Religion, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K113-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2015
Retrieved May 23, 2019, from

1. Philosophy and the attributes of God

Much of the work in philosophy of religion over the past sixty years has focused on the examination of theism, the core of beliefs common to the Western monotheisms. Among the central questions discussed in this literature are the following: What would anything have to be like to count as God? Is it even possible for human beings to know God’s attributes (see God, concepts of; Negative theology; Hiddenness of God)? And if so, what are they?

Traditionally, God has been taken to be a necessary being, who is characterized by omniscience, omnipotence, perfect goodness, immutability and eternity (see Necessary being; Omniscience; Omnipotence; Goodness, perfect; Immutability; Eternity; Aseity), who has freely created the world (see Creation and conservation, religious doctrine of; Freedom, divine) and who is somehow specially related to morality (see Religion and morality). According to the classical understanding, divine omniscience includes knowledge of everything that has happened and ever will happen, divine omnipotence includes the power to control everything that happens in the world and divine eternity implies not just that God has always existed and will always exist, but that God is in some sense wholly atemporal.

This conception of God takes God to be unique (see Monotheism), unlike anything else in the world. Consequently, the question arises as to whether our language is capable of representing God. Some thinkers, such as Moses Maimonides, have argued that it is not and that terms applied to God and creatures are equivocal. Others have argued that our language can be made to apply to God, either because some terms can be used univocally of God and creatures, or because some terms used of creatures can be applied to God in an analogical sense (see Religious language).

Not everyone accepts the traditional characterization of God, of course. Pantheists and panentheists, for example, reject the traditional distinction between God and creation (see Pantheism and Panentheism), the former identifying God with the world and the latter identifying the world with something like God’s body. Other philosophers have objected to the traditional conception, either because it leaves insoluble philosophical problems like the problem of evil or the problem of human freedom and divine foreknowledge, or because it embodies an inadequate conception of divine perfection (see Evil, problem of; Providence). Process theists, for example, deny that God knows the future and has the capacity to control everything that happens in the world and they do so in part because adopting these views provides a solution to the problem of evil (see Process theism). Open theists likewise deny that God knows the future and they also maintain that God is in some sense mutable and temporal. They are motivated in part by the problem of evil and the problem of freedom and divine foreknowledge, but also by the thought that the traditional attributes as they have normally been understood are neither compatible with biblical portrayals of God nor with the idea that God is a perfectly loving and relational person (see Open theism). Finally, many feminists reject the traditional conception as patriarchal. The problem, from their point of view, is not simply that the Western monotheistic traditions commonly refer to God as if God is male (using masculine pronouns and characterizing God as ‘Father’, for example). Rather, the problem is that the traditional list of divine attributes, generated in part by (male-dominated) reflection on what a perfect person must be like, itself reflects gender bias. The critique assumes that certain attributes (incorporeality and immutability, to take two well known examples) are more naturally associated with one gender rather than the other. Unsurprisingly, then, many feminist theologians have been attracted to either panentheist or process-theological conceptions of God (see Feminist theology).

In addition to questioning the traditional conception of God itself, many philosophers have questioned the tendency of contemporary philosophy of religion to focus so heavily on the Western monotheistic traditions, to the exclusion of other religions. Although there has been a lot of interesting work done on religious traditions apart from Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the fact remains that, since the 1950s, the literature in philosophy of religion has been dominated by discussion of philosophical issues arising in connection with theism and, most especially, Christianity. Many have noted that, from a methodological point of view, this is a serious concern. For, to the extent that the core of philosophy of religion is seen to involve reflection primarily on doctrines and problems peculiar to theism in general and Christianity in particular, important scholarly research on other religious traditions is both marginalized and inhibited.

Citing this article:
Stump, Eleonore and Mike Rea. Philosophy and the attributes of God. Religion, philosophy of, 2015, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K113-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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