God, concepts of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

2. Data and methods

Human beings draw their views of God from religious experience, revealed or authoritative texts, and rational reflection. The third is, in a way, basic. Not all seeming experience of God is genuine. Texts and philosophical thought help sort the true from the illusory. Then, too, the genuine experiences of God, once found, do not wear their meanings on their sleeves. They need interpretation, which texts and reason provide. Finally, authoritative texts themselves need interpretation, and reason provides this. So religious experience and authoritative texts are data, which philosophical and theological reasoning work into fully articulate theories of the nature of God.

Some trace views of God to still other sources. For example, Freud argued that belief in God is a form of wish-fulfilment, in which human beings give themselves the protected, loved feeling of an idealized childhood by projecting into reality a vision of a perfect, benevolent father-figure who will make everything right in the end. Other psychologists take a still dimmer view of God, seeing him as not a comforting dream but the projection into reality of neurotic self-loathing; they see belief in divine judgment (for example) as a form of self-persecution. Durkheim(§4) (1915) regarded the concept of God as a symbol expressing society’s role in our lives. Marxists see this role as oppressive, at least under capitalism, and so see concepts of God as reflecting and reacting to social evils. On their view, belief in God is doomed to wither away when society progresses.

These are all speculations, and beliefs may be true even if one can explain our holding them in purely psychological or sociological terms. But still, theists claim that reason, experience and authority yield warranted belief. On some views, beliefs are warranted only if their sources are reliably truth-producing ways of forming beliefs. Wish-fulfilment and neurosis-expression are not reliably truth-producing ways of forming beliefs. So, on these views of warrant, a persuasive psychological or sociological explanation of apparent religious experience or the intuitions that guide theistic reasoning could undermine theists’ claims to warranted belief. Again, some think a belief warranted only if one holds it for the right kind of reason. ‘To feel good’ is not the right kind of reason.

Still, the concept of God gives as much grist to wish-fulfilment as to self-persecution or Marxist theories. Consequently, the two sorts may cancel out: the facets of God which count for the one count against the other. Belief in God cannot both comfort and torment us. It can at most comfort one part of us and torment another part. But the more elaborate the genetic account of theism’s attractions, the less plausible the account becomes. Furthermore, one can give equally unflattering accounts of the appeal of atheism, Freudianism and Marxism. If so, the genetic argument again cancels out.

Western philosophy works up theories about God in two main ways. First-cause theology draws out implications of God’s relation to the universe. Perfect-being theology reasons out consequences of the claim that God is a perfect being. Each method gets at part of God’s ultimacy. First-cause theology explores God’s causal ultimacy. Perfect-being theology explores God’s ultimacy in value. Most religious thinkers use both methods. Aquinas, for instance, sets up his basic descriptions of God by giving five ways to argue for God’s existence (Summa theologiae Ia, q.2, a.3). The first three ways argue the existence of a first cause, the fourth that of a perfect being, and the fifth that of an intelligent designer of nature. Aquinas then argues that a first cause must be purely actual and so perfect and uses both perfect-being and first-cause theology to work out his concept of God.

Perfect-being theology is the more basic theological method. In the West, for instance, first-cause theology often explicates and/or argues the claim that God created the universe ex nihilo (see Creation and conservation, religious doctrine of §§1–2). But while Western Scriptures say that God created the universe, they do not so clearly state that God made it ex nihilo. The most famous biblical passage on creation is Genesis 1: 1–2: ‘1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.’ Verse 1 could assert a creation ex nihilo, with verse 2 describing that act’s initial result. But verse 1 could just be a topic statement for the overall creation story, which might begin in verse 2. In that case, in the story, God finds some initial chaotic state of things, and creates a universe by forming or moulding that chaos into the structured world we now inhabit. This second reading does not involve creation ex nihilo. It is perfect-being theology that leads Western thinkers to take creation as ex nihilo; by doing so, they magnify things’ dependence on God and God’s importance for and superiority to the universe. We ought, then, to focus on perfect-being theology.

Citing this article:
Leftow, Brian. Data and methods. God, concepts of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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