What is a god, anyway?

The elephant in the room.In many debates/conversations between atheists and theists, there’s an elephant in the room, an unacknowledged and certainly unanswered question: what are we all talking about? (Admittedly, this comes up most often in discussions with deists or the very liberal religious, who don’t adhere strictly to any scripture’s claims.) Before we can really tackle the question of whether some god exists,  we have to pin down what the word “god” means. What would a god be like? What are the properties of a god that are distinct from the properties of other beings?

We use the word “god” to refer to a wide variety of concepts, from the omni-everything Abrahamic god, to the polytheistic gods that each have their own realm to which their power is limited, to “trickster gods” that seem more like imps or gremlins. Is there some way we can define god that encompasses our understanding of what it means to be a god, while not being too inclusive of things that clearly aren’t gods?

It’s tempting to begin with a criterion such as: a god must have powers and abilities that surpass those of most other intelligent beings. This allows for a pantheon of gods in which some gods’ powers may be the ability to travel very fast or to be extremely alluring, while other more powerful gods may also exist. On the other hand, it would also imply that Usain Bolt is a god, and maybe every Miss Universe winner too.

So, maybe we need to add that gods’ abilities must be supernatural. It’s not enough to be very fast; you have to be able to zip around the world instantaneously, breaking the laws of physics. It’s not enough to be very beautiful; your mere presence must exert complete psychic control over another person, forcing them to be unable to think of anything but feelings of love and/or lust. Wizards and witches, or others with the ability to perform magic, would count as gods by this definition, too. (And maybe that isn’t a problem. My instinct says that in a world where magic is something that individuals innately possess, wizards are more godlike, and in a world where magic is something to be studied and practiced, wizards are less godlike … but I don’t know.)

Except … the word “supernatural” introduces as many problems as the word “god” does. If a being is able to zip around the world instantaneously, that’s part of reality. If “magical” things are possible, that’s part of reality too whether it’s possible through some innate attribute of a person or through years of study. It would mean that our laws of physics are wrong and need to be revised so as to explain phenomena such as those. (“The laws of physics” means the real and complete laws of physics, not just the ones we are aware of.) Ditto for our understanding of consciousness and the mind/brain, if telepathy is possible. If something is real, it’s natural — “supernatural” might as well be a euphemism for “not real.”

So where does all this leave god, religion and faith in general? Essentially, I think, “religion” how we describe the things people believe without any sound reason. Religion, and the concept of god in particular, is so ill-defined that as soon as you get a handle on it, it stops being religion anymore. When I talk about science, I’m talking about our attempts to describe and understand the reality we live in. If you tell me that your religion is a completely separate thing from science, what you’re essentially telling me is that it isn’t real.

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20 Comments

  1. When ever we get into the religion debates and someone says ‘so you don’t believe in g0d?’ I start right off with define ‘belief’ and ‘g0d’ and ‘atheist’.
    Because I have found that most religious and many secularists do not know the definitions of the subjects or their definition is way different then mine.

  2. It is definitely the elephant in the room, and usually I go immediately to pointing that out if someone insists on something faith-y to me. I have found my believer friends who have an interest in maintaining good sense, rationality, honesty, etc., have to take some mystical stance about it, because all inquiries in the realms I just listed result in their being trapped by the reality: There is no evidence or rational capacity that can justify their faith.

    But this debate is really ancient history, ground already trodden, and I try to get the religious friends to see that. People need to read some history before insisting on all this religious junk as “news” of some kind. I’ve been through it a thousand times, this personal investigation and subsequent verdict our culture demands for this issue, and nobody is going to sway me with any supposedly new “Yeah, but have you thought of…?” because the answer is yes, I have thought of it.

    Not only is that true, but philosophers and scientists resolved this stuff centuries ago. It’s just kind of sad the way the religious grasp and hang on for dear life to airy nothing.

    Thanks for your post.

  3. ereador:

    You (and NFQ) hit the nail on the head. The problem is that people enter religion not through reason, but through emotional conversion experience or indoctrination. And as long as they follow this method, religion will live on despite its rational bankruptcy.

  4. God is generally taken to be a being that exists non-temporally and non-spatially, and is the cause of all physical reality.

    You might object that to speak of a being that is non-temporal and non-spatial is nonsense since all that exists must be temporal and spatial. However this is clearly question begging.

    Philosophers (of most breeds) usually don’t raise this objection because they understand what a theist means by the word God.

  5. Aristarchus

     /  February 9, 2011 at 8:19 am

    @David: Your definition would not count Zeus as a God, because he had a physical home (Mt. Olympus) and was not the cause of all physical reality.

    It would also exclude Hindu and Native American gods. In fact, it would exclude any polytheistic religion, since multiple gods can’t all be the cause of all physical reality.

  6. My definition would also not count my cat as God, but doesn’t seem to be an obvious problem.

    I’m merely pointing out that in analytic philosophy this objection is hardly ever raised as most philosophers (including atheist and agnostic) have a fair idea of what God would be like. I.e he would be omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, atemporal (though capable of being temporal) and non-spatial.

  7. I don’t think I would be saying anything new, so I am just here to say that I really liked this post!

  8. Aristarchus

     /  February 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    @David: In analytic philosophy, arguing for anything other than a vague deism isn’t considered a serious position, so obviously “god” is used only to refer to that sort of thing. In the real world, though, no one claims that Shiva isn’t a god. When trying to define words, a claim that a word is “generally taken” to mean a certain thing is very different from a claim that experts in a particular subfield in academia use it a certain way.

    The relevant definition in this case is what readers of this blog and the people they are likely to have discussions with about religion tend to mean by it. I think that when NFQ says she’s an atheist, most people take that to mean in part that she’s not Hindu.

    I also think that you would find even philosophers being much more careful with their language in India or China.

  9. Re Deism: Not at all true, if you look at the works of arguably the top theist’s in philosophy today, (Van Inwagen, Swineburne, Craig, Plantinga, Zimmerman etc) you will see them argue for the standard Christian conception of God.

    Contrary to your opinion, this conception of God is also alive and well in theology. In fact historically it’s the standard conception of God and I would be surprised if a Christian couldn’t at least list a few attributes of God,like, “god knows everything”, “Gods all powerful”, “He created everything”. These might not be up to the rigour of analytic philosophy, but they are essentially true.

    I would also like to point out that the properties listed are common to all monotheistic religions and can also be found in Hindu scholarship.
    My real problem with the original post was his assertion that only something physical could count as real.

  10. Wow, David. It’s true that you could define “god” as “the Christian god” (though it’s not like all Christians even agree on exactly what that means) and then you would have a specific (see previous caveat) definition for the word. But that’s pretty arrogant, don’t you think? Only your god counts as a god, and nobody else’s does?

    I noticed that you switched from talking about the field of “philosophy” to the field of “theology” when pressed. It’s true that many Christian theologians theorize about the Christian god (Craig? Plantinga? Really?) … but that is both obvious and irrelevant.

    You are just factually wrong about Hinduism. There are Hindu gods that are not “the cause of all physical reality” and who appear to people in physical form, exist in time, etc.

    Speaking of which, I don’t even get what your definition really means. How can something be non-temporal and non-spatial and make choices, examine the circumstances on earth, and then *do* something that has an effect? Do you just mean that your god lives forever and has always existed? That doesn’t make him non-temporal. I don’t even know of anything that is.

    Does your god do anything specific that affects the world we live in? If so, we can look for him. I know you say that your god is “non-spatial,” but if he has real effects on the world, there is something physical that we can detect. And if he has no real effects on the world, we have no more reason to believe he exists than you have to believe in the invisible, non-fire-breathing, floating, incorporeal dragon in my garage.

  11. Alright, it’s clear David only refers to God as it pertains to his particular monotheistic dictatorship and is surprisingly ignorant of even the major religions that exist today, let alone those that are no longer in practice, but let’s not all gang up on him. It’s unfair to have so many rationalists arguing against just one theist. :P

  12. I didn’t define God as the Christian God. I was merely showing you that it’s simply not true that theistic philosophers argue for a deistic conception for God. I mentioned theology to show that the definition of God is not just confided to the philosophy cloisters.

    The properties I have listed are common to all monotheistic religions. I admit that they do not cover pantheistic, panenthiestic or polytheistic religions. However there are good philosophical grounds for positing a single God as opposed to a pantheon of Gods (Occam’s razor for one).

    I would rather say that God has always existed (I.e He never came into being). There is nothing logically incoherent about an atemporal and non-spatial being. I think with the creation of space and time God did shift modally into a state of temporality and is therefore able to interact with the universe.

    I think the creation the universe, consciousness and fine tuning is evidence of God. I don’t think it’s possible to test for God scientifically; that said, testability does not always determine what is and is not rational to believe. That my friend is the ghost of logical positivism.

  13. The application of Occam’s razor to select one god over many, comes too late. Occam’s razor, when properly applied to this issue, points to no god at all.

  14. “There is nothing logically incoherent about an atemporal and non-spatial being.”

    If this is the case, then could you provide a coherent description of what an atemporal and non-spatial existence might look and feel like from someone in that state?

  15. Aristarchus

     /  February 11, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Sure, you didn’t define a god as the Christian god. You defined a god as the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim god, all of which come from the same religious tradition. That makes you a little less narrow-minded, but not that much.

    I think you’ve entirely missed the point of this post. It wasn’t that when a particular theologian makes an argument for the existence of God no one knows what they’re talking about. They have a reasonably specific idea of God that they’re arguing for, and we all know that. It’s that there’s no clear definition of the general category of things that are “a god” according to the general use of the word. The general use indisputably considers Zeus and Ganesh and Quetzalcoatl as gods.

    The other point was that a claim of the existence of any particular god is just as much a factual claim as anything else we say on a daily basis, and there’s no clear reason to investigate religious claims any less rigorously and rationally than any other claims.

    Saying “lots of philosophers” think that there’s a clear definition of “a god” and it’s the standard Judeo-Christian sort and then citing lots of people who are professors at Christian universities to prove that this is a generally accepted argument in philosophical circles isn’t very convincing. The philosophical community at large doesn’t really give it much credence. Saying “theologians” also use “god” that way doesn’t really prove that it’s “not just confided to the philosophy cloisters.” I think I could go up to any theologian and say, “I’m Hindu – I believe in lots of gods, and they aren’t everlasting and omnipotent,” they wouldn’t blink an eye. They might debate with me, but my use of the word “god” in that context wouldn’t faze them one bit, because it’s the way that everyone who speaks English actually uses the word.

  16. As I have already stated, I mentioned these philosophers to refute your claim that theists advocate for a deistic conception of God. This was not meant to show that all philosophers in analytic philosophy endorse a monotheistic definition of God. I know all of them don’t, but a great many do and this is obvious from the literature. Furthermore it is not the university that matters so much (though you will find theists in philosophy chairs at oxford and Cambridge), but the quality of publication and the work they do.

    Definitions in general are problematic and I’m well aware that under the popular conception of God, Zeus, Thor, and even a pantheistic universe might fall under this definition. This obviously reflects peoples disagreements on what God is going to be like. However that in and of itself is not much of a problem. As I have already stated, there are philosophical considerations that would lead us to monotheism. Also the monotheistic conception of God is the accepted definition of God in Anglo-American philosophy.

    I agree with your point on the factual claim. That is why we can go and disprove the existence of Zeus. No super being lives up mount Olympus. I dare say we can find reasons for rationally rejecting animism. This proves a more difficult task for monotheism.

  17. hey that was a valuable peace of knowledge im pagan by birth 62yrs but i do not see the sence of bowing down to any’god’ im me part of the earth i equate with all in its abundance or sometime less all is all thankyuo …..joni

  18. What if yes, theres intelligence behind creation, but its from something completely different from the idea of God, what if this ‘intelligence’ is from hundred million cosmic forces, would that be God, i think the problem with believe in God is that we trying to believe, define, depict what we dont know or perhaps we know through blind faith.

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