We noted earlier that a key element in religion is sacredness. We further noted that what is sacred can be a lot of things. It can be a spiritual being, a rock, a place, or a scroll. One way to understand this is to distinguish between the inherently sacred (those that are sacred by themselves) and the derivatively sacred (those that are sacred by association with other sacred things, usually the inherently sacred). The inherently sacred is described in different ways, one of which is its being the divine absolute, the source (or sources if the divine absolute is thought to be more than one) of all positive values. In religion, humans achieve ultimate happiness through their unity with the primary source or sources of all positive values. Thus to achieve that unity is the very goal of religious spirituality. The divine absolutes, however, take various forms in different religions. And so to have a deeper understanding of the different religions, we need to have an overview of the various forms that divine absolutes may take.
God-centered and Nongod-Centered Forms of Sacredness
In most religions, the divine absolute usually takes the form of a God or gods. We shall refer to this form of the divine absolute as god-centered sacredness. There are, however, some religions where the divine absolute does not take the form of a God or gods. Instead, sacredness is centered on either the soul, certain principles, or the teachings of a revered teacher, among others. And we shall refer to this form of the divine absolute simply as nongod-centered sacredness. God-centered sacredness, however, takes different forms depending on the following considerations: (a) reality, that is, whether there really is a God or gods; (b) quantity, that is, whether there is just one God or there are many gods; and (c) relation with nature, that is, whether God or the gods exist outside or within the natural world.
Views on the Existence of God/s
With regard to the reality of God or gods, there are three basic views or positions. First is theism, which asserts the reality of God or gods. Consequently, theism subscribes to god-centered sacredness. Second is atheism, which rejects the reality of God or gods. Consequently, atheism does not subscribe to god-centered sacredness. It may either subscribe to a non-god-centered type of sacredness or altogether reject any form of sacredness. Sometimes an atheistic belief system, while categorically rejecting belief in God (or the necessity of this belief), would attribute god like qualities to certain personalities. Third is agnosticism, which claims that there is no certainty whether or not God or gods exist. Agnosticism is thus opposed to the certainty assumed in the positions of theism and atheism— theism assumes certainty with regard to the existence of God or gods, while atheism assumes certainty with regard to the nonexistence of God or gods. And fourth is nontheism, which simply makes no position about the existence of God or gods. The best way to describe the view of nontheism is its attitude of indifference to the very question of the existence of a divine being.
Views on the Number of God/ s
With regard to whether there is just one God or there are many gods, the opposing views are called monotheism, the belief that there is only one God, and polytheism, the belief that there are many gods. How many gods does a polytheistic religion believe in? There can be thousands or millions of them.There usually is hierarchy of gods in a polytheistic religion. Sometimes there is one supreme god among the gods. Sometimes there is a set of supreme gods, often numbering in three (a trinity). Sometimes there is one highest god and then next to him is a set of supreme gods (again usually a trinity), and below them are the rest of the gods. The gods can be abstract entities (entities with super powers but which cannot be identified with anything in this world). They can also represent forces of nature (including biological ones such as fertility) or ideal values or traits (such as wisdom, compassion, and mercy), or they can be historical figures (including emperors, venerable teachers, and ancestors) who have somehow achieved immortality.
Polytheism takes the form of henotheism when it serves and worships a single god while recognizing the existence of other gods that can equally be served and worshipped. It can also take the form of kathenotheism when it worships a single god at a time, or when it worships different gods at different times, depending on the person’s needs and/or which god becomes supreme over another at a certain time. As henotheism is a specific form of polytheism, kathenotheism is a specific form of henotheism.
Views on God’s/Gods’ Relation with Nature
Lastly, with regard to the relation of God or gods with the natural world, there are three basic views. First is traditional theism, which views God or gods as transcendent beings as they exist outside the natural world. Second is pantheism, which views God or gods as immanent beings as they exist within the natural world. Pantheism further claims that God or gods have no identity outside the natural world, or that the natural world is God Himself or the gods themselves. A person who says “I am God” or that “Everything is God” is usually a pantheist; and what the person means by his/her utterance is that since everything that exists is part of God (for God is nothing but the totality of everything that exists), everything bears the qualities of God, and thus, in a certain sense, is God. Third is panentheism, which sees God or gods as both transcendent and immanent. Meaning, while God or gods exist within the natural world, their identity is independent of the natural world. While God or gods are not the totality of everything that exists, they are nonetheless present in everything that exists.