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God, concepts of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K030-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2015
Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

Article Summary

Those whose conceptions of God stem from the major Eastern and Western religions think of God as an ultimate reality, the source or ground of all else, perfect and deserving of worship. Such a conception is common to both Eastern and Western religions. Some trace this to human psychology or sociology: Freud regarded God as a wish-fulfilling projection of a perfect, comforting father-figure; Marxists see belief in God as arising from the capitalist structure of society; recent work in cognitive science traces it to various cognitive mechanisms that humans have evolved. Believers, however, trace their belief to religious experience, revealed or authoritative texts, and rational reflection.

Philosophers flesh out the concept of God by drawing inferences from God’s relation to the universe (‘first-cause theology’) and from the claim that God is a perfect being. ‘Perfect-being’ theology is the more fundamental method. Its history stretches from Plato and Aristotle, through the Stoics, and into the Christian tradition as early as Augustine and Boethius; it plays an important role in underwriting such ontological arguments for God’s existence as those of Anselm and Descartes. It draws on four root intuitions: that to be perfect is perfectly to be, that it includes being complete, that it includes being all-inclusive, and that it includes being personal. Variously balanced, these intuitions yield our varied concepts of God.

Criticisms of perfect-being theology have focused both on the possibility that the set of candidate divine perfections may not be consistent or unique, and doubts as to whether human judgment can be adequate for forming concepts of God. Another problem with the method is that different accounts of perfection will yield different accounts of God: Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, for instance, appear to have held that God would be the more perfect for lacking some knowledge, while most Christian writers hold that perfection requires omniscience.

Views of God’s relation to the universe vary greatly. Pantheists say that God is the universe. Panentheists assert that God includes the universe, or is related to it as soul to body.They ascribe to God the limitations associated with being a person – such as limited power and knowledge – but argue that being a person is nevertheless a state of perfection. Other philosophers, however, assert that God is wholly different from the universe.

Some of these think that God created the universe ex nihilo, that is, from no pre-existing material. Some add that God conserves the universe in being moment by moment, and is thus provident for his creatures. Still others think that God ‘found’ some pre-existing material and ‘creates’ by gradually improving this material – this view goes back to the myth of the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus, and also entails that God is provident. By contrast, deists deny providence and think that once God made it, the universe ran on its own. Still others argue that God neither is nor has been involved in the world. The common thread lies in the concept of perfection: thinkers relate God to the universe in the way that their thoughts about God’s perfection make most appropriate.

Citing this article:
Leftow, Brian. God, concepts of, 2015, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K030-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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