Baylor University’s New Survey: Four Gods?

Written by Drew on September 12th, 2006

Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion has just published a new survey that has been making some waves in the media.

Baylor’s press release begins by pointing out that America is not as secular as conventional wisdom believes. One survey had previously reported that 14.3 percent of Americans are not affiliated with any religious group. Baylor’s numbers, however, report a smaller percentage of the unchurched–10.8 percent, or approximately 10 million Americans.

The most remarkable feature of this survey, though, is not its implications regarding the secularization of America. The data creating a stir concern four different views of God found among this country’s religious population. Here are the numbers, according to the BU press release:

One area that emerged from the survey that has excited the researchers is what they call the “Four Gods.” Depending on how engaged people think God is in the world and how angry God is with the world.

“If you think about people perceiving God as high in anger, low in anger, high in engagement, low in engagement, it results in four different types of gods,” said [Dr. Paul] Froese [assistant professor of sociology].

What researchers found was that the type of god people believe in can predict their political and moral attitudes more so than just looking at their religious tradition.

Researchers found that none of the “four gods” dominated among believers. The data showed:

  • 31.4 percent believe in an Authoritarian God, who is very judgmental and engaged
  • 25 percent believe in a Benevolent God, who is not judgmental but engaged
  • 23 percent believe in a Distant God, who is completely removed
  • 16 percent believe in a Critical God, who is judgmental but not engaged

Other demographic relationships and religious effects surrounding the “Four Gods” include:

  • African-Americans believe overwhelmingly in an Authoritarian God (53.4 percent);
  • Region of the country is significantly related to the four types of god. Easterners tend towards belief in a Critical God; Southerners tend towards an Authoritarian God; Midwesterners believe in a Benevolent God; and the West Coast believes in a Distant God.
  • Individuals with lower educations and lower incomes tend towards more engaged images of God.

“This is a very powerful tool to understand core differences in the United States,” Froese said. “If I know your image of God, I can tell all kinds of things about you. It’s a central part of world view and it’s linked to how you think about the world in general.”

I’m wondering how accurate these figures really are. The problem with surveys like these is that you can only choose one option. In my judgment, God wears all of these hats, some of them together at the same time. The difference is in the perspective. To the Christian who is living in harmony with God’s will, he is “Benevolent,” engaged but not condemning. However, the person who knows his sin has put him out of favor with the Lord sees his God as “Judgmental,” and rightly so. I’m a little suspicious of these numbers. The survey may report four gods because that’s what it set out to do.

The biggest problem in this nation is not that people have dropped their faith altogether. The problem is that they no longer go to the Bible to find the true and living God. Today folks are comfortable fashioning a god of their own making.

For once I’d like to see a study that compares the biblical view of God with society’s view of God. Now that would be an interesting report.


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