Surveys typically say about nine out of 10 Americans believe in God, but the way we picture that God is a varied one, newly published research shows.
For their book, America's Four Gods: What We Say About God -- And What That Says About Us, Baylor University sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader used national telephone surveys of 1,648 U.S. adults in 2008 and 1,721 in 2006.
Froese and Bader's research wound up defining four ways in which Americans see God:
- The Authoritative God: About 28 percent see God as someone engaged in history and meting out harsh punishment to those who do not follow him. "They divide the world by good and evil . . ." Froese says. More than half of white evangelicals identify with an Authoritative God; that view is shared by more than seven in 10 black evangelicals, they said.
- The Benevolent God: This God is engaged in our world and loves and supports us in caring for others, a vision shared by 22 percent.
"Rhetoric that talks about the righteous vs. the heathen doesn't appeal to them," Froese says.
- The Critical God: The poor, the suffering and the exploited in this world often believe in a Critical God who keeps an eye on this world but delivers justice in the next, Bader says. This view of God is held by 21 percent.
- The Distant God: Nearly one in four - 24 percent - see a Distant God that booted up the universe, then left humanity alone. It's the dominant view of Jews and other followers of world religions and philosophies such as Buddhism or Hinduism, the Baylor research finds.
Catholics and mainline Protestants are about evenly divided among all four views, leaning toward a Benevolent God, the surveys found.