Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all assign a personality to God, which appears to be neurologically based on the nature of our own personality and beliefs. Different people have different ways of imagining God, and these preferences deeply influence the way we see the world.
Many people use the word "God" to express what they feel is a universally understood concept, but when you look more closely, the definition of God becomes extraordinarily diverse. According to the Baylor research, some see God as kindly and loving, but twice as many Americans see God as punitive and stern. Some see God as distant and unconcerned, but many experience God as being actively involved in their lives. In fact, 20 percent even believe that God favors a specific political party. For example, during the 2004 presidential campaign, 30 percent were convinced that God looked favorably on George W. Bush.
When they put the data together, the Baylor researchers concluded that the Americans sampled tended to embrace one of four different personalities of God: authoritarian, critical, distant, or benevolent. But these four categories could not be easily assigned to any specific denomination or sect. For example, some evangelicals embraced a benevolent God, most saw God primarily as an authoritarian, and a few saw God as a distant entity who does not involve himself in human affairs.
Those who believe in an authoritarian God represent 32 percent of America. They believe that God is very angry and willing to punish anyone who is unfaithful or who acts in an ungodly way. They may even believe that God causes earthquakes and human disasters as a wake-up call about the sinful behavior of people.
This God is highly involved in world events and the personal lives of individuals, and the people who embrace an authoritarian God want our government to be run according to Christian-based values. One might suspect that the majority of these people would be very negative toward members of non-Christian sects, yet only 22 percent believed it was important to convert others to their belief.
Over half of evangelical and black Protestants assign to God an authoritarian personality. They attend church more often (51 percent go weekly), and nearly half believe in the literal truth of the Bible. This helps to reinforce the image of a wrathful, punitive God. These findings are similar to a University of Rochester study that found that more than 60 percent of American born-again Christians and Catholics believe they will "suffer negative consequences if they disobey their religion."
Another 16 percent of Americans believe that God is critical but will neither punish nor comfort his flock. This God has an unfavorable view of society. He does not intervene with the world, but he will cast judgment on people in the afterlife.
Interestingly, every religious category had close to the same proportion of people who saw God as a critical entity. Catholics and Protestants were only a few percentage points higher than evangelicals, Jews, and those unaffiliated with religious groups.
Only 4 percent of this group felt that it was important to convert others to their religious belief, far less than those who embrace an authoritarian God. Religious observance took low priority, and only 10 percent attended church weekly. After all, if God shows little interest in you, why should you care about God?
Interestingly, when it comes to protecting the environment, this group takes the strongest stance, although I want to point out that the other groups also favored environmental protection. Believers in a critical God were also more likely to favor the equal distribution of wealth and Affirmative Action programs, but again, the percentages were only slightly higher than the other groups. perhaps if you believe that God is uncaring, this places greater responsibility on society, and on one's own shoulders, to manage the affairs of the world.
When combined with the first group of believers, nearly 50 percent of all Americans embrace a God that is cold, critical, and harsh. This, to me, reflects an underlying pessimism about the human condition and the moral state of the world.
The second largest group, comprising 24 percent ofthe American population, sees God as distant and uninvolved. He does not hold opinions about the world or about personal behavior; thus we are left to our own free will to decide what is right and wrong. This God is less of a person and more like a cosmic force that set the laws of nature into motion.
Those who perceive God as distant have higher levels of income and education than any other group. Almost half never go to church, and 38 percent never pray. In contrast, only 2 percent of those who believe in an authoritarian God never pray. It makes one wonder: Does a fear of God make one want to pray more often?
Approximately a third of all Catholics, Protestants, and Jews believe in a distant God, yet this group is more open-minded when it comes to gay rights, abortion, and premarital sex. Within this group, many people question the existence of God.
In contrast to 72 percent of Americans who believe in an authoritarian, critical, or distant God, only 23 percent see God as gentle, forgiving, and less likely to respond with wrath. Like those who believe in an authoritarian God, believers in a benevolent God think he is very active in their lives. He listens, responds to prayers, and cares deeply about the suffering of others, but he sometimes causes suffering and pain.
Only a quarter of Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals embrace a loving God, whereas less than 14 percent of black Protestants and Jews see God as a benevolent force. And of those who are unaffiliated, only 5 percent see God in a kindly way. Since most of the Old Testament describes a wrathful God, this may be the primary reason why so few people see God as a symbol of eternal love. To see God as primarily loving, a person must embrace a liberal interpretation of the Bible, ignoring or rejecting the vindictive passages.
Only half of those who believe in a benevolent God strongly advocate Christian values for the rest of the country and the world, while the other half believes in exercising tolerance toward people who hold different religious views. Thus, believing in a loving God is not enough to sway many believers toward accepting a pluralistic nation or world.
Our Survey of Spiritual Experiences, which we described in Chapter 4, illuminated a fifth personality of God that we think the Baylor study missed. The Baylor researchers provided a checklist of qualities one might associate with God, but they did not include terms that could reflect unitary spiritual experiences in which God transcends the biblical image of a heavenly powerful deity. Instead, their list of "personality" terms was biased toward the otherness of God. For example, they chose words that are easily associated with human traits, like motherly, fatherly, kingly, etc. Other questions also reinforced an anthropomorphic image by asking if the respondent saw God as angry, concerned, involved, or uninvolved in one's affairs. Only one question allowed the participant to describe God as a "cosmic force in the universe."
In contrast, when we asked our survey participants to describe their spiritual experiences, many talked about God as an emotional presence, using words like peace, energy, tranquility, or bliss. God was not a separate entity, but rather a force that permeated everything. God didn't create the universe, God was the universe, a radiance that extended throughout time and space. God was light, God was freedom and for many people God was consciousness itself. For them a mysticalcal God often cannot be described with words. A mystical God is neither "he" nor "she," nor is it punitive, critical, or distant. People who embrace this type of God are often attracted to religious groups that fall outside of mainstream denominations, and often see different religions as reflections of a single underlying spiritual truth. They are more accepting of religious differences and more willing to sample other spiritual traditions and beliefs. Others join nondenominational spiritual groups that liberally apply teachings from different religions and philosophical views. According to sociologist Robert Wuthnow, there are approximately three million active, small spiritual groups in America, and most are not mentioned in public opinion polls.
Based upon national surveys conducted by the Barna Group, 11 percent of Americans believe that God is "a state of higher consciousness that a person may reach." Eight percent define God as "the total realization of personal, human potential," and 3 percent believe that each person is God. Overall, it's fair to estimate that a quarter to one third of all Americans believe in a nontraditional mystical God that is neither authoritarian, critical, nor distant. In fact the percentages may even be higher because there are many members of traditional religious groups who also embrace a unitary vision of God. And if you include the spiritual practices of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, Jainism, Sufism, Bahá'í, Shinto, and others, the mystical God emerges as the primary spiritual belief system in the world, with over two billion followers and believers. In non-Western cultures, supreme deities are seen as enormously loving and rarely depicted as being angry, critical, or distant.
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