Time and again in conversation with atheists I find them insisting that theism is an essential component of religion. Indeed, it is not uncommon for them to conflate the two as if theism and religion were straight-up interchangeable.
They are wrong. Flatly wrong. Being a theist and being religious are two very different things and one can be either theistic without being religious or religious without being theistic. I’m going to make the point in two articles beginning in this article as I defend my first claim: being a theist is insufficient to make one religious.
To make my case, we will take a look at a fascinating moment in the journey of arguably the twentieth century’s greatest atheist: Bertrand Russell.
In this excerpt from his Autobiography, Russell discusses a period early in his academic career when he was under the sway of the Hegelian philosopher McTaggart. It was during that period that Russell had a brief but significant change of heart and mind:
“For two or three years, under his influence, I was a Hegelian. I remember the exact moment during my fourth year when I became one. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco, and was going back with it along Trinity Lane, when suddenly I threw it up in the air and exclaimed: ‘Great God in boots! – the ontological argument is sound!’” (p. 60)
To call an argument “sound” means two things: first, it is logically valid (i.e. the conclusion follows from the premises); second, the premises are true (and thus, the conclusion is as well). In other words, for this brief period, Russell became a theist and he did so by way of the ontological argument.
Here’s the important part: while Russell became a theist as he was walking along Trinity Lane, he did not thereby become religious. He did not join a community of likeminded belief and practice, he did not adopt any practices at all, he did not worship. He may have been a theist for that time, but his theism was wholly intellectual. In much the same manner that an argument might persuade a philosopher to believe in abstract propositions or sense data or snowdiscalls (yeah, the snowdiscall is seriously a thing of discussion among philosophers!), Russell had come to believe in God. But he didn’t thereby become religious.
And so, the conclusion: being a theist is insufficient for being religious. In the next article, I’ll explain how it also is not necessary.