“God” is a word. Like most words, the word “God” evokes a concept, or more correctly a vast multitude of concepts. These concepts are purportedly about something that actually exists in the world (in some sense of the idea of existence, and some sense of the idea of the world). Some concepts point to things we can easily see with our eyes or hear with our ears. The concept of God is usually not like this, referring to something that cannot be perceived. (For the purposes here I use the word “God” to include the equivalent word in other languages, e.g. the French word “Dieu.”)
Perhaps the most fundamental difference in the various concepts evoked by the word “God” is along the lines of whether God is apart from or inherent in the creation. In general, Western ideas have placed God apart from the creation, and Eastern ideas have placed God as immanent within the creation. Other important differences are whether God is to be thought of as having a form, or as formless. And among those that conceive of God as having a form, whether God is to be thought of in the male or female form.
Another significant factor in the ways that different people conceive of the idea of God is in what they think of as evidence for the belief in God. Some people believe in God primarily as the creator of the cosmos. It is in the “miracle” of the creation that such people find evidence for their belief. Other people find the evidence for God in what we might call transcendental experience. Others people conceive of God primarily as a moral ideal, and find the evidence of God in the way that the idea of God helps them achieve their own moral aspirations.
Running vaguely parallel to these different notions of God are the ideas of the proper way to approach God. I think it is safe to say that most people approach God through their emotions. God is to be loved or feared. But there are also people who approach God through the intellect or through direct experience.
Having pointed out some of the diversity that comprises the idea of God, we might ask is there anything that all the different ideas have in common? The most general idea, I would suggest, is that the idea of God represents an ultimate in some sense. In the cosmological view, God is the ultimate answer to the mystery of existence; in the mystical view, God is the ultimate of experience – experience as it is in itself.
Arguments for atheism almost always are directed at some particular understanding of God. To argue against any conception of God, one would have to argue that the concept of the ultimate has no meaning. One can certainly argue this, but not conclusively. The concept of the ultimate is a little like a Russian doll – you think you’ve articulated it, and you find that you’ve just opened a deeper question. As an example, it has been proposed that M theory is the ultimate solution to the great cosmological questions; but that just raises the question Why M theory? There is an ultimate mystery to the great cosmological question, and that mystery both contains and is contained within the notion of God as the ultimate explanation of the great Why of the cosmos. Similarly, God as the ultimate ground of experience has long been declared beyond articulation. You can articulate a particular experience, but you cannot articulate experience itself. It is ultimately ineffable.
The deepest source of Nature and the deepest source of Being are both mysteries. And the inter-relationship of these two mysteries is also a mystery. The word “God” has long been the symbol for the mystery of this dynamic ultimate. A medieval mystic once called God “the cloud of unknowing.” This strikes me as a very good epitaph for the idea of God. To claim knowledge of, or control of a mystery, is to claim a power. Priest claim such power in one direction, atheist claim that power in another direction. I suggest contemplating the mystery free from any desire to affirm or negate.