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Friday, June 18, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files, Technical Terms: The "-Theism"s Part 1

Religious discussions are always full of technical terms and idioms of various kinds, and unfortunately, to an untrained ear they all tend to sound the same after awhile. In this series, I thought I'd go through a few terms each week, defining them and contrasting them where possible to help you get them all straightened out.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or a correction (nobody is perfect), don't hesitate to leave a comment.

The "-theism"s

There are many types of religions in the world, and if you ever get into a discussion about world religions, you will probably hear a lot of terms that end with "-theism." They are basic terms for describing the differences between the world's religions. I'm discussing them today, not to give my approval for any religion other than Christianity, but to lay out the groundwork for possible in-depth discussion later. Obviously, my definitions are biased as they are being given from a Christian perspective (and as long as free speech is really free I have a right to do so), but I will do my best not to distort your understanding of the facts.

Theism, or -theos is a Greek root word that means "God" or "god." These terms, then, describe the nature of the deity a particular religion or belief system follows. Here are some terms that use "-theism," and their definitions:

  • Monotheism--literally, mono- "one" + -theos "god" + -ism "state of being; is." Monotheist religions only follow one god (God), not a group of deities. Examples include Christianity, which follows the God of Israel as revealed in the nature and person of Jesus Christ; Judaism, which follows the God of Israel as known from Mosaic Law; and Islam, which also lays claim to the god of Abraham as told by their leader Mohammed.
  • Polytheism--literally, poly- "many" + -theos "god(s)" + -ism "state of being; is." Polytheistic religions worship many deities at once. Their deities may have ranks (some being more powerful than others, for instance), and their forms can include masculine, feminine, plant, animal, and inanimate (not representing a living thing, such as the sun). Examples include the religions of most African, Eurasian, Oceanic, and native North and South American tribes, and the ancient Romans and Greeks. As you can see, this is a pretty all-encompassing term, which glosses over the differences between a lot of different tribal beliefs.
  • Pantheism--literally, pan- "all, universal" + -theos "god" + -ism "state of being; is." Pantheistic religions worship a pervasive force, or spirit, of the universe or nature; in essence, their god is in everything, therefore everything is divine. Hinduism is one notable example, as are many tribal religions in places like Australia and North America. Many of these also have many idols that they worship, but their belief system describes them as parts of the same "divine force/being."

Well, I think three definitions are enough for one day. See you on Monday or Tuesday with another, more in-depth article for next week.