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Multiple-choice God

September 17, 2006

'IN GOD WE TRUST" it says on the penny, and a new survey of religious attitudes supports that sentiment. According to "American Piety in the 21st Century," a survey conducted for Baylor University by the Gallup Organization, 85% to 90% of Americans say "yes" when asked: "Do you, personally, believe in God?"

But the study went further by asking respondents what sort of God they believed in. The results put the perennial debate over the role of religion in public life in a new light.

The survey identifies four conceptions of God, which it labels A, B, C and D.

A is the Authoritarian God, worshiped by 31.4% of respondents. This deity is highly involved, responsible for Earthly events such as tsunamis or economic upturns and "capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly."

B is the Benevolent God, the choice of 23% of respondents. He also is involved in human affairs but isn't in the smiting business. This God is "mainly a force of positive influence in the world and is less willing to condemn or punish individuals."

C is the Critical God, who "really does not interact with the world." But believers in this God -- 16% of the sample -- still watch their Ps and Qs because God C "views the current state of the world unfavorably" and will punish evildoers "in another life."

Last but not least is D, the Distant God. Twenty-four percent of respondents endorsed -- "embraced" is probably too strong a word -- this version of the deity, "a cosmic force which set the laws of nature in motion" but has no interest in human activities.

Finally, there are the atheists, who accounted for 5.2% of respondents. (They aren't dignified with an abbreviation. F for faithless?)

The diversity of beliefs about God is reflected in political as well as religious convictions. According to the survey, 17.3% of believers in a Benevolent God would abolish the death penalty, compared with only 12.1% of those who worship an Authoritarian God. When the issue is prayer is public schools, believers in God A are overwhelmingly supportive -- 90.9% -- and believers in God B less so (79%). Among believers in a Critical God, 69.4% supported school prayer. Among believers in a Distant God, however, only 46.5% supported school prayer.

As interesting as those correlations are, the overlap between categories suggests that all-or-nothing propositions such as "school prayer" or the display of the Ten Commandments on public property might mean very different things to different people. A believer in a Benevolent or Distant God might see school prayer as positive because God is benign or at least unthreatening, while a commandments proponent who believes in an Authoritarian God might see it as a way to strike fear into the hearts of schoolchildren -- a prospect that might appall the believer in God B.

If it does nothing else, the Baylor survey should lead to more sophisticated reporting about what sort of God Americans want to welcome back to the public square: A, B, C, D -- or none of the above?

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