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BI 3223 Worldviews, Lipscomb University

Unit 1

Introduction to Worldviews

Adapted from Jerry Solomon (
with additional material from
The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire (3rd ed. 1997)

What is a worldview?

  • A worldview is a set of assumptions which we hold, consciously or subconsciously, about the basic makeup of our world (Sire 16). Questions like “Is there a God?” “Does life have a purpose?” “How can we know what is right and wrong?” are worldview questions.
  • Everyone has a worldview, whether one can explain it or not. Most people do not think about their “thinking process” and so are unaware of the worldview(s) that shape their behavior. Some argue their position as if it were common sense, what everyone should naturally think. However, as Lakoff notes, “Nothing is ‘just’ common sense. Common sense has a conceptual structure that is usually unconscious. … When we think, we use an elaborate system of concepts, but we are not usually aware of what those concepts are like and how they fit together into a system” (Moral Politics 2002, 4). The study of worldviews should help us become more aware of what we believe and why we believe it.
  • Church historian Martin Marty said that religion serves two functions. First, it is a message of personal salvation, telling us how to get right with God. Second, it is a lens for interpreting the world, that is, a worldview. Evangelical Christians have focused attention on the first of these, but neglected the second (The Modern Schism, 1969, 40).
  • Francis Schaeffer described the problem as Christians seeing things in bits and pieces, a list of do’s and don’ts, specific issues (such as gay marriage, abortion, drugs), thus failing to connect all the dots to form the big picture of a Christian worldview.

A worldview should pass certain tests:

  1. Consistent: It should be consistent with itself and avoid self-contradictions. Unfortunately, many people do have inconsistent worldviews, usually because they have not seriously examined what they believe. They have assembled a set of conflicting beliefs from different sources without considering if they are consistent with each other. In the section later in class on American worldviews, we will discuss examples of how our values as Americans do not always agree with Christian values, yet people practice both.
  2. Comprehensive: It should be all-inclusive, a universal philosophy applying to all of reality, not just one part. Some people hold a set of values for their business practice, another set for their spiritual life, which do not fit well together. A comprehensive worldview includes all aspects of life under one system of thought.
  3. Correspondence: It should correspond with reality. Some people believe things (often influenced by rumors spread on social media) which have no evidence to support them and are demonstrably not true.

Five Questions

Five fundamental questions help us understand the importance of worldviews. The answers one gives to these questions reveal a person’s worldview. Below are given several possible answers representing different worldviews.

1. Cosmology: Where did everything come from?

  • Everything that exists had an impersonal beginning, either through impersonal spirit or energy.
  • Everything that exists had a personal beginning with a divine being as its source.
  • The universe is eternal and has always existed.

2. Teleology: Where is everything going? Does history have a goal or purpose?

  • History is determined as part of a mechanistic universe of cause and effect. There is no free will.
  • History is meaningless because life has no ultimate purpose.
  • History is cyclical, repeating itself in endless cycles.
  • History is a meaningful sequence of events, leading to the fulfillment of God’s purposes.

3. Epistemology: How do we know something to be true?

  • Rationalism: The mind is the center of our source of knowledge. Some things are known deductively or logically, by “common sense.”
  • Empiricism: We can know only what is perceived by the five senses. We must use our senses to examine the natural world in order to discover truth.
  • Revelation: We know some things only because they are revealed to us by a divine source. This does not mean that Rationalism and Empiricism have no value, but that we cannot depend upon these approaches entirely. There is more to life than logic can prove or our senses can detect.

4. Anthropology: How do we explain human nature?

  • We are born as moral blank slates, neither good nor evil.
  • Inherent Goodness: We are born good, but society causes us to behave otherwise.
  • Evolved Social Animal: We have evolved with instinctive traits that cause internal conflict between what we desire and what society says we “ought” to do.
  • Created Image-Bearer: We were created in God’s image, but sin has infected all of us as fallen creatures.

5. Ethics: How do we determine what is right and wrong?

  • Relativism: Ethics are cultural or depend on the situation; there are no absolutes for determining good and evil.
  • Determinism: There is no free choice, so good and evil are irrelevant terms. Whatever happens was destined to happen.
  • Power ethics: Might makes right. Whoever is in power gets to make the rules.
  • Revealed absolutes: God has revealed to us the standards for good behavior which are true for everyone.


Naturalism: one major challenge to the Christian worldview

As one example of a modern, popular worldview, Naturalism (also known as Secular Humanism) stands in stark contrast to Christianity. This worldview states that nature is all that exists; there is no divine or spiritual realm beyond this world. Some of the central beliefs of this worldview include the following ideas:

  • Materialism: The universe is a closed system of matter and energy, self-existing and not created. No outside forces direct the universe. There is no other reality beyond the material world.
  • Autonomy: Man is autonomous, self-ruling. There is no higher being to tell us how we must live. “We find insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of the supernatural. … As non-theists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity” (from The Humanist Manifesto II, 1973).
  • Human reason: Education is the only guide to life; intelligence and freedom guarantee full human potential. “We can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves. While there is much that we do not know, humans are responsible for what we are or will become.” (Humanist Manifesto II)
  • Science: Science is the ultimate provider for both knowledge and morals. “We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience.”

The naturalistic worldview has many of its roots in the 18th century, a period called the Enlightenment. Some qualities of Enlightenment philosophy:

  • Confidence in reason and critical thinking: belief in the rationality of the universe and the power of reason to understand its workings. “Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind faith” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to his nephew, 1785). Reason became more important as a source of truth than biblical revelation.
  • Skepticism toward the past: truth is not based on accepting tradition or authority. We must question everything – the teachings of the Bible and the church, the philosophy of the ancients such as Aristotle, and the traditional values of society.
  • Verification of truth by experience: Francis Bacon (1561-1626) promoted what came to be called the scientific method in which truth is found by investigating the world around you (not reading ancient authorities such as Aristotle or the Bible). Starting with observation, one proceeds from the facts to theories which explain the facts, theories which can then be tested by experimentation. Obviously, any phenomenon which cannot be verified by observation or experimentation (such as miracles or resurrection) cannot be proven true.
  • Belief in the inevitable progress of human society through education and science: the Enlightenment had faith in humanity as basically good, rejecting the biblical idea that humanity has fallen into sin. Once people have knowledge, they will naturally choose to do what’s right.
  • Basic human rights are founded on natural reason: freedom of thought and belief, protection of life, health, and property, trial by jury. John Locke: “Man is naturally free, and nothing [should be] able to put him into subjection to any earthly power without his consent.”

Enlightenment challenges to Christianity:

  • Many philosophers in the Enlightenment were disgusted by the chaos of religious divisions sparked by the Reformation. The split between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century led to many bloody religious wars. Enlightened thinkers preferred the clear, “undisputed” truth of the sciences: “There are no sects in geometry” (Voltaire). People could agree on proven scientific principles, whereas religion only divides people by teaching unproven doctrines and condemning those who disagree with one’s interpretation.
  • The concept of religious liberty, the freedom to believe what you will about God and faith (or no god at all) was a principle promoted by Enlightenment leaders, not the religious factions of the time (John Locke being one notable exception; see discussion below).
  • Christianity was criticized for teaching falsehood (such as original sin which contradicted the optimistic view of human nature held by Enlightenment thinkers) and irrational beliefs (miracles, the Trinity). The churches promoted intolerance and persecution, blind faith in church authority against common sense and experience, and the extravagant lifestyles of church leaders. Sadly, the moral failure of the church to live up to the faith it preaches has been a stumbling block for nonbelievers throughout the centuries.
  • New critical approaches to interpreting the Bible supported skeptical views that this was not the divine word of God but a human book with all the discrepancies, contradictions, and limitations of the primitive times in which it was written.

The Question of Theodicy

  • A major problem for Enlightenment critics of religion concerned theodicy, a term meaning the justice of God. Can we believe in a good God who allows evil to exist?
  • Leibniz (1646-1716) coined the term “theodicy” as the title of his book, in which he discussed the question: how do we reconcile the goodness of God and the existence of evil? Leibniz argued that God created the best of all possible worlds – but not the best of all conceivable worlds. We might imagine a world without suffering and evil, but according to his argument, what appears to be evil is “necessary.” If God wanted free individuals, made in his image, then he had to allow for sin, since only the deity is infallible. The fact that evil exists “proves” that God could not have created a world without it. Natural evils such as earthquakes, famine, or tornadoes occur because creation cannot have the perfection of the creator. God cannot create something as perfect as himself. If humans could see the whole picture, we would understand the place that natural disasters have in the divine plan.
  • Voltaire (1694-1778) argued that the harsh reality of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake which killed 30,000 made a mockery of Leibniz’ optimistic theodicy. How can we call this the best of all possible worlds? What conceivable reason could God have that would justify such horrors? What kind of God would that be, Voltaire asked? If God is so good, then he should explain his mysterious will to us.
  • David Hume (1711-76) challenged theists who reasoned that a good and orderly creation points to the existence of God. Hume looked around and saw a world filled with suffering and disorder as well. What kind of God does that suggest? How can an imperfect, evil-invested universe point to the existence of a perfect and good God? “If he is willing to prevent evil, but not able, he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.”
  • The question of theodicy continues to be a serious challenge from skeptics of religion to belief in God.

The principles of the Enlightenment which broke from the traditional Christian worldview also led to the development of modern science, which utilizes reason and investigation to discover truth. Faith and science have co-existed in tension ever since, but they need not be in conflict. Here are three philosophers or scientists who attempted to reconcile Christian faith and reason:

John Locke (1632-1704)

  • A leading author of the early Enlightenment period, Locke was a believing Christian, but his arguments for Christianity were based not primarily on biblical authority or religious tradition but on reason. “Nothing that is contrary to and inconsistent with the clear and self-evident dictates of reason has a right to be urged or assented to as a matter of faith” (Human Understanding18.5).
  • He wrote The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) to argue that, since God has created us with the ability to reason and created a world according to reason, nothing in revelation will run counter to reason.
  • Locke’s understanding of what is reasonable was much broader than later skeptics would allow. He admitted that there were matters, not contrary to, but beyond human understanding that could only be known by revelation, such as the resurrection of the dead. Belief in scripture is reasonable, he thought, based on the convincing authority of the eyewitnesses who wrote the gospels, for instance. Locke thought it was credible that miracles had occurred, as so many people reported them, and that these miracles gave reasonable evidence that Jesus was who he claimed to be, the son of God (but not the second person of the Trinity, which Locke thought was an irrational doctrine created by the church).
  • Locke was a strong proponent of religious freedom. “No man by nature is bound under any particular church or sect, but everyone joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God” (“Letter concerning Toleration” 1685). Each person investigates the claims of any religion and makes a decision as to which faith is more reasonable.
  • Although Locke argued that the essentials of Christian faith were reasonable, he opened the door to future skeptics whose reason would not be so easily convinced.

Galileo (1564-1642)

  • Albert Einstein once said: “Pure logical thinking cannot yield any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. … Because Galileo saw this … he is the father of modern science” (Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way, 1988: 83).
  • Galileo argued that science cannot be derived from pure reason, theology, or other ancient authorities such as Aristotle. The search for truth starts not with scripture or tradition but with sensory experience and demonstrations to test the predictability of phenomena.
  • When Galileo, through the use of the newly invented telescope, discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter, this observation challenged the classical idea of the planets being attached to rotating crystal spheres which surrounded the earth, the center of God’s universe. When he saw sunspots and mountains on the moon, it contradicted the belief that the heavenly bodies were perfect spheres created without flaws.
  • Church officials refused to look through Galileo’s telescope; their confidence in the Ptolemaic system (that said the sun revolved around the earth) was stronger than what they might see with their own eyes. Others thought the telescope was the devil’s instrument, invented to deceive. Under threat of torture, Galileo was forced to recant his findings.
  • Galileo, a devout Catholic, said in his defense that the Bible could not be proven false, as long as it was read correctly: “[I] agree that the Holy Scripture can never lie or err, and that its declarations are absolutely and inviolably true. I should add only that, though the Scripture cannot err, nevertheless some of its interpreters can sometimes err in various ways. One of these would be … to limit oneself always to the literal meaning of words; for there would thus emerge not only various contradictions but also serious heresies and blasphemies, and it would be necessary to attribute to God feet, hands, and eyes, as well as bodily and human feelings like anger, regret, hate, and sometimes even forgetfulness of things past and ignorance of future ones. Thus in the Scripture one finds many propositions which look different from the truth if one goes by the literal meaning of the words, but which are expressed in this manner to accommodate the incapacity of the common people. … it being obvious that two truths can never contradict each other, the task of wise interpreters is to strive to find the true meaning of scriptural passages agreeing with those physical conclusions of which we are already certain and sure from clear sensory experience or from necessary demonstrations” (in Nancy Frankenberry, The Faith of Scientists in Their Own Words, 2008, 10-12).
  • “I judge the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reasoning, could not be made credible by science. … But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us the knowledge which we can attain by them” (Drake, trans. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, 1957, 181-13).
  • “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” (Ian Barbour, Religion and Science 1999).
  • In 1992 the pope officially stated that the church had been wrong in condemning Galileo.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

  • Newton wrote more on theology than science, although he was an unorthodox Christian in his day, refuting the doctrine of the Trinity, and dabbling in alchemy and biblical end-time prophecy; his theological writings were not published until the 20th century. He respected scripture but did not consider it authoritative on scientific questions, such as the method of creation.
  • “I do not think [the creation of the universe] explicable by mere natural causes, but am forced to ascribe it to the counsel and contrivance of a voluntary Agent” (Frankenberry 108). He agreed with the classical argument from design: “This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being” (114). He thought his studies of physics would lead to belief, not discredit it.
  • Joseph Addison, Newton’s contemporary, wrote in the hymn, “The Spacious Firmament”: “In Reason’s ear they [the heavenly spheres] all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice, forever singing as they shine, ‘The hand that made us is divine.’”
  • Newton did not think of God as a watchmaker who wound up the cosmic mechanism and left it to run by itself. The only way the universe could continue to work properly was by continual divine providence. When Newton’s calculations of planetary orbits did not come out right, he hypothesized that God was somehow at work, not just as First Cause of the universe but continuing to be involved in running the Great Machine. He thought that comets might be one way in which God regulates the planetary orbits. Leibniz accused him of using God to fill in the gaps, and depicting Him as an incompetent craftsman, continually tinkering with the cosmic mechanism to make it work properly. Newton responded that in a perfectly operating universe, God would become superfluous (Frankenberry 107).
  • Although Newton left room for God in the process, he opened the door to the view of nature as a self-sufficient and impersonal mechanism, running itself by natural laws. In the 18th Pierre LaPlace expanded Newton’s theory of cosmology in a way that “had no need for the God-hypothesis.”

Moral Relativism

  • Without a God to determine right from wrong, the naturalistic worldview must attempt to explain human morality by evolutionary means. According to this view, natural selection has caused us to evolve certain moral traits which have helped us survive. They are not right or wrong in themselves except for their usefulness in helping us continue as a species. Societies that prohibit murder, theft, etc. survive while those that do not cease to exist, so goes the argument.
  • Darwin first proposed the use of group behavior to explain the evolution of ethics: “Any animal whatever, endowed with well marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed as in man” (Descent of Man). Competition among social groups may lead to the development of ethical traits such as courage, obedience, loyalty, sympathy, traits which promote not individual but group survival. For instance, monogamous relationships may not have an explanation if one looks only at natural selection of the individual (who would be better off spreading his genes around), but within a social group monogamy may have developed as a survival trait, that is, groups which practice monogamy may (in theory) tend to survive better than those that do not. Another example would be the value of self-sacrifice, which would not help the individual survive but would benefit the group, perhaps in times of war.
  • In his book The Moral Animal (1994), Robert Wright says that evolutionary psychology “nourishes a certain moral relativism – if not, indeed, an outright cynicism about moral codes in general. The closest thing to a generic Darwinian view of how moral codes arise is this: people tend to pass the sorts of moral judgments that help move their genes into the next generation” (146).
  • Wright admits that this is a cynical view of human behavior. “If Freud stressed people’s difficulty in seeing the truth about themselves, the new Darwinians stress the difficulty of seeing truth, period. Indeed, Darwinism comes close to calling into question the very meaning of the word truth. For the social discourses that supposedly lead to truth – moral, political, academic – are by Darwinian lights raw power struggles. A winner will emerge, but there’s often no reason to expect that winner to be truth. … The question may be whether, after the new Darwinism takes root, the word moral can be anything but a joke” (325-6). This conclusion is all the more striking coming from an advocate of evolutionary psychology, not a critic. He aptly sums up the moral bankruptcy of the naturalistic worldview.


Richard Lewontin, evolutionary biologist, admits that scientific naturalism (or materialism as he calls it) is a choice, a type of faith, based on one’s worldview: “Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” (source) The possibility of a God has been ruled out from the beginning, despite any evidence or reasons to the contrary.



Another major worldview today which stands opposed to Christianity is pluralism, the idea that all religions or spiritual paths lead to God, just as all rivers run to the ocean. This idea is incompatible with Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

  • The pluralistic worldview is very popular, as it seems inoffensive and politically correct, so much nicer than arguing about doctrines. It’s found in best-selling books like Eat, Pray, Love and promoted by media stars like Oprah Winfrey (with far more influence than any televangelist). Although raised as a Southern Baptist, on her show Oprah has said, “There are many paths to what you call God” (Sterrett, “O” God, 2009, 35, 49).
  • Over 90% of Americans claim to believe in God, but what do they mean by “God”? Many, influenced by New Ages beliefs, look to something inside themselves and call that god.
  • Americans believe in everything. They treat religion like a salad bar where they can pick out what they like and avoid what they dislike. “We browse the spiritual marketplace, dropping new ideas and philosophies into our carts – a smidgen of Buddhism, some New Testament, maybe a little tai chi tossed in” (Sterrett 33).
  • Although fashionable today, pluralism is not new. In the third century the pagan philosopher Celsus wrote, “It makes no difference if one invokes the highest God, or Zeus, or Adonai, or Sabbaoth, or Amun” (Origen 5.41). Pagans rejected the exclusive claims of Christianity.
  • Pluralism should not be confused with the concept of religious freedom, which respects the right of others to believe and worship as they choose. This freedom is guaranteed in our constitution and should be defended. But this is not the same as what pluralism claims, that all religions are equally true. According to pluralism, it’s not enough to tolerate the practice of multiple religions in our society, but one must accept them all as valid for each believer.
  • This idea of truth as relative, what’s true for one person is not for another, is a major difference in pluralism and the Christian worldview. The Bible claims to be absolute truth, which applies to all people everywhere in all times (just as 2+2=4 in all cultures).
  • Truth is the very nature of reality, something actually “out there” to be discovered, not invented or imagined. It exists independent of anyone’s knowledge of it (for instance, gravity existed prior to Isaac Newton’s theory). Truth is unchanging, although our perception of truth may change as we learn more and come to a better understanding.
  • Those who claim truth is relative like to recite the story of some blind men who came across an elephant in the jungle. One touched his ears and thought it was a leafy tree, another his trunk and thought it was a snake, a third his tough hide and assumed it was a wall. However, their differing perceptions did not change the fact that it was in reality an elephant. Due to our limited perception and personal biases, we may not all understand what is true in the same way, but that does not negate the genuine reality of truth. Acknowledging the difficulty of finding truth or agreeing on what is true, we should not jump to the conclusion that truth does not exist or depends on personal opinion.
  • If we believe that truth is real and absolute, this implies that anything other than truth is false. Pluralism denies this assumption, sometimes using the argument that logic which divides reality into either-or categories is merely an invention of our Western heritage from the ancient Greeks. Truth is not opposed to “falsehood,” they say, but rather truth can be thought of as “both-and” where a belief and its opposite can both be true. In this case, a person can believe in Jesus (who taught there is only one God) and practice Buddhism at the same time (where there are either many gods or no god at all). “Both-and” thinking, found more in Asian philosophies, denies any conflict in these opposites. Ironically, those who reject the logic of “either-or” thinking use that same logic to call it false and their “both-and” approach true.
  • Pluralism teaches that morality is relative and may be different for each culture. There is no absolute standard for right and wrong; morality is merely a human creation which changes from one time and place to another. Such reasoning would have us conclude that the Nazis in Germany or the terrorists on 9/11 were doing what they thought was right, and so how can we judge them to be evil? As we will see later in this course, some middle-east countries permit the murder of women who are rape victims, treating them as adulterers. Others perform female circumcision to keep women sexually inactive. China has a long tradition of female infanticide as boys are considered more valuable. Can we say that these actions are “right” for those cultures even if not for us?
  • If morals are indeed relative, the pluralist argues that no one should try to impose his/her morals on someone else. But was it wrong for Abraham Lincoln to “impose his morality” on the South in his objection to slavery, as some Southerners protested? Weren’t slaveholders merely practicing what was right for them and their way of life? Was it wrong for civil rights leaders to promote changing discriminatory laws in the 1960s? Moral reform in society implies that ideal standards do exist, even if people have been slow to recognize or practice them.
  • Yes, various cultures do have some different moral standards which do not apply to all people. Even in the Bible, we see that the Jews had some laws (food restrictions, circumcision) which were right for them but not applicable to Gentiles. But just because there are some gray areas, we should not conclude that there are no universal standards of morality at all. As the 18th century writer Samuel Johnson said, “The fact that there is such a thing as twilight does not mean that we cannot distinguish between day and night” (Copan, True for You but not for Me, 2009, 74).
  • When discussing religion, some pluralists raise the question of the importance of truth. Why does it matter if we disagree, as long as my “truth” works for me and yours for you? However, in most other areas of life, we know that truth matters. We want our doctors to diagnose our disease based on truthful information. We want the truth to be revealed in criminal cases so that the guilty are punished. We want an engineer to use accurate measurements when constructing a bridge. We want truth in our relationships, to know that a loved one is faithful. We want our financial adviser to be truthful about our investments. So why should we not seek the absolute truth about the most important aspect of our lives, the nature of God and our relationship with Him?
  • One point to clarify: Christianity does not claim that other religions teach no truth at all. The apostle Paul quoted from Greek beliefs about the nature of God when those beliefs coincided with the biblical view (Acts 17). Most religions agree on major moral issues such as laws against murder, theft, etc. Christianity recognizes some points of agreement with other religions, but that is not the same as the pluralist’s claim that they are all equally true in every respect.
  • In conclusion, a person cannot consistently claim to follow Jesus and also agree with pluralism. Christians should defend the rights of others to believe as they choose in our country and treat everyone with respect and equal justice, but without succumbing to the “anything goes” mentality of pluralism.


America’s “Four Gods”

A person’s worldview consists of more than religion, but faith (or lack thereof) plays a major role in defining our beliefs about many other things. A major survey of religious beliefs, “American Piety in the 21st Century” (2006) evaluated different views of God in America based on two determining factors:

  1. God’s level of engagement: the extent to which individuals believe that God is directly involved in worldly and personal affairs.
  2. God’s level of anger: the extent to which individuals believe that God is angered by human sins and tends towards punishing, severe, and wrathful characteristics.

What researchers found was that the type of God in which people believe can predict many aspects of their political and moral attitudes. Based on these two questions, there are four ways of defining who God is:

Type A: Authoritarian God (31.4%): Individuals who believe in the Authoritarian God think that God is highly involved in their daily lives and world affairs. They believe that God helps them in their decision-making and is also responsible for global events such as economic upturns or tsunamis. They also believe that God is quite angry with us as sinners and is capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful.

Type B: Benevolent God (25%): Like believers in the Authoritarian God, believers in a Benevolent God think that God is very active in our daily lives. But these individuals are less likely to believe that God is angry and acts in wrathful ways. Instead, the Benevolent God is mainly a force of positive influence in the world and is less willing to condemn or punish individuals.

Type C: Critical God (16%): Believers in a Critical God feel that God really does not interact with the world. Nevertheless, God still observes the world and views the current state of the world unfavorably. These individuals feel that God’s displeasure will be felt in another life and that divine justice may not occur in this world.

Type D: Distant God (23%): Believers in a Distant God think that God is not active in the world and not especially angry either. These individuals tend towards thinking about God as a cosmic force which set the laws of nature in motion. As such, God does not “do” things in the world and does not care about our activities or world events.

Demographic Relationships:

  • There is a strong gender effect in belief in God. Women tend towards very engaged images of God (Types A and B) while men tend towards less engaged images (Type D) and are more likely to be atheists.
  • A majority of African-Americans (53.4%) believe in an Authoritarian God, and no African-Americans in our sample purported to be atheists.
  • Individuals with lower educations and lower incomes tend towards more engaged images of God (Types A and B). Those with college degrees and who earn more than $100,000 disproportionately believe in a Distant God or are atheists.
  • Persons with household incomes of more than $100,000 a year are twice as likely to describe themselves as “theologically liberal” than are persons with household incomes of $35,000 or less a year
  • Region of the country is significantly related to the four types of God. Easterners disproportionately tend towards belief in a Critical God. Southerners tend towards an Authoritarian God. Midwesterners tend towards a Benevolent God and West Coasters tend towards belief in a Distant God.
  • Persons aged 18-30 are three times more likely to have no religious affiliation (18.6%) than are persons aged 65 or older (5.4%)
  • The West has the highest percentages of religiously unaffiliated people (17.6%) and people in religious traditions other than Christian (10.3%) of any U.S. region
  • 9% of Americans not affiliated with a religious tradition believe in God or some higher power. 11.6% of these non-religious citizens believe Jesus is the son of God (rather remarkable for non-Christians).

Religious Effects:

  • Individuals with more engaged images of God (Types A and B) are more likely to attend church weekly and pray several times a day.
  • God’s anger alone (Type C) does little to inspire religious participation such as prayer and church attendance.
  • Catholics and Mainline Protestants (Disciples of Christ, Episcopal/Anglican, Presbyterian Church USA, Quaker, United Methodist, and United Church of Christ) tend towards more belief in a more Distant God.
  • Evangelical Protestants and Black Protestants tend towards belief in a more Authoritarian God.
  • Jews tend towards belief in a Distant God and over 8% of Jews in our sample report being atheists.
  • Individuals who feel strongly that God is a “he” tend towards belief in an Authoritarian God.
  • The most commonly held value was taking care of the sick and needy with a majority (63%) of respondents of all God types saying it is very important.
  • When asked what makes a good person, Authoritarian Believers are the most concerned with converting others to their faith (21.5%) and teaching others their moral beliefs (37%) than any other group. Of those who believe in a Distant God only 0.3% were concerned with converting others to their beliefs and 11% teaching morals.

Political views:

  • Only Evangelical Protestants show a consistency in political opinions. They agree with conservative agenda items and disagree with liberal items.
  • Being Mainline Protestant tells us nothing about someone’s political views.
  • Within each tradition, those with literal interpretations of the Bible are more politically conservative than is their tradition overall. For example, Catholics that are Biblical literalists hold more conservative political views than does the Catholic population in general.
  • Believers in a Critical God are the most likely to favor liberal positions on the equal distribution of wealth (58.7%), the closer regulation of businesses (70.6%), affirmative action programs (54.4%) and protection of the environment (89%)
  • Type D respondents are more than twice as likely (27.3%) to want the government to abolish the death penalty as Type A respondents (12.1%).
  • Type A respondents are more than three times as likely (47.2%) to desire government funding for faith-based organizations than Type D respondents (12.7%).
  • Nearly one fifth (18.6%) of Americans thought that God does favor the United States in worldly affairs. Believers in an Authoritarian God are most likely to believe God favors the United States while believers in a Distant God are least likely.
  • Another 2020 study “found that only 14% of Americans identified as white evangelical in 2020. This is a drastic decline since 2006, when America’s religious landscape was composed of 23% white evangelicals. … Younger evangelicals are disenchanted with their faith traditions’ staunch and divisive political positions and how theology has been used to prop up these positions.” (link)


“American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights to the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the US: Selected Findings from The Baylor Religion Survey,” September 2006 (link)

Final note:

  • The center of Christianity has shifted from Europe to the global South.
  • A century ago, 80 percent of Christians lived in North America and Europe, compared with just 40 percent today. In 1980, more Christians were found in the global South than the North for the first time in 1,000 years.
  • Today, the Christian community in Latin America and Africa account for 1 billion people. Over the past 100 years, Christians grew from less than 10 percent of Africa’s population to its nearly 500 million today.
  • One out of four Christians in the world presently is an African, and the Pew Research Center estimates that will grow to 40 percent by 2030.
  • Asia is also experiencing growth as world Christianity’s center has moved not only South, but also East. In the last century Christianity grew at twice the rate of population in that continent. Asia’s Christian population of 350 million is projected to grow to 460 million by 2025.


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