Approximately 92% of Americans believe in God; but have very different conceptions about who or what God is.
In 2010 by two Baylor University professors, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, wrote a book about what Americans say about God and how their view of God says a lot about their politics and morality. Looking over some materials for a university course I am teaching this first semester, I took a look, once again, at their book: America’s Four Gods (Oxford University Press). The book was based on a 2005 survey of religious views; but the findings still resonate with more recent surveys done by Gallup and Pew.
The four American conceptions of God are: the Authoritative God, the Benevolent God, the Critical God, and the Distant God.
(1) Believers in the Authoritative God have strong convictions that God judges human behavior and acts on that judgment, punishing those who are unfaithful or ungodly. This judgment may be leveled via natural disasters or on a more personal scale through illness or misfortune. Approximately 31% of Americans believe in an Authoritative God.
(2) Believers in a Benevolent God see God’s handiwork everywhere: and they see the Benevolent God as mainly a force of positive influence in the world and less willing to condemn individuals. People with an Authoritative view of God are more likely to believe that God either caused a bad event to happen or allowed it to happen to teach someone a lesson. People with a Benevolent image of God are unlikely to see God’s hand in the tragedy itself and see evidence of God’s presence in stories of amazing coincidences or apparent miracles that saved people in the midst of the disaster. Approximately 24% of Americans believe in a Benevolent God.
(3) Believers in a Critical God see God as judgmental of humans, but reserving final judgment for the afterlife. Ethnic minorities, the poor, and the exploited often believe in a Critical God. Perhaps because those in need may not see the blessings of God in the here and now, they take comfort in the idea that God’s displeasure will be felt in another life. As one of my friends told me, when thinking about a prominent very wealthy but grossly immoral businessmen, “I take consolation in knowing that God will have the bastard burning forever in hell.” Approximately 16% of Americans believe in a Critical God, who will punish the sinful with an everlasting punishment in the next life.
(4) Believers in a Distant God view God as a cosmic force that set nature in motion. These believers feel that anthropological images of God are simply inadequate and often naïve attempts to know the unknowable. Believers in a Distant God can be regular churchgoers but value religious ritual only when it can be a path to peace and tranquility. Meditation, contemplation, and the beauty of nature are ways in which believers in a Distant God try to relate to the positive force guiding the universe. Approximately 24% of Americans believe in a Distant God. Most millennials would fall into this group. Among believers in the Distant God one finds, as well, the fastest growing “religious” group in contemporary America: they are those people unaffiliated with any organized religion. They consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” (I see them as “seekers” and they are the group I focus most of my attention on these days.)
Adding to the complexity of America’s Four Gods is another religious trend stressed by the Baylor University professors, and further developed by Stephen Prothero from Boston University: increasingly, Americans are becoming religious illiterates — Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name all seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books in the Pentateuch. (I don’t think this religious illiteracy is restricted to just the United States however. One of my Catholic university students in Brussels told me a couple months ago that Pentecost was when the Holy Ghost made Mary pregnant through the visit of the angel Gabriel.)
Perhaps contemporary people, attracted by the four ways of packaging God, are becoming supermarket theists. Rather than drawing on healthy theological perspectives found in Christian tradition and the Scriptures, they are increasingly more inclined to buy the God that best suits their needs or, put another way, the God that best reaffirms their own ideologies. That certainly fits the Authoritative God understanding of the hate group, Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka Kansas. They need a God who hates gays, hates Jews, and despises Catholics.
In any event, there is much to be done in the areas of religious education and catechetics. Serious thoughts as we look to the start of a new school year.