Here I note only some of the ways in which philosophers havearticulated what it means to call God good. In treating the matter,there has been a tendency either to explain God's goodness in terms ofstandards that are not God's creation and thus, in some measure,independent of God's will, or in terms of God's will and the standardsGod has created. The latter view has been termed theisticvoluntarism. A common version of theistic voluntarism is theclaim that for something to be good or right simply means that it iswilled by God and for something to be evil or wrong means that it isforbidden by God.
All known world religions address the nature of good and evil andcommend ways of achieving human well-being, whether this be thought ofin terms of salvation, liberation, deliverance, enlightenment,tranquility, or an egoless state of Nirvana. Notwithstanding importantdifferences, there is a substantial overlap between many of theseconceptions of the good as witnessed by the commending of the GoldenRule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”)in many religions. Some religions construe the Divine as in somerespect beyond our human notions of good and evil. In some forms ofHinduism, for example, Brahman has been extolled as possessing a sortof moral transcendence, and some Christian theologians andphilosophers have likewise insisted that God is only a moral agent ina highly qualified sense, if at all (Davies 1993). To call God goodis, for them, very different from calling a human being good.
Empirical verificationism is by no means dead. Some critics of thebelief in an incorporeal God continue to advance the same critique asthat of Flew and Ayer, albeit with further refinements. Michael Martinand Kai Nielsen are representatives of this approach. And yetdespite these efforts, empiricist challenges to the meaningfulness ofreligious belief are now deemed less impressive than they oncewere.
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Logical positivism promoted an empiricist principle of meaning whichwas deemed lethal for religious belief. The following empiricistprinciple is representative: for a propositional claim (statement) tobe meaningful, it must either be about the bare formal relationsbetween ideas such as those enshrined in mathematics and analyticdefinitions (“A is A,” “triangles arethree-sided”) or there must in principle be perceptualexperience providing evidence of whether the claim is true orfalse. (The stronger version of positivism is that claims about theworld must be verifiable at least in principle). Both the weaker view(with its more open ended reference to evidence) and the strict view(in principle confirmation) delimit meaningful discourse about theworld. Ostensibly factual claims that have no implications for ourempirical experience are empty of content. In line with this form ofpositivism, A. J. Ayer (1910–1989) and others claimed that religiousbeliefs were meaningless. How might one empirically confirm that Godis omnipresent or loving or that Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu? In animportant debate in the 1950s and 1960s, philosophical arguments aboutGod were likened to debates about the existence and habits of anunobservable gardener, based on a parable by John Wisdom in1944–1945. The idea of a gardener who is not just invisible but whoalso cannot be detected by any sensory faculty seemed nonsense. Itseemed like nonsense because they said there was no difference betweenan imperceptible gardener and no gardener at all. Using this gardenanalogy and others crafted with the same design, Antony Flew (see hisessay in Mitchell 1971) made the case that religious claims do notpass the empirical test of meaning. The field of philosophy ofreligion in the 1950s and 1960s was largely an intellectualbattlefield where the debates centered on whether religious beliefswere meaningful or conceptually absurd.
To successfully secure a position somewhere in between extremenon-realism and realism, one would need to see the intelligibility ofasking both theoretical questions such as “Is there aGod?” as well as searching out the meaningful practices offaith, praise, and prayer. Near the end of his life, D.Z. Phillips' owntrain of thought seemed to land him solidly in Feuerbachian atheism(and thus Phillips concluded his work as a solid realist):
A better example of someone who was a realist but took religious formsof life as a central reference point is John Clayton (see especiallyhis Religions, Reasons and Gods: Essays in Cross-CulturalPhilosophy of Religion).
On this model of faith as belief, all that characterises faith apartfrom its theological content is the firmness or conviction with whichfaith-propositions are held true. Firm belief in the truth of ascientific proposition, for example, fails to count as faithonly through lacking the right kind of content. This modeltherefore shares with the ‘special knowledge’ model intaking its theological content as essential to what makes theisticfaith faith, and so rejects the suggestion that faith of thesame sort as found in the theist religious traditions might also befound elsewhere.
Most philosophy of religion in the west has focused on differentversions of theism. Ancient philosophy of religion wrestled with thecredibility of monotheism and polytheism in opposition to skepticismand very primitive naturalistic schemes. For example, Platoargued that the view that God is singularly good should be preferred tothe portrait of the gods that was articulated in Greek poetictradition, according to which there are many gods, often imperfect andsubject to vice and ignorance. The emergence and development ofJudaism, Christianity, and Islam on a global scale secured thecentrality of theism for philosophical enquiry, but the relevance of aphilosophical exploration of theism is not limited to those interestedin these religions and the cultures in which they flourish. Whiletheism has generally flourished in religious traditions amid religiouspractices, one may be a theist without adopting any religion whatever,and one may find theistic elements (however piecemeal) in Confucianism,Hinduism, some versions of Mahayana Buddhism, as well as in thereligions of some smaller scale societies. The debate over theismalso has currency for secular humanism and religious forms of atheismas in Theravada Buddhist philosophy. Consider first thephilosophical project of articulating theism and then the philosophy ofdivine attributes.
While non-realism might seem to lay the groundwork for greatertolerance between religions (and between religions and the secularworld) because it subverts the battle over which religion has a truepicture of the cosmos, critics have lamented the loss of a normativeway of choosing between religions, ways that seem to be used incommonplace philosophical reflection on the merits of religion. So,today it is still not at all unusual for people to claim they havechanged religions (or stayed with their own or abandoned all religionor converted to a religion), for reasons like the appeal to religiousexperience, answered or unanswered prayer, miracles or the lack ofthem, moral and cultural relativism, an overwhelming sense of thereality of good and evil, and so on.
Terms applied both to God and to any aspect of the world have beenclassified as either univocal (sharing the same sense),equivocal (used in different senses), oranalogical. There is a range of accounts of analogouspredication, but the most common—and the one assumedhere—is that terms are used analogously when their use indifferent cases (John limps and the argument limps) is based on whatis believed to be a resemblance. It seems clear that many terms usedto describe God in theistic traditions are used analogously, as whenGod is referred to as a father, shepherd, or fountain. More difficultto classify are descriptions of God as good, personal, knowing,omnipresent, and creative. Heated philosophical and theologicaldisputes centre on unpacking the meaning of such descriptions,disputes that are often carried out with the use of thoughtexperiments.
A second reason that might be offered is that the classical andcontemporary arguments for specific views of God have seemedunsuccessful to many philosophers (though not to all, as observed insection 4.2, below). Tilghman takes this line and argues that ifthe traditional arguments for God's existence are re-interpretedas part of religious life and not treated as if they were adjudicatingmetaphysical truth-claims, then they have an intelligibility and forcethat they otherwise lack.