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Public opinion polls

Americans' diverse beliefs
about the nature of God


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Quotation:

  • "... since Americans agree on basic religion indicators, American religion seems monolithic. In fact, under the surface American religion is startlingly complex and diverse. Americans may agree that God exists. They do not agree about what God is like, what God wants for the world, or how God feels about politics [or about sin]. Most Americans pray. They differ widely on to whom they pray, what they pray about, and whether or not they say grace. A vast majority of Americans are Christians, but attitudes amongst those Christians regarding the salvation of others, the role of religion in government, the reality of the paranormal, and their consumption of media are surprisingly diverse." 1

What God is like: Findings of the Baylor Religion Survey of 2005:

The Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion and the Department of Sociology, both at Baylor University, conducted the Baylor Religion Survey during the winter of 2005/2006. It was funded by the John M. Templeton Foundation. They asked 1,721 randomly selected American adults a total of 77 questions covering a broad range of religious questions. They state that the margin of error is � 4 percentage points. Some of the questions dealt with the nature of God as the subjects perceived him/her/it/them to be: 2

  • Survey question 22: "Even if you might not believe in God, based on your personal understanding, what do you think God is like?" Subjects could mark of one of five responses, from strongly agree to strongly disagree:
Question Strongly agree Agree Undecided Disagree Strongly disagree
A cosmic force in the universe 29.8 28.1 14.5 10.4 17.3
Removed from worldly affairs 7.6 16.1 12.0 29.1 35.2
Removed from my personal affairs 8.1 12.8 10.4 31.0 37.7
Concerned with the well-being of the world 48.7 29.5 8.9 5.3 7.6
Concerned with my personal well-being 44.5 30.3 9.7 7.0 8.5
Angered by human sin 29.1 27.2 13.0 17.6 13.1
Angered by my sins 24.6 26.6 13.7 20.4 14.7
Directly involved in worldly affairs 27.8 22.7 14.4 19.7 15.3
Directly involved in my affairs 30.6 26.1 12.7 17.0 13.5
A "He" 25.8 17.8 29.4 9.7 17.2

There are some very remarkable results to this question. Many Christians seem to disagree with the teachings of their own faith group. Most denominations -- particularly those in the conservative wing of the religion -- teach that God takes a very active role in each believer's life and in the world as a whole. Further, God is believed to be angered by any sins that either believers or other humans commit.

However, sizeable numbers of American adults either reject these beliefs or are are at least open to the opposite viewpoint:

  • About one in three adults are open to the Deist belief that God is removed from both their own personal affairs and from the world.
  • Four out of nine adults at least accept the possibility that God is not angered by sinful behavior -- either by themselves or by other people.
  • Half of adults are at least open to the belief that God is not directly involved in worldly affairs.
  • Four in nine adults is at least open to the belief that God is not directly involved in their own affairs.

Americans seem confused as to whether God has a gender. That is to be expected. Christians are taught the Lord's Prayer which begins: "Our Father." Jesus prayed to "Abba" (Papa). Yet God is believed to be a bodiless spirit by almost all Christian denominations except for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormons.

  • Survey question 23: "How well do you feel that each of the following words describe God?"
Question Very well Somewhat well Undecided Not very well Not at all
Absolute 63.1 12.6 10.7 5.2 8.4
Critical 12.2 13.1 11.9 23.6 39.2
Distant 6.7 10.4 10.6 17.0 55.3
Ever-present 72.6 12.8 7.0 2.5 5.1
Fatherly 61.6 14.4 8.9 5.6 9.4
Forgiving 74.2 11.4 6.8 2.1 5.5
Friendly 57.7 18.4 11.0 5.6 7.2
Just 67.9 14.0 8.5 3.5 6.2
Kind 67.7 14.3 8.5 3.3 6.2
Kingly 47.1 12.7 12.4 11.9 15.9
Loving 72.8 11.8 7.6 2.1 5.7
Motherly 30.2 15.6 16.2 14.0 24.0
Punishing 17.0 17.4 13.1 22.3 30.3
Severe 11.9 11.4 14.2 24.2 38.4
Wrathful 13.9 13.3 12.8 20.9 39.0
Yielding 18.6 19.9 20.8 15.6 25.0

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The four different Gods that Americans worship:

The Baylor Study revealed that Americans have "two clear and distinct dimensions" in their beliefs about God:

  • Degree of God's engagement: The extent to which God is directly and intimately involved in the life of each believer and in the lives of other humans.

  • Degree of God's wrath: The extent by which God is angered by our sin and will punish us for our transgressions.

Since each of these dimensions can have a high or low value, the study talks in terms of Americans recognizing the existence of one out of four possible Gods:

  • Type A: Authoritarian God: (High engagement; high anger; believed in by 31.4% of the population.) God is viewed as being highly involved in each believer's life. God guides believers to make proper decisions; God is responsible for major world events - tsunamis, etc; God is furious at human sinfulness and punishes sinners. Southerners; evangelicals; women; African Americans; persons with lower educational attainment and lower income, those who pray often and attend church frequently, and those who view God as a "he" tend to believe in this God more than the average American.

  • Type B: Benevolent God: (High engagement; low anger; believed in by 23% of the population.) As for Type A, God is active in everyone's lives. But he is slow to anger and punish. Rather, he influences people positively. Mid-westerners, women, persons with lower educational attainment, lower income, who pray often and attend church frequently are more likely to believe in this God.

  • Type C: Critical God: (Low engagement; high anger; believed in by 16% of the population.) God does not interact much with the world. He is angered at sin but generally withholds punishment to be meted out in the afterlife. Easterners, men, persons with higher educational attainment, and persons with higher income are more likely than average to believe in this God.

  • Type D: Distant God: (Low engagement; low anger; believed in by 24.4% of the population.) This is similar to the God of the Deists: he is viewed as a cosmic force who created the universe and its natural laws. He is not involved much with the world and does not judge humans. West coasters, Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, Jews, men, persons with higher educational attainment, and persons with higher income are more likely than average to believe in this God.

The remaining 5.2% of the population not included above are strong Atheists who reject the existence of God.

The study analyzed the effects of gender, race, age, education, income, region, church attendance, frequency of prayer, religious tradition, and interpretation of the Bible. They found some groups in which the majority believed in the Type A authoritarian God:

  • 68.0% of Black Protestants,

  • 60.8% of biblical literalists,

  • 56.1% of those who believe that God is a "He",

  • 52.8% of African Americans,

  • 54.8% of those who pray several times a day,

  • 52.3% of evangelical Protestants, and

  • 50.9% of those who attend church weekly,

There were no groups of adults in which a majority believed in one of the other three types of Gods.


Conclusions:

One might reach some shocking conclusions from the Baylor Religion Study:

  • Americans believe in four very different, incompatible conceptions of God.

  • Assuming that only one God actually exists, then

    • At least three of the God types listed above are false.

    • Most American adults believe in a type of God who is non-existent.

  • The vast majority of American adults base their belief in one of these four Gods -- directly or indirectly -- on the contents of the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament and New Testament). Thus, it appears that either:

    • The Bible is ambiguous when it describes the nature of God.

    • Faith groups have been doing a poor job at education.

  • Prayer is obviously ineffective in assessing the nature of God. If it did work, then essentially all believers in God would quickly gravitate away from at least three of the four Gods to a more accurate viewpoint. This conclusion is in harmony with the results of a pilot study among this website's visitors. That study showed that believers cannot assess the will of God through prayer.


References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Selected findings from the Baylor Religion Survey," Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, 2006-SEP, at: http://www.baylor.edu/ Pages 6 & 7. This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  2. Ibid, Page 62.
  3. "Baylor Religion Survey: Codebook," Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), at: http://www.thearda.com/

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Copyright � 2006 and 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-DEC-23
Latest update: 2007-JUL-03
Author: B.A. Robinson 

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