02/18/16

American Polytheism

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© vectomart | 123rf.com

The Baylor Religion Survey looked “under the hood,” so to speak, of the commonly acknowledged fact of American religiosity. Consistent with other findings, it found that 85-90% of Americans said they believed in God, and 71.5% said they prayed at least once per week. Almost half (49.2%) said they attended church at least once per month. “In fact, under the surface American religion is startlingly complex and diverse. Americans may agree that God exists. They do not agree about what God is like, what God wants for the world, or how God feels about politics.” Let’s see what the Baylor researchers found out.

One of the intriguing aspects of the Baylor Religion Survey was how it assessed religious affiliation. Most surveys simply ask the person to select their affiliation or denomination from a list. But this has become increasingly problematic as more and more Americans lose a strong denominational identity through the rise of nondenominational congregations as well as congregations that minimize their denominational ties. I watched with interest as a large local church completed its building program and shed the “Assembly of God” part of its name to simply become “Church.” Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch is similar. How many people realize it is part of the Southern Baptist denomination? I didn’t.

What the Baylor researchers did was look beyond mere denominational affiliation. In addition to the typical checklist of denominations, they asked respondents to give the name and address of their places of worship. This enabled them to more accurately sort persons into broader religious traditions. By their calculations, Evangelical Protestants comprised 33.6% of their survey; Mainline Protestants were 22.1%; Catholics were 21.2%; the Unaffiliated were 10.8%; Other was 4.9%; Black Protestant were 5.0%; and Jewish were 4.9%. See the Survey for further information on these religious traditions.

The so-called “nones,” individuals not affiliated with any religious tradition, have been getting a lot of attention in the reporting on religious surveys lately. The Baylor Religion Survey found that 62.9% of American nones believed in God or some higher power. Most of these individuals (44.5% of the 62.9%) reported a belief in a higher power. There were 37.1% of nones who said they didn’t believe in a God or higher power, while 11.6% believed without any doubts and 6.9% sometimes believed in God or believed with doubts. Almost one third of the unaffiliated (31.6%) reported praying at least occasionally; 10.1% of those prayed daily. What comes to mind is the spiritual, not religious language and distinction made within Twelve Step groups.

Another intriguing aspect of the Baylor Religion Survey was how it used 29 questions about God’s character and behavior to get a sense of what people meant when they said they believed in God. They discovered there were two distinct dimensions of belief in God. The first dimension was God’s level of engagement or activity. This captured the extent to which the individual believed God is directly involved in worldly and personal affairs. The second dimension was God’s level of anger. This described the extent to which the person believed God is angered by human sins and tended towards punishing, severe, and wrathful characteristics.

From these two dimensions, the researchers separated their sample into four types of believers: Type A was the Authoritarian God; Type B was the Benevolent God; Type C was the Distant God; Type C was the Critical God. Type A believers scored above the mean on both the activity and anger dimensions. Type B believers scored above the mean on activity, but below the mean on anger. Type C believers scored above the mean on anger, but below the mean on engagement. Type D believers scored below the mean on both the dimensions. See the following figure taken from the Baylor study:

Baylor

What struck me about this way of assessing belief in God was that it captured more of a sense of how the respondents viewed God, closer to the sense of “God as you understand Him” in Twelve Step recovery. These types don’t neatly fit within a denominational category. You could potentially find all four types within one denomination.

Those who believe in an Authoritarian God represent 32% of the population. They think God is very involved in their lives and world affairs. He is responsible for global events like tsunamis and economic upturns. They also tend to feel God is angry and capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly.

Those who believe in a Benevolent God make up 23% of the population. They also see God as very active in their daily lives. But they are less likely to believe God is angry and that He acts in wrathful ways. Instead, they see God as a force of positive influence in the world who is less willing to condemn or punish individuals.

Believers in a Critical God comprise 16% of the population. They feel God does not really interact with the world. However, God still observes the world and views the current stat of affairs unfavorably. His displeasure will be felt in another life and divine justice may not occur in this world

Believers in a Distant God include 24% of the population. They think God is not active in the world; neither is He especially angry. These individuals tend towards thinking about God as a cosmic force, which set the laws of nature in motion, similar to deism. As such, God does not “do” things in the world; nor doe He hold clear opinions about human activities or world events.

When these views of God are used to sort through selected aspects of religiosity, there were some interesting results. Believers who saw God as active in personal and world affairs, (Type A and Type B), were significantly more likely to attend church services weekly, pray several times a day, believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and be biblical literalists.  See the following table derived from Table 8 in the Baylor Religion Survey.

Type A Authoritarian

Type B Benevolent

Type C Critical

Type D Distant

Attends church weekly

50.9%

31.5%

9.8%

7.8%

Never Attends

13.5%

8.2%

16.7%

41.5%

Prays several times daily

54.8%

31.7%

6.5%

7.0%

Never Prays

1.8%

2.5%

18.4%

38.7%

Biblical Literalist

60.8%

26.5%

10.2%

2.5%

Jesus is the Son of God

41.3%

27.8%

14.4%

16.0%

Denominational affiliation is not the whole story on American spiritual and religious practices and beliefs. While the Baylor Religion Survey and other research, such as that by the Pew Research Center, suggest that “nones” are becoming increasingly secular, there clear evidence that many still believe in some kind of a transcendent or higher power and pray at least monthly. The Baylor survey found that around 10% prayed daily. The Types of God used to categorize views of God in the Baylor Religion Survey illuminated an understanding of God that cuts across denominations and has some correspondence with the sense of “God as you understand Him” within the Twelve Steps.

This reflects a growing movement in American religiosity towards what William James described as personal religion in his seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Institutionally-grounded religious belief and practice is waning, while personal expression of a belief in God and spiritual practices such as prayer continues, even among those who see themselves as not religious. The distinction between institutional and personal religion first articulated by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience seems to resonate with the modern spiritual, not religious distinction within many Twelve Step groups.

11/13/15

From Darkness to Light

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© andreiuc88 | stockfresh.com

Douglas Moo said Romans 1:21 was the “missing link” for Paul’s argument in Romans 1:20, where he said those who suppress the truth God reveals about himself in creation have no excuse for their actions. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). In other words, if you deny or suppress what creation reveals about God, you will never truly understand it. What’s more, your failure to understand is inexcusable because it should have been quite plain to you.

According to Robert Mounce, we can reasonably expect that knowing God should lead us to honor him as God, since He plainly gives all people the basic requirements for life, regardless of their relationship to him. Their response should be gratitude, “But people choose to ignore God and come up with their own version of reality. By rejecting the knowledge of the true God, religion is born.” Mounce’s sense of religion here  seems to be a revision of Edmund/Edward Tylor’s definition of religion as follows: “the belief in spiritual beings” other than the true God. This turning from the revealed truth of God to a personal interpretation of that revealed truth has been described as “the triumph of gods over God.”

The sense of “God as you understand him” in Twelve Step recovery strikes off in two separate directions when the truth about God in creation is encountered. One is compatible with the Romans Road, and one is not. God as you understand Him is essentially “God as I am willing to accept” or “God as I am able to comprehend” Him. This first sense can be portrayed by the word “god” within a circle representing the person’s understanding. This sense of  “god” becomes a projection or manifestation of a purely human attempt to explain reality.

small god

The alternate sense, and one that is compatible with the Romans Road, is a circle of understanding that is infinitesimally smaller than God Himself. Something that looks like what follows: the representation of our understanding as a circle barely discernable with the “O” of God.

big GodThe distinction between these two “understandings” of God is illustrated in Anselm’s Ontological Argument for God’s Existence. Anselm said that even a fool can conceive of the idea of “god” as an absolutely perfect being; a being greater than anything we can imagine or conceive. But if this idea exists in our understanding, “then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.” So if someone accepts that God is greater than our ability to imagine Him, He must exist in reality because existing in reality is greater than merely existing in the imagination. “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” Brian Davies and G. R. Evans noted in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works that Anselm believed:

God cannot be thought of simply as a concept people have. He [Anselm] thinks people who deny God’s existence can nevertheless be thought of as having some concept of God, for so he says, they have some idea of what it is whose existence they deny.

If reflecting on the meaning of the word ‘God’ shows that God necessarily exists in reality and not just in the mind as an idea of him, then someone who denies there is a God is ultimately proposing what must necessarily be false. Anselm saw his argument for the existence of God as paving the way for serious reflection on what we mean when we use the word ‘God.’ He also believed his ‘proof’ showed that God was what Christians believed God to be. But according to Romans, if this knowledge doesn’t lead the individual to honor and give thanks to God, it is not saving knowledge of God (Romans 1:16, 21).

So if this knowledge does not lead to reverence and gratitude towards God, then it “falls far short of what is necessary to establish a relationship” with God. In Romans 1:21 Paul points to what will happen with an understanding of God based solely on the knowledge of God revealed in creation—your thinking becomes futile; and your foolish heart becomes darkened. Whatever your initial capacity to reason about God may have been, whatever initial knowledge of creation you might have had, failing to acknowledge God’s hand in it means your thinking about it will ultimately be in vain; futile.

You can understand God to be greater than your ability to imagine Him, but still not have that knowledge lead you to worship Him. It requires the light of the gospel. Knowledge of God that does not lead you to honor and give thanks to Him leads to futile thinking and darkened, foolish hearts. Douglas Moo commented that at the very center of every person where the knowledge of God must be embraced is darkness. If the knowledge of God is to have any positive effects, then only the light of the gospel can penetrate that darkness.

As Paul has already said in verse 1:18 of Romans, the wrath of God is revealed against individuals who suppress the truth of what God has revealed. You need more than just an understanding of God as a being greater than anything we can imagine or conceive to have a relationship with “the God of the preachers.” John Calvin said of the individuals Paul described in Romans 1:21, “They quickly choked by their own depravity the seed of right knowledge, before it grew up to ripeness.” Robert Mounce put it this way:

To turn from the light of revelation is to head into darkness. Sin inevitably results in a darkening of some aspect of human existence. In a moral universe it is impossible to turn from the truth of God and not suffer the consequences. Ignorance is the result of a choice. People who do not “know” God are those who have made that choice. Understanding God requires a moral decision, not additional information.

According to the Reformation Study Bible, God will not allow human beings to entirely suppress their sense of God. Even in a fallen world people have a conscience; they have some sense of right and wrong. “When conscience speaks in these terms it speaks with the voice of God.” And I think this is true for the Twelve Steps. By meditating on what ‘God as I understand Him’ means, perhaps someone will have a deeper appreciation of what Christians believe God to be.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally intended. This article is “04,” the fourth one in the series. Enjoy.