Countless religious and philosophical thinkers have produced conceptions of God throughout human history. These conceptions do, as we shall see, vary between the religions and their primary figures. This article presents in alphabetical order seventeen major conceptions of deity. This article is not exhaustive and will be updated over time. In particular, the following conceptions of deity are mentioned in this article:
- The God of Aristotle
- The God of Augustine
- The God of Classical Theism
- The God of Deism
- The God of Dualism
- The God of Fideism
- The Goddess
- The God of Immanuel Kant and His Influence on Later Thinkers
- The God of the Kabbalists
- The God of Monism
- The God of Monotheism
- The God of Mysticism
- The God of Plato
- The God of Plotinus
- The Gods and Goddesses of Polytheism
- The God of the Skeptics
Aristotle, The God of
The God of Aristotle (385-322 BCE) is an immaterial, eternal, self-contemplating unmoved mover. How did Aristotle arrive at this idea? He reasons that everything that is in motion owes its movement to something else. Looking at the brilliant night sky he sees the movement of celestial bodies such as the planets and the stars. These celestial objects not only appear to move but they also never stopped moving. Aristotle hypothesizes that there must be something moving them but that itself does not move. He refers to this as the unmoved mover. Aristotle reasons that it is impossible to have an infinite regress of moved movers and that there must be a primary mover that is not moved by anything else. For instance, if A moves then it must be moved by some B, and if B is in motion then it must be moved by some C, and if C is in motion it must be moved by some D, and so on. Aristotle argues that this series cannot go on eternally and must come to a stop in a cause of motion that does not move itself. Without positing a first unmoved mover one becomes stuck in an infinite regress, where each answer only raises the same question all over again. Aristotle identified the primary, initial mover with God. Aristotle further suggests that God is eternally thinking of itself: “The divine mind, then, must think itself, and its thinking is a thinking of thinking.”
Augustine, The God of
The Christian theologian St. Augustine (354-430 CE) conceived of God as being simple yet also omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (all-present), and morally good. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe that he created from nothing. God need not have created the universe but desired to do so out of his love. Time and space began at creation and creation itself is good. Evil, according to St. Augustine, is a lack of good and without positive existence. God is not therefore responsible for evil in the universe although evil can be used for a purpose, such as to show what is good within God. Unlike Aristotle’s God who contemplates itself, Augustine’s God chooses to love his creatures to the point of incarnating himself in Jesus Christ so that human beings can be reconciled to himself. God is far from detached to human affairs. He is active in history and is concerned with individuals and nations.
Brahman is of central interest in the Vedic Upanishads (the earliest of which probably date to the eighth century BCE) and is considered to be the supreme existence or absolute reality. The Upanishads depict Brahman with great variation, but generally agree that it is eternal, infinite, conscious, irreducible, omnipresent, and the spiritual core of the universe of finiteness and change.
There have been various interpretations of Brahman according to the different philosophical schools of Hinduism. The monist, non-dualist Advaita school views Brahman as distinctive to the phenomenal world. Shankara (c. 700- c. 750 CE), for example, saw it as erroneous to take the phenomenal world of experience for the real one. He believed that Brahman is real, that the phenomenal world is unreal, and that change and plurality are therefore illusory. Shankara identified the self with Brahman and that coming to an awareness of this fact would lead one to attain moksha or release from rebirth (samsara).
The dualist-nondualist school, also known as the Bhedabheda school, views the world and Brahman as identical and affirms the self to be both different and not different from Brahman.
The dualist school of Vedanta affirms the complete difference between the individual self and Brahman and between the world and Brahman. This school is in direct opposition to the monistic, non-dualist view of Shankara.
The common Hindu belief that Brahman permeates all things is portrayed in a dialogue between a sage, Uddalaka Aruni, and his son, Svetaketu, in the Chandogya Upanishad. According to this story, Aruni asks his son to bring a fig from a tree and slice it open. Svetaketu obeys and once having cut the fig his father asks what he sees. Svetaketu replies by saying “seeds”, upon which Aruni asks him to now divide the seed. Svetaketu divides a seed and his father asks him what he sees, but the boy says that he sees “nothing.” According to Aruni, there is an important lesson here, which is essentially about the nature of reality: just as the seed is made of nothing so is the fig tree from which it comes. Its essence or soul is “nothingness.” According to this reasoning, the analysis of any solid object will inevitably lead to an invisible essence that is present within everything. This is what Brahman is, and it applies to human beings, just as it does to figs and fig trees.
Classical Theism, The God of
The God of classical theism is ascribed several metaphysical attributes: incorporeality, simplicity, timelessness, immutability, and impassibility. Being incorporeal, God is non-physical and has no body. References in religious texts to God having body parts, like eyes, ears, a mind, etc., are seen as anthropomorphic rather than literal. According to simplicity, God is an absolutely undifferentiated unity who has no distinct attributes. Each of God’s real or intrinsic properties is identical to his other real or intrinsic properties and with his being or nature. God is also timeless. He exists outside of time and has no temporal location or extension. He is similar to abstract objects like numbers but is not an abstract object himself; rather he is perfect life or activity. As immutable, God cannot change and he cannot lose a property or acquire another. This goes with God’s timelessness. God cannot change because change entails a temporal transition from one state to another. As impassible, God creates, sustains, and governs the world. The world depends on him both for its being and its qualities. Although God affects the world, nothing in the world acts on God or causally affects him. Creatures in the world are dependent upon God, but God does not depend on them or anything else.
Deism, The God of
During the period of the Enlightenment, a philosophical form of theism called deism emerged. This view sees reason as the primary source of knowledge of God and excludes knowledge derived from divine revelation. The result of this is that knowledge of the deistic God is minimal. Deism was also influenced by the mechanical precision and predictability espoused by the Newtonian view of the universe that too emerged during the period. Such a view left no room for outside causes and therefore little to no room for divine intervention. God is indeed viewed as the creator of the universe but he does not intervene in it after having created it. Religious activities like prayer are seen as pointless because God doesn’t intervene in his creation.
Dualism, The God of
Some religions are dualistic in that they hold to the cosmos constituting two basic, conflicting forces or principles. Zoroastrianism, founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in Persia, posits a conflict between two opposing forces, namely between the forces of cosmic order and those of chaos and destruction. This conflict dominates the visible world just as it dominates the invisible and spiritual domains. This battle will end with the defeat of evil and the emergence of a paradise on Earth. This dualistic battle occurs between the supreme god Ahura Mazda and the evil god Ahriman. Ahura Mazda creates a pantheon of righteous spiritual beings, the Beneficial Immortals. Equally, Ahriman creates destructive spiritual beings. This dualism also occurs in material creation: Ahura Mazda creates useful animals like dogs, but Ahriman creates harmful animals like reptiles; Ahura Mazda creates countries of the Earth, but Ahriman curses each one with a specific ailment like long winters, swarms of locusts, and moral defects in its inhabitants. Despite this dualistic conflict between two gods, Zoroastrianism is considered monotheistic as Ahura Mazda is supreme.
The historical religion of Manichaeism, founded by the Prophet Mani (217-274 CE) near Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), is also dualistic and posits the two conflicting principles of light and darkness, both eternal and originally separate. The realm of light is ruled by Father of Light (or Greatness), a supreme god. According to Mani, the soul had fallen into the material world where it is now trapped in darkness. God will, however, send a saviour to awaken those who have fallen asleep in the darkness. The only means for attaining salvation is by knowledge and direct experience of the Light. Sex is thought to have a negative contributive role as it intends to produce as many bodies as possible to trap the light, which is why Manichees stressed refraining from sex and for married followers to observe strict monogamy. Manichaeism was also a salvation religion as it taught Light will win the battle in the end against the darkness.
There were traces of dualism in ancient Egyptian religion in the contrast between the gods Seth and Osiris. Seth was considered violent and aggressive and was connected to disorder, the desert, and loneliness; Osiris, by contrast, is associated with fertility and life who is active in the waters of the Nile.
The Hellenistic religious movement of Gnosticism viewed matter as evil and spirit as good. Some forms of Gnosticism also posited a dualism between light and darkness.
The God of Fideism
Fideism focuses on the relationship between faith and reason and is often thought to have been best expressed in the church father Tertullian’s (160–230 CE) question: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Here Tertullian is indirectly stating that religious faith (symbolized as Jerusalem) is independent of, if not adversarial toward, reason (Athens). Fideism is also the claim that one’s fundamental religious convictions are not subject to independent rational assessment.
Fideism presupposes that some sort of truth can be known by rejecting rational inquiry and relying on faith. Faith is the source of certainty, which puts fideism in opposition to rationalistic attempts to articulate religious belief. Rationalistic attempts to articulate religion often focus on philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God and divine revelation. Fideism, by contrast, does not seek rational proofs. In some sense, “proving” God seems to undermine faith because this would seem to explain what is ultimately empirically unprovable and inexplicable. Some fideists have, however, attempted to defend religious faith on other non-rationalistic grounds, such as on revelation from God, mystical experience, and subjective human need. For many thinkers, fideism can be seen not as an opposition to reason but, rather, the rejection of a particular account of reason that has been applied to religion. In particular, the objection is made to evidentialism, namely the view that a belief can be rational only if it is supported by evidence.
The Goddess movement holds to a feminist conception of deity that rejects perceived patriarchal religion and embraces women’s liberation. The Goddess movement can include proponents of various religious traditions; these include, but are not limited to, Neo-Pagans, New Age spiritualists, and Wiccans who often celebrate the goddesses once worshipped by ancient peoples. Very ancient religious artifacts dating back over 20 000 years, such as the Venus figurines, depicting what many scholars believe is a goddess and thus a pre-historical goddess fertility religion has inspired proponents of the Goddess movement. The Goddess conception of deity takes three major forms:
 The Goddess is a divine female, a personification who can be invoked in prayer and ritual,
 The Goddess is a symbol of the life, death, and rebirth energy in nature and culture, in personal and communal life,
 The Goddess is a symbol of the affirmation of the legitimacy and beauty of female power (made possible by the new becoming of women in the women’s liberation movement).
Immanuel Kant’s God and His Influence on Later Thinkers
The God of the German rationalist philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one that is immune to logical proof and disproof. Kant’s philosophy had limited human knowledge to only that of appearances (the phenomenal world) and had placed God and the soul in the unknowable realm of things in themselves (noumenal world) and that cannot be directly perceived. As a result, it is impossible to disprove God or the soul. God is ultimately elusive to our rationality as suggested in Kant’s claim to “deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”. God is nonetheless an idea that has regulative value for human thinking because it provides a sense of unity to human experience and has moral significance. God grounds moral beliefs and ensures a connection between virtue and happiness.
Kant’s views of religion and belief in God influenced many important thinkers who came after him. In what is known as the Kantian Paradigm in the field of religious studies, Kant presented a scheme that later thinkers used to theorize concerning the essence and nature of religion. Kant saw the essence of religion being located in one of three modes of human expression: feelings (morality), thinking, or aesthetics. Kant thought morality is what best explains human religiosity and therefore proposed it to be the essence of religion. Other thinkers, like Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889), Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), Erwin Goodenough (1893-1965), and so on., added to the scheme or selected one of its modes to theorize about religion and belief in God. Kant’s significance lies in the fact that his thought set a trend that resulted in the shift of focus on theorizing about religion. The shift was away from objective knowledge of God to an emphasis on personal experience of God as a Spirit immanent in everything. Schleiermacher, for example, saw the essence of religion as being the feeling of dependence on God and the desire to be absorbed into something greater than oneself. Such attempts were apologetic in nature because they attempted to demonstrate that belief in God was rooted in a legitimate mode of human expression, rather than being something alien or irrational.
Kabbalists, The God of the
The Kabbalah, a mystical Jewish movement that emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE, identifies the first principle with Ein Sof or infinite. The Ein Sof is “the hidden God” who is both the endless and ineffable. It is without attributes or qualities and is non-personal although it reveals itself as personal. It is in the sefirot, conceived as divine spheres or realms, that the hidden God reveals itself. The sefirot are depicted widely: these are the names God gives himself that together form his “one great name.” They also form God’s faces or garments. They are the beams of his light and sometimes depicted as the branches of a tree whose root is the Ein Sof. The branches extend through the whole of the created order and all created things exist because the power of the sefirot lives and acts in them. There are ten sefirot or stages in God’s self-manifestation or emanations. These emanations are given names such as Wisdom, Understanding, Kingdom, Splendor, Greatness, Thought, Power, and so on. Wisdom, for example, believed to be “ideal thought” and sometimes depicted as a fountain, emanates from the Crown or Nothingness. From this “fountain” the other sefirot flow. The sefirot are the seed from which everything develops.
Monism/Pantheism, The God of
Philosophical monism posits that all objects and phenomena are reducible to a single substance, which places it in direct opposition to dualistic worldviews that distinguish between matter and spirit, the body and the soul, and subject and object. Regarding conceptions of deity, monism is pantheistic in that it posits no distinction between God and the universe. God is conceived as being a part of the universe or, alternatively, the universe does not exist but is only a manifestation or phenomenon of God. Some religions see God as the sole Supreme Reality from whom all other reality is derived. This view differs from monotheism (see Monotheism, The God of) which, although not denoting that God is within creation, rejects the notion that God is himself creation or comprises creation.
The philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) believed in a God that is infinite and indivisible. God exists necessarily (he is self-caused) and he is the unique and only substance of the universe. As the only substance of the universe, all other things that exist are in God. Spinoza writes: “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.”
Monotheism, The God of
Monotheism is the belief in a single God and is therefore in contrast to polytheism, which is the belief in the existence of many gods and goddesses. Exclusive monotheism (the belief in only one God and the rejection of the existence of all other gods), unless imported or produced by foreign influences, seems to have been absent in China, India, and in the religions of the ancient Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. The three major exclusive monotheistic faiths in the world today are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. All three religions affirm the belief in a single God who is the transcendent creator and sustainer of the universe. God is considered holy and worthy of worship. He is also seen as distinct to creation rather than being a part of creation (see Monism, The God of).
It is widely accepted by biblical and Old Testament scholars that the religion of the early Israelites was neither monotheistic nor polytheistic; rather, it was monolatric. The existence of other gods was not rejected, but Israel was to worship only Yahweh. Yahweh was the God of Israel and the people’s worship was reserved exclusively for him. Jewish monotheism first developed in the sixth century BCE.
Christianity holds to a unique form of monotheism in that the religion posits the existence of one God but who is manifest in three distinct Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is not belief in three gods, or tritheism, but the belief in three distinct persons who are conceived as being one God.
Islam stresses the importance of affirming the oneness of God. The Shahada, which is the Islamic profession of faith, states that “there is no God but Allah.” To conjoin or partner anything lesser with the Absolute God is to commit the greater sin of shirk. This sin is in particular directed at polytheistic religion and Christians, the latter of whom the Qur’an states are tritheists.
There are various other forms of monotheism. Possibly the earliest form came in the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton (Amenophis IV, r. 1353-1336 BCE) of the fourteenth century BCE. Akhenaton presented a reform religion that some scholars view as monotheistic. He singled out Aton, one of the forms of the sun god, for worship and he later claimed to be its living incarnation. Initially, Akhenaton’s belief in Aton seems to have been henotheistic (the worship of one god in preference to all others) which gradually developed into exclusive monotheism. However, Akhenaton’s religion did not survive his death.
In evolutionary theories of religion, monotheism has sometimes been said to constitute a later development from polytheism. This is not an accepted theory today and not all historical theorists agreed; Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954), for example, posited a primordial monotheism as the earliest form of religious belief behind the various polytheistic faiths that developed from it. Generally speaking, scholars criticize such theories for their speculative nature and tendency to extrapolate beyond the available evidence. Evolutionary theories of religion also tend to be immune to empirical verification, although some more recent scholars such as Robert Bellah (1927-2013) have revived such theories.
Mysticism, the God of
It is not possible in this short article to take into consideration the diverse mystical traditions, but it is possible to provide a brief generality along with a few examples. Mysticism is the relationship to mystery (the term derives from the Greek noun mystes, which initially referred to an initiate of a secret cult or mystery religion) and, particularly in religion, is the desire for the human being or the human soul to attain an intimate union with, or the divine, or some transcendent reality. Mysticism can include engaging in ecstatic states of alternate consciousness.
There is mysticism in various Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish figures and movements throughout the ages. Many Hindus, for example, seek to have their soul be absorbed into Brahman, the Ultimate Reality (See Brahman). The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE – 40 CE) taught that every man can reach a mystical state and be absorbed into the divine where he is freed from matter. Plotinus (205-270 CE) saw the purpose of philosophy as awakening oneself to the reality existing beyond the material world (see Plotinus, The God of). One can, Plotinus believed, draw closest to the One by uniting with the Soul in a mystical union through attaining a new kind of awareness. Meister Eckhart (1260- c. 1327) believed it is possible to attain a union between the individual soul and God. He described four stages of such a union: dissimilarity, similarity, identity, and breakthrough. These constitute a ladder of sorts through which one can transition to attain this union. Various Christian mystics have claimed to have experiences of the Divine that transcend distinctions, is beyond time and change, and on which everything else is absolutely dependent.
Islamic Sufism, which first emerged in the early Umayyad Dynasty (661-749 CE), has always involved ascetic training and mystical contemplation. The Sufis wanted to purify their consciousness which held to a dualism between oneself as a subject and God as an object. The Sufis thus came to refer to a union with God, sometimes even merging or becoming one with God. They believed that through the annihilation of the ego, one could make room for God and, in a sense, become God. There is the notion of the “oneness of being” that for some Sufis, including contemporary devotees, posits God being manifest in and one with everything, in particular the human being.
Plato, The God of
The God of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BCE) is transcendent, intangible, unchangeable, and perfect. God is also the origin of the Forms that it uses to fashion an eternal universe. Plato’s God is not one who is the creator of the universe from nothing (ex nihilo); rather, Plato’s God is more of a shaper and organizer of primal matter. God is unchangeable because things that change degrade and get worse; as Plato reflects: “It is impossible then, said I, even for a god to wish to alter himself, but, as it appears, each of them, being the fairest and best possible, abides forever simply in his own form.” God is the first-cause or we are left with an infinite regress of causes. Plato also thinks that because planetary motion is uniform and circular, planets must be driven by a rational soul which could be called gods.
Plotinus, The God of
The Neo-Platonic God of Plotinus (204-270 CE) is presented in a series of emanations that overflow from the One. The One is ineffable, absolutely simple (without multiplicity), uncreated, indestructible, omnipresent, and transcendent. It is both self-caused and the cause of being for everything else in the universe. From the one emanates the Intellect or the Nous (sometimes referred to as God or the Demiurge). The Intellect contemplates the generative power that emanates from the One (it recognizes the One as its source) and it also contemplates its own thoughts. It is the locus of the Platonic Forms. The Ideas that human beings seem to have an intuition of, such as of the perfect Circle or absolute Beauty, are the thoughts of God. The human mind is a part of the Intellect which is why human beings can think of the ideal Circle or Beauty. From the Intellect emanates the Soul. The Soul comes to generate a separate, material cosmos that it orders and maintains in being. It also contemplates the Intelligence and extends itself by actualizing its own thoughts. Plotinus divides the Soul into a “higher part” and “lower part.” The former is contemplative and is in constant contact with the Intellect; the latter descends into the sensible realm to govern and assumes a state of division as it enters material bodies (this is called Nature). The Soul becomes temporarily corrupted and forgets it is one of the Intelligibles that owes its existence to the Intellect. By consequence, it forgets that it owes itself ultimately to the power of the One. The result is that the lower part undergoes the experience of suffering and vice while the higher part remains unaffected. The higher part remains governing the material world while ensuring that all individual, embodied souls return, eventually, to their divine and true state within the Intelligible Realm.
For Plotinus, the purpose of philosophy is to awaken oneself to the reality existing beyond the material world. What ultimately matters for one’s life is its relation to the Soul. It is by uniting with the Soul (of which the person is already a part) in a mystical union that one can get closest to the One (see Mysticism, The God of). To ascend to the Soul is to awaken a new kind of awareness. Alternatively, to limit oneself to the lower levels of material existence and to the life of the body will prevent one from ever ascending to the Soul. This is why Neo-Platonism has viewed the earthly body negatively and as a hindrance to the intellectual and spiritual life.
Polytheism, The Gods and Goddesses of
Polytheism is the belief in the existence of many gods and goddesses. Most religions have been, and are, polytheistic. There is a great variety of polytheistic religions. In some, certain gods received a central place, such as Zeus in ancient Greek religion and Marduk in ancient Babylonian religion. In others, there are various strands, such as in Hinduism for example, that identify the gods and goddesses as many aspects of a Supreme Being. The religion of the African Yoruba holds to a belief in many orishas who are used by the Supreme Being Olodumare. In various traditions of Buddhism, the gods are seen as secondary importance to other spiritual concerns and goals.
Some forms of polytheism can be referred to as kathenotheistic and monolatric. Kathenotheism holds to a belief in many gods but maintains that only one deity at a time should be worshipped. Monolatrism is the belief in many gods although worship is given to one deity as only one deity is seen as being worthy of worship. Many polytheistic religions add additional supernatural beings into their cosmology. These can include spirits, demons, and various malevolent forces. Natural forces are sometimes seen as spirits or divinities, such as gods and goddesses associated with the sun (the Shinto goddess Amaterasu), rain (the Aztec god Tlaloc; the Vedic god Indra), fire (the Vedic god Agni), and the sky (in the ancient Greek god Zeus).
Skeptics, The God of the
Whereas a number of thinkers attempted to defend religion’s legitimacy through articulating its connection to authentic modes of human expression, many thinkers in the Western tradition presented theories that, if true, would undermine religious belief, especially belief in God. Such thinkers agreed that there is an essence to religion but they saw this essence as delusion or illusion.
German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) believed that religion had a fundamental essence that could be discovered. However, he saw that this essence as unreal and false. Feuerbach agreed with how others conceived of religion, namely to be a product of imagination, illusory, or the result of faculties that produced fictions. He saw religion as a mere projection and as something deceptive, unreal, and opposed to being factual (not something objectively or empirically real). He focused on Christianity and contended that the God of Christianity was an illusion. He further argued that because religion put so much focus on the supernatural and God it took away the much-needed human attention that is required to improve society. The false promises of religion deluded humans into believing that they needed things that they did not and often convinced them that they could not improve upon their own social and economic conditions. Religion resulted in wasted energy because it used the energy that could have been utilized in improving the human condition.
The German philosopher and social theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883) also provided his critique of religion although he did not address the topic as much as he did many other subjects. Marx is most well-remembered for his social ideas and theories which hinged on the notion that human societies develop through class struggle between the bourgeois (the rulers and those who own things) and the proletariat (the common workers who work for the bourgeoisie). Marx believed that religion also developed and is the result of productive and economic forces. Religion represents a process against whatever dehumanizing conditions keep human beings in social and political bondage. Marx believed that should such dehumanizing conditions be absent then religion would also not be necessary. He reasoned that by disposing of political, cultural, and social dehumanization one could essentially eliminate religion.
Feuerbach’s thought influenced the anti-Christian publicist, philosopher, and theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874). Similarly, Strauss viewed religion to constitute mythology and therefore not constituting something objectively, empirically, and historically real. Christianity, for example, was created due to wish-making and to fulfill the desires of the earliest Christian community.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) rejected belief in God as weak and untenable. He is famous for his proclamation of the (not literal) death of God but, unlike some other skeptics, he did not view God’s death as something to celebrate. It is no longer tenable to believe in God and this, reasoned Nietzsche, has serious ramifications for human notions of meaning, purpose, and morality.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) regarded God as a projection of the mind and thus a product of wishful thinking. Religion belongs to the realm of illusion and is a fabrication produced out of a desire to fulfill a wish. Freud suggested that religion is a product of human weakness and helplessness, and that religious experiences are expressions of human action and thought. He particularly directed his attacks against Christianity and Judaism.