Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Perceiving God's personality

I was reading a good, old-fashioned, hard-copy version of a newspaper at lunch the other day, and saw an interesting article about how Americans view god. I had to look up the story online, and that led me to several newspaper sites that took different angles on the story, all equally as fascinating to me.

The Times of London took this slant: America is revealed as one nation under four faces of God. (Click on the article link for an interesting graphic that goes with the story.) To excerpt from the article:
It found that Americans hold four different images of God - Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical or Distant - and these views are far more powerful indicators about their political, social and moral attitudes than any of the traditional categories such as Protestant, Catholic or Evangelical. ...

The American survey, conducted by Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion in Texas, broke new ground in asking respondents how they viewed God's personality.

Researchers found that Americans hold four distinct views, and these "Four Gods" are remarkably accurate diviners of how an American thinks about everything from politics, abortion, taxation and marriage. "You learn more about people's moral and political behaviour if you know their image of God than almost any other measure," said Christopher Bader, one of the researchers. ...

"This is a very powerful tool to understand core differences in the United States," said Paul Froese, a professor at Baylor. "If I know your image of God, I can tell all kind of things about you. It's a central part of your world view."
The San Jose Mercury News, with an Associated Press story, took this angle: Poll surveys Americans' faith: Nearly 90 Percent Have Religious Ties; Others Believe in Higher Power. To excerpt:
Researchers found that 10.8 percent of Americans have no ties to a congregation, denomination or faith group. Previous surveys had put that figure at 14 percent, overlooking about 10 million people involved in some form of organized religion, the Baylor report said.

Other surveys also have overlooked millions of evangelicals, because respondents who belonged to non-denominational groups or megachurches would often report that they had no denomination and were wrongly counted as unaffiliated, the study's authors say.

Baylor researchers found that one-third of Americans are evangelical Protestant, just under one-quarter are mainline Protestant, one-fifth are Roman Catholic and 5 percent are black Protestant. Jews comprise 2.5 percent of the population, while 5 percent of Americans belong to other faiths.

The rest, who are not involved in religious groups, are not fully secular, researchers said. More than 60 percent of the unaffiliated say they believe in God or a higher power, and nearly one-third say they pray at least occasionally. Eleven percent believe Jesus is the son of God.
The Christian Science Monitor ran this Washington Post article: Religious Americans defy labels: Evangelical? Mainline? Many Americans, a new study shows, define their beliefs in less traditional ways. (Click on the article link for an interesting graphic that goes with the story.) To excerpt:
The finding reflects the new challenges involved in trying to categorize religiosity in America, where people increasingly blend religions, church-shop, and worship in independent communities. Classic labels such as mainline, evangelical, and unaffiliated no longer have the same meaning. ...

Scholars are starting to ask different questions they find more predictive: Does your pastor talk about religion? Have you had a born-again experience? If you are Catholic, are you traditional, or cultural?

Scholars have been saying for some time that the relevance of denomination is slipping. But the Baylor survey, which asks about subjects including how people perceive God's nature and what people pray about, adds to a hot debate about what that means. It reveals the complex ways Americans describe their religiosity, and the minefield for today's scholars in trying to measure it. Is someone religious if they go to church? If they believe in God? What if they do one but not the other?
Religion has been such a big issue in the past few elections in this country. I suspect that many Americans, not just me, have been trying to reconcile how their views of god and religion fit in with the view of god and religion presented by the current president and others in power. This study seems to provide a vocabulary to explore those differences.

The fiction writer in me also likes the framework it sets for creating believeable characters with believable world views.

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