Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Anthropomorphism and theism

Sometimes theists are accused of anthropomorphism in their concept of God. But it is important to note that theists hold that God is the entity least like humans. Rocks are closer to us in intellectual capacity than God is. Amoebae are more like us in love than God is. Wet noodles resembles us in power more than God does. All creatures are more like one another than they are like God.

Of course, even if God is the entity least like humans, humans could be the entities most like God. But typical religious theists think even that is false: the angels are more like God than humans are.

None of this denies that there are particular (and controversial) theological views that may suffer from an undue anthropomorphism. I suspect certain motivations for taking God to be mutable to be like that.


Anonymous said...

This is true in principle, considering only the nature of God. It is otherwise when you consider the concrete things that religions actually say about God. For example, "God spoke to us in human words" seems anthropomorphic and improbable: consider the translation "the reality least like humans spoke to humans in human words," and this seems extremely unlikely.

skip said...

Thinking of God as an "entity" is what naturally leads to anthropomorphism in the first place.

Alexander R Pruss said...

An entity is something that exists. To think of God as other than an entity is to be an atheist.

skip said...

One can take the position, without falling into atheism, that God is not something that exists. Quoting from David Bentley Hart:

"God, as the source of all being, is, properly speaking, not himself a being... Or, as the Anglican E. L. Mascall put it, God is not 'just one item, albeit the supreme one, in a class of beings' but is rather 'the source from which their being is derived.' ...

"Now, of course, words like 'being' and 'existence' are not univocal terms, each having only one fixed meaning irrespective of context. The precise sense in which God is not a being, or indeed the sense in which he could even be said not to 'exist,' is as some discrete object, essentially distinct from all others, 'standing forth' (which is what 'exist' means, etymologically speaking) from being as such. A being of that kind—one to which the indefinite article properly attaches—possesses a certain determinate number of attributes, a certain quantity of potentialities, a certain degree of actuality, and so on, and is at once both intrinsically composite and extrinsically enumerable: that is, every particular being is made up of a collection of parts and is also itself a discrete item within the sum total of existing things. All of this is precisely what classical metaphysical theism says God is not."

This is what I meant in my original comment. Thinking of God as an entity is a mental habit that makes it difficult to avoid anthropomorphizing.

Christopher Michael said...


To come to skip's defense here, I think that one can take the position that God is not "something that exists" without being an atheist and without absurdity. The reason why one can do this is that the proposition that God is something that exists says more than the proposition that God exists. One could say that "God exists" doesn't entail "God is something that exists" or "God is an entity" or, in general, "God is an F" where "F" is any sortal. The reason to reject this inference has everything to do with the word "something" (or other sortal) and nothing to do with "exists". God is not a something, on this view, because that would place him in an ontological category "thing," alongside creatures, and there simply are no ontological categories into which both God and any creature fall.

I'm not sure myself that we need to be this pure about our theological language, but it's worth being reminded from time to time that God transcends every possible genus of being and can't be placed in even the most general of ontological categories.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"Something" normally isn't a sortal but a quantifier. The denial of "Something is omniscient" is equivalent to "Nothing is omniscient."

So, one can say: "There is something that is not in any genus."

Now, one can form the location "a something" for special purposes, and maybe that's a sortal, but normally "something" is used without articles.

Alexander R Pruss said...


You quote: "A being of that kind—one to which the indefinite article properly attaches..." Why is it that the indefinite article only "properly attaches" to "a being of that kind"? An indefinite article is a grammatical construction we use when we refer nonspecifically. It does not mean that the referent is in itself nonspecific, just that our reference to it is nonspecific. From "x (habitually) dances" one can infer "x is a dancer", and from "x is" one can infer "x is a being". This is just language.

Of course, one can stipulate a sense of "a being" in which it is correct to say "God is not a being." For instance, one might stipulate that "a being" = "a bicycle". Or if one likes one can stipulate that "a being" is "some discrete object, essentially distinct from all others, 'standing forth' (which is what 'exist' means, etymologically speaking) from being as such". Both are equally stipulations. When the theologian does this and then goes on to say that God is not a being, they are not speaking standard English. He is, much as a poet sometimes does, changing the language in order to better express an important point. But when he does this, he should not take himself to be disagreeing with the person who says "God is a being."

(Note, by the way, that it is strictly speaking logically incorrect to infer from "x is a being" to "x is a being among others." A solipsist thinks he is a being, but he doesn't think he is a being among others.)

skip said...

The sentence "God is a being" may be intended to mean precisely the same thing as "God is." In that sense, I have no quarrel with saying that "God is a being." But, as with any sentence, words may convey other unintended meanings. We know that "God is" and that "God is being." However, Introducing the indefinite article (God is a being) suggests an important change in meaning that, at the very least, invites a way of thinking about God that tends toward anthropomorphizing. I am happy that you chose to use the word "entity" in place of "being" because it puts the problematical way of thinking into sharper relief. You say "God is the entity least like humans" and include God in a set of entities: [humans, rocks, noodles, amoebae, ...(all creatures), ... God]. Of course this leads to accusations of anthropomorphism, because it sort of is.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Notice, though, that in Aristotelian metaphysics, being is only analogical between amoebae and noodles.

skip said...

Alex said:
"So, one can say: 'There is something that is not in any genus.'"

But is it true? Perhaps it is part of the nature of "something" to be in a genus.

I think there a difference between

"God is spirit." vs. "God is a spirit."
"God is good." vs. "God is a good."
"God is mind. vs. "God is a mind.

The sentences on the right seem to put God into the genera spirit, good, and mind, respectively. The sentences on the left do not. Or maybe I am reading too much into the peculiarities of English usage.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If x knows, then x is a knower.
If x creates, then x is a creator.

I think you're reading something into the indefinite article that isn't there.