It's also because the words get in the way. I know, I've said that sort of thing in several different ways in previous blog postings. I tried to lay the groundwork for this entire ramble in many of them. I forgive you if you've forgotten them (I have!) or didn't get round to reading them.
When I was teaching Asian cultural history, or Comparative Religions, I sometimes got asked, right before I started to lecture on these things, 'What's your religion? Do you have one? Do you believe in God? Are you an atheist or agnostic?'
I didn't object at all to being questioned on such matters, especially in classes where religions play a huge role in understanding. But all those questions are full of assumptions. The most disconcerting one is that we think we are on common ground using terms like 'religion' and 'god', but we're usually not. Far from it.
So I used to say, 'Ask me that question again after we've had some discussions about what these terms mean. I'm happy to answer once we know what we understand by the words we're using.'
That sounds like weaselling out, but it's not. It's trying to avoid embedding a mistaken impression at the start.
Humans seem divided into three categories:
1. Believers in some form of deity
Note I used the word 'seem'. That's because I'm going to add another one:
Aren't non-theists the same as atheists?
No, but let's not go into that now. It's a very important category, and once understood, would save a lot of useless arguments and name-calling about who slot into the other three.
Looking at Category 1, there's a very wide range of worship, from animism and shamanism through to the highly institutionalised forms of religion we're used to.
Two familiar conceptions of godhead within Category 1 are these:
I could add a stack of other 'theisms' but I'll keep it as simple as possible, bearing in mind that keeping it simple can end up making it simplistic. If something's simplistic, then it's also confusing, at best. It may be partly or completely false at worst.
Polytheism is a belief in more than one god, perhaps many. Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God.
Clear? No. At least, far from as clear as it looks. Even using 'god' and 'God' makes a difference.
So here we get stuck again, because polytheistic worship may accept that the many gods are just manifestations of one ultimate Godhead, as in Hinduism; while in monotheism, there may be one God but manifested in separate forms, like the Trinity in Christianity.
So a) and b) may not be quite as different as it might seem. The devil is in the detail. Or in those deceptive, seductive, misleading things called words.
And... I want to add another -ism to a) and b) above.
I'll come back to it too.
To return to No 2 in the 1,2,3 above.
2. Atheists. Let's take them at their word. They don't believe in any form of God or afterlife. There's this world, and once you die, that's it. You, in any sense of that word, no longer exist.
3. Agnostics. They can't make up their mind, by a simplistic definition of the term. The answer to the God question is in the too-hard basket.
These 'definitions' are open to dispute, some of it fierce, most of it pointless. But, we may return to it where alternative definitions of those terms are relevant.
Some of the main world's religions just grew, like Topsy. Others had a distinct founder. But that's enough for now. Brain fuzz has set in.