The Theistic Deity and Atheism Defined

Eric Steinhart here. I’ve been asked to clarify my terms, and it’s good to do so.  As a philosopher, I always try to use terms in their most precise and specific senses.

The Theistic Deity.  The theistic deity is a transcendental person who acts in the universe.   The theistic deity is a being (it is not beyond being); it is maximally perfect; its main perfections are that it is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing; as such it is a rational moral agent, and therefore it is a person; the theistic deity is transcendent in the sense that it exists apart from any universe it creates; the theistic deity is active in the sense that causally interacts with things in the universes that it creates.    (You can even find this as the specific sense of “theism” in the Wikipedia article.)

The Christian God is a specific type of theistic deity.  It is distinct from both the Judaic and Islamic versions of the theistic deity (which are for instance non-triune).

There are lots of concepts of the divine in the West that are non-theistic.  The Platonic Form of the Good is non-theistic; the Plotinian One is non-theistic; the deities of the Western mystical tradition are non-theistic; the deity of Spinoza is non-theistic; the deity of deism is non-theistic; the deities of pantheism and panentheism are non-theistic; the deity of Tillich is non-theistic.  And (as I’ll argue) the deity of Wicca is non-theistic.

Atheism.  I use “atheism” in its most precise and specific form: an atheist denies the existence of any theistic deity.

And I’ll note that these are very close to the definitions used in writers like Dawkins and Stenger.  Stenger distinguishes between the theistic deity (he refers to it as “God”) and non-theistic deities (he refers to them as “gods”).

Other posts in the series so far:

Atheism and Wicca

The Wiccan Deity

The Wiccan Deity: An Initial Philosophical Analysis

The Wiccan Deity: Related Concepts in Philosophy

On Atheistic Religion

Nine Theses on Wicca and Atheism

Atheistic Holidays

Criticizing Wicca: Energy

Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
ISIS’s Iconoclasm, The Bible, and The Problem With Taking Literalism Literally
The Collar That Choked Open Hearts
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Dalillama

    So why, then is someone who believes in/worships multiple deities a polytheist? By this rather peculiar definition of theism none of the gods which that person follows are theistic, and therefor belief in them wouldn’t be any type of theism, poly or otherwise. Indeed such a person would be, by that definition, an atheist, since they believed in no ‘theistic’ deity, but only in deities which are not maximally perfect, all-powerful, all-good, and/or all-knowing. I don’t think that a definition of theism that construes religious people who believe in gods to be atheists is a terribly useful one.

    • Robert B.

      I see what you mean, but even if the word is wonky it’s still a useful concept. In other words, even if we decide to reserve the word “theist” for something else, Eric is still referring to an important idea in religion – the idea of a maximally perfect transcendental being etc. etc. Do you have a better word for this idea? If there’s no better word handy, we might as well accept that he’s explaining his point in the best way available, even if we don’t want to use the word “theist” in this way in other conversations.

    • blainedelancey

      “the idea of a maximally perfect transcendental being etc. etc.”
      I the only good word I can think of for that concept is ‘meaningless.’ Descriptions of such an entity have the same semantic value as the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” More usefully, I’ve encountered the term ‘omnimax god’ elsewhere on FTB, which seems to me to be a good shorthand term for the concept.

    • blainedelancey

      and it changed my username, this is the same person as Dalillama above.

    • Robert B.

      “Omnimax god”? Cool. I’d use it.

      And even if the concept has no real referent, (i.e. there is no God), or even if such a thing would be logically impossible, it’s a very useful term because it allows us to discuss what many other people believe.

  • Robert B.

    Aha! Now your last post makes much more sense. I’d also like to see a definition of “deity” at some point, but I have enough to understand now what you mean about the Wiccan deity.

  • trisstock

    Atheism is a ‘denial’ of the existence of any theistic deity?

    Surely one must have a belief (whether or not this is a theistic belief) in the existence of such an agent, for its existence to be denied?

    “A denial (also called abnegation) is a defense mechanism postulated by Sigmund Freud, in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite what may be overwhelming evidence.” (From Wikipedia)

    I do not find the existence of a theistic deity uncomfortable, nor do I see any facts that I can deny or reject. I simply do not have the theistic belief/faith in the existence of such an agent.

    I have to admit to feeling somewhat of a fraud for pointing this out to a professional philosopher, but to this ‘pop’ philosopher, I feel you have made an egregious error of judgement.

    Perhaps if you could explain why you deny, as opposed to another descriptor for the existence of a theistic deity, I might begin to understand your definitions? As things stand, I am staring incredulous at my screen!

    • Camels With Hammers

      There are other, far less loaded, senses of denial besides the technical Freudian sense, you know.

    • trisstock

      Sorry to put you out, but perhaps a post on the definition of ‘denial’ would be in order.

    • Robert B.

      I don’t really think it needs a post. “Deny” here is being used in the simple sense of “disagree with” or “say ‘no’ to.” A denial that any theistic deity exists, therefore, just means saying that no theistic deity exists.

  • Camels With Hammers

    I use “atheism” in its most precise and specific form: an atheist denies the existence of any theistic deity.

    I would call an atheist anyone who merely lacks belief in all monotheistically and polytheistic gods, rather than require that an atheist meet the standard of outright denial. I deny there are any gods but some consider such denial too presumptuous and default to an agnostic atheism instead.

    • Eric Steinhart

      The root word “theism” has many, many, many meanings. I’ve said exactly how I’m using it, which is a pretty standard usage, at least in philosophy of religion (which distinguishes carefully between theistic and non-theistic deities).

      And it is interesting to note that the gods of older Western polytheisms like ancient Greek-Roman or Norse polytheism aren’t theistic in this philosophical sense. Look at Zeus — he’s just one of the many things in the universe. He didn’t create it and he himself is created (by his parents). He’s not transcendent or even supernatural – he’s part of nature as the Greeks understood it. He lives on a mountain top. He’s not all-powerful, all-good, or all-knowing. The same goes for the other gods and goddesses of trad Western polytheisms.

    • blainedelancey

      As I pointed out above, that’s rather my problem with this definition: it defines a follower of the Graeco-Roman gods (Or Shinto, Traditional Chinese religion, animism and many strains of Buddhism and neopaganism, to use examples that are still widely practiced) as an atheist, which they are clearly not, being a believer in multiple gods. If you start to include god worship of any sort into the rubric of atheism, it rather defeats the purpose of the word as a signifier for lack of belief in any god(s), be they omnimax or otherwise, and leaves us without a good word for that worldview.

    • trisstock

      Oops! Just seen this. Scratch my last post!

    • John Morales

      Guess that makes me an aDeistic, aTheistic, aAnimistic, iReligious grump.

    • John Morales

      I deny there are any gods but some consider such denial too presumptuous and default to an agnostic atheism instead.

      Well, yeah. Me too.

      Surely, that’s hoary old difference between claim to knowledge (certitude) and claim to belief?

      (Russell’s Teapot and all that)

    • Camels With Hammers

      Knowledge need not equal certitude at all. Contemporary epistemologists (wisely) do not hold all knowledge claims to that unnecessarily impossible standard.

    • John Morales

      Fair enough, and thanks. I have to concede that outside of mathematical or logical theorems, there can be no true certitude*. ;)

      So — instead of the poorly-chosen term ‘certitude’, make that ‘justified belief’ (as opposed to ‘speculative belief’).

      To clarify: given any proposition, when it is put to me I can say that I either believe it or not, but only for a subset of those can I say that I consider my belief is justified.

      * Thus the ‘agnostic’ part of ‘agnostic atheist’.

    • machintelligence

      And since Godel (sorry for the lack of the umlaut) proved that no axiomatic system can be both consistent and complete, even mathematics is not certain!

  • Russell

    An atheist denies the existence of any theistic deity.

    My stance is a bit different: I see no legitimate argument or evidence for any theistic deity. If such a god exists, it has chosen to keep us unaware of its existence. We don’t know whether such a god exists, and if such a god exists, we don’t know its particulars or which religion comes closest to describing it, even whether it is a lone god or one of many.

    • Ben Finney

      Yes, this.

      Eric, your “denies the existence of” defines out of existence most atheists I’ve ever spoken with. We don’t deny the existence of gods; rather, we are unconvinced by any claims that gods exist.

      The more parsimonious definition is the one given to you in many responses here: an atheist is one who does not have any belief that gods exist. Can your arguments continue on that basis instead, please?

    • Eric Steinhart

      @Ben – You’re talking about agnosticism, I’m talking about atheism.

    • Ben Finney

      Exactly the opposite. Agnosticism is about knowledge. Your “deny the existence of” is a statement about *belief*. Atheism does not entail the denial of anything, it is simply the absence of a particular class of beliefs.

      If you continue misunderstanding atheism this way, your reasoning just won’t be sound. Please consider what atheists are telling you about themselves.

  • Syeve Schuler


    Thanks for clarifying the meaning of the terminology you are using. I’m a bit surprised that this would provoke controversy, but should I be?