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Monday, September 18, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Is your God supremely different from anyone else's God?

From the Seattle Times

Some folks like to say everyone worships the same God. But we know that isn't exactly so, and now we have a description of how American conceptions of God differ.

The Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion and the Gallup organization recently finished a study that went beyond the usual questions — "Do you believe in God?" and "Do you go to church?" They tried to dig more deeply and find out how people see God, how they see themselves in relation to God and how that affects their ideas and behavior. What they found is that when Americans say "God," they are not necessarily talking about the same deity.

The researchers asked 29 questions about God's character and behavior, sifted through the answers they got from 1,721 participants and identified "two clear and distinct dimensions" to people's ideas about God.

Those are God's level of engagement and God's level of anger at human sins. People see God as engaged or not, angry or not. The four combinations of those two traits yield more information about the believer than the usual denominational labels.

Americans see God as engaged and angry (a god who is involved in world and individual affairs and who metes out punishment for bad behavior); engaged but not angry (involved in individual lives and the world, but behaving benevolently without anger); disengaged and angry (withdrawn from intervening in human affairs, but unhappy with the state of the world and likely to punish bad deeds in the afterlife; or disengaged and not angry (a god who set things in motion, then went fishing).

Basically what we have are lightning-bolt God, smiley-face God, bummed-out God and whatever, dude God. The researchers assigned them letters: A (authoritarian), B (benevolent), C (critical) and D (distant).

The combination you choose says more about you than about God.

The researchers found "a clear disconnect between how the media and academics identify American believers and how they identify themselves."

Few people use the term "evangelical," for instance, even when they belong to churches that have "evangelical" in their name. But when the data are organized by type of God, it's clear which groups people belong to.

Only evangelical Protestants showed consistency in their political views. "They agree with conservative agenda items and disagree with liberal ones." They tend to believe in an authoritarian God. Other groups crossed political lines depending on the topic.

It didn't matter whether people were Catholic, Protestant or Jewish; what determined their views on a number of topics was the version of God they believed in.

A Catholic who believed in the authoritarian God was as conservative as any evangelical.

They also found that women leaned toward more engaged versions and men toward less engaged. People with lower educations and lower incomes also tended to believe in a more engaged God, who answers prayers. Most black people believed in a more engaged God. Southerners tend toward an authoritarian God, West Coasters are more into a distant God and Midwesterners lean toward the benevolent God.

Interestingly, not a single black person in the survey claimed to be an atheist. Asked whether they believed without any doubt that God exists, black Protestants were the only group in which 100 percent said yes.

Black folks overwhelmingly believe God is not happy with people's sins and will tan hides when necessary in this life or the next.

The survey was full of stuff you might not know: It found that 3.7 percent of the black population is Jewish, compared to 2.6 percent of white Americans.

Everybody's got a model of God to suit who they are. People's religious views reflected their income, education, gender, race and age.

People 18-30 are about three times more likely than people over 65 to have no religious affiliation. Americans are becoming less tied to denomination.

Americans overwhelmingly say they believe in God, it's just that folks have different ideas about who God is and what God wants from us.

The differences have social and political impacts. Who we vote for and which programs we support all affected by the way we see God, including the small portion of the population that filled in "atheist" on the survey.

On abortion, allowing gay people to marry, military spending and social programs, a person's description of God corresponded with his or her political stand.

If the government were going to back a religion, which version of God would it push? Looking at the survey will remind you why separation of church and state makes sense.

People have a bad tendency to talk past one another, using the same words to mean very different things, which leads to misunderstandings and makes it difficult to put conflicts to rest.

This survey gives people a clearer idea of what their neighbors are talking about when they bring God into a conversation.