The Four Gods

“Ninety-five percent of Americans believe in God. But they have vastly different conceptions of the divine and the role God plays in their daily lives.”

On the Faith & Leadership website from Duke Divinity School, David Briggs points out that differences in belief are no longer tied to which denomination you claim. He quotes a study, “America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God & What That Says About Us,” by Baylor University scholars Paul Froese and Christopher Bader where the discovery is made that how people view God is one of the strongest predictors of a range of social and moral attitudes.

Froese and Bader divide these images into four basic concepts:

  • The Authoritative God: God is like a literal father, both engaged as a positive force in the world and a judge of the behaviors of humankind. Suffering can be the result of social and individual sins.
  • The Benevolent God: God is mainly a force for good in the world, a being who answers the prayers of individuals and comforts the suffering.
  • The Critical God: God is less likely to be concerned with moments in the lives of individuals, but will mete out judgments in the next life. This is a popular image among the poor and oppressed, the authors state.
  • The Distant God: God is a cosmic force that sets the laws of nature in motion, but does not get involved in day-to-day events or movements.

Find out a person’s image of God, Froese and Bader said, and you can tell far more about that person than knowing the individual’s religious group or the house of worship he or she attends.

So a Catholic or an Episcopalian who believes in an authoritative God would be much more likely to oppose legal abortion and believe that the success of the United States is part of God’s plan than an evangelical who believes in a critical God.

At the same time, a Jewish person or United Methodist who believes in a benevolent God would be more likely to say government should have greater powers to combat terrorism or that creationism should be taught in schools than a Southern Baptist who believes in a distant God.

In separating people based on their images of God, Froese and Bader found that significant numbers of people in all denominations could be found in each of the groups. Catholics and mainline Protestants were just about equally divided among the four categories.

“Our image of God is never simply a reflection of the beliefs of our religious community,” Froese and Bader write. “The traditional method of classifying people as Catholics or Baptists or Jews tells us little of consequence about what they believe.”

Read the full article here.

While I would dare say Australians do not claim to believe in God to the same degree as Americans, we would find the same four “Gods” very present in most of our churches, mosques and synagogues. Understanding that we in fact see God in different ways, and that these ways have evolved from a far more complex place than simply “the way we interpret the Bible,” will do more to bring us to a greater appreciation of each other’s perspectives and beliefs. And maybe in seeing the basis for these differences, we can not only better understand where each other is coming from, but also enter a more meaningful dialogue.


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