What do people with a belief in god actually believe?

To the outsider looking in, a system of belief can appear to be one huge collective with some minor variations, but more or less the same. It may in fact be very tempting to view all those with a belief in god as one unified group. In reality, the degree of fragmentation tends to be vast. Let me illustrate that with a very simple example …

  • Catholicism: The Mass is where the bread and wine supposedly transforms into the actual body and blood of Jesus. This is not symbolic, but literally the body and blood of Jesus
  • Evangelicals: Communion is where the bread and wine are simple symbols. It is done to remember the sacrifice of Jesus

These are mutually exclusive claims, and so it will not be a surprise to learn that Catholics view themselves as the one true church and see those outside as not real Christians. As an exact mirror to that, Evangelicals deem Catholics for be false Christians.

This fragmentation is not unique to Christianity. Variations of Islam have been at war with each other since the very start. Nor is it as simple as this, because Catholicism itself is also itself highly fragmented into variations, and so are the Evangelicals.

So what do people actually believe?

Pew Poll: When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean?

Pew have just published the results of a poll that probed the topic of what people actually believe.

Previous pew polls have highlighted that the number of people who believe in God is shrinking, and so when people say that they don’t believe in God, then what exactly is it that they are now rejecting? It leads to interesting questions …

Are they rejecting belief in any higher power or spiritual force in the universe? Or are they rejecting only a traditional Christian idea of God – perhaps recalling images of a bearded man in the sky? Conversely, when respondents say they do believe in God, what do they believe in – God as described in the Bible, or some other spiritual force or supreme being?

To find out, they conducted a survey of 4,700 adults.

What did they discover?

Belief in God – The God of the Bible

The following illustrates how this panned out …

The interesting insight here is that many of those identified as “Nones” do believe in something.

One further observation is that the survey used the term “God of the bible” but did not define that. Some might perhaps interpret that as the God in the New Testament, others might see that as the God of the old testament who happily slaughtered wicked humans on a biblical scale.

The bottom line observation is that 33% (almost one third) believe in a higher power / spiritual force, and don’t adhere to the more traditional religious view of an all-knowing, all powerful, ever-present God of the bible.

What does God do?

Roughly about 48% believe that God determines what happens in their personal lives.

About 18% think that God only does this some of the time and not all the time.

And so …

  • 8 out of 10 believe God has protected them
  • Two-thirds believe that God has rewarded them

Reward and Punishment

  • 6 in 10 believe in a God that will judge them
  • 4 in 10 believe that God has punished them

Communicating With God

Three quarters talk to God, and 3 in 10 claim that God talks back to them.

Oddly enough, 4 in 10 admit that they never pray, and so clearly there are people who believe they talk to God, but don’t pray.

What about other non-Christian beliefs?

They don’t have enough data to comment …

The survey did not include enough interviews with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or respondents from other minority religious groups in the United States to permit separate analysis of their beliefs.

Atheists, Agnostics, and Nones

These folks are not the same, and do clearly hold different views, so it is perhaps tricky to try and bunch them all together into the same category as “non-religious”, because they clearly see things differently, but the data sample was tiny,

Self-described agnostics look very different from atheists on this question. While very few agnostics (3%) say they believe in God as described in the Bible, a clear majority (62%) say they believe in some other kind of spiritual force. Just three-in-ten say there is no higher power in the universe.

Respondents who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” are even more likely to express belief in a deity; nine-in-ten take this position, mirroring the U.S. public overall in this regard. While most people in this “nothing in particular” group believe in a spiritual force other than the biblical God (60%), a sizable minority (28%) say they do believe in God as described in the Bible.

Age differences

Look across different age groups and clearly there are stark differences. The younger you are the less likely it is that you believe …

As the decades roll by, this will clearly lead to a further decline in belief.

Education also plays a roll

The better your education is, the less inclined you are to believe …

Politics also plays a role

This one surprised me a bit. Republicans and Democrats have very different views on God …

In Summary

There is a great deal of diversity in thinking when we use the word “God”. I’ve only scratched the surface here. The report itself goes into a lot more detail.

Further Reading

The complete Pew report published on 25th April 2018 is here.

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