What kind of God?

| October 11, 2010 | 21 Replies

People often argue about whether or not “God” exists, but what is the kind of “God” to which they are referring? A 2006 study at Baylor, based on responses provided by more than 1,700 people, suggested that Americans envision four basic types of “God.” The results were summarized by the London Times:

[The study] found that Americans hold four different images of God — Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical or Distant — and these views are far more powerful indicators about their political, social and moral attitudes than any of the traditional categories such as Protestant, Catholic or Evangelical.

It is startling to see that there is no majority view.  Each of these types of “Gods” has His/Her/Its fans:

Nearly a third of Americans, 31.4 per cent, believe in an Authoritarian God, angry at earthly sin and willing to inflict divine retribution — including tsunamis and hurricanes. People who see God this way are religiously and politically the most conservative. They are more likely to be less educated and have lower incomes, come from the South and be white evangelicals or black Protestants.

At the other end of the scale is the Distant God, seen by 24.4 per cent as a faceless, cosmic force that launched the world but leaves it alone. This is seen more by liberals, moral relativists and those who don’t attend church. This God has most believers on the West Coast.

The Benevolent God, popular in America’s Midwest among mainstream Protestants, Catholics and Jews, is one that sets absolute standards for man, but is also forgiving — engaged but not so angry. Caring for the sick is high on the list of priorities for these 23 per cent of believers.

The Critical God, at 16 per cent, is viewed as the classic bearded old man, judgmental but not going to intervene or punish, and is popular on the East Coast.

God and Adam - Sistine Chapel

Perhaps a follow-up survey could delve further into the many sub-types of “Gods” out there. Is “God” a He, a She or an It? Does God care about your favorite sports team winning? Does “God” really offer a chance to go to a heaven? Is there even a heaven at all? Did “God” really visit the earth in human form? Does “God” think it’s OK to be gay? To have sex before marriage? To use birth control? Does “God” insist on good works? Does God prohibit the death penalty and wars? Does “God” prohibit eating any sorts of foods? What kinds of foods?  Only shellfish, or meat on Fridays, or food that wasn’t kosher?  Just think of the huge number of permutations! Once we chart this out properly there will be billions of types of “Gods” out there in the minds of believers.

These questions, and many others, would reveal that Americans believe in many millions of types of “God.” Therefore, pollsters should do away with the question “Do you believe in God?”

Any question that boils down one’s characterization of “God” into the simplistic phrase “God” is hopelessly vague, and the resulting answers will inevitably suggest that there is no consensus as to who or what “God” is. If we took the time to parse our personal belief systems carefully, we would better see that the religious strife in this country involves millions of advocates for millions of idiosyncratic “Gods.”  Once we thoroughly sliced and diced our beliefs to this extent, we would hear people everywhere start uttering the word “projection.”

Maybe if we took the time to define “God” before advocating for His/Her/Its existence, we could all summon up more humility about the origins of the universe and the morality we attribute to our personalized “God.” Maybe that extra humility would cut down on wars we are willing to start and our willingness to take sides in religious/cultural wars. Once we thoroughly break down the many types of belief systems out there, I believe that we will find out that “Gods” are like fingerprints–every person who believes in “God” has his or her own version of God. And this would mean that virtually every American is an atheist as to the “God” of virtually every other American. We are actually a land of hundreds of millions of religions of one member each, despite the fact that many of us physically gather together on holy days.

Once we put our personalized “God” back on our mantle, instead of wearing Him/Her/It on our sleeve, then maybe we could better focus on the numerous pressing social problems that we face.

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Category: Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (21)

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  1. Karl says:

    Those who seek to really understand Chrisitanity (God became incarnate to meet the just demands of the Law)can grasp that a God of both justice and mercy is not far removed from them. It is we humans that slice and dice any authority that tries to demonstrate both qualities of justice and mercy to shreds because we would have contrary opinions about what the outcome of God's intervention should look like.

    Look as the displeasure of Jonah over the repentance of the people of Ninevah. He was expecting and wanted judgement i.e. destruction of Ninevah, but God was true to his word and forgave them. This was not expected by Jonah who climbed the hillside to see the expected destruction from a distance. Can we presumed Jonah believed the repentance of Ninevah wasn't going to be very long lasting?

    We would rather see others punished but have ourselves excused for the same thoughts and actions.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl: Once again you are using your interpretation of the Bible to try to prove something external to the Bible. It's the cart before the horse, in my eyes. And then you stir in divine threats.

      You are talking strange poetry, and I am striving to look at the kind of evidence that most of us use every day for everything but trying to prove one's OWN religious beliefs.

  2. Karl says:

    The Jonah reference was not meant as a divine threat, sorry if you took it that way.

    It was meant to show that even a "prophet" (i.e. a person who believes in God because a prophet is presumed to be speaking for a God of some type) was speaking words that ended in an opposite outcome from what they thought should have happened.

    Jonah was obviously not desirous of giving/showing real sympathy or compassion for any of the people of Ninevah. He would be like the first variety of modern Americans you claim are of the basic Authoritarian type, who do not believe that other people can repent and change.

    God responded with forbearance when the people of Ninevah (from the leadership on down) agreed to condemn (mourn) what they had been doing and to seek repentance.

    This was not an attempt to equate what was happening in Ninevah with anything specifically going on today.

    It was an attempt to provide Biblical evidence for the existence of the authoritarian type of believer in God. However, this same God doesn't always respond as we think he should because people are always an unknown variable over the short term.

  3. Tony Coyle says:

    Karl wrote It was an attempt to provide Biblical evidence for the existence of the authoritarian type of believer in God

    You really think we need more evidence that such people exist, Karl? Or that your bible (which they rely upon) has much that is easily interpreted as authoritarian?

    This was news?

  4. Karl says:

    Erich seems to being making the point that its a recent finding from the 2006 Baylor study that people fall into one of four broad categories concerning their beliefs about God.

    The branched speculation that there are as many types of God as there are people who believe in God only works if you think God is a figment of a person's conceptualizations about God.

    How many Erich Vieth's are there. Will the real Erich Vieth please stand up?

    People can believe all manner of things about Erich Vieths but there is truly only one Erich Vieth, despite what others want to say about him.

    Various people know something of God from various interactions and relationships which might be short or long term in duration.

    I'm basically seeking a long term relationship with God that is new to me every morning. God is not new, (although it may seem that way to me at times), its the relationship that is renewed.

    I guess that means I really can not put God strictly into any of the four mutually exclusive boxes or categories of the 2006 Baylor study.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl: If Bob is certain that God requires women to wear burqas and James insists that God prohibits burqas, they can't both be correct unless they worship separate gods. If only one of them is correct, then only one out of 2 of them (50%) worship the correct god.

  5. Karl says:

    Bob thinking or even writing down that he believes God would have women wear Burgas doesn't mean God would have it no other way. This is obviously Bob's perspective that he has pawned off upon God for who knows what reason. What makes you think everything written in a Holy Book is entirely "thus sayeth the Lord" – or "you'll be found guilty as sin if you don't do such and such?"

    Many things written by the Apostle Paul contain qualifing statements such as "concerning such and such I have no direct commandment from the Lord." Yet he sometimes did go on and give his own advice and opinion on many matters. Many people even contrary to what Paul states, take parts of this advice and opinions as matters of extreme obedience for them to insist for themselves and to force upon others.

    People like this think that obedience in such matters is what's important to please God. While such obedience may get you some kudos, it will not place you into an ongoing relationship with God. Its puts you into an ongoing relationship with a book of rules.

    This is clearly why you believe people can not be worshipping the same God, because of the apparent contradictions in the opinions and differences of those who claim to be following God.

    Should we all have to observe the Jewish Festival days to be be acceptable to God? Do we all need to pray toward Mecca to do it the right way? What if the airplane one is flying on can't give you the proper orientation or worse yet what if an airplane is in a holding pattern while a muslim is praying?

    The Bible is clearly a book of selected writings that people both understand and believe to be capable of imparting God's perspective to human beings. Some other Holy Books claim simialr things, others do not claim as much.

    Jesus said that the day is coming when people will worship in spirit and in truth.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl. We've been through this many times. Most people in the world don't believe that the Bible is divine. Some people believe in a god who spoke through the bible. Others believe in a god who didn't speak through the bible. If they are both correct, there are at least two gods out there, based merely on that one distinction. There are many other distinctions. If all believers are correct when they describe their gods, there must be billions of gods, and most religions have very small memberships. The clincher: All believers insist that they are correct. Ergo, there must be billions of gods.

  6. Tony Coyle says:

    Karl

    The difference between Erich Vieth and God (any god) is that many people can independently (or in concert) communicate with Erich and get a reliably consistent response.

    To be honest – many people can communicate with God and get a consistent response… so long as you allow no response or self-serving projection in your suite of allowable responses.

  7. Tony Coyle says:

    AtheistCartoons (sometimes funny, sometimes not) has an apposite 'toon for the multitude of gods…

    <img src="http://www.atheistcartoons.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/

    thesurvey.jpg">

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tony: are you going to offer a link to that 'toon? Or is your comment designed to be one of those "Think of the sound of one hand clapping" thought provokers?

  8. Tony Coyle says:

    I *did* post a link. Obviously I can't do links when I don't have the right edit-fu!

    <img src="http://www.atheistcartoons.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/

    thesurvey.jpg">

  9. Tony Coyle says:

    I should actually review the code before posting… misplaced break embedded in the URL!

    <img src="http://www.atheistcartoons.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/thesurvey.jpg"&gt;

    • Erich Vieth says:

      It was worth waiting for.

      My thought experiment would require 500 believers from any one Christian religion to sit down in isolation from each other and spend an hour each writing a long essay describing their God and their religion. I would bet that there would be substantial disagreement to the point where readers who didn't already know would find it difficult to tell what religion most believers belonged to based on their own hand-written descriptions (other than, perhaps, by Catholics mentioning the Pope).

  10. Karl says:

    Erich pontificates

    "Most people in the world don’t believe that the Bible is divine. Some people believe in a god who spoke through the bible."

    Got AP citations or personal beliefs?

    http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.h

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Thanks, Karl. You've proven my point with your link. Only 33% of the world is Christian. Therefore, about 33% of the world's people believe that the Christian Bible is divine (at most). This means about 67% of the world's people don't.

  11. Karl says:

    Does "most" mean a majority or does "most" mean the highest percentage?

    Erich can look at the same materials that says that 92 percent of the population is not atheistic and say that those 92 percent have strong leanings in the wrong direction because at most only 33 percent at best have any kind of a similar idea about what God is really like.

    He then states that there are billions of ideas about God so no one can have a clue that they can agree at all so the whole discussion is pointless.

    Of the stated categories, stating that the most of something is not a majority and therefore not the most is like saying that most social democracies of Europe should never be able to to agree upon anything so why even try.

    Again does most mean a majority or does most mean the highest percentage?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl: Perhaps we can agree that truth is not determined by a vote. True enough. Because there is sometimes wisdom in crowds, though, one should think at least twice and articulate good self-critical reasons before running against a lopsided majority.

  12. Ben says:

    As an impartial observer, I'd have to agree with Karl that MOST people in the world are not Christians.

    2.1 Billion Christians

    4.7 Billion non-Christians

    (6.8 Billion Total World Population)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

    http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.h

  13. Karl says:

    If any philiosophy/political system ever thought that truth was determined by vote they would obviously have no way of keeping the voters from losing their sanity as well as their morality.

    There would be basically one goal in such cases, convince enough people that what you believe is true really is true. This would be the most self serving democracy one could ever imagine.

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