America's Four Gods

The subtitle of this book, by Baylor professors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, is “What we say about God—& what that says about us.” The thesis of the book is, in essence, that classifying people according to their religious denomination (or lack thereof) tells you little about, for example, their politics or their views on science. Instead, Froese and Bader classify people according to the kind of God they believe in: authoritative, benevolent, critical, and distant (not to mention none).

Froese and Bader pose 2 questions, “To what extent does God interact with the world? To what extent does God judge the world?” As a result of interviews and surveys, they conclude that

Americans differ radically in their beliefs about how closely God guides and judges their lives. These two dynamic dimensions of belief reveal four distinct images of God:

1. The Authoritative God—one who is both engaged and judgmental [31%]

2. The Benevolent God—one who is engaged but not judgmental [24%]

3. The Critical God—one who is not engaged but judgmental [16%]

4. The Distant God—one who is not engaged or judgmental [24%]

[5. Atheist [5%]]

But most important, do these different Gods matter? Unequivocally, yes. A person’s God is a direct reflection of his level of moral absolutism, his view of science, his understanding of economic justice, his concept of evil, and how he thinks we should respond to it. And these powerful relationships exist regardless of where he lives, the color of his skin, the amount of money he makes, how many years he has spend [sic] in school, or the church he attends.

Simply put, America’s four Gods lie at the heart of our moral, cultural, and political disagreements. … [pp. 143-144.]

ABCD. No doubt, as a colleague of mine remarked, if they had had enough funding they would have ventured into Existential God, Fearful God, Gap-filling God, and so on.

Their definition of an authoritative God, I think, is closer to authoritarian. An authoritative God causes (possibly bad) things to happen, whereas a critical God merely allows them to happen; both Gods are judgmental and may mete out punishment or at least allow it. A benevolent God is a force for good in the world but does not judge or punish. A distant God is disengaged from the universe and closely resembles the God of deism. The authors claim that most people who profess to be agnostics actually believe in a distant or deistic God. Many of the unchurched fit into this category. I may suffer from what Jim Harrison called the Dunning-Kruger effect by proxy, but I am skeptical that only 5 % of the US population are atheists, and I wonder how many agnostics have been wrongly classified as deists. (For whatever it is worth, Table 13 of The Fifth National Survey of Religion and Politics, gives secularists plus atheists as 10.5 %, and that value does not count affiliated nonbelievers.)

Froese and Bader are at pains to point out that what denomination you belong to does not necessarily correlate with what kind of God you believe in. Indeed, only about half the evangelical Protestants surveyed believe in an authoritative God. Another 25 % or so believe in a benevolent God and around 10 % each in a critical and even a distant God. Thus, for example, an evangelical Protestant who believes in an authoritative God may hold very different views from an evangelical Protestant who believes in a benevolent or critical God.

The book is well composed and well prepared (except for the many bar graphs, which should have been annotated more clearly). I found some of the anecdotes interesting, though I was frankly appalled at some of the overtly superstitious beliefs that were expressed by many of the people who were interviewed. I was also somewhat put out by the authors’ casual dismissal of Westboro Baptist Church as “a conspicuous anomaly.” It is that, but by being such conspicuous lunatics, they make other lunatics look comparatively tame. The man who murdered George Tiller was a lunatic, but he was egged on by other lunatics only slightly less extreme.

In a chapter on God and morality, the authors plot what they call the relative morality of certain “hot-button issues” versus the kind of God you believe in: A, B, C, D, and atheist (Figure 3.1). Interestingly, every group rated these issues in the same order: adultery, homosexual marriage, abortion, premarital sex, and stem-cell research. Every group rated adultery wrong or almost always wrong. Similarly, every group rated stem-cell research somewhere between neutral and not wrong at all, with believers in an authoritative God more or less giving it a pass and atheists arguing that it is never wrong. Abortion went more or less the same way, with believers in an authoritative God rejecting what you might call abortion on demand but avowing that abortion is only sometimes wrong when the woman’s health is in danger (Figure 3.3).

The chapter on God and science is more pertinent to readers of the Panda’s Thumb. Believers in authoritative or benevolent Gods are far more likely to believe that God intervenes in the world and that we rely too much on science and not enough on faith. They do not reject science or give up on science but rather ask how science can be made to conform to their religious belief, rather than the other way around. Believers in AB Gods are also apt to be more moralistic than others and to oppose stem-cell research and biological evolution.

Regarding evolution, 60 % of believers in AB Gods think that creationism should be taught in school; only 31 % of believers in CD Gods and 4 % of atheists concur. Consequently, the authors conclude that the controversy (I will not call it a debate) concerning evolution and creationism

is premised not on religious faith but on differences of opinion about the role of God in the world. … some prioritize their preestablished religious beliefs, and others prioritize the claims of professional scientists. Simply put, believers in Authoritative or Benevolent Gods want to temper scientific claims with the wisdom of their religious texts. This is partly because they tend to view God as hands-on. Authoritative and Benevolent Gods have agency and decide how the world will unfold. Believers in Distant or Critical Gods more often temper their interpretation of religious texts with the wisdom of scientists. Distant and Critical Gods are removed from the world. It follows that the world operates via a natural order that was put in place by God. [p. 92.]

Froese and Bader state without apology that the Founding Fathers of the United States believed in a distant God, that is, were deists. They admit, however, that the Founding Fathers were wealthy and well-educated, and therefore were outliers. They note that the number of Americans who are unchurched or believe in a distant God has been increasing and tentatively claim that the population is moving toward the position of the Founding Fathers. If they are right, the fact bodes well for the future of science. But, as they note, there are “strong countertrends”: Americans from many religious traditions strongly identify with evangelicalism, and evangelicalism may well reverse the trend toward being unchurched and hence away from CD Gods. If that is so, then science is in trouble: specifically, evolutionary biology, stem-cell research, and efforts to combat global warming.

Appendix. An appendix is a vestigial part of a book, for which no one has yet identified a function. I did not read the (lengthy) appendixes.

Acknowledgment. Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education recommended this book and read a draft of this review.