You’ve probably run across some of those words in the title and know that they describe differing views about ‘god.’ But, if you’re like most of us, your understanding of them might be a little vague. Well, never fear, this Fish Hooks is going to ‘step up to the plate’ and make those three and a couple other ‘isms’ crystal clear for you! (Or at the very least, enrich your confusion!)
Perhaps the best place to start is with the ‘ism’ suffix itself, which is used as a tag to indicate a kind of ‘philosophy’ (e.g., capitalism and socialism are two competing economic philosophies), and in this Fish Hooks we are interested in different philosophies about the existence and nature of god(s). There are actually a very large number of ‘isms’ indicating general categories of religious belief (i.e., animism, pantheism, paganism, etc.) as well as the ‘isms’ we use for specific religions or denominations (Judaism, Catholicism, Lutheranism, etc.), but that huge menagerie of ‘isms’ isn’t our target here – instead we’re going to focus on the handful that reflect a basic attitude about the existence of god(s).
We’ll start with deism, which is the intellectual belief that there is some sort of deity that lies outside of ordinary human experience (deus is Latin for ‘god’). So deism could be a very broad term for every kind of belief in any kind of god(s). But in practice, it’s employed more specifically to designate a belief in a ‘supreme being’ who was responsible for the creation and ordering of the universe but isn’t otherwise involved. So though deists may speak respectfully of ‘God,’ it’s more of an abstract thing, and they don’t concern themselves with religion and worship since the deist’s deity really doesn’t care! (‘Christian deism’ is a term that’s been used to describe a deist who subscribes to the moral teachings of Jesus, but not His divinity. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were of that belief.)
Theism is again broadly defined as a belief in any kind of god(s) (theos is the Greek word for god) but it is most commonly used in contrast to Deism: whereas a deist believes in an impersonal god, a theist believes in a God who is personally involved with His Creation and with whom we engage in worship and prayer. Christianity, of course, falls into the theism category, but so also do most of the world’s major religions (Buddhism being a possible exception). However, our belief in a God who actually died for us makes us the ultimate theists! (How much more personally involved could God get?)
We note in passing that atheism (‘not-theism’) is conventionally understood as the denial that there is any kind of intelligent entity behind the universe (caring or otherwise), but some atheists do allow for the possibility that there is some kind of transcendent ‘life force’ at work in the universe – which makes them a kind of “tepid deist” (as one scoffing atheist put it). Hard-core atheism denies any basis for moral judgements, since there is no ultimate authority to set rules, and so in principle there’s no reason to not harm you if it helps me! However, most atheists recognize that ideas like that make others nervous, so many like to refer to themselves as ‘humanists’ – meaning that they consider the well-being of their own species as the ultimate good.
Agnosticism (‘don’t-know-ism’) is the position that we don’t possess enough information to say whether there is a God or not. Practically speaking, since agnostics don’t align with any kind of religious belief, they tend to operate like atheists with better manners (they won’t agree with your beliefs, but they won’t scoff at them either).
Which brings us, finally, to that last ‘ism’ in the title. Actually, ‘Meism’ isn’t a real thing, but a word we made up to characterize the popular contemporary philosophy that each person is entitled to freely make their own decisions about God. Now, each of us does indeed have the freedom to express a preference, but it’s a freedom fraught with consequences if we’re wrong. And that’s the reason that ‘It’s-all-about-ME-ism’ is such a lame but dangerous philosophy – if I claim the authority to decide which god is true, then I’m claiming to be above any god, and that makes me my own false god! The prudent man does not choose his own god but asks the True God to choose him — and that’s precisely what the God of the Bible does.
“[Jesus said] You did not choose me, but I chose you“ (John 15:16)