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This article discusses the term "God" in the context of monotheism and henotheism. See God (word) for the etymology and capitalization of the term. See deity, god (male deity) or goddess for details on polytheistic usages. See Names of God for terms used in other languages or specific belief systems. See God (disambiguation) for other uses.
A classic conception of the Christian God: Detail of Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of the Sun and Moon by 16th Century painter Michelangelo.
A classic conception of the Christian God: Detail of Sistine Chapel fresco Creation of the Sun and Moon by 16th Century painter Michelangelo.

God is the deity believed by monotheists to be the supreme reality. Often characterized as a male figure, he is believed variously to be the sole omnipotent creator, or at least the sustainer, of the universe.

Etymology and usage

The earliest written form of the Germanic word "god" comes from the 6th century Christian Codex Argenteus, which descends from the Old English guþ from the Proto-Germanic *Ȝuđan. While hotly disputed, most agree on the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form *ǵhu-tó-m, based on the root *ǵhau-, *ǵhau̯ǝ-, which meant "to call" or "to invoke". Alternatively, "Ghau" may be derived from a posthumously deified chieftain named " Gaut" — a name which sometimes appears for the Norse god Odin or one of his descendants. The Lombardic form of Odin, Godan, may derive from cognate Proto-Germanic *Ȝuđánaz.

The capitalized form "God" was first used in Ulfilas' Gothic translation of the New Testament, to represent the Greek Theos (uncertain origin), and the Latin Deus (etymology "* Dyeus"). Because the development of English orthography was dominated by Christian texts, the capitalization (hence personalization and personal name) continues to represent a distinction between monotheistic "God" and the "gods" of pagan polytheism.

The name "God" now typically refers to the Abrahamic God of Judaism ( El (god) YHVH), Christianity (God), and Islam (Allah). Though there are significant cultural divergences that are implied by these different names, "God" remains the common English translation for all. The name may signify any related or similar monotheistic deities, such as the early monotheism of Akhenaten and Zoroastrianism.

In the context of comparative religion, "God" is also often related to concepts of universal deity in Dharmic religions, in spite of the historical distinctions which separate monotheism from polytheism — a distinction which some, such as Max Müller and Joseph Campbell, have characterised as a bias within Western culture and theology.

see also: Names of God

Names of God

God is often viewed as like a force of nature — or rather as a consciousness which can be manifest as a natural aspect. Both illuminating light (pictured) and mysterious darkness are canonical symbols for representing God.
God is often viewed as like a force of nature — or rather as a consciousness which can be manifest as a natural aspect. Both illuminating light (pictured) and mysterious darkness are canonical symbols for representing God.

The noun God is the proper English name used for the deity of monotheistic faiths. Various English third-person pronouns are used for God, and the correctness of each is disputed. (See God and gender.)

Different names for God exist within different religious traditions:

  • Allah is the Arabic name of God, which is used by Arab Muslims and also by most non-Muslim Arabs. ilah, cognate to northwest Semitic El (Hebrew "El" or more specifically "Eloha", Aramaic "Eloi"), is the generic word for a god (any deity), Allah contains the article, literally "The God". Also, when speaking in English, Muslims often translate "Allah" as "God". One Islamic tradition states that Allah has 99 names while others say that all good names belong to Allah. Similarly, in the Aramaic of Jesus, the word Alaha is used for the name of God.
  • Yahweh, Jehovah (Hebrew: 'Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay', יה-וה ) are some of the names used for God in various translations of the Bible (all translating the same four letters - YHVH). El, and the plural/majestic form Elohim, is another term used frequently, though El can also simply mean god in reference to deities of other religions. Others include El Shaddai, Adonai, Emmanuel. When Moses asked "What is your name?" he was given the answer Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, which literally means, "I am that I am," as a parallel to the Tetragrammaton Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay. See The name of God in Judaism for Jewish names of God. Most Orthodox Jews, and many Jews of other denominations, believe it wrong to write the word "God" on any substance which can be destroyed. Therefore, they will write "G-d" as what they consider a more respectful symbolic representation. Others consider this unnecessary because English is not the "Holy Language" (i.e. Hebrew), but still will not speak the Hebrew representation written in the Torah, "Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay", aloud, and will instead use other names such as "Adonai" ("my Lord", used in prayer, blessings and other religious rituals) or the euphemism "Hashem" (literally "The Name", used at all other times). Another name especially used by ultra-Orthodox Jews is "HaKadosh Baruch Hu", meaning "The Holy One, Blessed is He".
YHWH, the name of God or Tetragrammaton, in Phoenician (1100 BC to AD 300), Aramaic (10th Century BC to 0) and modern Hebrew scripts.
YHWH, the name of God or Tetragrammaton, in Phoenician (1100 BC to AD 300), Aramaic (10th Century BC to 0) and modern Hebrew scripts.
In early English Bibles, the Tetragrammaton was rendered in capitals: "IEHOUAH" in William Tyndale's version of 1525. The King James Version of 1611 renders YHWH as "The Lord", also as "Jehovah", see Psalms 83:18; Exodus 6:3.
Research in comparative mythology shows a linguistic correlation between Levantine Yaw and monotheistic Yahweh, suggesting that the god may in some manner be the predecessor in the sense of an evolving religion of Yahweh.
  • Elohim as "God" (with the plural suffix -im, but used with singular agreement); sometimes used to mean "gods" or apparently mortal judges.
  • The Holy Trinity (one God in three Persons, the God the Father, the God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Ghost/ Holy Spirit) denotes God in almost all Christianity. Arab Christians will often also use "Allah" (the noun for "God" in Arabic) to refer to God.
  • Deus, cognate of the Greek θέος (theos, '(male) deity') is the Latin word for God, and will be used in Latin portions of Roman Catholic masses. It is also used to denote God by some Deists, Pandeists, Pantheists, and followers of similars non-Theistic beliefs.
  • God is called Igzi'abihier (lit. "Lord of the Universe") or Amlak (lit. the plural of mlk, "king" or "lord") in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
  • Jah is the name of God in the Rastafari movement
  • The Maasai name for "God" is Ngai, (also spelled:'Ngai, En-kai, Enkai, Engai, Eng-ai) which occurs in the volcano name Ol Doinyo Lengai ("the mountain of God").
  • The Mi'kmaq name for "God" is Niskam.
  • Some churches ( United Church of Canada, Religious Science) are using "the One" alongside "God" as a more gender-neutral way of referring to God (See also Oneness).
  • Bhagavan - "The Oppulent One", Brahman -"The Great", Paramatma - "The Supersoul" and Ishvara- "The Controller", are the terms used for God in the Vedas. A number of Hindu traditions worship a personal form of God or Ishvara, such as Vishnu or Shiva, whereas others worship a non-personal Supreme Cosmic Spirit, known as Brahman. The Vaishnava schools consider Vishnu or Krishna as the Supreme Personality of Godhead and within this tradition is the Vishnu sahasranama, which is a hymn describing the one thousand names of God (Vishnu). Shaivites consider Shiva as the Supreme God in similar way to the followers of Vaishnavism. The Supreme Ishvara of Hinduism must not be confused with the numerous deities or demigods which are collectively known as devas.
  • Baquan is a phonetical pronunciation for God in several Pacific Islander religions.
  • Buddhism is non-theistic (see God in Buddhism): instead of extolling an anthropomorphic creator God, Gautama Buddha employed negative theology to avoid speculation and keep the undefined as ineffable . Buddha believed the more important issue was to bring beings out of suffering to liberation. Enlightened ones are called Arhats or Buddha (e.g, the Buddha Sakyamuni), and are venerated. A bodhisattva is an altruistic being who has vowed to attain Buddhahood in order to help others to become Awakened ("Buddha") too. Buddhism also teaches of the existence of the devas or heavenly beings who temporarily dwell in celestial states of great happiness but are not yet free from the cycle of reincarnations ( samsara). Some Mahayana and Tantra Buddhist scriptures do express ideas which are extremely close to pantheism, with a cosmic Buddha ( Adibuddha) being viewed as the sustaining Ground of all being - although this is very much a minority vision within Buddhism.
  • Jains invoke the five paramethis: Siddha, Arahant, Acharya, Upadhyaya, Sadhu. The arhantas include the 24 Tirthankaras from Lord Rishabha to Mahavira. But Jain philosophy as such does not recognize any Supreme Omnipotent creator God.
  • Sikhs worship God with these common names Waheguru Wondrous God, Satnaam (True is Your Name), Akal (the Eternal) or Onkar (some similarity to the Hindu Aum). They believe that when reciting these names, devotion, dedication and a genuine appreciation and acceptance of the Almighty and the blessings thereof (as opposed to mechanical recitation) is essential if one is to gain anything by the meditation. The assistance of the guru is also believed to be essential to reach God.
  • In Surat Shabda Yoga, names used for God include Anami Purush (nameless power) and Radha Swami (lord of the soul, symbolized as Radha).
  • The Bahá'í Faith refers to God using the local word for God in whatever language is being spoken. In the Bahá'í Writings in Arabic, Allah is used. Bahá'ís share some naming traditions with Islam, but see "Bahá" (Glory or Splendour) as The Greatest Name of God. God's names are seen as attributes, and God is often, in prayers, referred to by these titles and attributes.
  • The Shona people of Zimbabwe refer to God primarily as Mwari. They also use names such as Nyadenga in reference to his presumed residence in the 'heveans', or Musikavanhu, literally "the Creator".
  • Zoroastrians worship Ahura Mazda.
  • To many Native American religions, God is called "The Great Spirit", "The Master of Life", "The Master of Breath", or "Grandfather". For example, in the Algonquian first nations culture, Gitche Manitou or "Great Spirit" was the name adopted by French missionaries for the Christian God. Other similar names may also be used.
  • Followers of Eckankar refer to God as SUGMAD or HU; the latter name is pronounced as a spiritual practice.
  • In Chinese, the name Shang Ti 上帝 ( Hanyu Pinyin: shàng dì) (literally King Above), is the name given for God in the Standard Mandarin Union Version of the Bible. Shen 神 (lit. spirit, or deity) was also adopted by Protestant missionaries in China to refer to the Christian God.

Theological approaches

Theologians and philosophers have ascribed a number of attributes to God, including omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, perfect goodness, divine simplicity, and eternal and necessary existence. He has been described as incorporeal, a personal being, the source of all moral obligation, and the greatest conceivable existent. These attributes were all supported to varying degrees by the early Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars, including St Augustine, Al-Ghazali, and Maimonides. Sigmund Freud regarded this view of God as wish fulfillment for the perfect father figure. Marxist writers see the idea of God as rooted in the powerlessness experienced by men and women in oppressive societies. These however are arguments from motive. Several people in powerful positions have and do hold to the idea of God's existence too.

Many medieval philosophers developed arguments for the existence of God, while attempting to comprehend the precise implications of God's attributes. Reconciling some of those attributes generated important philosophical problems and debates. For example, God's omniscience implies that God knows how free agents will choose to act. If God does know this, their apparent free will might be illusory, or foreknowledge does not imply predestination; and if God does not know it, God is not omniscient.

The last few hundred years of philosophy have seen sustained attacks on the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments for God's existence. Against these, theists (or fideists) argue that faith is not a product of reason, but requires risk. There would be no risk, they say, if the arguments for God's existence were as solid as the laws of logic, a position famously summed up by Pascal as: "The heart has reasons which reason knows not of."

Theologians attempt to explicate (and in some cases systematize) beliefs; some express their own experience of the divine. Theologians ask questions such as, "What is the nature of God?" "What does it mean for God to be singular?" "If people believe in God as a duality or trinity, what do these terms signify?" "Is God transcendent, immanent, or some mix of the two?" "What is the relationship between God and the universe, and God and humankind?"

It is also important to note that most major religions hold God not as a metaphor, but a being that influences our day-to-day existences. This is to say that people who have rejected the teachings of such religions typically view God as a metaphor or stand-in for the common aspirations and beliefs all humans share, rather than a sentient part of life; whereas organized religion tends to believe the opposite.

Many believers allow for the existence of other, less powerful spiritual beings, and give them names such as angels, saints, djinni, demons, and devas.

  • Relation of God to the Universe — Catholic Encyclopedia article

Theism and Deism

Theism holds that God exists realistically, objectively, and independently of human thought; that God created and sustains everything; that God is omnipotent and eternal, and is personal, interested and answers prayer. It holds that God is both transcendent and immanent; thus, God is simultaneously infinite and in some way present in the affairs of the world. Catholic theology holds that God is infinitely simple and is not involuntarily subject to time. Most theists hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, although this belief raises questions about God's responsibility for evil and suffering in the world. Some theists ascribe to God a self-conscious or purposeful limiting of omnipotence, omniscience, or benevolence. Open Theism, by contrast, asserts that, due to the nature of time, God's omniscience does not mean the deity can predict the future. "Theism" is sometimes used to refer in general to any belief in a god or gods, i.e., monotheism or polytheism.

Deism holds that God is wholly transcendent: God exists, but does not intervene in the world beyond what was necessary to create it. In this view, God is not anthropomorphic, and does not literally answer prayers or cause miracles to occur. Common in Deism is a belief that God has no interest in humanity and may not even be aware of humanity. Pandeism and Panendeism, respectively, combine Deism with the Pantheistic or Panentheistic beliefs discussed below.

History of monotheism

16th century Christian view of Genesis: God  creates Adam. The concept of God as a singular patriarchal "Father [of all creation]" is common in Western culture (Abrahamic) monotheism. (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)
16th century Christian view of Genesis: God creates Adam. The concept of God as a singular patriarchal " Father [of all creation]" is common in Western culture ( Abrahamic) monotheism. (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel)

Many historians of religion hold that monotheism may be of relatively recent historical origins — although comparison is difficult as many religions claim to be ancient. Native religions of China and India have concepts of panentheistic views of God that are difficult to classify along Western notions of monotheism vs. polytheism.

In the Ancient Orient, many cities had their own local god, although this henotheistic worship of a single god did not imply denial of the existence of other gods. The Hebrew Ark of the Covenant is supposed (by some scholars) to have adapted this practice to a nomadic lifestyle, paving their way for a singular God. Yet, many scholars now believe that it may have been the Zoroastrian religion of the Persian Empire that was the first monotheistic religion, and the Jews were influenced by such notions (this controversy is still being debated) .

The innovative cult of the Egyptian solar god Aten was promoted by the pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenophis IV), who ruled between 1358 and 1340 BC. The Aten cult is often cited as the earliest known example of monotheism, and is sometimes claimed to have been a formative influence on early Judaism, due to the presence of Hebrew slaves in Egypt. But even though Akhenaten's hymn to Aten offers strong evidence that Akhenaten considered Aten to be the sole, omnipotent creator, Akhenaten's program to enforce this monotheistic world-view ended with his death; the worship of other gods beside Aten never ceased outside his court, and the older polytheistic religions soon regained precedence.

Other early examples of monotheism include two late rigvedic hymns (10.129,130) to a Panentheistic creator god, Shri Rudram, a Vedic hymn to Rudra, an earlier aspect of Shiva often referred to by the ancient Brahmans as Stiva, a masculine fertility god, which expressed monistic theism, and is still chanted today; the Zoroastrian Ahuramazda and Chinese Shang Ti. The worship of polytheistic gods, on the other hand, is seen by many to predate monotheism, reaching back as far as the Paleolithic. Today, monotheistic religions are dominant in the many parts of the world, though other systems of belief continue to be prevalent.

Monotheism and Pantheism

Monotheism holds that there is only one God, and/or that the one true God is worshipped in different religions under different names. The view that all religions are actually worshipping the same God, whether they know it or not, is especially emphasized in Hinduism. It is important to note, however, that monotheists of one religion can, and often do, consider the monotheistic god of a different religion to be a false god. For instance, many Christian fundamentalists consider the God of Islam (Allah) to be a false god or demon. However, theologians and linguists argue that "Allah" is merely the Arabic word for "God," and not the literal name of a specifically Muslim God (this is more clearly shown by the fact that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews refer to God as "Allah" with no problem whatsoever). To Muslims, the Bible is a holy scripture and Jesus is a Holy Prophet (though not the savior and not the last prophet, who was Mohammed). Many Jews consider the messiah of Christianity (Jesus) to be a false god and some monotheists (notably fundamentalist Christians) hold that there is one triune God, and that all gods of other religions are actually demons in disguise (as in 2nd Corinthians 11 verse 14). Eastern religious believers and liberal Christians are more likely to assume those of other faiths worship the same God as they, just under a different name and/or form. Muslims believe that Jesus, although the Messiah and one of the holy Prophets, is not the son of God, because relating God to any partners or spouses or offspring is considered blasphemy and apostasy.

Pantheism holds that God is the universe and the universe is God. Panentheism holds that God contains, but is not identical to, the Universe. The distinctions between the two are subtle, and some consider them unhelpful. It is also the view of the Liberal Catholic Church, Theosophy, Hinduism, some divisions of Buddhism, and Taoism, along with many varying denominations and individuals within denominations. Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, paints a pantheistic/panentheistic view of God — which has wide acceptance in Hasidic Judaism, particularly from their founder The Baal Shem Tov — but only as an addition to the Jewish view of a personal god, not in the original pantheistic sense that denies or limits persona to God.

Speculative dilemmas

Dystheism is a form of theism which holds that God is malevolent as a consequence of the problem of evil. Dystheistic speculation is common in theology, but there is no known church of practicing dystheists. See also Satanism.

Nontheism holds that the universe can be explained without any reference to the supernatural, or to a supernatural being. Some non-theists avoid the concept of God, whilst accepting that it is significant to many; other non-theists understand God as a symbol of human values and aspirations. Many schools of Buddhism may be considered non-theistic.

Existence question

Many arguments for and against the existence of God have been proposed and rejected by philosophers, theologians, and other thinkers. In philosophical terminology, existence of God arguments concern schools of thought on the epistemology of the ontology of God.

There are many philosophical issues concerning the existence of God. Some definitions of God's existence are so nonspecific that it is certain that something exists that meets the definition; while other definitions are apparently self-contradictory. Arguments for the existence of God typically include metaphysical, empirical, inductive, and subjective types. Arguments against the existence of God typically include empirical, deductive, and inductive types. Conclusions reached include God exists and this can be proven; God exists, but this cannot be proven or disproven; God does not exist; and no one knows. Additionally, the weight of popular belief and the overwhelming multiplicity of references to God serve to reify the idea of God -- to make the concept of God seem more probable than it would be in the absence of such attention.

Scientific perspective

There is a lack of consensus as to the appropriate scientific treatment of religious questions, such as those of the existence and nature of God. A major point of debate has been whether God's existence or attributes can be empirically tested.

Some definitions of God equate the deity with "whatever entity created the universe", or in some cases with the universe itself, or with omnipresence in the universe. Some claim that this reduces the God controversy to a question of terminology. In popular controversies, scientific advocates sometimes claim that there is no coherent question to be answered. They allege that the definition of God is too nebulous, varied, controversial, or non-sensical, that those arguing in favour of existence, when presented with evidence against, are always able to claim that the question has been improperly framed.

Over time, scientists have wrestled with the question of whether the Creator was God's only role, how constrained that role could have been, the implications for determinism, and the question of whether or not the God has actively intervened in the affairs of the universe after the Big Bang.

No empirical evidence, such as a miracle or response to prayer has gained scientific consensus as definitive proof of God's existence. Some claim that the multitude of world religions and historical evidence shows that humans invented God, not the other way around. However, the attribution of omnipotence to God gives rise to the "problem of the supernatural". Any omnipotent entity could by definition obscure any confirmatory evidence, or "plant" evidence of its own non-existence.

The percentage of people in European countries who said in 2005 that they believe in God. Countries with Catholic or Muslim majorities tend to poll highest.
The percentage of people in European countries who said in 2005 that they believe in God. Countries with Catholic or Muslim majorities tend to poll highest.

A common view divides the world into what Stephen Jay Gould called "non-overlapping magisteria". In this view, questions of the supernatural, such as those relating to the existence and nature of God, are non-empirical and are the proper domain of religion. The methods of science should then be used to answer any empirical question about the natural world.

One opposing view is that of scientism - any question which cannot be answered by science is either non-sensical or is not worth asking, because there is no empirical answer. This is sometimes related to the principle of Occam's razor.

On a personal level, many scientists believe in God (whether in a non-interventionist or otherwise) and many others do not. For example, about 60% of scientists in the United States expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of deities in 1996. This percentage has been fairly stable over the last 100 years. Among leading scientists defined as members of the National Academy of Sciences, 93% expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of a personal god in 1998. Sigmund Freud regarded God as wish fulfillment for the perfect father figure. This however is an argument from motive.

Opinion statistics

In 2005, approximately 54% of the world's population identifies with one of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions. 15% identified as non-religious. A 1995 survey showed similar numbers for the non-religious, though on the specific question of belief in God, only 3.8% identified as atheist.

Popular culture

God, as a humanized figure, usually taking the form of a man, has often appeared as a character in various works of fiction such as movies, books, and television shows. Though depictions vary, he is usually portrayed as sage, wise, and old, with a patient and calm personality. In cartoons God is usually depicted as a caricature of Michelangelo's classic painting.

  • Depictions of God in popular culture
  • List of appearances of God in fiction
  • Parodies of God and religion

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