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Poll: 20% Of Christians (?) Don’t Believe In The God Of The Bible

April 30th, 2018

“Do you believe in God?”

The question seems simple enough. But a Pew study released this week suggests that belief in God is far more complicated than a binary answer would suggest — and that belief in God and religious identity don’t always correlate.
Four in five American adults say they “believe in God.” Of these believers, 70 percent say they believe in the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible, while 30 percent say they believe in another higher or spiritual power. (According to the survey’s creators, the survey didn’t profile enough members of minority religious groups, such as Muslims or Hindus, to allow a more detailed analysis of their beliefs.)
But, surprisingly, almost half of the Americans who say they don’t believe in God also say they do believe in another higher power or spiritual force at work in the universe. Among the religiously unaffiliated — also known as the religious “nones” — nearly three-quarters (72 percent) believe in some form of higher power, and 17 percent believe in God as described in the Bible. And among self-described “atheists,” a full 18 percent believe in some form of spiritual higher power.
Among self-described Christians, the data shows a similarly complicated spread of theological beliefs. For example, among self-described Christians, a full 20 percent believe in a higher power but don’t believe in the God described in the Bible. That number goes up to 26 percent for mainline Protestants and 28 percent for Catholics. (The phrase “described in the Bible” was used by Pew without further clarification.)
In an American society in which, as I’ve previously written, religious identity is often incredibly politically polarized, Pew’s results remind us that the religious tapestry of America is more complex than it may seem. How somebody identifies — an identity that is deeply rooted in racial, economic, and political ideologies as well as explicitly religious ones — may not necessarily reflect the content of their beliefs about God or the nature of the universe.
Someone who rejects the label of, for example, evangelical Christian may be doing so for reasons that have less to do with theology than with culture. (Indeed, in the wake of the increasing alliance of Christianity and Trumpism, a number of prominent evangelical Christians are actively rejecting the term.)
Conversely, someone might identify as culturally Catholic but still reject the God of the Bible (or, in the case of 2 percent of Catholics, reject any higher power at all). Somebody else might identify as a religious “none” but have a conception of God deeply informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, or identify as “nonbeliever” who nevertheless evinces faith in a higher power. It’s also worth noting that, as Vox’s Brian Resnick points out, polling for religious belief isn’t always accurate — atheists often under-self-report.
In other words, we shouldn’t assume that religious identity and belief are synonymous. The Pew study shows us that statements about religious identity are about much more than belief (or lack thereof) in a higher power. And questions like “do you believe in God” are more complicated than they first appear.
How we talk about God and faith should never be reduced to a simple binary. The Pew study reminds us just how diverse, and complex, American religion really is.
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