There is a wide range of conceptions of God, and we need to explore some of the most commonly held beliefs. The category of divinity is one of five key themes that we will encounter in almost every religious tradition. In addition to divinity, the other four categories are scripture, ritual, good and evil, and soteriology (the doctrine of salvation or liberation).
The Topic of God
- People who believe in some kind of God or gods are called theists, after the word theos, the Greek for “god.” Those who believe that there is no God are atheists. Agnostics are those who do not know whether there is a God or not.
- Some scholars have argued that simply asking people whether or not they believe in God is not sufficient to really capture the attitudes people have toward the existence of a deity. Richard Dawkins came up with a seven-point scale to determine people’s beliefs with more precision. Try to locate where you are on the scale:
Absolute certainty in God’s existence.
High degree of confidence in God’s existence, but with some doubt.
Leaning toward belief in existence, but with less confidence.
Completely neutral—equal degree of probability that there is or is not a God.
Leaning toward rejection of the belief in God.
High degree of confidence that God does not exist, but with some doubt.
Absolute certainty in the nonexistence of God.
- Simply asking people the yes/no question, “Do you believe in God,” makes it seem like there are only 1s and 7s out there. However, a majority may fall in categories 2 through 6.
This is a transcript from the video series Cultural Literacy for Religion: Everything the Well-Educated Person Should Know. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
What Do People Believe about God?
- When we turn to conceptions of God, we find a number of categories that determine the nature of people’s beliefs.
- There are many varieties of polytheism. Normally, the gods are organized into pantheons, although this may be done in different ways. In some cases, each god occupies a different plane of existence or has a different function and does not interact with the others. In most cases, the gods do interact, often making alliances, fighting, marrying, or engaging in other activities that parallel those of the human realm.
- According to the latest statistics, over half of the world’s population believes in one God (approximately 55 percent—a very rough estimate); they are monotheists.
- Another belief system is pantheism, which is derived from the root “pan” or “all.” This is the belief that God is identical with the universe (or at least the natural universe) or that the natural world is itself divine.
- Finally, there are traditions, such as Zen Buddhism, that do not feature God, gods, or supernatural beings. Such traditions emphasize uncovering the spiritual possibilities within ourselves.
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Forms and Images of God
- When deities are understood to possess form, they are often seen as being quite similar to human beings. This is known as anthropomorphism, which means attributing human form and characteristics to the deities.
- Think about the various images of God that people have, beginning with God as a parent. One issue that arises with the parental metaphor involves gender. In traditional monotheism, God is frequently described as father. But if this language is metaphorical, and God does not really have a gender, then why not also refer to God as mother?
- Another common image is God as ruler, lord, or judge. These images emphasize God’s authority and God’s activity of dispensing justice. In some traditions, God can be portrayed as a child, or even a baby. Images of innocence, purity, and even playfulness can be seen in some traditions. On the other side of the spectrum, God can sometimes be seen as a destroyer, a being who is wrathful and bloodthirsty.
- In some traditions, gods are seen as having the forms of animals or of human-animal hybrids. In other cases, the natural elements themselves—the sun, stars, or fire—can themselves be seen as deities.
Learn more about new insights into the nature of divinity
The Topic of Scripture
- To determine which books a culture considers scripture, you have to watch the way that practitioners of a religion relate to certain books. People often chant scripture, recite it in community rituals, cover it with decorative adornment, memorize it, compose commentaries about it, write it in beautiful calligraphy, give lectures and sermons about it, and put it in a special location.
- In any given culture, how are sacred words to be understood? What do they mean? How do we interpret the texts, and who has the authority to judge the truth and validity of interpretations? This will be a central question that arises in every tradition.
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Ritual—Context and Categories
- When we think about our lives, we can see that they are structured in numerous ways by ritual activity, from our daily rituals to important rituals at certain moments in our lives to large-scale rituals carried out by a religious institution or the state. But what is a ritual, and how does it differ from a habit or a routine?
- In a religious context, rituals can be understood as the formalized movements and language that are given to us by our traditions and are carried out in contexts that are understood as sacred.
- Rituals can be divided into a number of categories. One type of ritual is the life-cycle ritual, often called rites of passage because they mark a transition from one state of being to the next. The major passages that are covered in almost all traditions are birth, coming of age, marriage, and death.
- Another category is nature-based rituals, and these are cyclic, seasonal celebrations. Such rituals connect human beings with the movements of the larger natural world, cultivating a sense of gratitude, awe, and reverence for nature (and, in some cases, the God or gods who create and sustain the natural world).
- This brings us to historically based rituals. These are rituals that commemorate important events in the history of a tradition.
- Rituals can infuse our ordinary lives with a sense of the sacred. Reflect on the ways that our shared meals are transformed through ritual from the biological act of eating to a cultural expression of togetherness. Think of how ritual guides the ways we express respect, gratitude, or remorse to each other, or helps us navigate the act of meeting a stranger.
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Good and Evil
- Religious traditions have to account for why there is suffering and evil in the world and offer a way to understand and cope with it. With all of the profound differences that exist among religious traditions, they all seem to share at least one thing: a belief that there is some basic order in the cosmos.
- Monotheistic traditions have a challenge in proving this. If God is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful), and omnibenevolent (all good), why is there evil in the world?
- The attempt to solve this problem is called theodicy, which comes from Greek and means “the justice of God.” Since God is all powerful, God must be able to end evil and suffering. Since God is all good, he must be willing to end it. So, what kind of theodicies are possible?
- One theodicy is based on free will, arguing that God created people with the freedom to choose good or evil, which means that some will choose evil and harm others.
- Other theodicies emphasize that we grow as people and become strong through suffering—that a full, meaningful life requires struggle and we cannot know joy without sorrow. Some call this the soul-making theodicy.
- Some theodicies advise us to simply accept that it is all a part of God’s plan and that everything will be made right in the end. This might mean that we receive rewards and punishment after each of us dies, so that any seeming injustice is rectified.
- Some theologians have come to understand God differently. Perhaps God is not omnipotent after all; perhaps God is not the kind of being who can directly intervene in human affairs. Maybe God only acts in cooperation with, or through, human beings, providing a source of power from whom human beings can derive strength.
- It is also important to note that traditions that are not theistic also have to come up with theodicies, and these also have their weaknesses. Many Asian traditions feature a belief in karma and rebirth, the law of cause and effect where our actions, good and bad, lead to good and bad results later in this life or in a future life. These systems can account for seemingly unjust suffering by seeing it as a result of past karma, perhaps from a previous life.
- Religious traditions are also concerned with the pursuit of the good. Ethical questions include: How should I live? What is good and bad, right and wrong?
- Many forms of ethics focus on the rightness or wrongness of actions, but ethical judgment can also focus on virtue ethics. In other words, instead of focusing on individual actions, you work to become a good person with guidance from the tradition, and then good actions will flow from your character.
- Virtually every religious tradition has an element of virtue ethics, and it is instructive to compare the virtues that are considered the most important in each tradition.
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- The term “soteriology” comes from the Greek word soter, which means “savior,” and means “doctrine of salvation” or “liberation.”
- Theologian John Hick puts it this way: Religions all provide a way to move beyond the initial state, which is often seen as some kind of self-centered state, one of dissatisfaction, to the final state, in which one experiences a profound connection to the ultimate reality and achieves the highest spiritual state.
- As we look at the different traditions, we will examine their diagnosis of what afflicts us, how it can be overcome, what the ultimate goal is, and how to achieve it.
Questions to Consider
- Where would you rate yourself on Richard Dawkins’ 1–7 scale of belief in God, and what are some of the reasons for your certainty and/or doubts?
- If you believe in a divine being or in some ultimate reality, do images come to mind when you think of it? If so, what kinds of images are they, and where do they come from? If not, what comes to mind when you think of the divine, and by what means do you focus your attention on the divine?
- What are the most important rituals, religious or secular, that you incorporate in your life? What meaning do they carry for you?
- How do you explain the evil in the world? Does the existence of evil and injustice pose a challenge to the belief in God?
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Common Questions About Conceptions of God
Q: What does it mean to conceive of God?
While God means many things to many people, the common divine conception and representation is of order, creation, wholeness, goodness, justice, and ultimate knowledge and understanding.
Q: Is there a true God?
There is only a true God to each believer. Everyone with faith has their own understanding and thus expectations of God. Therefore, there are as many true Gods as there are believers of God.
Q: Are there seven names of God?
According to medieval Judaism as well as an Indian guru named Meher Baba, the seven names of God are, respectively, 1) Elohim, 2) El, 3) Adonai, 4) Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, 5) YHWH, 6) Shaddai, 7* Zebaot, and 1) Ya Yezdan, 2) Ahuramazda, 3) Allah, 4) Ishwar, 5) Paramatma, 6) God Almighty, and 7) Parvardigar.
Q: Does any number represent God?
God is most often attributed to the number 7 while the devil is usually attributed to 6. There are many Kabbalistic and numerological reasons for this, though none have scientific data behind them. Christians attribute it to the concept in the Bible that God rested on the 7th day, and so it was his number and day.