Supreme being is a seventeenth-century descriptor for God. Given that the social sciences are a modern phenomenon, this designation is appropriate. In an attempt to accommodate the growing awareness of the pluralism of beliefs in the world, supreme being became a generic term for the entity that underpins the various world faiths.
The concept of a supreme being starts with a sense that “something” must be responsible for this world around us. The idea of a creator is key, for this creator requires worship (i.e., an acknowledgement of human dependence on and love for the creator). It is this combination of creator and worship that drives most religious traditions to monotheism. Even in Hinduism, there is an emphasis on the underlying unity of the many in the one.
For the sake of simplicity, theistic traditions talk about an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God. Unlike a limited God (where the issue of the limits of God’s power or knowledge could be endlessly debated), theism invites us to affirm an unlimited God, where each attribute is stretched out to infinity.
A crucial area of discussion involves the relationship of the supreme being to time. In Judaism, Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), for example, addressed the issue; in Islam, Ibn Sina (980–1037); and in Christianity, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274). There is agreement that God is outside time—so there is no duration in the life of God (see Burrell 1986). In addition, God has timeless knowledge of the future—God knows the beginning to the end. However, in the modern period, we find in all three traditions a growing sympathy with the view that God is everlasting (i.e., time is part of God, but there was never a time when God was not and will never be a time when God ceases to be).
Under the influence of Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), a movement known as process theology emerged that suggests that God’s omniscience does not include the decisions of free-will creatures because, by definition, genuinely free decisions are not known until they are made (see Whitehead  1960). The concept of the supreme being that emerges from this account is often pantheist (God and the world are identified together) or panentheist (God and the world are identified together, but God is more than the world). This view has more in common with Hindu traditions than with classical Christianity.
For those traditions heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought (i.e., Greek learning), certain arguments emerged to defend the rationality of belief in God. In the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian traditions, two arguments came to the fore. The first is the design argument. With its roots in the Timaeus of Plato (427–347 BCE), it flourished in the writings of Aquinas and William Paley (1743–1805). The argument seeks to draw a parallel between a human artifact (for Paley it was a “watch”) and the world. A watch is clearly intended for and serves certain purposes (even if you do not know what a watch is for, its purpose could be deduced). The cosmos, with all its complexity, is the same. From a watch, we can infer a watchmaker; so from the cosmos, we can infer a designer.
Contemporary defenders of the design argument abound. The Muslim thinker Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (c. 1877–1960) constructs the argument in The Words (1928). For many Western philosophers, it is widely believed that David Hume (1711–1776), in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), effectively undermined the design argument. Hume’s first problem is the analogy: Is the world really like a human artifact? The whole argument depends on this analogy: If one likens the world to a giant vegetable, then the human mind does not automatically leap to design and order. Instead, we shall find ourselves thinking of gradual growth—an image that does not require a creator. Hume’s second problem is that the argument does not get back to God. At best, explains Hume, the argument takes us back to a designer, but we have no reason to assume that this designer is omnipotent, omniscient, or perfectly good. Indeed, given evil and suffering in creation, we have good reason to assume that the designer is not omnipotent or perfectly good. Hume’s third problem is that there are naturalistic explanations for the world’s order. Hume was living before Charles Darwin (1809–1882) formulated the natural selection hypothesis. However, other writers have explored the ways in which Darwin undermines the design argument. Richard Dawkins (2006), a biologist at Oxford University, argues that the order in the world is due to the fact that those things that do not fit in do not survive. The world’s order is not due to a creator organizing everything in advance.
The cosmological argument takes a variety of forms. Among the best known is the Islamic Kalám argument for a first cause to the universe. The presumption is that one cannot have an infinite regress of causes. So the universe must have an immaterial first cause that is responsible for everything that follows. Scholars have contested the presumption that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes; after all, no one complains that 22/7 (pi) must finish somewhere before it can be considered intelligible. In addition, Stephen Hawking (1988) has suggested that the combination of cosmology and quantum mechanics might create the conditions for a universe to just start.
Given all this, there is more interest in the argument of Thomas Aquinas. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas explains that he believes that the universe has a start only because of the Genesis story; his instinct is to follow his Greek masters and affirm that matter is eternal. However, he still accepts that rationally it is necessary to posit the existence of God to explain “why anything is” and “how it continues to be.” The third of his “five ways” (arguments) to God’s existence insists that the intelligibility of the universe depends on a necessary being. If everything is contingent (could be otherwise), then ultimately it would remain unexplained (because we would still have questions about the “why” and the “how”). So, for the universe to make sense, it depends on a necessary being (a being who contains within itself the reason for its own existence). Debate around this form of the argument hinges on the coherence of the idea of a necessary being. Recent defenders of this argument have linked it with the nature of truth (see Markham 1998).
Brief mention should be made of the ontological argument. Formulated by Saint Anselm (1033–1109) and then popularized by René Descartes (1596–1650), the ontological argument is an exploration of the meaning of the word god. Anselm points out that even the atheist understands the concept of God (otherwise atheists would not know what they were denying). Given that the concept of God includes perfection—the greatest conceivable being—(or in Anselm’s terminology, “that than which nothing greater can be thought”), it follows that an imaginary God would not be the greatest conceivable being because the greatest conceivable being would be one that exists both in the mind and reality. Therefore, if the idea of the greatest conceivable being makes sense, then such a being must exist. This argument continues to provoke considerable debate. Recent defenders include Alvin Plantinga (1965).
There are several other arguments for belief in a supreme being. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788) insists that the existence of a supreme being is a necessary postulate of moral discourse. C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) argued that moral discourse does not make sense unless it is grounded in a transcendent being, which is the locus of such values. More recently, some have suggested that there is a pointer to the transcendent in music, beauty, or art (see Steiner 1989).
One major objection to belief in a supreme being is the problem of evil. The traditional form of the problem is a logical one: If God is all powerful, then God must be able to abolish evil; if God is all loving, then God must wish to abolish evil. Yet evil exists, so God cannot be all powerful and all loving. This problem has generated a vast literature on theodicy (an attempt to justify God in the light of evil) (see Hick 1977). For some, the social sciences have undermined religion by providing a naturalistic explanation for the religious phenomenon.
It is not clear how influential these arguments are on belief in a supreme being. Belief in God is a result of a web of practices that take an elaborate social form. Despite secular expectations to the contrary, belief in a supreme being is widespread. As children learn a language, so, running parallel, a religious worldview is formed. For many people, the concept of the supreme being is nebulous, and there is little clarity about the arguments for a supreme being’s existence. Yet there are rich resources in the different world faiths; these can provide both a coherent account and some strong arguments for the supreme being.
SEE ALSO Christianity; Church, The; Darwin, Charles; Hinduism; Hume, David; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Judaism; Kant, Immanuel; Lay Theories; Monotheism; Nation of Islam; Natural Selection; Religion; Theism; Totemism
Burrell, David B. 1986. Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. London: Bantam.
Hawking, Stephen W. 1988. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. New York: Bantam.
Hick, John. 1977. Evil and the God of Love. London: Macmillan.
Hume, David.  1990. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. London: Penguin.
Lewis, C. S.  1977. Mere Christianity. London: Collins.
Markham, Ian. 1998. Truth and the Reality of God: An Essay in Natural Theology. Edinburgh, U.K.: Clark.
Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said.  1992. The Words. Trans. şükran Vahide. Istanbul, Turkey: Sözler Neşriyat.
Plantinga, Alvin, ed. 1965. The Ontological Argument. Garden City, NY: Anchor.
Steiner, George. 1989. Real Presences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Whitehead, Alfred North.  1960. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper.