The term "god" or "God" has a very wide range of uses — so wide, indeed, that no single definition can hope to capture it. Most native English speakers usually understand it to mean the God of Christianity (capitalised), but examples of entities going under the description "god" (not necessarily capitalised) range from very specific to very abstract. They include living human beings such as certain Roman Emperors and Egyptian Pharaoahs, humanlike beings with superhuman powers such as the gods of the Ancient Greeks, personal but omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good creators such as the God of the Abrahamic religions, and impersonal abstractions such as the Hindu concept of Brahman.
As well as types of god, there are many different views among believers as to how many gods there are, and on what the believer's attitude to them should be; these range from the view that there is only one god to the view that there are many, and from the view that the god or gods in which one believes should be worshipped to the view that worship is irrelevant to god.
Capitalisation and the word "god"
Whether or not the term "god" is capitalised has at times been the subject of debate; this is not merely a matter of typography, but of the rôle of the term. For many scripts, including some forms of Greek, no distinction between upper and lower case is possible. In scripts that do allow the distinction, such as Latin, terms such as "deus", "dominus", and "christus" were generally not capitalised until the mid-seventeenth century.
There was intense debate over whether "god" was a proper or a common noun in mediæval times. Some theologians denied that it was a proper noun, because a true proper noun has direct reference, like a demonstrative, and they thought such direct reference would bring the one who grasped it into such intimate union with god that he would die.
Although modern usage has tended to adopt the capitalisation of the word when it is used to refer to the god, or God, of the monotheistic (and especially the Abrahamic) religions, retaining the uncapitalised form for other uses, this is not universal. The uncapitalised form is still used by those (especially non-believers) who hold that "god" is not a proper noun, and that the use of the capital is therefore purely a mark of reverence. Nonetheless, many non-believers use the capitalized form simply as a common linguistic convention.
Varieties of belief
The monotheist believes that only one god exists. There are, of course, different monotheistic religions with differing approaches to the nature of this one god. The Abrahamic religions involve what is perhaps the best-known variety of monotheism. The adherents of the three main Abrahamic religions – modern Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – typically believe that their God is the transcendent cause of our universe (i.e., that it is distinct from the universe), that it is a personal god, and that it is worthy of worship.
Deism is a term that arose within, and is most often applied to, a variety of Christianity, but in fact could be used to describe varieties of other religions. The history of the term is very varied, but since the eighteenth century it has been used to refer to the view that, once the creator god had brought the universe into existence, it ceased to be involved any further — thus god does not intervene in human affairs, and notions of revelation, miracles, etc., are rejected. Deists typically, therefore, insist on the centrality of natural theology.
Pantheism is the view that the whole world is god and god is the whole world; the totality of existence forms a unity, which is divine. Panentheism is a variant of pantheism according to which the world is part of god, but god is more than the world. Pantheists rarely if ever see god as a person, and a frequent complaint made against the view is that there is no more than a linguistic distinction between it and atheism.
The Hindu notion of Brahman lies somewhere between standard theistic monotheism and pantheism.
The polytheist believes in, and worships, more than one god (see henotheism). Most religions seem to have their origins in polytheism; early human beings saw the world as full of gods who were either like human beings but more powerful, or who were (usually anthropomorphised) animals, celestial objects, or other natural phenomena. These gods usually pre-existed human beings, and were often associated with creation myths. Many religions have retained their polytheistic position, including Shinto, Vodoun, and some varieties of Hinduism.
Some critics of Christianity, especially Jewish and Muslim critics, have argued that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is in fact more-or-less disguised polytheism, and some Christian thinkers have agreed with such a view (see, for example, Arianism).
Henotheism and kathenotheism
Henotheism involves the belief in many gods, but the worship of only one. The one god that is worshipped might be seen as having a special attachment to or responsibility for one's own nation, race, or tribe (as was the case in early Judaism, or as being thought to be more powerful or important than the others (the latter is often called "monolatry").
Henotheism may involve the belief in various numbers of gods; when two gods are believed in it is called "ditheism". Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism are examples of this. Monotheism is the limiting case of henotheism.
Kathenotheism is a version of henotheism in which many gods are believed in and one worshipped, but which god is worshipped varies according to the time or place rather than remaining the same across the believer's lifetime.
Varieties of god
The main notion of god in the monotheistic religions is that of an eternal, infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, impassible and transcendent creator of the world. Exactly what these qualities are, however, is open to much debate: for example, infinity might be taken to imply an eternal god (that is, one that exists outside time) or a sempiternal god (that is, one that exists in time, but which has no beginning or end). There is also room for much disagreement concerning, for example, whether this god is a person, whether and to what extent it is involved with the world, and so on. Indeed, some believers hold that the god of Christianity and Judaism is limited in its qualities, and even that it is imperfect. For example, process theology argues that god is "dipolar", having two aspects — one transcendent, but the other in the world, undergoing suffering and change.
The gods of non-monotheistic religions cannot be infinite (as any two infinite beings would limit each other, which is a contradiction), but in other respects there is room for even more variety. Many gods are more-or-less exaggerated versions of naturally existing objects; these are most often human beings or other animals (or mixtures of the two), but they can also be inanimate, or even phenomena such as fire, mountains, wind, or stars.
Attitudes and worship
The attitude to gods is normally positive (they are seen as, if not good or benevolent, then at least not bad or malevolent); a being thought of negatively would normally not be accounted a god but a demon or some other supernatural creature. Nevertheless, few theistic religions whose beliefs involve personal gods have thought of them as being reliable or predictable, and so many religious practices have involved some form of bargaining. This can take such forms as petitionary prayer, praise, ceremonies of appeasement, and sacrifice..
This sort of activity is related to the common use of gods to explain important natural phenomena that affect human beings: natural events such as tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; human conditions such as health and illness; regularities such as the seasons, animal migrations, and tidal flooding; celestial events such as the rising and setting of the sun and moon, eclipses, and comets. (One of the most common types of such explanation is, of course, the very existence of the world and its contents, though this rarely lends itself to bargaining.)
Bargaining can also be designed to avert the unintentional causing of divine anger and retribution, or to gain help in ensuring the success of one's activities. This, and the other forms of bargaining, can also involve non-divine superantural entities such as saints, bodhisattvas, and animistic spirits.
Gods can also be used to explain and to justify the social organisation of human beings. for example, the notion of the divine right of kings , or – more directly – the claim that a ruler is himself a god, that he is of divine descent, or that he is destined to become a god after his death.
Religious activities that do not involve bargaining include the giving of thanks or of praise, and the communal reinforcement of religious belief and commitments.
- In, for example, this early-fourteenth-century, "deus" is uncapitalised, as in the second column halfway down, with the blue paragraph mark, beginning "quicumque autem", and just before that "hoc enim deus" can be seen in lower case. Again, this fifteenth-century incunabulum of Bonaventura, "Augustine" and "Boethius" are capitalised, but not "deus". In the photograph of a page from this undated, but probably mid-seventeenth-century book (from Roger Pearse's Tertullian website), the lower case is still in use. See also "The Wife Bath's Tale" (Caxton 1483) and the Gutenberg Bible (Gutenberg, fifteenth century).
- Some Christian sects take this view of the Trinity, holding that only the father should be worshipped, not Jesus or the holy spirit.
- Gerard J. Hughes The Nature of God. London: Routledge, 1995. ISBN 0-415-12075-6
- Peter J. King "Gods", in H. James Birx [ed.] Encyclopedia of Anthropology Volume 3. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2006. ISBN 0-7619-3029-9
- Michael P. Levine Pantheism: A Non-Theistic Concept of Deity. London: Routledge, 1994. ISBN 0-415-07064-3
- Thomas V. Morris [ed.] The Concept of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-19-875076-5
- H.P. Owen Concepts of Deity. London: Macmillan, 1971