Garbled 'God' leads to flawed studies
Belief claims present a bait and switch on God
By George A. Ricker
Two recent reports on religion and god-belief illustrate some of the difficulties inherent in our national conversation on these two subjects. The first is the second installment of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The second is a collection of essays published by the John Templeton Foundations, all of which purport to deal with the question Does science make belief in God obsolete? I will return to the Pew Forum study in a moment, but first I want to take up the Templeton Foundation collection because I think it illustrates the problem quite clearly. (Please note, both of these reports are available online and may be downloaded as .pdf files.)
Some words are always problematic and the word God, when treated as a proper noun, may well head the list. Consider the question the thirteen essays in the Templeton collection attempt to answer: Does science make belief in God obsolete? Respondents are asked to talk about belief in God as if it were a coherent concept, yet the essays illustrate it is not. Framing the question in such a manner guarantees there will be considerable hedging in the answers. It is unavoidable. Since there is no consistent idea about Goda fact that is illustrated in several of the essays in the collectionthere is no way to answer the question. We dont know what God is. And if we dont know what God is, then positing a belief in God begs a major question and assumes coherence where none exists.
This is an important fact to keep in mind when evaluating all such presentations. There are all sorts of ideas about gods out there, and human beings, being the inventive creatures we are, have no difficulty whatever coming up with new ones when the old ones, for whatever reason, no longer serve our purposes. Even the god named God is described in all sort of ways, from the desert sky god of the ancient Israelites (its name was not God then but was translated as such later) to the ineffable essence at the core of an otherwise inexpressible reality at the heart of some metaphysical ruminations in our brave new age. Between those two extremes there exists a host of possibilities.
So when we are asked anything about God, the first order of business, it seems to me, should be to define what is meant by the word. Only after that task is accomplished can we proceed to comprehensible answers.
There were other options available to the folks at the Templeton Foundation. Respondents might have been asked Does science render all beliefs about gods obsolete? or Does science render any beliefs about god obsolete? or Does science offer proof of the existence of a god? None of those questions would have implied there is a universally accepted idea of what God means. Even if the motivation behind asking the question was not suspect, the manner of asking makes it appear so. First, because the manner in which the question is framed makes a clean no answer impossible. Second, because the question itself implies a universal agreement on the fundamental concept being examined when none exists.
Believe in what?
But if the Templeton Foundation asked a question destined by the presentation to be unanswerable, the Pew Forum study, at least in the way it was reported, performs a classic bait and switcha retail strategy in which consumers are promised one thing but wind up with something different. Because of religious biases and a seemingly irresistible impulse to pander to those biases on the part of the dominant media, the Religious Landscape Surveys findings got buried beneath headlines that ballyhooed a result that is not supported by the data collected.
Consider the way the report was handled by two representative media outlets. In its lead-in, National Public Radio (npr) declared, Americans have more diverse religious beliefs than before, but 92 percent still believe in God according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (emphasis added) Meanwhile the Tulsa Worlds Associated Press report was headlined National poll says 92 percent believe in God. Most other media outlets reporting the story chose to stress the almost universal (92 percent) belief in God.
Since the study itself promoted this vieweven though it really did not support the claimthis is not surprising. In the summary of key findings, a table detailing god-belief among respondents indicates that 92 percent believe in God.
However, in the paragraph preceding that table, the report states: The lack of dogmatism in American religion may well reflect the great diversity of religious affiliation, beliefs and practices in the U.S. For example, while more than nine-in-ten Americans (92%) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit, there is considerable variation in the nature and certainty of this belief. Six-in-ten adults believe that God is a person with whom people can have a relationship; but one-in-four including about half of Jews and Hindus see God as an impersonal force. And while roughly seven-in-ten Americans say they are absolutely certain of Gods existence, more than one-in-five (22%) are less certain in their belief.
Quite apart from the difficulties inherent in any attempt to define what is meant by the word God, the study does not actually claim that 92 percent of respondents believe in God but that 92 percent believe in God or a universal spirit. Sixty percent of adults think of God as a personal being while 25 percent think God is an impersonal force.
Clearly what Americans mean when they talk about belief in God varies depending upon who gets asked the question. The Pew study offers a few category breakdowns while feeding the false notion there is almost universal agreement on god-belief. In truth the variations on that theme are nearly endless. The truth is there is no God. There are only gods. They exist in great profusion and are worshiped in many ways by many people. Saying 92 percent of Americans believe in God is, at best, a misunderstanding of the data being presented.
The bait and the switch
The bait offered in these, and other, reports on god-belief is the implication that, although there may be considerable variation in religious belief, the overwhelming majority of Americans are united in their belief in God. I call this bait because it feeds the preferences of the religious, who are an undeniable majority, for whom it is important to suggest that, when you get right down to it, everyone who expresses belief in a deity actually worships the same God. The switch occurs for those who actually study the details and realize the reports do not support such a broad generalization at all. Unfortunately, and unlike the classic retail bait and switch, many who take this bait never realize they have been had.
Please note, I am not accusing the folks at the Pew Forum of suspect motives. I will accept, provisionally at least, that their intent was to deliver an accurate and honest accounting. But until we change the way we think about the god-idea, all such reports inevitably must yield garbled results. It is inaccurate and downright deceptive to suggest that religious believers all believe in a god named God. They clearly do not. What they do believe in is a variety of gods, each of which is tailored to meet the needs of the dogma of a particular sect and is further modified to satisfy the unique requirements of individual believers.
Indeed, anyone who spends any time at all questioning those who do believe in a god named God will discover huge variations in both the nature of the being so identified and the requirements placed on believers. As I noted in my book, Godless in America, The truth is the word God conveys very little information. Without substantial discussion, it is impossible for a nonbeliever to know what any believer means when he or she declares a belief in God. The word itself is incoherent.
When such incoherence is at the core of the values being studied, it is hardly surprising to find it spreading into other areas. What are we to make, for example, of the finding that 21 percent of the atheists in the study state they believe in God or a universal spirit. Since atheist, by definition, refers to someone who does not believe in gods, then god-believing atheist is an oxymoron. One simply cannot be an atheist and, at the same time, someone who believes in a god. One would think the people at the Pew Forum should know that.
The Pew survey reports the results of interviews with more than 35,000 adult Americans, and only 1.6 percent of those responding identified themselves as atheists. Since the margin of error for the Unaffiliated classification, which includes atheists and others, is plus or minus 2 percent (according to the reports section on methodology), it is difficult to place much confidence in any of the results relative to atheists. But whether the result is caused by random errors committed by those administering the survey, confusion on the part of those taking the survey or a desire to garble the results on the part of a person or persons in either camp, the fact remains that is it errant nonsense to speak of atheists who believe in God.
What is shown in both the Templeton collection and the Pew Forum study is the basic incoherence of the God idea. That incoherence is demonstrated, not by excessive interpolation, but by the data presented in the material. Asking whether science renders the god-idea obsolete is an absurd question unless one has a clear understanding of what is meant by the word. Declaring that 92 percent of adult Americans believe in God is a claim belied by any serious study of what the word God means.
Clearly, it serves the purposes of some to keep the concept muddled. If there is no clear understanding of what God means, then it is easy for religionists to deflect criticism with the objection that any perceived shortcomings do not apply to the God they worship.
However, while such an arrangement may soothe the anxieties of believers, many of whom feel threatened when anyone challenges them on matters of faith, it does nothing to advance mutual understanding in our society. The myth of near unanimity on god-belief makes it impossible to have any sort of honest dialogue about either gods or religions.
Any claim about belief in God ought to be met with two questions.
What god? How is it defined?
© 2008 by George A. Ricker