U.S. Catholics disagree about what it means to believe in God
When Catholics recite the creed during Sunday Mass, they state that they “believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” But a new survey suggests that “one God” might not mean the same thing to all Catholics—much less all believers.
According to a survey being released today from the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of U.S. adults responded yes when asked, “Do you believe in God or not?”
That “yes” is complicated, unsurprisingly in a multicultural country like the United States. Fifty-six percent of Americans say they believe in God “as described in the Bible,” while another 23 percent say they believe in “some other higher power/spiritual force.” (Remarkably, 9 percent, or almost half of the 19 percent of Americans who said no when asked if they believe in God, also said they do believe in “some other higher power/spiritual force.”)
69 percent of U.S. Catholics say they believe in God “as described in the Bible” while 28 percent say they believe in another “higher power.”
Even among Catholics, there appears to be disagreement about what it means to believe in God.
Sixty-nine percent of U.S. Catholics say they believe in God “as described in the Bible” while 28 percent say they believe in another “higher power.” Two percent of U.S. Catholics say they do not believe in God or in a higher power.
The report asks those surveyed if their understanding of a “biblical” God aligned with three attributes: “all-loving,” “all-knowing” and “all-powerful.”
Just 61 percent of Catholics said they believe “God has all three traits.” Eighty-eight percent of U.S. Catholics said God is “all-loving,” 78 percent agreed with the attribute “all-knowing,” and 67 percent agreed with “all-powerful.”
Natalia M. Imperatori-Lee, an associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, told America that it is a “success” for the U.S. church that so many Catholics embrace the idea of an “all-loving” God.
“We see how much evil is in the world, and we don’t want to think of a God that allows all that suffering."
“We seem to have effectively foregrounded that aspect of God,” she said. As for the lower percentage of Catholics believing God is all-powerful, Ms. Imperatori-Lee said she is not surprised, given how much suffering is broadcast to the world each day via mass media.
“We see how much evil is in the world, and we don’t want to think of a God that allows all that suffering,” she said, adding that she is not sure that a biblical definition of God must include an “all-powerful” aspect.
Seventy-three percent of U.S. Catholics agree that God will judge people for their actions, slightly higher than the 61 percent of Americans overall who hold the same belief. Evangelical Christians and black Protestants are the most likely to believe in a judgmental God, at 87 percent and 85 percent, respectively.
Broken down by political party, Republicans are more likely to believe in a judgmental God (74 percent) than Democrats (51 percent).
Among Christian groups, U.S. Catholics are the least likely to say they “talk to God” (84 percent) and that God “talks directly with them” (23 percent). Black Protestants report the highest percentage, with 97 percent saying they talk to God and 60 percent saying God talks back.
Luigi Gioia, O.S.B., the author of Say It to God: In Search of Prayer, said he is not surprised that relatively few Catholics say God talks to them. “Wisely, Catholicism insists not on God talking to us but on discernment of the many ways in which God leads us,” Father Gioia told America. “Talk about discernment implies interpretation, usually with the help of others and of ecclesial and humble spiritual wisdom.”
The Pew survey also asked if people feel that God has ever “protected,” “rewarded” or “punished” them.
Majorities of Catholics say God has “protected” (90 percent) and “rewarded” (75 percent) them, but just 38 percent say God has punished them, tied with mainline Protestants for the lowest percentage who hold that view among Christian groups. Six in 10 black Protestants believe God has punished them, the highest percentage among Christians.
Most Catholics (56 percent) believe that God or a higher power “directly determines what happens in their lives all or most of the time,” the report found, whereas 21 percent of Catholics say God “hardly ever/never” determines what happens in their lives.
The survey was conducted last December with 4,729 participants in Pew’s American Trends Panel, 845 of whom identified as Catholic. Panel members were recruited using random telephone numbers, but they completed the survey on the internet.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story erroneously reported that the Pew survey was conducted via telephone.