Thursday, February 7, 2013

Are "God" and "Supreme Being" the Same?

According to Dr Justin Barrett, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford's Centre for Anthropology and Mind, young people are predisposed to believing in a supreme being because they assume that everything was created with a purpose.

His discussions with The Telegraph as well as the newspaper's own language equate "supreme being" with "God."  Are they the same, though?

The word "supreme being" is a much more general term, one befitting of sociological or anthropological study.  Scholars of the sociology of religion regularly employ the term when studying and categorizing religious groups and practices.  The term "supreme being" places the observer of religious activity on the outside, in a position of neutrality regarding the existence or non-existence (and definition) of the supreme being in question. 

"God," however, is a theological concept.  When we in the Western world say the word "God," we think of the monotheistic deity of the Abrahamic tradition--God/Yahweh/Allah.  The capitalized word "God" refers to a personal deity that intervenes in human history despite remaining ultimately unknowable.  "God" is a non-neutral term; the use of the word "God" injects the observer into the affairs of the community under study.

In his interview with The Telegraph, Barrett said, "If we threw a handful on an island and they raised themselves I think they would believe in God."  He cannot claim that these individuals would believe in "God" as interpreted through doctrine or as represented in Western culture; he can only substantively claim that a belief in a higher being--however so defined or understood--exists.

If one has a pluralistic view of religion (or universalistic--although the terms are opposite, they imply the same frame here), then one will believe that God is the same as  any other society's "supreme being."  However, to equate them is an act of religious, not scientific interpretation.

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