God vs gods – Is the difference only capitalisation?

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There is a common and persistent misunderstanding about the difference in meaning between the words God and god. Many people fail to distinguish between them as if the only thing at stake was the correct capitalization of words. But this transcends mere grammar. The meaning of the word God is as different from gods as it is from atoms, or chairs or any other thing within the natural world. They occupy entirely different levels of reality.

The word god refers to beings within the world. If they exist, they exist as part of the collection of things which compose the contents of reality. And because this is the sort of thing they are, there can be lots of them. The question of the existence of gods is an empirical question.

By contrast, the question of capital G God is one of metaphysics. God isn’t a being among beings, one element within the collection of things that exist. God is the source of the entire collection itself. God is both transcendent to, and immanent within, the entire reality.

God is the alpha and omega, the absolute, the cause of all causes, the source and foundation of all that exists. It isn’t technically accurate to say God exists, because God doesn’t exist in the same way everything else does. God is the cause. Everything else is God’s effect. The entire world is something derived from God, something which stands only in relation to God and has no meaning without him.

This is how all the major religious traditions understand the word God. This understanding is common to Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Bahai. Little g gods are part of nature, and bear no resemblance to God.

What are gods?

Little g gods can be classified into two types. Mythic heroes and heroines, or personifications of nature. Mythic heroes like Odin and Apollo aren’t said to create the universe, they depend on the universe to exist. Personifications of nature like the Greek god Helios are in one sense literally the sun, the bright thing we all see in the sky. But exactly what the Greeks believed about Helios, based on what they recorded in their mythology, is difficult to know for sure.

Mythology wasn’t intended as a metaphysical treatise, but a narrative to give insight into the human condition and how to live. When we read mythology we only have access to the text, not the subtext. That subtext is the cultural context that is assumed by everyone of the time. The cultural understanding which is taken so much for granted, it goes without saying.

Imagine if someone unfamiliar with our cultural context interpreted a comment the u-tube algorithm was trying to humiliate someone when it made embarrassing suggestions about which shows to watch. Would that be interpreted as a belief the algorithm was alive and had a will? We all know that is only a way of speaking.

We personify an insentient force to explain its behaviour. And this is the difficulty with interpreting the stories and myths of ancient cultures, there is nuance we don’t have access to. But whatever the truth about exactly how they understood their gods, we do know they were part of nature. They were never said to be in the same category as capital g God.

And once we understand the difference between God and god, we see how this misunderstanding is at the heart of some of the popular discussion about God. You often hear atheists say to believers “I just believe in one less god than you do”. That atheist has made a mistake about what the word God and god means.

In the case of gods, believing in them isn’t particularly relevant. You can worship them, you can petition them, you can idolise them and gain inspiration from them. But belief in them is beside the point regardless of whether the god is a mythological heroine or a personification of nature.

Which brings us to God.

It is this idea that is meaningful to believe in or not. Now we are dealing with a philosophical idea, something about the very foundation of reality and the nature of everything that exists. But it’s nonsensical to say you believe in one less God because that means you believe the world is entirely different. You aren’t saying you believe in the same kind of world, a natural world that has one less thing contained within it. That doesn’t make sense if you understand what the word God means.

A similar mistake is made when atheists are asked do they believe in God and they respond, Which God? By definition, there can be only one capital g God. We can’t have multiple absolute foundations, more than one source of all things.

For the same reason it doesn’t make sense to talk about a Christian God and a Muslim God and a Hindu God…. There is only God and religious disagreements over what God is like. This is the same idea as when scientists disagree over what nature is like. They aren’t talking about different things when they talk about nature.

They all agree there is a thing called nature, and has certain general characteristics. They are disagreeing over the particular characteristics, the details. We would immediately understand this if someone asked which nature, the Einstein nature or the Newton nature or the Heisenberg nature. We’d know they weren’t talking about three different things. We’d understand nature is one thing, and Einstein and Heisenberg have different ideas about what nature is like.

Often discussions on God and gods and religion the participants are talking a different language even while they are both speaking English. Each has their own idea of what the words mean, assuming others understand the words the same way they do.

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