America’s Four Gods

Ron Berger —

Cross-national studies indicate that Americans report one of the highest levels of belief in God in the world. A recent Gallup Poll conducted in May-June of 2016 found that 89 percent of Americans say they believe in God. When given the option of expressing agnosticism by saying they are not sure if they believe in God, 79 percent still say they do.

414fynyyql-_sx329_bo1204203200_Therefore, a more interesting question to ask about American society is not whether people believe in God, but the type of God they believe in. Even the fact that more than 70 percent identify themselves as Christian tells us little about how they conceive of the deity they profess to believe in. In the research reported in their book, America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God — and What That Says about Us (Oxford University Press, 2010), Baylor University sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader try to answer this question.

Conventional polls such as those conducted by Gallup include few questions about religiosity. In Froese and Bader’s Baylor Religion Survey (BRS), they included dozens of items designed to specify respondents’ beliefs. The mailed survey, which was conducted in two time periods (Fall 2005 and Fall 2007) was a national random sample of nearly 3400 people. The BRS was also supplemented with in-depth individual interviews and focus groups. In this review, I focus on the survey results, which are the result of state-of-the-art statistical analyses, leaving those interested to read the book for more details about the qualitative responses.

* * *

Based on their reading of the religious studies literature and religious texts, Froese and Bader begin their inquiry by identifying what they think are the two “most crucial theological disagreements in America”—“To what extent does God interact with the world?” and “To what extent does God judge the world?” In doing so, they set aside the question of atheism, which they found in only 5 percent of their sample. It is worth noting, however, that a reason they found a lower percentage of atheism than in other surveys is that they included as believers those who described God as a more amorphous “spiritual” or “cosmic” force that they understood as “nature” or a “natural force” that pervades the world. Froese and Bader also set aside the fact that 85 percent of respondents in their sample think that “the term ‘loving’ describes God well.” Therefore, they argue, “a person’s belief that God is loving tells us next to nothing about” how their view may differ from other believers.

Building upon the two axes of disagreement—whether God interacts and judges the world—Froese and Bader identify four categories of belief in God: (1) The Authoritative God who is “both engaged in the world and judgmental,” (2) The Benevolent God who is “engaged, yet nonjudgmental,” (3) The Critical God who is “judgmental, but disengaged,” and (4) The Distant God who is “nonjudgmental and disengaged.”

Froese and Bader characterize the Authoritative God as “a literal father…[who] can become very angry and is capable of meting out punishments to those who are unfaithful” and disobedient. This is the God of the Old Testament who may display “his wrath by allowing tragic events to occur in the hope that these occurrences” will serve as a “wake-up call” for people to repent their sinful ways.

The Benevolent God is an “all-powerful and ever-present life coach” who is less likely to judge and punish but who will “answer our prayers in times of need.” Believers in this type of God are “unlikely to see God’s hand in tragedy itself,” but they “tend to view tragedies as…opportunities for God to express his love” by performing miracles to save people in distress.

The Critical God, like the Authoritative God, is highly judgmental, but this God is “simultaneously disengaged from the world.” Believers in the Critical God think that God holds “a special place in the heart of those who are most in need of help yet are denied assistance,” and that “God’s displeasure” with injustice will be “meted out in…the afterlife…[and] not in this world.”

The Distant God is more of a cosmic force that sets “the laws of nature in motion but does not really ‘do’ things in the world or hold clear opinions about” human activities or world events. This view is often described as deistic, and believers in this God are “likely to reference objects in the natural world, like a beautiful day, a mountaintop, or a rainbow, rather than a humanlike figure.” This God “does not require offerings or praise and does not respond directly to our personal wants and desires.”

Froese and Bader developed survey items to measure respondents’ beliefs about the four Gods and then calculated respondents’ scores as “high” or “low” on each category. They acknowledge that the “fourfold God typology is artificial to the extent that the diversity of beliefs about God are indefinite” and that most people don’t fall completely into one category or another. But they do assert that knowing something about a person along these dimensions can tell us a great deal about how they think about the world.

* * *

According to the BRS results, 31 percent of Americans believe in an Authoritative God, 24 percent believe in a Benevolent God, 16 percent believe in a Critical God, and 24 percent believe in a Distant God. Unsurprisingly, believers in an Authoritative God are more likely to have had authoritarian parents, been spanked as children, to have spent time in church, describe themselves as evangelicals, and be self-proclaimed biblical literalists. Still, about “a quarter of biblical literalists feel that God is Benevolent, and a few…even believe in a Critical or Distant God.” And while “literalists may claim to be opposed to the idea of ‘interpreting’ the Bible,” their responses reveal “a vast array of disagreements about what the text says and means.”

The BRS survey also found that believers in an Authoritative or Benevolent God are more likely to have felt “called by God” to do something and more likely to report actually “hearing the voice of God” speaking to them personally. Interestingly, believers in a Distant God (and atheists) are more likely to have felt “one with the universe,” a religious experience that Froese and Bader characterize as having “New Age overtones.”

Froese and Bader note that believers in an Authoritative God are also the most likely to describe themselves as conservative and moral absolutists, while believers in a Distant God (and atheists) are the most likely to describe themselves as liberal and “moral relativists who shift their opinion about the morality of behavior based on circumstances.” There are, however, two exceptions to this moral relativism: Believers in a Distant God (and atheists) are more likely to be absolutists “in their disapproval of war and environmental depletion.”

On social or cultural issues such as homosexuality and abortion, believers in an Authoritative God are more likely to view homosexuality as a choice and less likely to view it as a civil rights issue. On the other hand, believers in a Distant God (and atheists) are more likely to view homosexuality as a biological predisposition and more likely to view it as a civil rights issue.

Regarding abortion, there is little difference among believers of different Gods in their view that abortion should not be prohibited “when the woman’s health is in danger; most agree that it should be allowed.” However, believers in Authoritative and Benevolent Gods “are significantly more restrictive on abortion…with regard to pregnancies that are the result of rape” than are believers in Critical or Distant Gods. Overall, believers in a Distant God are the most likely to think that “the decision to have an abortion should be left to the woman.”

Another area examined by Froese and Bader is the relationship between beliefs in the four Gods and beliefs in science. They note that most Americans do not have much difficulty reconciling science and faith, that is, they do not view the two as “an either-or proposition but rather an ongoing collaboration and negotiation between two commitments.” The key question, Froese and Bader think, has more to do with “when and how Americans seek scientific or religious answers to their questions.” For instance, “Americans who believe in a highly engaged God (both Authoritarian and Benevolent Gods) are most likely to think that science will not provide solutions to most of our problems.”

Moreover, this general skepticism toward science “carries over into attitudes about specific scientific claims.” Thus, the large majority of believers in Authoritarian or Benevolent Gods are skeptical about the theory of evolution, with less than a fifth thinking that “humans evolved from apes.” Additionally, a clear majority of these believers think that religious theories of creationism should be taught in schools. In contrast, a large majority of “believers in Distant and Critical Gods think that creationism has no legitimate scientific merits and cannot be justifiably taught in schools.” Believers in Distant or Critical Gods are also more likely to support government funding of scientific research.

Turning to economic issues, Froese and Bader found that believers in an Authoritative God are more likely, and believers in a Distant God (and atheists) less likely, to think that government funding to help people in need should be channeled through faith-based initiatives. Interestingly, believers in a Benevolent God are the most likely to think that “government should make attempts to redistribute wealth more evenly.” This latter finding masks important differences by income, however. For example, believers in all four of the Gods who make $35,000 or less per year are more likely than believers who make $100,000 or more to strongly agree that government should redistribute wealth more evenly.

Lastly, Froese and Bader examine varying attitudes about the role of God in disasters or tragic events, including war. Although a majority of believers do not think that God plays a role in these events, those who believe in Authoritarian or Benevolent Gods are more likely to think that God may either cause or allow disasters to occur. These believers are also more likely to believe in Satan or demons that cause evil in the world and more likely to believe that the world will end in the Rapture or Armageddon. Froese and Bader also found that these believers are more likely to believe that “going to war in Iraq was the right decision,” that the government “should not bring troops home immediately,” and that the government “should expand its authority to fight terrorism.” On related matters of nationalism, they found that believers in Authoritative and Benevolent Gods are more likely to think that the U.S. is favored by God, that the U.S. should be declared a “Christian nation,” and that the “government should advocate Christian values.”

* * *

In concluding, Froese and Bader argue that it is not religious faith per se, but the way in which one believes in God, that influences views on a variety of issues, both theological and secular. The U.S. is a nation of believers. “We are a secular nation only to the extent that the Constitution ensures that there is no official national religion….Despite what pundits on both the left and right exclaim, the American public is not engaged in a battle between the secular and the religious.”

Although many of our country’s Founding Fathers were deists, that is, believers in a Distant God, it is likely they were outliers with respect to the rest of the population. At the same time, Froese and Bader think, more Americans have been moving “closer to the kind of God our Founding Fathers envisioned.” One sign of this trend is the growing “number of Americans who say…they have no religious preference….While they still believe in God (for the most part), these Americans belong to no religious affiliation and refuse to identify as followers of a specific tradition.” On the other hand, Froese and Bader note a strong counter-trend that is reflected in the strength of Christian evangelicalism, which they characterize as “the most conspicuous and successful transdenominational religious movement in America.”

Thus, Froese and Bader expect that the American public’s disagreements over the nature of God will likely increase, along with the more general political polarization that characterizes our country today. They encourage us to be respectful of each other’s viewpoints and caution against “trying to coax a person with different beliefs to share your God (or lack of belief in God).” But they also warn us of the economic and political elites who “benefit by exploiting these differences and mutual misunderstandings,” driving “wedges into communities” and drawing us into “conflicts that could be avoided.”

Froese and Bader suggest that a focus on the God that Americans have in common—the loving God—may be the best way to establish common ground for a “shared moral philosophy…[that] fosters respect for another…and ensures that our differences will not spiral out of control.” Personally I am doubtful that this strategy is viable, because people of a fundamentalist bent tend to equate love of God with unquestioning obedience to God, whereas others might reject this view. But Froese and Bader prefer to set this caveat aside and end their book on an optimistic note: “A perfectly harmonious existence is clearly a dream, but at least it is a dream common to all our Gods.”

9 thoughts on “America’s Four Gods

  1. Fascinating article, Ron. I think I am as mixed up about God as anyone could be. I vacillate between all four in my perceptions of what exactly God is. I was born, and remain today, a churchgoing Catholic, but I have great difficulty with acceptance of much of the Church’s doctrine as anything other than symbolic. As a young man, I studied many religions while a college student, and minored in philosophy, which didn’t exactly clarify anything. It only served to confuse me more, as more and more religious/spiritual ideas came into conflict. Still, I go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, I participate in the sacraments, and I donate money for the financial well-being of our local parish. Despite my confusion, I do not do these things as a matter of “Better safe than sorry.” I do them because I still believe in the indoctrination of my youth. LOL

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  2. I enjoyed the article, but it is depressing that such a large number of Americans think that atheists like me cannot possibly be moral, virtuous, ethical or righteous. I suppose that some might even associate me with Satan.

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    1. Jeff, You will find a more supportive view of your position in the Dalai Lama’s “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World,” where he argues for a secular ethical system not dependent on religious belief. He thinks the common denominator for ethical systems of all stripes (religious or secular) is our compassion for our fellow human beings.


  3. Ron I just wrote an earlier response but my keyboard is too touchy and deleted it all. I’ll try again. I just wanted to add that perhaps these four gods are simply ways of clarifying and defining the world we live in, as it seems clearer and clearer that all writings about gods have more to do with the authors than with the gods. Since we all want to believe at least somebody who writes about gods, it soon becomes tradition and dogma to believe what someone wrote down. The four gods the authors speak of seem more like ways of defining the world, and how we react to the world through the lens of authoritative, benevolent, critical or distant points of view about religion and life as we see it. I’ve known all four types of individuals. Another flaw is that the authors chose to comment on monotheism for the most part, eliminating much of the view on the world from many other “eastern” traditions. I’ll admit I’ve been drawn to study and reflect on many different faiths and religions, but I continue to look at the writings of the Dalai Lama and the Stoics as they often focus on earthly matters, and how human beings react to each other, and less on matters above. I’m going to stop here so my fingers don’t delete all of this again.

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  4. Dewitt, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. The authors’ intention was not to address religiosity in all its manifestations (especially outside of the U.S.), but to consider what most Americans think. To be sure, their survey constructs could have been designed to elicit more nuanced responses that tap into alternative views. Their notion of the Distant God does include people who have a more Eastern and non-theistic orientation, but perhaps “God” is not really the best way to describe these views.


  5. Thorough & informative summary/review, Ron — a professional sociologist analysis of an important sociological study. Dewitt’s observation is right on in his impression that the Four Gods plus atheism reflect “ways of defining [or internalizing] the world & how we react” thru different lenses or filters. The authors do say up front that they arrived at their categories to “provide guidelines by which we can evaluate the extent to which an individual holds beliefs more in line with one type over the others.”

    As Ron states, his focus is on the BRS results, tho notes that the authors include pertinent personal stories from survey subjects. These stories, selected to illustrate the humanness in the variety & nuances of statistical compilations, are usually quite engaging & go to the core of expressed belief. Tho the survey covers multiple demographic categories & separate chapters on God & morality, God & science, God & injustice/economics, and God & evil, the authors state, “In the final analysis, we hope to show that a person’s image of God proves more important to their worldview than all these demographic characteristics combined.” They have concluded that “… God acts as a person’s Generalized Other — the voice in our heads with which we have an ongoing conversation” & it is this relationship which tends to best explain “American’s attitudes and behaviors.”

    Toward their book’s end they boldly state, ” Unequivocally … A person’s God is a direct reflection of his level of moral absolutism, his view of science, his understanding of economic justice, his concept of evil, & how he thinks we should respond … Simply put, America’s four Gods lie at the heart of our moral, cultural, & political disagreements.” And they add, “If we hope to explain the root of our culture wars & what form they take in the future, we need to look closely at our beliefs about God.”

    There is certainly much content in this book for extended & deep discussions and some realistic hope that practical & effectual applications can be mined from its riches.

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