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.
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.