Talking about America’s Four Gods

I just read this book, titled, “America’s Four Gods; What we say about God & what it says about us,” by Paul Froese and Christopher Baker. Good book. It comes from a study that Baylor conducted about what Americans believe about religion. Rodney Stark, in the same department at Baylor, got a book out of the same study, I think.

The study found that as people describe the God they believe in, two continuums emerged: How engaged is God, and How judgmental is God? If you cross these two continuums like a Cartesian coordinate system, four images of God appear. Remarkably, something like a quarter of Americans fall into each quadrant. Here’s what they pose:

Benevolent God (more engaged, less judgmental) – 24% of Americans

Authoritative God (more engaged, more judgmental) – 31% of Americans

Critical God (less engaged, less judgmental) – 16% of Americans

Distant God (less engaged, less judgmental) – 24% of Americans

And 5% of us are atheists.

Some cool trends also emerged. Involved God has a more human (and white) form. The more your income, the less engaged is your God. If you believe in moral absolutes, you have a more involved God. If you have an involved, judgmental God, you believe science is secondary to religion. Involved and Authoritative God is responsible for evil and tragedy.

No big surprises, I guess, but it’s a fact-based way to see how and what forms people’s beliefs. The book show’s relationships about people’s beliefs towards the ACLU, whether God caused Hurricane Katrina, evolution, government’s role in welfare, how people worship, religion in government, and more. It seems clear, there is a relationship about which is the basis of which.

I read the last chapter of the book “Present and Future” with a question in mind. Can these different groups dialogue and temper each other? It said, “We expect that our disagreements over God’s engagement will most likely increase.” The religious tone in America is alive and well. The “push” for the engaged God is based in church and the right media. The less engaged God dominates the rest of the world. When politicians mention God, the four groups react in certain ways. Some think, “You go!” Others take it in stride. And others think it makes them insincere and manipulative.

“Currently, most Americans feel that God is very involved with our lives, but trends towards a more distant God would indicate a growing chasm in public belief. This may lead some believers to become more averse to arguments for intelligent design and to political references to God and less sympathetic to the moral absolutism of traditional religious doctrine. In turn, those with an engaged God will feel more embattled and potentially more vigorous in their demands to see God referenced in the public square. But in the end, those with a more engaged God will have to accept their God being pushed out of the public square and the fact that discussions of how God influences the universe will not be considered in the theories of modern scientists. Instead, believers in a more engaged God may become more isolated in their demands for a science that accounts for their religion and for social policy drawn directly from their religious doctrines.”

Dialogue is good, coaxing can be misguided or insulting. Too often we settle for no real talk, and the only real dialogue happens in the media. Thoreau (whose God was transcendent and distant), said, “The paradox of man resolves itself in complete silence, for the most part.”

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About Jim

I've been leading outdoor environmental education in the YMCA since the 1970s. I love teaching nature, history, current events, being a dad, fixing stuff, groups, and general thinking.
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One Response to Talking about America’s Four Gods

  1. JP says:

    Good stuff, Jim. Thanks for the post and for changing the subject. It helps explain why virtually nothing that our culture presents as Christianity is recognizable to me or my understanding of Christianity. (Those 5% of atheists must sure be powerful though, what with their war on Christmas and all….)

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