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What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By by Louis Cassels


Louis Cassels was for many years the religion editor of United Press International. His column "Religion in America" appeared in over four hundred newspapers during the mid-nineteenth century.

What’s the Difference was published in 1965 by Doubleday & Company, Inc. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 1: The Varieties of Faith


Everyone has a religion of some kind.

There are people who call themselves unbelievers or insist that they are "not religious." But this doesn’t mean that they have found a way to live without faith. It merely reveals that they have a very narrow definition of religion, such as "going to church" or "believing in God."

A much more realistic definition is offered by the Columbia Encyclopedia. "Religion," it says, "has to do with what is most vital in the feeling, belief and performance of every human being." In other words, your religion is the set of assumptions — conscious or unconscious — on which you base your day-to-day decisions and actions.

A person may try to sidestep the religious issue by saying, "I’m an agnostic . . . I just don’t know what to believe." But this dodge won’t work. As the great Protestant preacher Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick has pointed out, "you can avoid making up your mind, but you cannot avoid making up your life." Each day we are confronted with decisions, alternative courses of conduct, big choices and little choices. We may wish to suspend judgment on the ultimate meaning of human existence, but in actual fact we find ourselves compelled to act as if certain things were true and certain values more important than others. In every showdown, great or petty, we bet our lives on some hypothesis about God.

I say hypothesis to underscore the role that faith plays in all religious decisions, even those that are cynical or despairing. Religion need never be irrational, but religious convictions are always transrational, in the sense that they necessarily involve intuitions, instincts, emotions, and perceptions, as well as rational thought. We have fallen into the custom of reserving the word "faith" for religious beliefs that affirm the existence of a deity. But this is an inaccurate way of speaking. In reality, it is just as much an act of faith to assert that the universe just happens to be here as it is to say "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

Basically, there are three hypotheses about God. They are called atheism, pantheism, and theism.

The Beliefs of the Atheists

The atheist stakes all on the proposition that God is just a figment of the human imagination, a name invented by prescientific man to explain what he could not understand.

The chief articles of the atheist’s creed have been summarized by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. An atheist, he says, believes "that man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought or feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system.

A negative conviction, however strongly held, is of little help as a guide to daily living. A person who disbelieves in God is compelled to decide what he does believe in, or he will have no criteria by which to make the choices and decisions that crowd in on him daily.

Hedonism: Faith in Pleasure

Many atheists find their positive affirmations in the attitude toward life called hedonism. The name comes from the Greek word for pleasure, and its intellectual ancestry traces back to the Greek philosophers, particularly Epicurus. The hedonist believes that enjoyment is the chief end of human existence. His creed is perfectly expressed in the ancient aphorism, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die." The modern version is, "Live it up while you can; you’re a long time dead."

Hedonists have never seen fit to organize a church, or otherwise institutionalize their faith. In fact, many of them find it expedient to pay lip service to other religious creeds and maintain nominal ties with churches that enjoy a high degree of prestige in the community. For this reason, it is difficult to estimate how many adherents this religion has in America at present. But the number is unquestionably very large. And it is growing quite rapidly. Hedonists do not operate any Sunday schools, nor do they hold revival meetings. But they nevertheless conduct one of the most widespread and effective religious education programs of any faith. Through movies, television, newspapers, magazines, and other mass media, they spread the hedonist gospel that there is no claim on human beings higher than the gratification of the senses, and that "happiness" is the only thing that matters.

Although hedonism has a powerful attraction for young people, it seems to have trouble holding onto its converts as they grow older. "No one gets bored faster than the person who feels that his only pleasure in life is to keep himself amused," one apostate hedonist explained. Convinced that pleasure is the greatest good, the hedonist finds himself compelled to go to ever greater pains to achieve it. Like a narcotics addict, he has to keep increasing the dose to get his kicks. It is a sober fact that quite a large number of hedonists end by committing suicide. Many others eventually turn to a more demanding — and more rewarding — kind of faith.

Humanism: Faith in Man

Hedonism is sometimes called the most self-centered of all religions. At the opposite pole is another atheistic religion, which attracts unselfish, generous-spirited men and women. It is called humanism.

One of its leading exponents, Sir Julian Huxley, defines a humanist as "someone who believes that Man is just as much a natural phenomenon as an animal or a plant; that his body, mind and soul were not supernaturally created, but are all products of evolution, and that he is not under the control or guidance of any supernatural being or beings, but has to rely on himself and his own powers."

Although he finds nothing else in the universe to worship, the humanist has great reverence for Man (spelled, characteristically, with a capital M). He believes that Man can invest his transitory existence with meaning and dignity by creating his own values and struggling gallantly toward them in a world that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile toward his hopes.

Authentic existence can be achieved, the humanist says, by pursuing two goals. One is self-development — the realization of one’s maximum potential as a human being. The other is social progress — the realization of civilization’s maximum potential as a favorable environment for human aspirations.

Humanism asserts that these goals can be attained, without any kind of divine help or intervention in human affairs, through science and education. If this "religion without revelation," as Huxley calls it, can be said to have dogmas, the most important are its faith in the power of science to free Man from all the limitations that beset him, and the power of education to imbue him with high ideals, pure motivations, and self-discipline.

Humanists are only a little better organized than hedonists. A few have banded together in the Ethical Culture Society and The American Humanist Association. Some have drifted into unitarian churches (see pp. 148ff.). But the vast majority are not affiliated with any specifically religious organization (even though they may be up to their ears in civic, political, and cultural groups).

Humanism is unquestionably a far more idealistic creed than hedonism. The question is whether it is too idealistic. A generation that has seen Man behave as he did during the Hitler era and World War II may have legitimate doubts as to his ability to save and perfect himself. Even the tools by which Man is expected to achieve his heaven-on-earth — science and education — are no longer held in quite the awe they inspired before their joint endeavors brought humanity under the shadow of the hydrogen bomb.

Communism: Faith in Materialism

The largest and best organized of the atheistic religions is Communism. Some readers may be astonished to find it listed as a religion. But many close observers of the Communist movement, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, have concluded that it can be understood only as a faith that demands the total allegiance of its adherents. In his authoritative study The Nature of Communism, Professor Robert V. Daniels says:

"The Communist Party is a sect, with beliefs, mission, priesthood and hierarchy. It is a church, in the very obvious sense that it is the institutionalization of belief. . . . Fervor, dogmatism, fanaticism, dedication, atonement and martyrdom can all be observed in the Communist movement.

"So far does the character of the Communist’s allegiance to the movement correspond to religious commitment that we can even observe the intensely emotional phenomenon of conversion when individuals are persuaded to embrace the Communist faith."

The principal dogma of Communist theology is "dialectic materialism." As expounded in the "sacred writings" of Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin, the dogma holds that the physical world of things which can be seen, felt, weighed, and measured is the only reality that exists. All talk about a spiritual dimension to human experience is nonsense.

Communist dogma goes on to state that economic forces — not human aspirations for freedom, nor other political ideals — are the real shapers of history. In particular, the determining factor in the evolution of society is the class struggle — the inevitable conflict between the exploiters and the exploited, the capitalists who own the tools of production and the workers who use them.

It is an article of faith with every devout Communist that the working out of the class struggle will eventually bring the Communist Party to power in every part of the world. When that red millennium comes to pass, time class struggle will cease, the Communist state will surrender the dictatorial powers it has had to assume during the struggle, and everyone will live happily ever after.

Lenin declared in one of his tracts that Communism must always be "militantly atheistic." "All modern religions are instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to drug the working class," he said.

The Communist Party has been in power in Russia for nearly half a century, and throughout this time it has followed, with varying degrees of zeal, Lenin’s prescription of "resolute hostility" toward all rival religions. Periods of harsh and open persecution have alternated with periods of relative tolerance, but always the power of the state has been employed in whatever fashion seemed most opportune to undermine faith in God.

Although Soviet Russia clearly has some first-class brains in its service — its space program is sufficient testimony to their existence — they evidently have not been utilized in formulating the government’s program of atheistic propaganda. Some of the arguments used by the Russian Communists in recent years to "disprove" the existence of God recall the late C. K. Chesterton’s wry remark that he owed his conversion to Christianity to atheists, whose flimsy logic "aroused in my mind the first wild doubts of doubt."

For example, the official Soviet propaganda apparatus has made a very big thing; of the statement by cosmonaut Gherman S. Titov that he looked all around for God while orbiting the earth in his spacecraft, and — "I didn’t find anyone out there."

The straight-faced emphasis given by Moscow Radio to Titov’s "discovery" suggests that there must be high-ups in the Communist Party who really believe that if God existed he would be readily visible to any space pilot

This childish type of atheism is evidently not too appealing to the Russian people, who have been bombarded with it for decades through their schools, newspapers, and broadcasting stations. Leonid Ilyichev, head of the Communist Party’s ideological commission, acknowledged in 1964 that there was a great need for more effective preaching of the atheist message. "The number of people practicing religious rites continues to be relatively high," he said.

Of still greater significance, perhaps, is the report of Harrison Salisbury, veteran New York Times correspondent who knows modern Russia as well as any Westerner, that "some of the most brilliant Soviet scientists" are quietly revolting against the purely materialistic concept of the universe laid down in Communist dogma.

"These men have not become believers in a formal religion or dogma," Salisbury says. "But they are no longer atheists. They believe that there must exist in the universe a force or power that is superior to any possessed by man."

The Varieties of Pantheism

Let’s pause for a brief summary: We said there are three basic hypotheses about God — atheism, pantheism, theism. We first took a look at atheism — the "no God" hypothesis — and found three principal varieties currently competing in the idea market. Now let’s examine the second basic hypothesis about God — pantheism.

Pantheism’s distinctive belief is summed up in its name, which is a compound of the Greek words pan (all) and theos (God). To the pantheist, "God is all and all is God." In other words, he identifies God with the universe and the universe with God.

To some pantheists, God is the all-important part of the God-universe equation. They speak of the visible, temporal world as being merely "an idea in the mind of God." Others approach from the opposite direction. They speak of God as if the word were merely a synonym for nature.

In either case, the pantheist is convinced of the "oneness" of all things, and his concept of God is "the Whole that gathers up in itself all that exists." He may use the traditional word for convenience, but for him "God" is not a proper name. It is an abstract noun, meaning "underlying principle of unity," and it has no connotations of personhood. Pantheists do not believe in a God who exists apart from the natural universe as a separate, transcendent Being.

The pantheistic concept of a divinity dwelling within and indistinguishable from nature is vividly expressed in a passage from Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey:

". . . a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thoughts,
And rolls through all things."

Like atheism, pantheism is an over-all term that embraces a wide variety of specific beliefs, ranging from the most primitive kind of superstition to highly sophisticated philosophical concepts.

Primitive Animism

The primitive version of pantheism is called animism. Animists believe that various objects, such as stones, trees, mountains, or the sun — objects we would call inanimate — are actually suffused with supernatural spirits who must be propitiated and cajoled. The ancestor worship of Japanese Shintoism and the spiritism of South American Indians are very closely related to animism since they entail the same idea; that is, of a natural world overrun by invisible spirits.

Although Westerners tend to think of animism as a form of belief that went out with Stone-Age man, it remains today one of the world’s major religions, in terms of numbers, with more than 100 million followers in Africa, Asia, Polynesia, and South America.

Classic and Modern Polytheism

Polytheism is another variety of pantheistic religion that is still strong. Polytheists believe in many different gods. The mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome are classic examples of polytheism. Both acknowledged one chief deity — the Greeks called him Zeus; the Romans, Jupiter. But his control over the universe was regarded as quite limited; other gods and goddesses were free to do pretty much as they pleased in the particular realms of nature or human activity over which they held jurisdiction. Thus, in the Roman pantheon, Mars had charge of war, Apollo took care of the sun, Neptune ruled the ocean, Ceres had the last word in agriculture, Diana in hunting, and Venus in love. Altogether, the Greeks and Romans recognized about thirty thousand gods.

In the modern world, we encounter polytheism mainly in the Oriental religions. Later we shall devote a whole chapter to these ancient faiths, which have more than 700 million adherents in Asia. But it is pertinent here to note that Hinduism is based on a pantheistic view of the universe and that in popular practice it is extremely polytheistic. By one reckoning, Hinduism has about 3 million gods — a hundred times as many as the ancient Greeks and Romans! Buddhism, an offshoot of Hinduism, is not so easily categorized. Some versions of Buddhism — those that have remained closest to the spirit of its founder, Gautama Buddha — are really more atheistic than pantheistic. But there are other types of Buddhism — the ones with the largest followings in Asia today — that have degenerated into polytheistic idol worship.

Far removed from either animism or polytheism is the pantheism of poets and philosophers, which is reflected in the lines of Wordsworth quoted above. The sages of India were the first to develop the idea that individual existence is merely an illusion, and that all persons and things are simply waves on an infinite sea of being. Their concept of all-embracing unity is spelled out in the Upanishads, the Vedas, and other sacred writings that date back thousands of years.

Spinoza. Emerson, and the Bishop of Woolwich

There is also a long and respectable pantheistic tradition in Western philosophy, beginning with the Greek Stoics and Neoplatonists.

Perhaps the greatest Western exponent of pantheism was the eighteenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza held that "all existence is embraced in one substance — God," and that the world of nature is "but a manifestation of God" — in fact, is God. Spinoza traced this hypothesis to its logical conclusions, pointing out that it left no room whatever for any ideas about chance, free will, or the immortality of individual souls. On the other hand, he noted, it provided a perfect answer for the seemingly insoluble problem of why a good God should permit evil in his creation. Evil, said Spinoza, exists only from the viewpoint of a finite creature who has the "illusion" of separate existence. It does not exist when seen as part of the seamless whole of infinite, eternal reality.

In the nineteenth century, America produced a distinguished pantheist in Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s attachment to Hindu concepts of "oneness" is reflected in all his writings, most notably in a poem entitled Brahma which includes the familiar lines:

"They reckon ill who leave me out,
I am the doubter — and the doubt."

Coming down to our own century, pantheistic ideas are reflected in the work of Edward Caird, R. J. Campbell, and other members of the British-American school of philosophy known as "absolute idealism." Some readers detect more than a whiff of pantheism in the writings of the famed American theologian Paul Tillich, who insists that God must not be thought of as "a Being" but rather as "the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being" And at least one of Tillich’s would-be interpreters, Dr. John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, England, got himself so deeply entangled in pantheism in his controversial book Honest to God that he found it necessary to tack on a final chapter in which he declared, more vigorously than convincingly, that he was not either a pantheist.

The Faith in One God

Theism (or, as some prefer to say, monotheism) is professed by about 1.5 billion people — half of the world’s population. This concept of God is shared by Christians, Jews, and Moslems.

Theists are united in several affirmations about the nature of God. One is expressed succinctly in the Shema Yisrael, which Jews recite at every religious service and, if possible, at the hour of death: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." It is echoed in the creed that every devout Moslem repeats five times a day: "There is no God but Allah." To a person who has grown up in a Christian culture, the assertion that there is only one God may sound trite and obvious. But both Judaism and Islam — the correct name for the Moslems’ religion — grew up in the midst of polytheistic cultures. When the Jews and Moslems declared that there was one God, and one only, they were making a radical contradiction of what most of the people around them had always believed.

A second basic belief that is common to all theists is that God is both immanent and transcendent. To describe God as immanent is to say, with the pantheists, that He dwells within nature and particularly within the hearts and minds of men. To call Him transcendent is to say, in direct opposition to pantheism, that He is also beyond and above, utterly independent of the material universe which He has called into being, and "wholly other" than any created thing.

Theists also agree in ascribing to God the attributes of personhood. This does not mean taking an anthropomorphic view of God as a grandfatherly Being who exists somewhere "out there" in space. On the contrary, theistic scholars are the first to insist that God cannot properly be conceived a particular thing, not even as "the highest person" or "the Supreme Being." Theism’s God is infinitely more than a person or a being. He is the Source of all personhood, existence, and reality, totally beyond the powers of man to comprehend or describe.

Since God transcends any of the categories of human intelligence into which we may try to fit Him, the only question is whether we do less injustice to His majesty by referring to Him in personal pronouns, or by using impersonal abstract nouns, such as "Ground of Being" and "First Cause."

Pantheists have a strong preference for use of abstractions. So do some other people who have never studied pantheistic doctrines, but who have the feeling that a polysyllabic phrase sounds much more scientific and intellectual than a simple name like "God."

The Personal God

Theists speak of God in categories appropriate to personhood for two reasons. First, they believe that personality — thinking, willing, purposeful personality — is by far the highest form of existence that we have encountered in this complex universe. Therefore, it is the least inadequate frame of reference in which to speak of, or to, God. The second reason is more basic and more empirical. In their experience of God, Christians, Jews, and Moslems have been certain that they were dealing, not with an It, but with a Thou.

And that brings us to the fourth fundamental conviction of the theistic religions. God desires to enter into a personal, I-Thou relationship with His human creatures. He loves them ("as tenderly as a mother bird loves her young," say the Moslem scriptures, the Koran) and He takes the initiative in revealing Himself to them.

The concept of a self-revealing God is one of the great practical, as well as theoretical, points of difference between pantheists and theists. The pantheist feels that it is up to him to gain such knowledge of God, or — to use a term more congenial to him — Ultimate Reality, as he can. He tends to be eclectic in his quest for wisdom, borrowing one idea from the Bible and another from the Bhagavad-Gita. But Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are "religions of revelation." They place their faith not in any human speculation about what God ought to be like, but in what they believe He has revealed about Himself. So they naturally accord great importance to the particular sacred writings, or scriptures, in which they believe God’s self-revelation is authentically recorded. Islamic scholars refer to Moslems, Jews, and Christians as "people of the Book," and the phrase aptly depicts one of the most profound bonds among the theistic religions.

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