[TL;DR at the bottom]
Theism: belief in the existence of a god or gods.
Atheism: a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods.
Syntheism: [the belief] that the proper approach to the concept of God is that humanity has created, creates, or will eventually create God.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syntheism (as of 2020)
Syntheism is not a real word yet; we know this because there’s only a Wikipedia article on it, Merriam-Webster knows nothing about it, and my word processor doesn’t understand me. The red squiggly line plagues my writing. Since it’s not a real word yet, I’m going to take liberties with its definition.
A more specific definition of syntheism: belief that a god or gods are man-made.
The etymology of the word uses syn- to mean with, or together, and -theos for god. Valid interpretations of the word can be “with god,” “composite god,” “make god,” etc. The word emphasizes the pieces that compose a god. This foundational definition allows for a wider variety of worldviews that could be dramatically different than my own. It is partly for this reason that I have decided to define specific beliefs I call “Terranism” rather than just call myself a syntheist.
Understanding how a god is made is crucial to a syntheist worldview. What does a god consist of? If a syntheist believes that a god is man-made, what are the pieces humans use to make this god? More naturalistic beliefs would assert that gods consist of ideas, are emergent properties of a group, or a technological singularity. Those who hold supernatural beliefs might see the gods as consisting of a magical aether that is shaped by the people who believe in it. I don’t know of anyone who holds that belief but it’s fun to think about.
A temporal quality is also important since a created entity definitely has a beginning and may have an end. These beliefs can be strictly in the present or can explore other temporal spaces. Beliefs about the god-like qualities of a Singularity (a super-intelligent AI that will come into existence sometime in the future) have syntheistic qualities but place belief in a prophetic depiction of the future; humanity will create a god. Inversely, a syntheist may believe that gods were something of the past but which are no longer around; humanity has created gods. These beliefs are not exclusive, they may co-exist with each other.
There is no restriction that a syntheist for one god cannot also be a theist for another god. Many mainstream religious people likely fall under this description concerning ancient gods. For gods like Thor and Zeus, a mainstream Christian might assert that those gods were inventions of human imagination; qualifying their belief as syntheist. Interestingly, the same mainstream Christian would likely be an atheist towards other current religious gods, like the Allah of Islam or the Shiva of Hinduism. About Greek mythology, they might say “The Greek gods are an interesting part of that ancient culture’s mythology,” while for modern-day Hinduism they might say, “no, I don’t believe in Shiva.” The crucial distinction between these positions is that the Greek gods are not a present threat to their beliefs while the Hindu gods could be. A syntheist statement is likely to be rooted in empathy, while an atheist statement is likely to be rooted in disagreement.
This variety within the syntheist definition is partly why I feel the need to outline a specific doctrine for myself. If I tell someone I’m a syntheist, a significant amount of information is conveyed, but it is still vague. In the same way that if a person identified as a theist there would still be more questions to ask. Calling myself a Terran will be a more effective identity.
So then, what kind of syntheism serves as the foundation for Terranism? My syntheism is that I see gods as emergent entities that are a product of communal or individual belief. Gods are contingent upon their followers, but their power is greater than the sum of their followers. To look at believers is to see pieces of a whole, like neurons in a brain or organs in a body. A god can have a real, tangible impact on the world through its believers. In the same way, the mind can have a tangible impact on the world through the hands. I see gods as fundamentally human phenomena, but which take on a life of their own which no individual believer can control. As far as I understand, this phenomenon is supported by natural processes so I do not claim any supernatural belief.
There is a difference between believing in a literal entity that exists outside of yourself and believing in the relevance of that entity (however fictitious) in your life. You don’t have to believe in a god’s existence to understand how important that god is to yourself or others. Atheists understand this deeply. Atheists define themselves in a negative relationship to someone else’s god. They do not believe in a god’s existence, but yet they carry an identity which describes them in relation to a god; “I do not believe in your god, therefore I am an atheist.” Many theists also understand this about atheists, even though they may miss the point. I don’t know how many theists make the bad-faith argument: “why do you talk about God so much if you don’t believe in Him?” Of course, this says less about the god itself and more about the people in the atheist’s life, which is the point many theists miss. But even if that question is bad, it reveals the truth that gods are important even if you don’t believe in them.
As a syntheist, I’ve chosen to embrace this truth. If atheism defines itself negatively in relation to a god, syntheism defines itself positively in relation to a god. I do not claim that any god exists independent of me or humanity, but I do claim that any god can be real. The importance of a god on someone’s life cannot be understated, whether as a personal, shared, or outsider belief. Belief shapes the way people live and act, whether for good or bad, which makes gods so important. By identifying as syntheist I embrace this reality of a god filled world. Gods are true but not fact.
Kinds of Emergent Syntheism
This truth opens the door to new possibilities. To begin with, it allows a syntheist to follow a god while retaining their ability to think critically. A person immersed in a particular god-fearing culture may remain within it with the goal of contributing to it. Such a person may help to guide the community they’re a part of into more beneficial ideas and practices. The belief that their god is real would avoid cognitive dissonance; since a god is emergent from the community, belief by participation is a valid way to contribute to the power of their god and direct how that power is wielded.Therefore, phenomena like the “cultural Christian” may be restated as the “syntheist Christian,” consisting of people who are proud of their community and tradition while rejecting that their god exists beyond them.
Another possibility is that a syntheist creates their own gods. While not uniform, some neo-pagans engage in practices that have many syntheist qualities. They may search for a god that speaks to them personally, then build a personalized set of rituals that value the god. Since a syntheist’s ontology is founded in naturalism, the practice of creating a personal god ex nihilo is entirely acceptable. No god exists outside of humanity to challenge belief in anything a person may come up with. Therefore a syntheist may construct a god according to their needs or choose a dead god to resurrect.
An unsavory possibility is of a militant syntheist who destroys gods. Such a person would be trying to destroy the community which forms the god. For some, the belief that gods are emergent from humanity is destabilizing enough to make them reject their gods. A militant syntheist may push people to this realization in order to cause them to leave their faith. Such behavior appears immoral to me. But it must be noted for further clarity of syntheist beliefs: syntheists themselves would be largely immune to a militant syntheist’s tactics. To a syntheist, who already agrees that their god is fictitious, doubt would not be an issue to them and thus would not be useful leverage to a militant syntheist. For a syntheist, belief in a god is closely connected to their belief in a community; there isn’t much ontological vulnerability in their stance. To destroy a syntheist community, you would have to convince them that their god is not, in fact, fictitious.
The syntheist movement is very new. It is a new idea with few adopters at this point, but that’s what makes it exciting. I believe it holds the potential to move spiritual and religious beliefs forward. With a bit of work, it seems primed to be the foundation for a new wave of religious thought that is not antithetical to science and our modern understanding of the universe. My little Terranic project is exploring this new space, but I wonder if syntheism will become a standard for new religious movements across the globe. Already we see promising groups like The Satanic Temple, various neo-pagan groups, and Wiccan covens which espouse atheistic and syntheistic ideas even if they don’t directly promote them. Noden is an experimental group in Stockholm which is one of the few explicitly syntheist groups in the world. This idea is in the beta stage, being tested to see where its strengths and weaknesses are. There is a general criticism that syntheism lacks a central leader or doctrine, but those who say that are missing the point; syntheism is an identifier like atheism or theism, the explicit doctrine is up to the group or individual who holds that identifier. Terranism will be my attempt to define a syntheist doctrine for myself.
TL;DR – Syntheists believe that god or gods are man-made, and the Terranic interpretation is that gods are emergent of humans. Syntheism describes a fundamental belief rather than an explicit doctrine.