Most Americans believe in a higher power, but not always in the God of the Bible

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by Yonat Shimron
Originally published in the Washington Post, April 25, 2018

(RNS) — A new Pew Research survey finds that one-third of Americans — both those who say they believe in God and those who say they don’t — trust in a higher power or spiritual force.

This group has a looser interpretation of the transcendent. Some call it God; others don’t.

The survey of 4,729 respondents conducted online in December offers some insight into the diversity of U.S. beliefs. And like other surveys over the past decade, it suggests the number of Americans who believe in God is slowly declining.

“One of the key questions that motivated the study was to get more detail among those who say they don’t believe in God,” said Gregory Smith, associate director of research at Pew. “Among those people who say ‘no’ in a straightforward way when asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ what are they rejecting? Are they rejecting belief in God or a higher power altogether?”

In the survey, those who answered that they do not believe in God were asked a follow-up question, whether they believed in “some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe.”

To be sure, a majority, if a slim one — 56 percent — say they believe in the conventional all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God of the Bible.

Then there are the hardcore disbelievers: about 10 percent who say they don’t believe in the God of the Bible or a higher power.

But among the so-called “nones” — a broad category of atheists, agnostics and those who answer “none of the above” on questions about religion — fully 72 percent believe in a higher power of some kind.

Two previous Pew surveys found that belief in God generally is falling. A 2007 Pew survey tabulated belief in God at 92 percent; by 2014 it was 89 percent. This most recent poll, though methodologically different — it was an online poll as opposed to a telephone poll — put the number at 80 percent.

Belief in God as described in the Bible is highest among Christians — 80 percent, the survey found. Evangelicals and black Protestants had the highest rates of belief in a God of the Bible — 91 and 92 percent respectively. That number falls to 72 percent among mainline Protestants and 69 percent among Catholics. Only one-third of Jews, by contrast, believe in the God of the Bible. (The survey did not include enough respondents who were Muslim or members of other faiths to be included.)

The survey also showed that:

  • Belief in the God of the Bible declines with age.

  • Those under age 50 viewed God as less powerful and less involved in earthly affairs than do older Americans.

  • Among college graduates, only 45 percent believe in the God of the Bible.

Views of God also tend to differ by political party and race. Seventy percent of Republicans believe in the God of the Bible, while only 45 percent of Democrats do. But among Democrats, there are big differences in views of God when it comes to race; 70 percent of non-white Democrats believe in the God of the Bible — comparable to the rate among Republicans.

Belief in a higher power was found in every segment of the religiously unaffiliated population. Overall, 70 percent of the nones said they believe in a spiritual force. Among agnostics, it was 62 percent. Even among atheists, nearly 1 in 5 (or 18 percent) said they believe in a higher power.

Just why so many agnostics, and even atheists, believe in a higher power is a matter of debate.

Ryan Cragun, a sociologist at the University of Tampa who studies the nonreligious, said some people may say they believe in a higher power to avoid the social stigma and even discrimination atheists face.

“To what extent are they saying that to avoid prejudice is an interesting question,” Cragun said. He pointed to studies suggesting that white heterosexual men are the most likely to say they’re atheist because they have a certain social privilege that others don’t, and therefore may feel less at risk in making such a statement.

Others say the category of belief with its binary options — yes or no — can’t fully account for the diversity of human experience. Transcendence, for example, can be a supernatural experience but also a natural one, said Elizabeth Drescher, a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University and the author of “Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones.”

Some people may have faith in life’s animating force or in the human spirit, she said.

“There are lots of people who experience things in their lives that feel mysterious or unexplainable or awe-inspiring and who might logically identify as nonreligious or nonbelieving, but who nonetheless have a sense that we don’t know everything,” Drescher said. “The reality of people’s experience is much more complex and nuanced.”


The margin of sampling error for the full sample of 4,729 respondents was plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.


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Most Americans believe in a higher power, but not always in the God of the Bible — 11 Comments

  1. Interesting. My problem with “believe in” has always been that I don’t know if people mean that they believe something exists or that they trust that it can and will do certain things. Since belief, like opinion, lacks evidence, I translate it to mean “I am willing to pretend.” The other issue is that using god as a proper rather than generic label. That takes away its more inclusive quality of power, even the Hebrew meaning of Eli or Elohim (power of powers, whatever that means). So, in AA we share experience, not beliefs, tangible evidence of recovery within a connecting fellowship, and we find what we are looking for deep within. At least, that’s what it has proven to be for me over the past 40 years! It is an amazing journey for anyone willing to let go of old ideas and concepts to find his and her own way.

  2. I looked up pantheist and eventually got to Methodological Naturalist, which best describes me. It was part of a long treatment by the Stanford Philosophical Institute. I now believe we Atheists should drop the words higher power, God and spirituality altogether because those words mean Christian God to most people. We must find new words to describe ourselves. The word spiritual is especially difficult because it means no one thing to anybody, or it means nothing. Yet it is hard to replace when trying to describe hard to define forces. God or Higher power are most often used as singularities, therefore automatically indicating belief in a single entity which lets out those who believe in multiple deities. Let’s just try to do away with all three words.

  3. This article poorly, if not inaccurately, reports the findings of the Pew study. Of all people, 56% believe in God, the paragraph misled me to think that 56% of non believers believed in God. Including the graphic would have been good. The gist, I get: more people are awakening to the idea that God is very much questionable.

    I think God is a construct, developed to make sense of the unknown and allay fears, as well as to control and cause fears.

    • I agree that god, in a religious context is a way to make sense of the unknown, allay fears and a way to both control and cause fears. Over thousands of years, fear or threats have been used to control people and make them more susceptible to suggestion.

      The same can be said about meeting makers make it, you can’t keep it unless you give it away, alcohol is cunning, baffling and powerful and my disease is doing push-ups in the parking lot waiting to pounce on those who don’t adhere to fear-based recovery.

      Regardless of how many or what percentage believe in a god of religion or written texts or how many don’t shouldn’t really matter. Absolutes, all or nothing, black and white are just tools of controlling users of fear. Both god and anti-god fanatics are equally guilty of harming thousands.

      If someone relies upon a religious belief to become well and change their lives around and restore their families, how is that different than someone who makes the same changes using science or no religious practices? The end result is the same. Does it matter if I travel from New York City to Toronto by air, train, car, motorcycle? Some modalities are faster and some slower but the ultimate goal of arriving in Toronto is met by all travelers who follow through regardless of their conveyance.

      If we focus on numbers, statistics and differences we lose sight of the ultimate common goal of restoring lives through recovery regardless of what path, road or conveyance we choose. By focusing on our differences we put people’s lives at risk to prove some stupid egotistical points.

      • VERY well-said. Thank-you! I’m writing some of this down to remember it, and be able to re-state it when the subject comes up at a pre- or post-meeting meeting, as it inevitably does.

  4. Thank you for posting this. I do not understand the internal combustion engine or how electricity really works but I have faith that when I turn my key in the car it will start (and sometimes won’t) and when I move the switch on the wall will go on (or not). I have faith that when I press on the brake pedal, the car will eventually stop before it hits something.

    Belief and faith are personal choices. I have faith in devices and objects made by men and women. I cry at times when actors are good at what they do in portraying a part even when I know it isn’t real but only reciting the written words on a script. Those scripts were written by people, flawed human beings with different agendas and motives behind their writing.

    I look at religions and religious texts the same way. Words on pieces of paper, parchment, papyrus, animal skins, written by flawed human beings with agendas and motives – mostly good motives originally but as with human beings, change happens and those motives morph into other agendas.

    I enjoy nature. I love art and flowers and sunsets. I can stand on a beach as the sun comes up, listening to the sounds of birds and lapping waves. I can watch and listen to tiny crabs scurrying over the sand, minuscule pieces of glass which somehow got deposited on the beach (naturally or not).

    I don’t believe in a god of texts or agendas. I don’t believe in religions. I don’t believe in an omnipotent being who needs a gender or sex organs. There are no words in any language to adequately describe what I believe in. I often use terms like power greater than myself or higher power or at times, I just say “hey” when speaking to the universe or a soaring eagle.

    I can’t just say science is all there is because when I’ve watched birds hatching or elephants caring for their young or dead or looking at a duck billed platypus or baby giraffe trying to eat, I truly believe there is more than just science at play. There is something with a sense of humor, albeit sometimes a cruel one.

    I also don’t reject the right of anyone to believe in their own conception or what they’ve been taught as their conception of a deity or power. I refuse to eat Brussel Sprouts but I’ll defend to the death another’s right to make a bad decision to eat them. I will tolerate what I call another’s belief in a human made invention. If that is what gives them comfort and peace, I applaud them because there isn’t enough comfort and peace in the world today.

    I’ve experienced and seen too much in my life which cannot be explained by science. I’ve seen religious people who actually practice and live by what they preach (not too many of those).

    I would however propose that some AA groups consider getting rid of the rituals of holding hands and reciting prayers designed by human made religious practices and replace them with AA’s declaration of responsibility which reflects what AA and a 12 Step design for living should be about. Not just not drinking and going to meetings in a fear based way of life but a new freedom and a new happiness where whenever anyone, anywhere reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA to always be there and for that, I am responsible.

    AA should be open to ALL who seek recovery from alcoholism and none seeking that recovery should be refused. Neither money nor conformity should ever be a requirement for membership.

    That’s just my 2 cents…

    • If using the language accurately, Belief and Faith are two different things, though they are related and overlap to a degree.

      Generally, Belief can be demonstrated: I believe in gravity. As in your example, I believe that when I step on the brake pedal, the car will stop. I believe that water freezes at 32F (0C). I believe that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning. All these things can be objectively, repeatedly proven true by pretty much anyone (if not explained… I’m still not sure that anyone really understands exactly how gravity actually works).

      Faith, on the other hand, is belief in something that, by it’s very nature, is not objectively provable. “I believe in God,” is a perfect example of this one.

      Faith, additionally, is not troubled by this lack of objective evidence. This is why the “Faith” component of AA troubles me so greatly; it seems no different to me than requiring belief in Leprechauns to achieve true sobriety. Sure, I can go through the motions, mouth the words… but I’ll never actually believe it, because there’s just no proof of any kind.

      I’ve never known exactly where to place my “Faith” for exactly this reason. How do I know which religion is Truth? It’s just a toss of the dice, without any factual evidence. And the constant circular arguments and self-referential citations from the Bible are useless, and indeed downright annoying to those of us who are accustomed to dealing with objective reality. The Bible was written by men, revised by men, edited by men, men decided what ancient writings to include, and which to exclude… I just don’t see much “God” in all that. It may have started out as a religious text, but over time, it was co-opted and subverted by the elite, who craved authority and power over everything else, into a means of controlling the masses, and extracting wealth from them. It’s an interesting historical document, but little else. I simply cannot place any kind of serious Faith in something like that.

      Every religion claims that their way is the one true way… without offering a shred of objective proof. Recall the parable of the four blind Sages that encounter an elephant from differing directions; one encounters the tusks, and proclaims that “An elephant is like a spear,” while another encounters the elephant from the rear, and proclaims that “An elephant is like a rope,” (and a smelly rope at that), while the third encounters the elephant from the side and walks into it’s body, and proclaims “An elephant is like a wall,” while the fourth runs headlong into a leg and proclaims “An elephant is like a tree!” All true, as far as they go… all parts of the same elephant… but not one of them has the whole story. That’s why I gave up on religion altogether.

      And I am in total agreement with you, that AA’s focus should be on recovery, on what objectively works, and not on it’s strong encouragement of Faith in the unprovable (while simultaneously backpedaling, claiming it’s just a suggestion (which strikes me as smelling slightly of hypocrisy), and that all are welcome). That AA can “work if you work it” can be proved by the sheer number of success stories. The emphasis on Faith in the unprovable is actually counterproductive, and the sooner the powers that be within AA realize this, the more effective and, finally truly inclusive AA will become.

  5. Thank you for posting this article. Our “understanding of a power greater than ourselves” should not be limited to one of a spiritual nature only. Many atheists and agnostics have used, “good orderly direction” as a acceptable and easily understandable interpretation of an understanding of a power greater than ourselves. It works and alcoholics have stayed sober using this understanding.

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