Behind America's Different Perceptions of God

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Where We Live

•A Geographic Breakdown
Compared with other developing countries, the nation is still just a vast prairie

What We Believe

• How We View God
Your view of God may shape your morals and politics

• Behind America's Different Perceptions of God
Researchers who divided religion into four view of God say that's a better indicator than denomination

• Denomination Nation
See where the largest religious groups live across the U.S.

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When sociologists at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) commenced a landmark three-year survey on religion in America, they did something different. The survey has been called the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted, with more than 1,700 people who each answered nearly 400 questions on American religion and spirituality."We wanted to do something that most surveys don't and that is to probe questions that are typically not asked on surveys," said researcher Dr. Byron Johnson, professor of sociology and co-director of the ISR, when the results were released last month. ISR researchers also organized their data according to brand-new categories, dividing American religion into four ways that we can view God — Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical and Distant.

As Baylor has noted, this is certainly unique compared to the old method of trying to predict what people would do by which denomination they belonged to. Over the last few decades that has proven to be an ever-weakening predictor of moral and political behavior, particularly as denominational definitions have become more elastic and fewer people are attending a church because of the specifics of its doctrine. The current sociological truism is that a Methodist who finds his way to church three times a week and a Catholic who attends daily Mass have more in common than either does with a Christmas-and-Easter liberal in his own church.

So denomination has been a sociological non-starter for a while. More interesting is that at least one Baylor team member is claiming that its Type of God categories are more predictive than church attendence or Bible reading. This is novel, and if it's true, a lot of political strategists will be up late digesting the Baylor numbers. But for the average reader, the big drawback of the study at present is that its categories do not have a natural ring to them. It was easy to understand "Presbyterian" or "frequent churchgoer." It's a lot harder to figure out what Baylor means by its Critical God, who "does not interact with the world. Nevertheless... still observes the world and views the current state of the world unfavorably." If you walked through the average church, where Baylor claims the majority of such believers reside, and read the definition from the pulpit, I'm not sure how many would understand it well enough to raise their hands.

Dr. Paul Froese, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor, has said: "This is a very powerful tool to understand core differences in the United States; If I know your image of God, I can tell all kinds of things about you. It's a central part of worldview and it's linked to how you think about the world in general." Froese may be right — and if he is, then his ways of divvying up believerdom may gradually become more natural. But for now it seems to me that one of the major goals of the study, which will go on for three years, should be the unpacking of its terminology.

Here are some other interesting results from the survey:

* The film The Passion of the Christ was viewed by 44.3% of those polled, but the book The Da Vinci Code, was read by only 28.5%. This may not reflect religious piety (The Passion is very pious, The Code quite skeptical) so much as it does the labor of reading. The Left Behind books, very pious and very popular also, only reached 19%.

* Evangelical Protestants scored high — 86.5% — in professing that they had "No doubts that God exists." But African American Protestants scored 100%.

* Women tend toward very engaged images of God, while men tend toward less engaged images.

* Only 4% of Americans think that God picks sides in partisan politics.

* Between 57% and and 68% of respondents — among all four God types — include "take care of the sick and needy" in their criteria for being a "good person"; the interesting question is why the other 30% thought those qualities didn't make the cut.