The term god is very vague; its common uses include reference to an extremely wide range of sorts of thing, including living human beings (for example, the Egyptian pharaohs and the Roman emperors), humanlike beings with superhuman powers (for example, the Greek pantheon), and impersonal or even abstract concepts (for example, the Hindu Brahman). The aim of this article is to distinguish between some of the most important of these notions and to introduce some of the main ways in which different cultures have thought about and behaved toward their gods.
It’s perhaps worth pointing out at the beginning that the notion of gods is, while not independent of that of religion, certainly not coextensive with it. It’s even more difficult to give a single, universally accepted definition of religion than to do so for gods, but few would deny that it’s possible for a religion to do without gods (as, for example, do many forms of Buddhism) and for someone to believe in the existence of gods while engaging in no religious practices or committing herself or himself to any particular set of religious doctrines.
Types of Belief
A narrow, technical use of the term theism picks out the belief that god continues to be active in the world, as opposed to deism (common especially in 18th-century Christianity). Deists believe in the god of natural religion—that is, religion based solely on the use of human reason—and typically hold the view that god set up the world to be governed by perfectly designed laws and then stepped back and let it run according to those laws, taking no further part in its affairs. In what follows, however, the term theism will be used in its broader, more everyday sense, referring to any belief in the existence of a god or gods. There are many types of theistic belief, though the following are the most common.
Polytheism is the belief in and worship of more than one god. It seems that most if not all religions were originally polytheistic, the gods usually being seen as powerful versions of human beings or as anthropomorphized animals, heavenly bodies, or other natural phenomena whose origins predate humanity and who often figure in creation stories.
Surviving polytheistic religions include Shinto, Vodoun, and certain types of Hinduism. Some non-Christians, especially Jews and Muslims, consider the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to be polytheistic; indeed, Christian thinkers have also sometimes held this sort of view, most notably the Arians. The belief in just two gods is sometimes distinguished under the label ditheism (or bitheism); in most religions involving two gods, however, only one is worshipped—see below.
It should be stressed that mere belief in more than one god isn’t enough to make a religion polytheistic in the strict sense; the issue of worship is also crucial. Henotheism is the belief in a multiplicity of gods but the worship of only one. The one worshipped god might be picked out because it is seen as being especially powerful or important, and this is sometimes labeled monolatry; some Christian sects take this view of the Trinity, holding that only God the Father should be worshipped, Jesus and the Holy Spirit being distinct and lesser gods. On the other hand, different cultures might be seen as having each its own god, so that though other gods exist, they are worshipped each by members of their own peoples (as appears to have been the case at one stage of early Judaism). The distinction between the two versions of henotheism isn’t very clear cut, as most people consider their own culture superior to others, and in the same way are very likely to hold that their culture’s god is more powerful or important than other gods. Kathenotheism is a similar sort of belief, but rather than worshipping one god throughout their lives, believers worship different gods at different times or in different places. Thus kathenotheism is a sort of serial henotheism.
Henotheism is to be found in narrower forms, especially ditheism, and can also develop into monotheism. Ditheists hold that there are two gods, usually one good and one evil; typically, the universe in which we live is thought to have been created by the evil god (hence the prevalence of evil in the world) and the good god to be involved in a battle with its evil counterpart; Zoroastrianism is an important example of this sort of belief. This is often, especially in later versions such as that of the Manichaeans, accompanied by the view that the material world is evil, while the spiritual world, good.
Monotheism is belief in the existence of just one god, but there are a number of very different sorts of belief fitting that description. The commonest sort of monotheism is that found in the Abrahamic religions, such as modern Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Believers typically hold that there exists a being that is the transcendent cause of the universe in which we live—that is distinct (or usually separate) from it— and that this being is worthy of worship. The god in which most monotheists believe is personal.
The main alternative form of monotheism is pantheism, the thesis being that god is the world and the world is god; thus everything that exists constitutes a unity, which is thought of as divine. This should be distinguished from panentheism, which is the thesis that the world is part of god (sometimes that it is god’s body), but that god is more than just the world. The pantheist notion is rarely if ever of a personal god; indeed, its critics have often complained that the difference between atheism and pantheism is little more than linguistic. Pantheist beliefs have generally been restricted to philosophers and theologians, but panentheism has an important place in religions such as Judaism and (though to a much lesser extent) Christianity. Somewhere between standard monotheism and pantheism is the Hindu notion of Brahman— an impersonal, eternal, qualityless Absolute, which when qualified by qualities is the immanent and continuous cause of the universe.
Types of God
The concept of god with which most readers will be familiar is probably that associated with the standard monotheistic religions: an infinite being described as the omnipotent, omniscient, transcendent creator of the world. This notion is extremely variable, though, even leaving aside pantheism and panentheism. For example, the one god is sometimes thought of as a person and sometimes as an abstract existence; sometimes as eternal (that is, outside time) and sometimes as sempiternal (that is, in time but without beginning or end); sometimes as involved with the world and sometimes as detached from it. The single god of religions such as Christianity and Judaism is regarded by some believers as being less than infinite in its qualities—even as being imperfect. For example, process theology holds that god is “dipolar”—has two aspects or natures, one being transcendent, but the other being part of the world, suffering and changing with it.
Once we get on to the notions of gods found in nonmonotheistic religions, things become even more
varied. Clearly, such gods must be finite (as two infinite beings would limit and thus cancel out each other’s infinity); they tend to be exaggerated versions of things existing in the natural world—most often humans or animals (or combinations) but sometimes inanimate objects or phenomena, such as winds, fire, or mountains. Even in nonmonotheistic religions that aren’t henotheistic or kathenotheistic, there will often be preferences—either personal, or by sex, family, or caste—so that certain gods or groups of gods are worshipped more than or even instead of the other gods of the religion. This can be seen, for example, in Hinduism, with its many sects (perhaps mirrored in Christianity by attachments to various saints).
Attitudes To and Uses of Gods
Generally speaking, the attitude to gods is positive (partly as a matter of definition; a being who is regarded negatively is likely to be—though not inevitably—seen as something other than a god, such as a demon). However, the benevolence of few if any gods can be taken for granted, and worship in most theistic religions involves some form of bargaining, which most commonly takes the form of praise, appeasement, or petition. This is often bound up with another common use of the notion of gods: to explain natural phenomena (often including the very existence of the world, through creation myths). Thus the bargaining will frequently concern the averting of natural evils or the encouraging of natural goods; these can take the form of occasional events such as earthquakes, of regular occurrences such as the migrations of prey animals, the flooding of a tidal river or even the rising of the sun and moon, and of background conditions such as health and sickness. Similar activities can also be designed to ensure that one’s actions won’t provoke anger or retaliation or to ensure the success of a project. (This sort of bargaining activity can also take place with spirits other than gods, as in most animistic cultures.)
In fact, appeals to gods are rarely genuinely explanatory in form, though they may have the psychological effect of reducing or banishing puzzlement in the believer’s mind. That’s largely because they fail to offer an answer to the question, How did that happen? instead answering the question, Who did that? One important exception to this is the use of gods to justify or to explain religious and secular authority. Such justifications might involve the claim that a ruler is a living god, that he (or more rarely she) is descended from gods, that he or she will become a god after death, or that he or she has either been given authority by a god or gods or is descended from one who has been given such authority. In Western cultures this last approach is best known through the doctrine of the divine right of kings.
Not all religious activity is concerned with bargaining, however; other purposes include praise, thanks, and reminding people of the existence and nature of the gods.
The Bifurcation of Beliefs
It’s fair to say that, as cultures develop more critical and reflective thought about their religious beliefs, a split inevitably appears (and steadily widens) between the beliefs of ordinary people and those of the thinkers— philosophers and theologians. This normally involves a move from the notion of gods as personal—indeed, as more or less human, though exaggeratedly powerful people—to a more abstract notion of (usually) a single god, and then to a notion of god as some sort of idea or symbol, not literally real but important in some way. The notions of divinity (as well as of other aspects of religion) produced by this sort of theological development may be more consistent, but they’re generally of little use for religious practice, nor do they fill the psychological roles played by more primitive notions; in cultures that have produced such thinking, therefore, the split is commonly not merely between philosophy and religion but between philosophy and theology on the one hand, and organized religion and ordinary beliefs and practices on the other.
- Leonard, S., & McClure, M. (2003). Myth and knowing: An introduction to world mythology. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Levine, M. P. (1994). Pantheism: A non-theistic concept of deity. London: Routledge.
- Salamone, F. A., & Adams, W. (Eds.). (1999). Anthropology and theology: God, icons, and god-talk. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.