I recently read an article by Dr. Brent Slife, Tiffani Stevenson, and Dennis Wendt that discusses the difference between deism, weak theism, and strong theism (“Including God in Psychotherapy: Strong vs. Weak Theism” Journal of Psychology and Theology, 2010). I am fascinated by how few people I know are actually strong theists. In fact, by their definition, I am not always a strong theist (but I would like to be). Take a look, and find out where you fall on this spectrum.
Deism is the belief that God exists, and that he is the creator of the universe. What distinguishes deism from other worldviews is that deists believe that God is not presently active in the world, and that he can be discovered and known through reason and observation. According to deists, God created the material world and established that natural laws that govern the world. We can learn about God and his character by learning about the natural laws that he has established. We can discover these laws through empirical and rational investigation.
The value that deism has for scientists and Christians is that they can acknowledge the existence of God, but do not need to acknowledge his present activity in the natural world. According to Slife, Stevenson, and Wendt,
Deism is the notion that God created the world, along with its natural laws, but that God is no longer involved in the world (except perhaps in extraordinary instances), allowing its natural laws to operate autonomously. … Because God does not interfere in the world after its original creation, according to deism, the autonomous operation of natural, physical laws is not disrupted and science can proceed without considering God’s activity.
In other words, deists can pursue scientific knowledge without feeling like they need to understand God or seek revelation to do so. Deism leads to a methodological atheismâ€”God exists, but he isn’t relevant to the scientific method. In a deistic worldview, matter is inert and rigidly follows scientific laws. We can fully explicate the events of nature in terms of natural law. Of course, we require God to explain the origins of natural law, but we don’t require God to explain why rocks fall and creatures evolve. The latter can be explained fully in terms of inert matter conforming to mathematical regularities.
Many Latter-day Saints will reject the deistic worldview, and claim to believe in an active, present, relevant God. However, it is possible that many of us adopt what Slife, Stevenson, and Wendt call weak theism. They present several different ways in which we may inadvertently weaken our claims in a God who is relevant in our daily lives and research. We sometimes see God as an add-on assumption, rather than an altering assumption. What this means is that we see God as a useful and valuable assumption that is relevant in our studies, but this doesn’t necessarily alter the way we see the world in general.
Many of us probably operate under entirely different assumptions when we are at church or fulfilling priesthood responsibilities that we do when we are engaged in our profession. For example, I know that in church, I seek knowledge through prayer, the Spirit, and searching revealed scripture. I believe that revelation is the most reliable source of knowledge, and that God is the revealer of all truth.
As a scientist studying psychology, my assumptions change. I suddenly believe that all truth claims should be scrutinized through double-blind controlled scientific studies. I believe that empirical observation is the most reliable source of knowledge. Although I may include prayer in the process, I do so to ask God’s help in my empirical pursuits. I don’t see revelation as a reliable source of information.
This is an example of weak theism, because I believe that God is active in our daily lives, but I also suspend some of the assumptions I make in my spiritual life when I do science. I think most of us do this. We compartmentalize God, and claim that he is relevant in our spiritual lives, but not as relevant in our studies of the natural world (or human behavior). Our studies of the natural world still look relatively deistic, because we still look for regularities and natural laws that can account for events, and we still assume that events in the natural world are somewhat autonomous (God isn’t immediately involved).
Many believe that God is involved in the natural world, but that he involves himself through natural laws and natural means. In other words, if a very ill person takes medicine, prays, and then is healed, a weak theist might claim that God answered the ill person’s prayer through the medicine that healed him. The healing itself can be explained entirely in terms of natural law and biology. God’s involvement was in providing the scientific knowledge and lead to the creation of the medicine.
In other words, the world is still assumed to act autonomously, as the result of rigid, natural laws. God is relevant in our lives, but his involvement is peripheral. In fact, weak theists might believe that the medicine is a gift from an active God, but not because God directly inspired the scientists who discovered it. Rather, he was involved in a subtle, almost imperceptible way in the life of the scientists, inspiring them to become scientists in the first place. In other words, God isn’t directly involved in our daily affairs. His involvement is subtle, imperceptible, and our prayers are answered in peripheral ways.
Many believe that God is active and present in our daily lives, and in the natural world, but don’t necessarily maintain this assumption at all times or in all of their theories. In this perspective, it is simply a matter of consistency. An inconsistent theist might say that someone’s healing is a direct result of God’s intervention in the natural world, and that God is relevant in understanding all events in the natural world, and then describe their own depression solely in terms of biochemical interactions in their brain.
A strong theist would view God as an altering assumption. What this means is that the reality of God and his involvement in the natural world alters the way he approaches and sees everything. A strong theist would believe that if God is relevant in our studies of the natural world, our methodology would be different than it is. The way we talk about the natural world would change. The way we seek knowledge, in every arena of our lives, is qualitatively different. According to Slife, Stevenson, and Wendt, “The necessity of God is not an add-on assumption for the strong theist. It is an altering assumption, implying that its inclusion changes the meanings, sometimes dramatically, of even supposedly common assumptions such as order and truth.”
I believe that the strong theist lives in an enchanted world. Things cannot always be explained in terms of inert matter acting in accordance with natural law. In fact, from this perspective, scientific regularities are not immutable. There is flexibility in the way the world operates, and there is the possibility that the natural world may surprise us, and even violate the most fundamental laws.
I assume that most who read this article will fall within one of these categories. I am most often a compartmentalized or an inconsistent theist. I personally believe that strong theism is the worldview that the scriptures teach us to believe in, but I see that in practice, I often believe that the natural world can function autonomous of God’s involvement. I often believe that the scientific method can lead to truth, independent of revelation. Thus, I sometimes believe (in practice, if not in thought) that God is relevant in some ways, but not in all ways.
I am going to pray that God will help me see and discern where and how he is involved in the world. I hope that the end result will be a more enchanted view of the world. For some reason, strong theism brings with it a thrill, one which the belief in inert matter acting in accordance with scientific laws doesn’t quite mimic.