by Cliff Walker
(This entire section is slated for revision.)
2. What Is Theism?
If atheism is, at minimum, the lack of a god belief and, more properly, the rejection of theism, we need to agree upon a definition for theism.
Theism is the belief that a god (or many gods) exists. Beyond this (like atheists), two particular theists may not have anything else in common. However, agreeing on a basic definition for theism for two reasons is best for two reasons.
First, people often misuse the word god. Many people use the word god to describe something that they best describe with other terminology. This dodge introduces confusion into the discussion. One example is using the word god to refer to anything that someone reveres; guitarist Eric Clapton, for example, was once called "God" in graffiti throughout London. A possible goal for doing this may be that if we can make the word god mean a number of different things, then more people will agree that "a god" exists. But such people are not all talking about the same thing when they say the word god.
Secondly, some theists say they believe in something they call "God," but upon examination we cannot distinguish their beliefs from atheism. The only difference between atheism and some forms of theism is the theists' use of the word god.
We will try to be fair in describing the most common attributes of the gods of theism. Also, we will explain why some definitions for the word god are not valid for a discussion of atheism.
When we mention a god (or gods), we refer to a being who is (said to be) supernatural or transcendent. That is (as some say), that a being exists who is somehow "above" or "beyond" the natural, knowable universe. This necessarily would include any being who created the universe and still exists today. If a god created the universe, that god is not part of the universe.
Atheists reject the idea of such a being, or simply lack the belief that such a being exists.
Some people believe in superior beings who are not supernatural, but part of the universe. Calling such beings gods is improper because we cannot distinguish them from the Benevolent Space Brothers that pop groups sang about in the 1970s.  Most atheists do not reject the possibility of Benevolent Space Brothers (though most are skeptical of the reports of alien encounters and abductions).
Trying to equate Benevolent Space Brothers with gods injects confusion into any discussion of atheism. A common motive for using this definition for gods is to place atheists squarely within the camp of theism. Atheists reject theism, that is, they reject the notion of supernatural entities. Belief in the possibility of a superior race of aliens is not theism.
Alcoholics Anonymous uses similar language as a bait-and-switch con game to gain the confidence of impaired, desperate people who suffer from alcohol addiction. Step Two of AA states: "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." This, they tell us, can mean any Power (though they capitalize the word). Some suggest a doorknob, a light bulb or a 1968 Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This ruse starts to break down in Step Three, which mentions "God as we understand Him" (note uppercase "G" and "H"). AA's position falls apart completely when you substitute something else for the word God in Step Six: "Became entirely ready to have [a Harley] remove all our defects of character."
As mentioned above, Stepism denies that it is religious, insisting, instead that it is "spiritual -- not religious."  This distinction means nothing to atheists. "This dance with semantics implies that religion is stuffy, hierarchical, or phony, whereas spirituality is spontaneous, personal, honest, and genuine. The Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary does not support these shades of meaning." 
Nevertheless, several United States court cases have ruled that Alcoholics Anonymous fits well within the legal definition of religious, according to the Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights. 
Many people are pantheists, that is, they say the universe itself is a god. They object to thinking of a god as transcendent, that is, distinct from the universe. While pantheism sees Nature as the ultimate context for human existence, pantheists do not necessarily think of the god as a person, or person-like (anthropomorphic).
This is one way to have the best of both worlds, so to speak: pantheists enjoy one advantage of theism in that they can avoid the tag atheist. Unlike traditional theists, though, they needn't grapple with the physical and logical impossibilities inherent in the supernatural models.
Many atheists think the pantheists' use of the word god is, in a sense, dishonest. A likely response to pantheism is to ask, "Why bother using the word god at all? Why not just say, 'the universe' and be done with it?" As Schopenhauer put it, "To call the world 'God' is not to explain it; it is only to enrich our language with a superfluous synonym for the word 'world'."  Martin Gardner said, "I regard Spinoza as essentially an atheist, because to him God and Nature were synonyms. In his writings you could replace the term "God" with the term "Nature" and it doesn't change anything." 
One absurdity of pantheism shows itself when we ask if calling part of the universe god is okay, or must we mean the entire universe when we say God?  Is the State of New Jersey god? What happens when we extend the meaning to cover the whole of North America? Can we further expand the meaning to mean the planet Earth, or the Milky Way galaxy? How does this differ from calling the universe a god?
For the most part, if we understand what is meant by "God" (and remove any New Age elements that may exist), we can barely distinguish pantheism from atheism. Atheists generally have the same respect for the planet that any human (or animal) would have for its home -- its source of life. All organism have a built-in drive to stay alive; in humans, this generally spills over to an innate respect for the life-giving environment. Thus, contrary to the claims of some pantheists, an additional "reverence" for the planet (or the universe) is not needed.
Universalism,  as some practice it, contains elements of pantheism in that the god of Universalism is not necessarily personal. Members of the Unitarian/Universalist Church are free to choose or develop whatever idea of theism makes sense to the individual -- or to reject theism altogether.
A personal God is one with whom someone feels a one-to-one relationship, a deity who cares specifically for that individual and to whom that person can appeal directly. Few Universalists would characterize God in such personal terms. Most do not believe in a supernatural, supreme being who can directly intervene in and alter human life or the mechanism of the natural world. Many believe in a spirit of life or a power within themselves, which some choose to call God.
Universalists do not believe spirits of the disembodied variety. However, most agree that a "spiritual dimension" connects to the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological aspects of life. Very few Universalists believe in a continuing, individualized existence after physical death, and even fewer believe in heaven or hell. Rather, most believe immortality manifests itself in the lives of those we affect during our lifetime and in the legacy we leave when we die.
Except the language regarding God and a spiritual dimension, distinguishing Universalists from atheists is difficult.
Deism is the idea that a god created the universe -- started the ball rolling, so to speak, or wound up the mechanism -- but has left no revelation that we can translate or transcribe. Deists say it's an affront to its god to accept a so-called revelation (the Upanishads; the Bible; the Koran). Instead, deism points to nature and science as the only "revelation" that the god has given us.
Deism differs from pantheism in that its god is usually personal (is a person) whereas pantheism rejects the notion of a personal or anthropomorphic god. Deism also sees its god as separate from the universe; in pantheism the universe itself is God. The deistic notion that one can offend a god has caused a few others to think of deism as benevolently dogmatic.
Justification for deism rests almost entirely on the Argument from Design: The universe, and most particularly life (they tell us), is so complex that it must be the product of a creative process or act. We will discuss the teleological argument, as theologians call it, later.
The basic objection to the design argument is simple. The universe is so complex, they tell us, that we need to explain its existence with a creator. Such a creator, then, would be that much more complex and would even more require an explanation for its existence. In other words, if the existence of the universe is unlikely, then the existence of the universe plus a god is even less likely than that. 
Even if we grant the notion of design, it does not follow that a particular creator exists, or that there is only one creator. The idea of design says nothing about whether the creator still exists today, or whether anybody can know the creator.
The most important philosophical objection to the argument from design is the idea that we cannot speak of creation until we can detect and identify a creator. To posit creation first (evidenced upon complexity and unlikelihood) is to jump the gun, so to speak. (This logical fallacy is called Begging the Question. ) This is the strongest refutation of William Paley's Watch-in-the-Desert analogy. If we find a watch in the desert, we can know it had a creator. We do not determine this because the watch is very intricate; we know it was created because we can go to Switzerland and identify its creator.
Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and other religions base their understanding not on human reason but on Scripture. Scripture is the alleged revealed word of the god in question, presented via a prophet. While each revealed religion once held its Scripture to be flawless (fundamentalism), modern variations contain sects which hold the Scripture or revelation up to human scrutiny.
The fundamentalist varieties of these religions claim that their particular revelation is flawless; therefore, the fundamentalist religions are easiest to dismiss as untrue. All one need do, is to discover a single error in the Scripture and the foundation of fundamentalism crumbles away.
In Christianity, two defenses of fundamentalism have thrived: Roman Catholicism and Wesleyanism. Roman Catholicism depends on its leadership, particularly the Pope, to interpret difficulties. In the early years of Protestantism, the Roman Catholic Inquisition executed people who published the Bible and made it available to the people. Opponents suggest this move was to protect biblical flaws from public discovery.
John Wesley popularized an approach to the Bible that is, philosophically, not far removed from that of Catholicism in that it allows for reinterpretation of the Scriptures. Wesley said that if a particular passage does not make sense, then God did not intend that passage for you. (They still claim divine inspiration for the Bible, though.) This left individuals and churches free to ignore the Bible's more barbaric statements, which humans naturally find hard to justify. What is left over is a more compassionate, more humanistic message in its place. Some opponents call this a "warm and fuzzy" Gospel. Wesleyanism also opened the door to the process of "smoothing over" Bible difficulties, mostly its self-inconsistencies.
In his book The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine presented a most compelling objection to inspiration. Paine says, "admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it." 
Monotheism is the most popular form of religion in the West, covering Judaism, Christianity (the doctrine of the Trinity notwithstanding) and Islam.
Monotheism is the belief that there exists exactly one god. Polytheism speaks of many gods and goddesses, each with his or her special jurisdiction or function. Often, a god or goddess would oversee a particular tribe or nation and would either compete with or cooperate with the deities of other nations. Belief in a single creator superceded polytheism in Judaism, Christian, and Islamic cultures. The gods of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all once polytheistic tribal gods.
The gods and goddess of polytheism were not necessarily creators, and usually had weaknesses just like humans have. Theologians tell us the gods of monotheism are all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient) and sometimes all-merciful. The monotheistic god has no equals or superiors. If a monotheistic god has a desk, the sign on it says, "The Buck Stops Here." 
Western theologians almost universally regard monotheism as an improvement over polytheism.  This prompts atheists to ask, if belief in one god is an improvement over belief in many goddesses and gods, would belief in no gods be a further improvement over belief in one god? Nevertheless, monotheism's claims to superiority over polytheism are lacking in several ways.
First, monotheism's claims to being true are no more believable than those of polytheism. One can use every traditional argument used for the existence of one god, to argue for the existence of many gods or goddesses. No traditional theistic argument eliminates the notion that more than one god may have worked on the project.
Furthermore, how could we assert that the god who created this universe was not, himself, created by an even bigger god (as Gnosticism and Mormonism suggest)? If the universe needs a creator to explain its existence, then the creator, being that much more complex, needs to be explained. Otherwise, we are free to rest in the fact that the universe simply exists, period.
If we brush aside discussions of whether one or the other system is true, claims that the concept of monotheism is superior to that of polytheism don't hold water. We need merely glance at some history books to see that monotheistic religions almost always breed intolerance.
The god of the ancient Jews commanded them to eliminate all competitors, saying, "thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth."  Jesus the Merciful allegedly said, "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned."  Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, followed this command for centuries by burning heretics at the stake. As competing Christian sects, they decimated their own ranks; they also slaughtered Jews, Muslims, pagans, unbelievers, and the tribes native to the western hemisphere.
Islam's motto speaks for itself: "Slay the idolaters wherever you find them."  People generally convert to Islam only "in terror or in quest of power, or to avoid heavy taxation, or to escape humiliation, or if taken prisoner, or because of infatuation with a Muslim woman." 
Such is the story of monotheism. The insane drive to force everybody to conform to a single system is foreign to the philosophies of polytheism, and entirely absent from their histories. Almost every variant of monotheism, says former Muslim Ibn Warraq, expresses "dogmatic certainty that it alone has access to the true God, that it alone has access to truth."  However, polytheism, as David Hume noted, "is only so much greater similarity to human affairs."  Lecky, discussing the early Christians' hatred of the circus and theater, remarks: "the austerity with which the Christians condemned them was probably one of the chief causes of the hatred and consequent persecution of which the early Church was the victim, and which contrasts so remarkably with the usually tolerant character of polytheism." 
The intellectual order that monotheism would bring is superficial at best. Superstition would not be reduced, but it would merely be focused upon the single god rather than upon many gods and goddesses. However, strict monotheism fails to provide for the great chasm that inherently exists between a human and a monotheistic god.
Zwi Werblowski wrote, "When polytheism is superceded by monotheism, the host of deities is either abolished (theoretically) or bedeviled (i.e., turned into demons), or downgraded to the rank of angels and ministering spirits."  The same can be said of the veneration of saints both in non-Protestant Christianity and Islam.
Furthermore, in many of the ancient myths, the heroes were once gods. Arthur Drews, in The Christ Myth, mentions that "Abraham (the 'great father') is, however, only another name for Israel, 'the mighty God.' This was the earliest designation of the God of the Hebrews, until it was displaced by the name Jahwe, being only employed henceforth as the name of the people belonging to him."  In other words, the great Patriarchs were once gods. Their exploits were later attributed to men, upon the advent of monotheism.
After the Christian party won control of Rome, says John William Draper, "Crowds of worldly persons, who cared nothing about its religious ideas, became its warmest supporters. Pagans at heart, their influence was soon manifested in the paganization of Christianity that forthwith ensued." 
When a religion gains political control, it always faces this danger of diluting its focus. Being in control, the diluted religion sets itself up as the final arbiter of truth. Then, the rest of us are required to support a religion that has been further debased from its original state. With religion in control of the State, everybody comes out a loser every time.
The goddesses and gods of polytheism were simple, more down-to-earth. Being more human-like (anthropomorphic), it was easier to relate to them. The monotheistic deities are simply too big, too vast, for many people to grasp.
A monotheistic god must be in charge of everything. This god must also be bigger than the universe itself -- "above" or "beyond" nature -- supernatural. He or She must somehow "transcend" the universe. Though many theists talk about their god's transcendence, atheists tend to question what this even means. What does it mean to be "above" or "beyond" nature? This makes no sense. As a concept, we cannot relate to it, because we have experience only with the natural world.
The theists who say they believe in such a deity probably don't know themselves what this means. They learn from childhood to repeat the creedal formula and then to claim they believe it. Is it possible to believe something that makes no sense? Does a proposition have to constitute genuine belief? Or are such theists only fooling themselves? Theodore M. Drange thinks so, and calls this phenomenon the mumbo-jumbo theory of some religious language.  When people say they believe something, but their statement of belief is pure nonsense, they don't actually believe it, but are speaking mumbo-jumbo.
As the monotheistic deity becomes more and more sophisticated, She or He becomes less and less accessible to the common people. Ultimately, the god becomes unfathomable. To theists, this merely adds to the deity's greatness. "God is so much higher than we are, that we could not hope to understand his ways with our finite minds." Such talk prompts atheists to suspect that the theists are making this stuff up.
Hindus point to a passage in the Upanishads that says that God is "Not this, not this -- beyond all that is cognizable" and "From which, along with the mind, words turn back."  One would think that there is very little literature about such a god, but that is not the case. Rather than stopping at "I feel the presence of something and I choose to call it 'God,'" theologians proceed to write volume after volume of material describing all they know about what they ultimately admit is unknowable and indescribable.