Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The ‘Impersonal Force’ is a Popular Choice

In its Religious Landscape Survey, Pew asked Americans the following: “Do you believe in God or a Universal Spirit?” Then, for those who answered affirmatively, they asked this follow-up question:

“Which comes closest to your view of God? ‘God is a person with whom people can have a personal relationship’ or ‘God is an impersonal force’.”

I found the results here surprising. The 92% who replied yes to the first question broke down this way: 60% personal God, 25% impersonal force, 7% other/both. Here’s some of the breakdown by affiliation: 19% of Protestants believe in God as an impersonal force (13% of evangelicals); 29% of Catholics agree, as do 50% of Jews. It would appear many folks are not fully on board with their official theology. 35% of the nones believe in a God who is an impersonal force (representing half of those who reported a belief in God or a universal spirit).

As a check, I looked at data from the ARIS report, which is somewhat less dramatic. Here they asked a different question – no “impersonal force” option, per se. 70% affirmed a belief in a personal God, while 12% selected the option “there is a higher power but no personal God.” This question elicited a bit more in categories called “I’m not sure” and “don’t know/refuse” compared to similar options in the Pew survey (6% each).

Still, as someone who is broadly in the impersonal force/higher power camp, I was interested to learn I might have so much company.


Crude said...

I think one problem with the "impersonal force" line is due to the vagueness. I think it's very easy to come away from, say.. Thomas Aquinas' understanding of God - not exactly an 'unorthodox' view - and conclude that God is an impersonal force. Even William Lane Craig's view is open to this, since Craig's God is up to a point an unchanging, atemporal, eternal agent, a ground of being.

I'm not saying "Well, clearly all those people are scholastic philosophers" or anything ridiculous. But I question to who degree such people are "not onboard with their official theology", since the "official theology" of all the religions mentioned is expressly not "God is some really powerful human".

On another note, I've often been very skeptical of regarding Europe as 'atheistic' on the grounds that, if you look at the Eurobarometer poll, belief in 'Some sort of universal spirit or life force' is extremely popular, even in areas typically cast as atheist.

Steve said...

Thanks Crude. It is vague, and your point is right that the more sophisticated theology moves God into more abstract territory.

I was of course thinking about the everyday theology of the weekly sermon. But, my comment might still be off-base there - I don't know what goes on in all churches and temples.

The US religious milieu seems so much different from Europe that I hesitate to draw comparisons until I learn more -- but if the impersonal sort of higher being is popular there as well that's interesting.

Crude said...

Just as a side note, if you're curious about religion in Europe I suggest hitting the wikipedia and entering 'religion in countryname' to get some examples.

Denmark is one example, with a poll showing 31% of Danes believe there is a God, 49% believe in 'some sort of spirit or life force', and 19% believe in neither. At the same time, another estimation is 43% to 80% 'atheists and agnostics' in Denmark. So apparently many atheists and agnostics believe in God, spirits or life forces.

But I'm sure your main focus at the moment is the US.

mgpiety said...

Yes, the "impersonal force" line is definitely vague. Few people would say that God is a person. Even for Christians, God was a person only in Christ, and Christ is gone, so God is not a person anymore. What about a force with which one can have a personal relationship? But in what sense can one have a "personal" relationship with something that is not a person? Perhaps ordinary language fails us here. There is a long and venerable tradition that says ordinary language does indeed fail us here.

Steve said...

That's interesting. Many people see themselves as having a "relationship" -- perhaps we just don't have an agreed upon label for what kind of relationship this could be (other than personal).