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Definition: god from Philip's Encyclopedia

One of the supernatural, divine and usually immortal beings worshipped by followers of polytheistic religions. Also, the single supreme being, creator, and mover of the universe, as worshipped by the followers of monotheistic religions such as Judaism or Islam. Allah is God of Islam and Yahweh is God of Judaism. Christianity, a monotheistic religion, conceives of one God with three elements - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Hinduism, Brahma is considered the soul of the world, but there are lesser gods. See also agnosticism; atheism; Deism; monotheism; polytheism

Summary Article: God
From Encyclopedia of Global Religions

Exemplary instances of globalization can be captured through a variety of economic, political, social, and cultural currents. One cultural current in particular that has spanned the entirety of the globe is the notion of God. Perhaps no other figure of worship has reached so extensively into the past of ancient history and geographically throughout all reaches of the world than the idea of God itself. Although there are religions that focus directly on the worship, existence, guidance, or tyranny of God, no tradition could be said to lay exclusive claim to His or Her invention or creation. It is with this notion of theocratic plurality that any religious tradition may hold insight into the concept of God. This entry will discuss references to God, Goddess, gods and goddesses; qualitative and quantitative theistic categories; attributes of God; globalization of God; and concepts of God.

As contentious differences among religious practitioners and academic scholars have had considerable influence over the interpretation of God-figures, the principles of objectivity and cultural consciousness surrounding depictions of God have always had a lesser role. Terms denoting precivilized, premodern, or even non-Western concepts of God, such as “primitive,” “savage,” “tribal,” or “pagan,” have demonstrated this type of politicism involved in a contextualization of God. Given the potential subjectivity of these discourses, there is little consensus over the religious and/or cultural origins of the idea of God.

The plurality of ideas found within globalization fortifies at least an accepted sense of diversity with regard to these interpretations. However, the notion of syncretism among religious beliefs challenges the linear historical models that situate the intersection of ideas about God and globalization as a new and/or emerging phenomenon. In fact, the foundations on which many of the modern religious traditions were built have had a number of transgeographical/transcultural origins. The building of the Etruscan-Roman mythology borrowed from the Greeks; the influence of Zoroastrianism on the Abrahamic traditions; the sects, chasms, and denominationalism emerging from the Judeo-Christian traditions; and the emergence of eclectic new religious movements in the 20th and 21st centuries are all telling examples of the religious integration prior to modern globalization.

Although God may have always been an eclectically devised entity cast throughout a globally historical and perceptively multidimensional world, the Enlightenment provided a momentum that would establish a footing for burgeoning ideas such as the creation of the nation-state, technological advance, and reasoning that has driven a more intense form of globalization. In an instance of this type of movement, the very etymology of the word God and the variety of terms by which God is referred to demonstrate the diverse ways of conceptualizing a God-figure. Despite specific names given to the deities of particular institutions of worship throughout history, the actual term God derives from the Proto-Germanic word guthan, meaning “to invoke.” While some traditions described God through parables and metaphysical concepts, others transformed God into a carnal living being, even developing hagiographies that support the indoctrination of particular beliefs. Still others understood God as a manifestation of nature and followed God's teachings to incur similar attributes within the harmony of life. Yet regardless of the ontological characteristics that distinguished these understandings of God, the geographical, social, and cultural conceptions that undergirded God's existence were the impetus for major wars, stretches of peace, grounds for exploration and conquest, and the establishment of ancient moral codes and ethical strictures.

To view God today within the global community is to peer into the past and trace an amalgamation of historical religious traditions that have shared at least some homogeneous interpretations of God. However, as differences inevitably emerge, no single tradition holds dominion over the notion of God.

Referring to God, Goddess, Gods, and Goddesses

References to God, Goddess, gods, and goddesses are typically differentiated by classical conceptions based on historical developments of the God-figure itself. The referent “God” expressed with a capital “G” is used as a singular noun, a pronoun in place of a more particular reference to a deity, and at times a proper noun. Similarly, “Goddess” refers to the singular feminine noun, a pronoun in place of a more particular reference, and, less frequently, a proper noun or name of a deity. Within an impoverished lexicon, Goddess can also be substituted by the masculine or unisex pronoun God. The terms gods and goddesses expressed with a lowercase “g” are generally used as plural references to multiple gods, though they can also denote an intentionally ambiguous reference to the notion of God.

Qualitative and Quantitative Theistic Categories

Interpretations of God can be classified according to a variety of quantitative and qualitative categories. There are at least four primary categorical varieties pertaining to the beliefs in God or gods. Quantitative varieties include monotheism, or the belief in and/or worship of a single god, and polytheism, or the belief in and/or worship of several gods. Parallel categories of these quantitative varieties include henotheism, which is the belief in one god combined with the belief in the possibility of other existing gods, and monolatrism, which denotes the worship of one god while recognizing the existence of other gods.

A telling example that demonstrates more than one of these quantitative varieties can be found in the early emergence of differing devotional affinities in ancient Israel during the sixth century BCE. The diversity of faiths during that period held a polytheistic scope pertaining to multiple deities. Although the early Israelites were considered monotheists as prescribed by Hebrew scriptures, the presence of polytheism has led some scholars to conclude that these Israelites may have operated under the principles of monolatrism or even henotheism.

Among qualitative interpretations of God, there are pantheism and panentheism. Where the former refers to God's existence as an equivalent entity to the universe itself, the latter refers to the notion of God as equivalent to the universe, yet adds that God is also greater than the universe with regard to time and space.

Animistic traditions of Japan have often been associated with pantheism. The animistic-based religion of Shintoism involves the polytheistic worship of spirits that take on tangible forms in nature, such a rocks and plants. Shintoism demonstrates a pantheistic feature through the worship of several deities as equivalent to a nature-based universe.

Panentheism may be found among many traditions of the Indian subcontinent. Religious doctrines undergirding the belief in God found within Sikhism—a monotheistic religion geographically surrounded by polytheistic traditions—incorporate an example of a panentheistic concept of God. The Sikh God-figure, Vahiguru, is considered to be larger than the universe itself and is thus of the panentheistic variety.

Attributes of God

Although there are several attributes associated with the conceptions of God, there are at least three that are commonly used across the majority of traditions: omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. As each of these attributes includes the prefix omni—a derivative of the Latin term omnis, denoting “every”—these terms suggest an expression of an all-encompassing feature of the suffix that follows.


Omnipresence, or the always present nature of God, may be viewed through several Christian traditions that have adopted the concept of the Trinity. In accordance with the Nicene Creed of the early fourth century, the Trinity expresses the existence of God as constituted through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Although there may be other symbolic expressions of the omnipresence of God, the Trinity demonstrates how the presence of God is embodied separately and simultaneously among three vital figures that make up the foci of the Christian tradition.


Omnipotence denotes an all-powerful attribute of God. The Jewish God of the Hebrew scriptures is viewed as an omnipotent figure. In the Book of Exodus, the prophet Moses leads the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt with the assistance of God. According to the text, God is said to have implemented deadly plagues in an attempt to coerce the Pharaoh and the Egyptians to release His people. This show of power over the destiny of man is an example of the omnipotence of God.


Omniscience denotes an all-knowing attribute. Among the 99 terms used for God in Islam, there are at least 11 names that suggest the omniscience of God, including Al-Hakam (“Adjudicator”), Al-Mujeeb (“Response Giver”), Al-Haseeb (“Thinker”), Al-Mu'min (“Affirmer of Truth”), Al-Bari' (“Corrector”), Al-Hakeem (“Wise”), Al-Khabeer (“All-Aware”), Al-Wajid (“Perceiver”), Al-Muqutadir (“Determiner”), Ar-Rashid (“Teacher”), and Al-Alim (“Omniscient”). Although the first 10 could be considered attributes of omniscience, the 11th, Al-Alim, in particular, is a direct indication of the omniscience of Islam's God.

Globalization of God

The globalization of God can be most frequently found in the textual similarities between religious traditions and the adoption of religious doctrines by influential rulers. As no religion has grown as vast and large as Christianity, the concept of the Christian God is particularly telling. One reference to the globalization of the Christian God comes from the interpretation of presence and dominion. The biblical story of Jacob's ladder found in the Book of Genesis tells the story of Jacob's vision of a ladder to heaven. In the story, the Hebrew God speaks to Jacob and conveys a future inheritance to Jacob's people, stating his dominion over territories beyond Jacob's local area. In this way, textual references to God's jurisdiction demonstrate the way in which a concept of God can expand over a vast portion of a variety of geographic locations.

The history of religious ideas has also shown an inseparable relationship between the talent of humankind in expressing their convictions and the vast migrations of people abroad. The missionary movements of the Christian saint Paul and the translation of the Vulgate by Saint Jerome illustrate the mobility of humankind's influence over the concept of God. In addition, the early-third-century Roman emperor Constantine's conversion has also had an enormous impact on the proliferation of a Christian God.

Concepts of God

The concept of God varies over time and space. Even traditions that are said to be associated with each other have held different interpretations of what the concept of God constitutes. Among the Abrahamic traditions, there are monotheistic interpretations of God where, in some instances, a mixture of human and mortal contributes to an image of the deity (i.e., Christianity). Within many of the Eastern and African traditions, polytheistic interpretations of God draw out several different components of a variety of gods that serve as vast representations of one single God or God-like entity. New religious movements have held eclectic interpretations of their gods, and in some instances, they have deemphasized a standard model for conceptualizing God. Yet one certainty that is found among all these differing traditions is that each one has had to deal discursively with a concept of God.

Abrahamic Traditions

The concept of God among the Abrahamic traditions may have begun well before the time of Abraham through the creation myths of Sumerians. Though there are obvious distinctions between the pre-Abrahamic traditions and those of ancient Mesopotamia, the similarities between stories suggest a type of cultural and historical continuity that extends to the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Within Judaism, Hebrew scriptures used the tetragrammaton of YHVH for the expression of God. Subsequently, English transliterations of YHVH have resulted in names such as “Yahveh,” “Yahweh,” and “Jahveh,” all of which have been used to describe God within Judeo-Christian religions. The God of Judaism is considered an eternal entity bearing no anthropomorphic attributes. For Judaism, God is said to have created the entirety of the earth.

The God of Christianity grows out of the Jewish tradition through a contiguous interpretation of Hebrew scripture connected to the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians believe in a Trinitarian concept of God whereby the three entities God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit constitute an all-encompassing Godhead.

In Islam, the Muslim version of God is referred to in Arabic as Allah, though the term is also used among all Arabic-speaking members of faiths within the Abrahamic traditions as the name for God. According to Islam, the concept of God is strictly monotheistic and has the attributes of omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence over all things. Despite these all-encompassing attributes, the God of Islam cannot be realized as incarnate.

Traditions of the Americas

The pre-European traditions within what is now known as the Americas date back at least as far as the 12th century BCE. For roughly the next 2,700 years, several hundred cultural civilizations, including the Olmec, Chavin, Adena, Mogollon, Inuit, Maya, Inca, and Aztec, would worship thousands of gods through polytheism. A sample of these gods includes the fertility goddess of the Inuit, Akna; the Incan god of rain, Kon; the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli; and the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, found across a variety of Mesoamerican traditions.

After the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, formally beginning in the mid-16th century, practitioners of Mesoamerican traditions assimilated to Christianity or practiced their religions in secret. However, in much more common practices—inclusive of a system of slavery that accompanied European migration—some Mesoamerican traditions underwent a synchronization of religious belief, practice, and conceptualization of the gods. As a result of this synchronization, many religions became infused with new notions of God that reflected myriad African, American, and European traditions. A sample of these new versions of God includes the Orixá manifestations of several new world religions; Nana Buruku of Vodou and Candomblé; Olodumare of Candomblé; and Jah or his Ethiopian incarnate, Emperor Halie Selassie I (1892-1975).

Eastern Religions

Within Hindu traditions, there are certainly beliefs about the existence of several different gods—denoting polytheism—yet that does not necessarily preclude the worship of only one god or all gods as an extension of a God. Furthermore, this polytheistic categorization is complicated by early-19th-century Orientalist interpretations of Hindu traditions as the unified religion of “Hinduism.” In contrast to such misleading assumptions, there are complex differences among Hindu gods that extend well beyond Western interpretations of quantitative or qualitative theistic categories. One misconception therein holds that Hindus worship Vedic gods guided by the textual foundation of the Vedas themselves. However, scholars of Indology have pointed out that the Vedas are not as central to the Hindu system of beliefs as some might presume. Rather, Vedic gods and texts are influential though not central to Hindu beliefs.

For these Hindu traditions, the more commonly recognized interpretations of God would revolve around a three-faced expression of gods known as the Trimurti. This Trimurti consists of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). From these three expressions comes a variety of avatars and consorts that make up the Hindu pantheon of gods.

Out of these traditions of the Indian subcontinent, the teachings of the fourth-century BCE figure Siddhartha Gautama established the philosophical principles known as Buddhism. Although the general philosophy of Buddhism does not include a concept of God, some traditions have adopted the adoration and worship of the Buddha, and others who have achieved enlightenment, as God.

Within Sikhism, God is known as Vahiguru, or “wonderful master/teacher.” As strict monotheists—often a pronounced feature as a distinction from any form of Hinduism—Sikhs may realize the Vahiguru through discipline and practice of their faith, but they do not describe the Vahiguru in mortal terms.

Greco-Roman Traditions

The Greco-Roman traditions embody entire pantheons of gods from religious and mythological contexts. The close relations and adaptations of these figures across Greek and Roman history exponentially increase the number of their gods. In this way, the Greco-Roman traditions have been interpreted within the framework of polytheism. The major categorical pantheons include the primordial gods (Aether, Chaos, Chronos, Erebus, Eros, Gaia, Hemera, Nyx, Ophion, Tartarus, and Uranus); the Titans (Oceanus Tethys, Hyperion, Theia, Coeus, Pheobe, Mnemosyne, Themis, Chronus, and Rhea); and the Olympians (Aphrodite/Venus, Apollo, Ares/Mars, Athena/Minerva, Artemis/Diana, Demeter/Ceres, Hephaestus/Vulcan, Hermes/Mercury, Hestia/Vesta, Poseidon/Neptune, and Zeus/Jupiter).

New Religious Movements

One feature of new religious movements is their tendency to operate in an eclectic fashion that allows for a variety of differentiation with regard to their conceptions of God. Religions such as the International Raëlian Movement, the Unarius Academy of Science, and the Aetherius Society all share beliefs in an assortment of extraterrestrial gods and celestial prophets from a futuristic interpretation of the cosmos.

Christian-oriented new religious movements, including the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, all share a belief in Jesus Christ as their Savior; however, they differ drastically from the traditional Trinitarian model as well as the hagiography used in support of Christ's narrative found among mainstream Christian traditions. Members of the Jehovah's Witnesses reject the Trinity doctrine of Christianity in favor of a more separated model of God, opting instead to believe in Jehovah as their God and Jesus Christ as God's son. The Mormons also believe in the separation of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. In addition, the Mormon's informal belief that God is married breaks considerably from much of Christ's hagiography within Christianity.

See also

Atheism, Axial Age, Global Religion, Globalization, Goddess, Myth, Polytheism, World Theology

Further Readings
  • Armstrong, K. (1994). A history of god: The 4,000-year quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Eliade, M. (1978). A history of religious ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian mysteries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Eliade, M. (1982). A history of religious ideas: From Guatama Buddha to the triumph of Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kurtz, L. (1995). Gods in the global village: The world's religions in sociological perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
  • Madan, T. N. (2003). Thinking globally about Hinduism. In Juergensmeyer, M. (Ed.), Global religions: An introduction (pp. 52-62). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Stark, R. (2007). Discovering God: The origins of the great religions and the evolution of belief. New York: HarperOne.
  • Weber, M. (1951). The religion of China. New York: Free Press.
  • Murguía, Salvador Jiménez
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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