I tend to stay up on current debates in philosophy and one debate which is always current is the existence of God. Yet when I read these debates I can’t help but feel that very little real debating is happening at all; there is a great deal of of talking and very little communicating. One example of this God Confusion is when belief in the God of monotheism is compared to belief in Zeus, Peter Pan, or pink unicorns. Many of the people making this comparison really believe that it is a valid attack which exposes the ridiculousness of theism in general while many of those theists on the receiving end are left feeling like they have been cheated or swindled but are unable to respond with anything more potent than, “well that’s not fair, that’s not what I meant” all the while having to concede the point that they do know what it is like to not-believe in Zeus.
They have in fact, both been swindled, both are victims; one is the drug addict, the other is the jilted family of the drug addict, and the drug which is so tempting and so hard to get rid of once it is lodged into the conversation is equivocation. Equivocation occurs when a word is used to mean two different things in the same conversation without clarification. God, is one such word and a word which means many very different things to different people. When someone equivocates between gods like Zeus and Allah they are mistakenly assuming that the difference between these two is one of personality and nothing else; like the difference between Zeus and Poseidon. Zeus and Poseidon are both polytheistic gods in the Greek pantheon but they are an entirely different type of thing from Allah.
Zeus and Poseidon are both gods in the same way that Pongo and Perdita are both Dalmatian dogs but Zeus and Allah are different type of thing entirely in the same way that plants and animals are different types of things or humans and stones are different types of things. Pongo’s black spots are characteristic of what he is, a Dalmatian; so black spots should be and are characteristic of other Dalmatians such as Perdita, but Pongo’s black spots are not characteristic of other types of dogs such as poodles or other types of things such as water lilies. It may be true that Zeus is a type of thing having only myth and superstition to commend itself to our beliefs and if it is true then we can say the same thing about Poseidon, he being the same type of thing, but it being true of Zeus and Poseidon does not indicate that it is true of Allah any more than Pongo and Perdita’s black spots indicate that poodles or water lilies have black spots.
I took a philosophy of religion class from a prestigious university and early in the term, it became obvious that the students were using God to mean many very different things yet even in that academic setting, God was rarely if ever well defined. Similar situations occur on a daily basis online, in print, and around dinner tables, and pint glasses. Clearly, God confusion is prevalent. To clear up and avoid this God confusion I suggest asking four questions about any particular god in question whenever he happens to come up. Knowing these questions should help you to both avoid equivocation and thus have a more constructive conversation and to understand ideas about God that others may hold.
The first question to ask when God comes up in a contentious conversation is; is the god in question a monotheistic or polytheistic god? Asking just this one question would help you to avoid the equivocation between God and gods such as Zeus. Monotheists of all religious and philosophical stripes believe in one single god, that is what makes them monotheists. They usually believe this God to be all powerful and also usually the creator of the universe. Christians, Jews, and Muslims are monotheists as are most proponents of Deistic secular philosophic conceptions of God such as Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” or Spinoza’s “God or Nature”. These concepts of God are very different from polytheistic gods such Zeus, Poseidon, and the rest of the Olympians, the gods other forms of Paganism, of Hindus, Vodouists, most far Eastern religions, and most pre-Christian and pre-Islamic middle and near Eastern religions.
The fact that polytheists believe there are many gods automatically makes those gods very different from any monotheistic God because monotheists believe God to be all powerful and the creator or at least present everywhere in the universe. There cannot be two all powerful beings, two creators of everything, or two all present beings. If a god has even one equal, then he is not all powerful. Polytheists also believe their gods to be powerful; they could hardly be called gods otherwise, but their powers are limited. Zeus may be able to send lightning but he has trouble governing the other squabbling gods, he must always make sure the Titans are kept locked up, and far from being the creator, he is himself a created part of the universe. This is nothing like the all powerful creator God of monotheism. If the god in question is polytheistic then proceed to the classics department of your local college or university; if it is monotheistic then proceed to the next question.
The second question which must be addressed is; is God as he is being discussed here, natural or supernatural? That is, is God material or inmaterial, part of the universe or beyond the universe? Materialist ideas of God come from a strictly materialist concept of being and differ sharply from the more traditional religious ideas of God as the supernatural creator of the universe. The staunchest materialists not only believe that physical matter is all there is but that physical matter is all that could be; strictly speaking they believe that any inmaterial ideas are non-sensical. So any concept of God that they endorse has to fit into this view. This could take the form of either God as a force or God as the Universe. In the first view, God is the animating life force of the universe, our love, our passions, even what gives us purpose. This concept of God is much like the Force in Star Wars. This is also where we get Christian-atheists, they believe in God as a force for good but not as a person who exists and whom we should know, fear, or obey. In the second possible materialist concept, God is the Universe or the Universe is God’s body. In this way we are all quite literally part of God. This concept makes God, physical, singular, in a way all powerful, the creator of Earth but not really the creator of the universe and certainly not personal.
Materialist conceptions of God necessarily connect God to creation which is very different from the inmaterial supernatural concepts of God in all three major monotheistic religions. To religious monotheists saying that God is part of the universe is idolatry (worshiping creation) and a major sin.
The third question to ask about God is, how knowable is he? To Deists and most philosophic monotheists, the Spinozas and Aristotles out there, God is a necessary part of the metaphysical or ethical reality, he certainly exists but he is not knowable. He probably doesn’t care about us (why would he?), he is probably not a person in the way we think of a person, and there would be no way for us to find him or communicate with him if he was. Aristotle believed, God was perfect and so did the most perfect thing, which Aristotle believed was thinking and because God was the perfect thinker he only thought about perfect thoughts and the only perfect thoughts were thoughts about the perfect thing which was himself. Aristotle’s God was wholly consumed with thinking about himself, not a very personable guy.
Jews and Muslims both believe in a God who is a person and does have ideas about us and what we should be doing, but who is still not very personable; he is know-of-able. By the term, know-of-able I mean he can be learned about, possibly even interacted with but he is very difficult to know as we know our family members or even as we know politicians or celebrities.
Obviously there is a very broad spectrum of what individuals believe but in general, Jews believe in a God who cares for them and directs them, on occasion even intervening for them but who primarily speaks through the scriptures and is a God to be feared not approached lightly. In Islam, God occupies a place between Judaism and philosophic Deism; Allah has given them his words in the Quran but it is blasphemy to even suggest that he would interact with the created world. This is why it is so offensive to Muslims to suggest that Jesus, a man is the son of God. Allah could not even dictate the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad directly but instead had an intermediary, an angel bring the message to the Prophet.
The third option is that God is knowable as a person. This is where the Christian concept of God falls and also interestingly enough, most polytheistic gods. Zeus is a literary character, there are stories of what he has done, his battles with the Titans, his rivalries with his brothers, his affairs with mortal women, and his own marital problems. He is also a god who interacts with humans, he has favorites whom he intervenes for, he appears to people, he is very knowable. Christians, such as myself, also believe God is very knowable and personal. He came to Earth in the form of the man Jesus to live and die as a man, to demonstrate his character, to teach love, and ultimately to sacrifice himself for the salvation of his people. Christians also maintain that the Spirit of God dwells in them and speaks to them. After his death and resurrection, Jesus appeared to many people as recorded in the New Testament including famously, his mother, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and Paul. Contrast the personal knowable Jesus and Zeus with Allah who couldn’t even speak to his own prophet, the God the Jews whom Moses could only glimpse from behind without dying, and the God of Aristotle who couldn’t care less and you see the difference that made by how knowable God is.
The final question to ask about God is, is he transcendent or not? A transcendent God is a god beyond the universe, that is, he transcends space and time. A transcendent God is not dependent on the universe and his position privileges him to make claims that non-transcendent beings could not rightly make. Transcendence allows God to be truly all powerful, as he is not dependent on anything. It allows him to have all knowledge as there is nothing which is beyond him. It allows him to make claims about truth which cannot be disputed because no one else knows all or created all. If God is transcendent then reality is quite literally what God says it is, reality bends to his will. A transcendent God is a truly awesome and scary thing; this is what Anselm had in mind when he defined God as, “the being than which no greater can be conceived.” Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Deists all believe in a transcendent God. Contrast this with the God of the materialistic monotheists and the gods of the polytheists; these Gods are not all powerful because they are part of the universe and bound by it as we are; they also have no special claim to determining morality, and their only possible claim to special knowledge would be that they are more intelligent, older, have more experience, or see more of the universe. Their claims to special knowledge about the universe are the exact same type of claims made be human experts in their particular fields not the kind of knowledge which is true by definition that a transcendent God can claim.
Asking these four questions should clear up the vast majority of equivocation about God out there. I hope this helps you to avoid any future God confusion. The four questions to ask whenever a contentious conversation about God arises are; is this God monotheistic or polytheistic, is he natural or super-natural, how knowable is he, and is he transcendent? Below I’ve made a cheat sheet of the most common answers people give to these questions.
Cheat Sheet of the Gods
Pagan and most Eastern gods are polytheistic, supernatural, knowable, but not transcendent.
Materialistic conceptions of God are usually monotheistic, natural, unknowable, and not transcendent.
Philosophical Diestic Gods are monotheistic, supernatural, unknowable, and transcendent.
The God of the Jews is monotheistic, supernatural, slightly knowable but not very personable, and transcendent.
The God of Islam is monotheistic, supernatural, know-of-able, and transcendent.
The God of Christianity is monotheistic, supernatural, knowable, and transcendent.
That should clear up most of the God Confusion.