccessible, that if God exists He is irrelevant and for any practical purpose indistinguishable from non-existent. So agnostics are practicing atheists, though not professing ones.
C Pantheism says that the universe is God, God is the universe, so we all have God within us, in fact we are God. This includes all of Hinduism; or rather Hinduism is so complex and variable that perhaps we should say all pantheism is Hinduism. Buddhism came out of Hinduism as a reformation against its abuses, and original pure philosophical Buddhism was atheistic. Both Hinduism and Buddhism are complex and variable, containing many schools of thought with various mixtures of atheism, pantheism, and animism (next section). The modern New Age movement in the West is very directly derived from Hinduism.
Hinduism and Buddhism have a huge literature of writings that are considered as holy books, and often referred to in English as scriptures. These writings were penned by many men (and perhaps women) who are called sages, or gurus, or various other titles. They were in some way different from ordinary mortals, and managed to venture into the spiritual realm and make discoveries which they recorded in these holy books to be passed on to others.
D Animism is the local or tribal folk religion of the various peoples of the world. It claims a large majority of the world’s population, not only remote tribal groups but also most of those who consider themselves Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim, and even many Christians. Among such people, although many of the names and terms involved in their religious practices are superimposed from one of the more formal religions, their outlook on and relationship with the spiritual realm is in practice animistic. Thus animism overlaps broadly with other professed religions, and thus the percentages of the world in each of these six categories adds up to well over 100%.
Animism in its details has almost countless forms, but all share some common points: believing that people, animals, and objects are controlled by many spirits, including the spirits of people who have died. Animism is polytheism, belief in a large number of gods and spiritual beings arranged in a complex hierarchical structure of ranks and categories, closely resembling human society. The goal of animism is to get along with these spirits, to keep them from causing trouble, and to persuade them to do what we wish, if possible persuading one to protect us from another. In most cases it includes some special relationship with the spirits of one’s own departed ancestors, and preparation for the inevitable day when we who are now living will join them. Some people have in various ways acquired special connections and powers in the spiritual world, and provide helpful services to others upon request and, usually, sufficient remuneration. Such people have strong influence in their community.
Animism is the predominant religion of the poor and uneducated, but it is also growing among the wealthy and educated classes throughout the modern world, where animism fills a vacuum left by departure from previous traditional and more formal religions. Many people may for a time become professing atheists or agnostics, but when life’s inevitable crises arrive this fails to meet their needs. Their search for help takes many forms. Some openly and permanently become adherents of a religious system, while others continue a dichotomous existence combining inward disbelief with outward involvement. Some adopt the practices of folk religion directly into a lifestyle that is otherwise very modern, with a shocking appearance of anachronism to an uncomprehending observer from another cultural background. Others reject animism in its traditional form, only to replace it with animism in an updated form, such as Satanism, neo-paganism, new age, and various “new” cults.
There is much mixture of animism with pantheism. In principle they are different, but in practice they are often difficult to separate, and will usually be discussed together from here on. A deeply detailed study of religions is not our primary goal.
I am not aware of any form of animism that has produced one or more holy books. Mostly it has been passed on for many centuries by word of mouth, through a system of apprenticeship and folklore. Among modern and educated people it has developed a vast literature, which are viewed as guidebooks, reference, and promotion, but not scripture.
E Deism is belief in one God, who created
the universe and (perhaps) us, and then went away and pays no attention
to us now. This was popular in 18th-century Europe and America, but is
not important now except as one aspect of liberal theology. Almost no one
now claims the label of deist.
A God who completed creation and then immediately vanished from the scene of course did not bother to be involved in the production of any scriptures, such as the Bible. So deists were and are in an ambivalent position of not really believing the Bible or its God but not able to completely disregard Him or it either.
F Monotheism, usually simply called theism, is belief in one true God with Whom we can, in fact must, have a close personal relationship now, because without such a relationship we are in the direst eternal peril. Judaism, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and Islam in their conservative, traditional forms are all monotheistic, but Islam does not usually emphasize the need or even possibility of a personal relationship with God. See ch. 4, sec. I.
This one true God is believed to be the Creator of everything else that exists, yet is clearly separate from it, unlike the pantheistic deity. “Everything else” includes the physical universe in which science does its work, and also all spiritual and physical beings: humans, angels, and demons. God created all these by choice, not necessity; their existence is dependent on Him for their origin, characteristics, and continuation. Their fate is entirely at His disposal.
Atheism, agnosticism, and pantheism deny that there was a beginning or will be an end of the universe and life as we know it. Animism relegates the question to an unknowable distant deity. Only deism and theism face these questions and offer answers.
This has an interesting implication that has only become clear in the 20th century. There are hints in the Bible that God transcends our framework of time and space, that that framework itself was created by Him and not eternally equal let alone above Him. When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, He told him to tell the Israelites in Egypt that “I Am has sent you.” This name, “I Am,” is the Hebrew word transliterated into English as Jehovah or Yahweh, and carries the connotation of self-existence and even transcendence. Proverbs 8:22-31 is a fascinating passage in which personified wisdom speaks, recounting how she participated in creation, in fact predated it (imagine a woman boasting about her age!). Verse 23 states, “I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began.” Isaiah chapters 40 to 50 are a lengthy comparison of God with all (false) gods, with repeated statements that He is unique, the first, the only, and always has been and always will be. He is clearly claiming to be on a wholly different level, not merely one or even just the greatest among other gods. In Isaiah 57:15 God says, “I inhabit eternity” (in most versions except NIV, which translates it as “I live forever,” apparently considering that more comprehensible than what is apparently a more direct word-for-word translation). This phrase is perhaps the clearest hint in the Bible that eternity is not merely endless existence in time, but is transcendence beyond our existence within time.
Moving on to the New Testament, Jesus stated (John 8:58) that “Before Abraham was, I am,” not even just “I was,” a clear claim of equivalence with the Jehovah of Moses. His listeners clearly saw this claim and considered it blasphemy worthy of death. It was either true or blasphemy. In His final prayer Jesus says the Father loved Him before the creation of the world. Paul refers to Jesus Christ being planned as our Savior “before creation,” Eph. 1:4; see also 2 Tim 1:9. Peter says the same thing, I Pet. 1:20.
Within the 20th century, discoveries of general relativity have given further insight into our outlook on time. In relativity theory, time and space are interrelated, so that a being who is in some sense infinite in space (omnipresent, to use the theological term) must also in some sense be infinite in time. But this is only endless time; there are even more profound conclusions. Stephen Hawking and others derived theorems proving that general relativity theory requires that our universe must have a beginning, which was the beginning of our time and space dimensions, and of the laws of nature, and therefore that beginning had to be something beyond time and space and laws. Theism equates that beginning with God. Hawking and others have attempted to evade this conclusion, but it is at least as logically valid as any of their speculative alternatives, and answers far more questions, which are the topic of ch. 6.
This answers, or rather corrects, the common question directed to theists, “Who made God?” If He had a source, then that source is God. It seems that this cannot be pursued infinitely, but that there must be a first source somewhere (though there are deep philosophical arguments about the possibility of an infinite regression, that are beyond my philosophical talents). Whether or not it can be logically proved that there must be a first source, it at least can’t be proved there must not be one, and the simple fact of Biblical revelation is that God claims to be exactly that. If we accept the idea of transcending time, which is just a label for something beyond our comprehension, then God need not have a cause, beginning, or creator. Only things that exist within time have a beginning or cause; God does not.
Another purported loophole in this discussion was raised by David Hume in the 18th century. He pointed out some fascinating questions about the concept of cause and effect, or at least about our ability to know anything for sure about it, but again it can’t be proved that cause and effect is purely illusory and in fact nonexistent.
The major theistic religions have all developed large segments with varying degrees of departure from the conservative style of faith and practice, adopting more liberal viewpoints. This is especially common among the educated classes. The results vary widely, ranging all the way from deism to atheism, though rarely labeled as such. From here on through ch. 6 there is considerable discussion of the liberal branch of Christianity.
Monotheistic religions possess a book regarded as a revelation from the one true God (ch. 4, sec. I), which is therefore the basis of the beliefs briefly summarizedabove. This gives an objective standard for belief, though of course the principles of interpretation of that standard are subject to extensive argument. The primary books have already been mentioned: the Bible of the Judeo-Christian community, and the Koran of Islam.
Notice the distinction from pantheism’s scriptures; the initiative begins with God, not the human channels of revelation. This concept of one true revelation from one true God is the basis of monotheistic religions’ claim of absolute truth, which is so offensive to those of other religions, especially in this modern skeptical pluralist world. This offense is often a misunderstanding based on a failure to grasp what monotheists consider their religion to be. Those who take offense mistakenly equate Biblical prophets with Eastern gurus, and misconstrue theists’ claims as arrogant assertions that “my guru is better than your guru.” Most non-monotheists have honestly never even conceived the possibility of a true God Who took the initiative in giving us a true revelation, so they view monotheists as cultural imperialists who think their religion (considered as one aspect of culture or humankind’s experience of the spiritual realm) is best just because it is theirs, and therefore try to impose it on others who don’t need it or want it. This is no doubt true of some, probably many, monotheists. But it is possible to humbly believe that one has been blessed with a precious truth, and that this privilege entails a responsibility to share it with others. Some people do realize what monotheists claim for the source and authority of their beliefs, and take offense at such a claim. This is at least rejecting the actual state of affairs rather than a misperception of it.
Chapter 4 further pursues such logical topics. For now the goal is simply to describe theism.