What Do Americans Mean When They Talk about ‘God’?

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The Story: According to a new survey, almost all Americans believe in a higher power, but only a slim majority believe in God as described in the Bible.

The Background: A new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center finds that one-third of Americans say they do not believe in the God of the Bible, but that they do believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. A slim majority of Americans (56 percent) say they believe in God “as described in the Bible.”

Even three-quarters (72 percent) of religious “nones”—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”—believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. Only one-in-ten Americans do not believe in any higher power or spiritual force.

While roughly two-thirds of adults ages 50 and older say they believe in the God of the Bible, just 49 percent of those in their 30s and 40s and just 43 percent of adults younger than 30 say the same. Similarly, fewer than half of college graduates say they believe in the biblical God.

Belief in God as described in the Bible is also more common among women than men (61 percent vs. 50 percent).

As Pew notes, the survey questions that mention the Bible “do not specify any particular verses or translations, leaving that up to each respondent’s understanding.” However, nearly all adults who say they believe in the God of the Bible say they think God “loves all people regardless of their faults,” that “God has protected them,” that he “knows everything that goes on in the world,” and that “God has rewarded them, and has the power to direct or change everything that happens in the world.”

The survey also finds significant and surprising differences in the way various Christian subgroups perceive God. More than nine-in-ten evangelicals (91 percent) and those in the historically black Protestant denominations (92 percent) say they believe in God as described in the Bible. But more than a fourth of Catholics (28 percent) and mainline Protestants (26 percent) say they believe in a higher power or spiritual force, but not in God as described in the Bible.

What It Means: Christians in the West are often surprised to find Christians in Middle Eastern countries refer to God as “Allah.” The reason is that “Allah” is the Arabic word for “God”—and was the term used long before the existence of Islam. We in the West, though, associate the term with Islam and assume that must be the connotation everyone else has too. We wonder how they can talk to Muslims about “God” without confusion of which deity is being referred to.

Unfortunately, we are less aware the same confusions occur when we use the English word “God.” We assume most Americans—or at least all American Christians—are using the term in the same way we are. It’s becoming apparent, though, we can no longer take for granted that we have a shared understanding of what we mean by “God.”

For example, it’s not enough to claim that God is “personal” in the sense that we can communicate with him. Almost half of religious “nones” (46 percent) also say they speak to God (or a higher power they believe in). And of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” two-thirds (65 percent) say they do indeed try to talk to the deity—and roughly one-in-five say God talks back!

Even saying the “God of the Bible” may not be sufficient. While the intended referent might be the same, the attributes and character of God may be radically different. For instance, while almost all evangelicals (87 percent) and those in the historically black Protestant tradition (91 percent) believe God is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, just six-in-ten Catholics and mainline Protestants say God possesses all three attributes.

About one in five mainliners also believe that God “never” or “hardly ever” determines what happens in their lives. Another one-fourth believes God determines what happens “just some of the time.” (In comparison, three-fourths of evangelicals think God determines what happens most all of the time.)

Of course, a mere belief in God—even the God of the Bible—doesn’t mean much. As the apostle James said, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). But if we are trying to introduce people to the Son of God we need to take steps to ensure they know exactly whose son we’re talking about.

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