“Well, at least they still believe in God,” people often say about family members who used to go to church. Polls, too, seem to offer Christians some comfort as they suggest that an overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe in God. But what do people mean by “God?”
As I reported in my book, Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, polls rarely get beneath the surface of these claims. Often what you hear is not what is actually meant. A recent Pew Forum report reveals that while “nine-in-ten Americans believe in a higher power…only a slim majority believe in God as described in the Bible.”
Earlier surveys have already shown that doubts about God’s existence have grown among Americans, with increasingly fewer believing in God “with absolute certainty.” But this new survey of 4,700 Americans asks what kind of God people are actually rejecting or accepting. They found that only 56% of Americans now believe in a “God of the Bible.”
What kind of God is that, according to Pew? The study implies that the Bible describes a deity who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. This is also a God who protects, rewards, punishes, and who determines what happens in people’s lives. In other words, the survey largely uses what I call the “omnis” to define God, especially omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnibenevolence.
The survey found that at least a third of participants do not generally believe in such a God. Among the unaffiliated “nones,” the survey found that some 53% posit some other higher power or spiritual force. Among self-identified Jews, the percentage was somewhat higher (56%). Dramatic differences are revealed when comparing those who believed in some other spiritual force with those who believe in “the God of the Bible.” Participants who rejected the traditional attributes of God saw the more amorphous “spiritual force” as less loving than the “God of the Bible” (69% vs 97%), less powerful (39% vs 86%) and less knowing (53% vs 94%). They also saw this force as less protecting (53% vs 97%), less rewarding (53% vs 87%) and less punishing (37% vs 50%). Even fewer saw this force as directing their lives (25% vs 70%) or communicating with them (16% vs 40%). Thus, the family member who doesn’t go to church but still believes in “God” might be actually describing a higher power that bears little direct impact on their lives.
It is especially telling that the most rejected of the “omnis” is omnipotence, God as all-powerful. This shift is common across population groups. For instance, many younger Americans, as well as many college graduates, don’t believe God is all-powerful. The survey reports that only 52% of those aged 18-29, and only 50% of college graduates believe God is all-powerful. This is approaching the remarkably low 39% of “nones” who still believe in an omnipotent God.
It would be wrong for church-goers to think of this as an “us vs them” situation. My research finds that these changes are happening inside churches as well. That Pew finds the differences tied to denominations seems to verify this conclusion. For example, mainline Protestants and Catholics have lower levels of belief in God as all-powerful compared to evangelicals and members of historically Black Protestant denominations. In fact, only about 60% of mainline Protestants and Catholics believe that God has all three attributes of all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful. In fact, many mainliners (26%) and Catholics (28%) actually believe in “some other higher power” rather than the “God of the Bible.” Many people in churches are already adopting beliefs similar to the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).
This new survey identifies many of the attitudes I found by interviewing hundreds of SBNRs. It is notable when quantitative (statistical) research like the Pew survey correlates with qualitative (in-depth interviews) research. However, statistical surveys have their limitations, especially in the area of belief. A survey can only provide closely defined responses from which one must choose, and certain parameters control the questions. Participants have no way to question, qualify, or elaborate on their answers.
The most limiting aspect of this particular survey is its implied definition of the “God of the Bible.” To start from the “omnis” when defining the “God of the Bible” is problematic. Even though many people do think of God this way, it is a definition more controlled by Greek philosophical categories than the engaged, personal, complex, and uncontrollable God actually described in Scripture. Scripture presents a God who graciously sends prophets, messengers, a guiding Spirit, and, for Christians, a liberator who lives with us, suffers with us, and makes a new pathway for us. This God is hardly contained by a set of abstract philosophical concepts.
The Pew survey is one more indication that we are in a time of profound transition, not just sociological but theological as well. I contend that the many who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” as well as many who have left religion behind are essentially promoting a “protest theology” against an arid or distorted representation of God. Limiting our description of God to the philosophical “omnis” leads many to ask: if God is all-loving and all-powerful, yet there is evil, what kind of God is that? It is no wonder that many are rejecting a God they think plays favorites, can’t be trusted, and is inconsistent in “his” judgements. But this understanding of God has more to do with the God of popular imagination than the “God of the Bible.”
There is no doubt that a protest theology is also taking hold within the Church. If Christians are not willing to rethink how they present and demonstrate the good news of the Gospel, the theological shifts reported by Pew are likely to become even more pronounced.