May 5, 2018

Belief in Biblical God Now Held by Only Slim Majority of Americans


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Nine-in-ten Americans believe in a higher power, but only 56% believe in God as described in the Bible.


04.25.2018

Previous Pew Research Center studies have shown that the share of Americans who believe in God with absolute certainty has declined in recent years, while the share saying they have doubts about God’s existence – or that they do not believe in God at all – has grown.

These trends raise a series of questions: When respondents say they don’t believe in God, what are they rejecting? Are they rejecting belief in any higher power or spiritual force in the universe? Or are they rejecting only a traditional Christian idea of God – perhaps recalling images of a bearded man in the sky? Conversely, when respondents say they dobelieve in God, what do they believe in – God as described in the Bible, or some other spiritual force or supreme being?

One-third of U.S. adults believe in a higher power of some kind, but not in God as described in Bible

A new Pew Research Center survey of more than 4,700 U.S. adults finds that one-third of Americans say they do not believe in the God of the Bible, but that they do believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. A slim majority of Americans (56%) say they believe in God “as described in the Bible.” And one-in-ten do not believe in any higher power or spiritual force.

In the U.S., belief in a deity is common even among the religiously unaffiliated – a group composed of those who identify themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” and sometimes referred to, collectively, as religious “nones.” Indeed, nearly three-quarters of religious “nones” (72%) believe in a higher power of some kind, even if not in God as described in the Bible.

The survey questions that mention the Bible do not specify any particular verses or translations, leaving that up to each respondent’s understanding. But it is clear from questions elsewhere in the survey that Americans who say they believe in God “as described in the Bible” generally envision an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving deity who determines most or all of what happens in their lives. By contrast, people who say they believe in a “higher power or spiritual force” – but not in God as described in the Bible – are much less likely to believe in a deity who is omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent and active in human affairs.

In U.S., half of adults believe God determines what happens to them most or all of the time

Overall, about half of Americans (48%) say that God or another higher power directly determines what happens in their lives all or most of the time. An additional 18% say God or some other higher power determines what happens to them “just some of the time.”

Nearly eight-in-ten U.S. adults think God or a higher power has protected them, and two-thirds say they have been rewarded by the Almighty. By comparison, somewhat fewer see God as judgmental and punitive. Six-in-ten Americans say God or a higher power will judge all people on what they have done, and four-in-ten say they have been punished by God or the spiritual force they believe is at work in the universe.

In addition, the survey finds that three-quarters of American adults say they try to talk to God (or another higher power in the universe), and about three-in-ten U.S. adults say God (or a higher power) talks back. The survey also asked, separately, about rates of prayer. People who pray on a regular basis are especially likely to say that they speak to God and that God speaks to them. But the survey shows that praying and talking to God are not fully interchangeable. For example, four-in-ten people (39%) who say they seldom or never pray nonetheless report that they talk to God.

These are among the key findings of the new survey, conducted Dec. 4 to 18, 2017, among 4,729 participants in Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel, with an overall margin of sampling error for the full survey of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

To explore the U.S. public’s beliefs about God, the survey first asked, simply: “Do you believe in God, or not?”

Those who said “yes” – 80% of all respondents – received a follow-up question asking them to clarify whether they believe in “God as described in the Bible” or they “do not believe in God as described in the Bible, but do believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe.” Most people in this group – indeed, a slim majority of all Americans (56%) – say they believe in God as described in the Bible.

Slim majority of Americans believe in God as described in the Bible, while one-third believe in some other higher power

Those who answered the first question by saying that they do not believe in God (19% of all respondents) also received a follow-up question. They were asked to clarify whether they “do not believe in God as described in the Bible, but do believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe” or, on the contrary, they “do not believe there is ANY higher power or spiritual force in the universe.” Of this group, about half (10% of U.S. adults) say they do not believe in a higher power or spiritual force of any kind.

All told, one-third of respondents ultimately say that although they do not believe in the God of the Bible, they do believe in a higher power or spiritual force of some kind – including 23% who initially said they believe in God and 9% who initially said they do not believe in God.

Those who believe in God of Bible see deity as more powerful, active than those who believe in another higher power or spiritual force

When asked additional questions about what they believe God or another higher power in the universe is like, those who believe in God as described in the Bible and those who believe in another kind of higher power or spiritual force express substantially different views. Simply put, those who believe in the God of the Bible tend to perceive a more powerful, knowing, benevolent and active deity.

For instance, nearly all adults who say they believe in the God of the Bible say they think God loves all people regardless of their faults, and that God has protected them. More than nine-in-ten people who believe in the biblical God envisage a deity who knows everything that goes on in the world, and nearly nine-in-ten say God has rewarded them, and has the power to direct or change everything that happens in the world.

Far fewer people who believe in some other higher power or spiritual force (but not the God of the Bible) ascribe these attributes and actions to that higher power. Still, even among this group, half or more say they believe another higher power in the universe loves all people (69%), is omniscient (53%), has protected them (68%) and rewarded them (53%).

Belief in God as described in the Bible is most pronounced among U.S. Christians. Overall, eight-in-ten self-identified Christians say they believe in the God of the Bible, while one-in-five do not believe in the biblical description of God but do believe in a higher power of some kind. Very few self-identified Christians (just 1%) say they do not believe in any higher power at all.

Compared with Christians, Jews and people with no religious affiliation are much more likely to say they do not believe in God or a higher power of any kind. Still, big majorities in both groups do believe in a deity (89% among Jews, 72% among religious “nones”), including 56% of Jews and 53% of the religiously unaffiliated who say they do not believe in the God of the Bible but do believe in some other higher power of spiritual force in the universe. (The survey did not include enough interviews with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or respondents from other minority religious groups in the United States to permit separate analysis of their beliefs.)

Relatively few religious ‘nones’ believe in God as described in Bible, but most do believe in some higher power

When asked about a variety of possible attributes or characteristics of God, U.S. Christians by and large paint a portrait that reflects common Christian teachings about God. For instance, 93% of Christians believe God (or another higher power in the universe) loves all people, regardless of their faults. Nearly nine-in-ten (87%) say that God knows everything that happens in the world. And about eight-in-ten (78%) believe God has the power to direct or change everything that goes on in the world. In total, three-quarters of U.S. Christians believe that God possesses all three of these attributes – that the deity is loving, omniscient and omnipotent.

However, the survey finds sizable differences in the way various Christian subgroups perceive God. For example, while nine-in-ten of those in the historically black Protestant (92%) and evangelical (91%) traditions say they believe in God as described in the Bible, smaller majorities of mainline Protestants and Catholics say they have faith in the biblical God.1 Sizable minorities of Catholics (28%) and mainline Protestants (26%) say they believe in a higher power or spiritual force, but not in God as described in the Bible.

Three-quarters of U.S. Christians believe God is loving, omniscient and omnipotent

Similarly, while about nine-in-ten adherents in the historically black Protestant tradition (91%) and evangelicals (87%) believe that God is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful, just six-in-ten Catholics and mainline Protestants say God possesses all three attributes.

Evangelicals and those in the historically black Protestant tradition are also more likely than members of other major U.S. Christian traditions to say that God has personally protected, rewarded and punished them. But across all subgroups, Christians are far more likely to say God has protected and rewarded them than to say God has punished them.

Religious ‘nones’ are divided in their views about God

Seven-in-ten religiously unaffiliated adults believe in a higher power of some kind, including 17% who say they believe in God as described in the Bible and 53% who believe in some other form of higher power or spiritual force in the universe. Roughly one-quarter of religious “nones” (27%) say they do not believe in a higher power of any kind. But there are stark differences based on how, exactly, members of this group describe their religious identity.

None of the survey respondents who describe themselves as atheists believe in God as described in the Bible. About one-in-five, however, do believe in some other kind of higher power or spiritual force in the universe (18%). Roughly eight-in-ten self-described atheists (81%) say they do not believe in a higher power of any kind.

Most agnostics, those whose religion is ‘nothing in particular’ believe in a higher power or spiritual force

Self-described agnostics look very different from atheists on this question. While very few agnostics (3%) say they believe in God as described in the Bible, a clear majority (62%) say they believe in some other kind of spiritual force. Just three-in-ten say there is no higher power in the universe.

Respondents who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” are even more likely to express belief in a deity; nine-in-ten take this position, mirroring the U.S. public overall in this regard. While most people in this “nothing in particular” group believe in a spiritual force other than the biblical God (60%), a sizable minority (28%) say they do believe in God as described in the Bible.

Young people less inclined to claim belief in biblical God

Compared with older Americans, fewer young adults believe in active, engaged God

Majorities in all adult age groups say they believe in God or some other higher power, ranging from 83% of those ages 18 to 29 to 96% of those ages 50 to 64. But young adults are far less likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God as described in the Bible. Whereas roughly two-thirds of adults ages 50 and older say they believe in the biblical God, just 49% of those in their 30s and 40s and just 43% of adults under 30 say the same. A similar share of adults ages 18 to 29 say they believe in another higher power (39%).

The survey also shows that, compared with older adults, those under age 50 generally view God as less powerful and less involved in earthly affairs than do older Americans. At the same time, however, young adults are somewhat more likely than their elders to say they believe that they personally have been punished by God or a higher power in the universe.

Highly educated Americans less likely to believe in God of the Bible

Among U.S. adults with a high school education or less, fully two-thirds say they believe in God as described in the Bible. Far fewer adults who have obtained some college education say they believe in God as described in the Bible (53%). And among college graduates, fewer than half (45%) say they believe in the biblical God.

The data also show that, compared with those with lower levels of educational attainment, college graduates are less likely to believe that God (or another higher power in the universe) is active and involved in the world and in their personal lives. For instance, while roughly half of college graduates (54%) say they have been rewarded by God, two-thirds of those with some college education (68%) and three-quarters of those with a high school education or less (75%) say this. And just one-third of college graduates say God determines all or most of what happens in their lives, far below the share who say this among those with less education.

College graduates less likely to believe in active, involved deity

Republicans and Democrats have very different beliefs about the divine

Compared with Republicans, Democrats far less likely to believe in God as described in Bible

Republicans and Democrats have very different notions about God. Among Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP, seven-in-ten say they believe in God as described in the Bible. Democrats and those who lean Democratic, by contrast, are far less likely to believe in God as described in the Bible (45%), and are more likely than Republicans to believe in another kind of higher power (39% vs. 23%). Democrats also are more likely than Republicans to say they do not believe in any higher power or spiritual force in the universe (14% vs. 5%).

Additionally, while 85% of Republicans believe God loves all people, eight-in-ten believe God is all-knowing, and seven-in-ten believe God is all-powerful; Democrats are less likely to express each of these views. Two-thirds of Republicans say they believe God possesses all three of these attributes, compared with roughly half of Democrats (49%). Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to say God has protected, rewarded or punished them.

Among Democrats, the survey finds big differences between whites and nonwhites in views about God. Most nonwhite Democrats, who are predominantly black or Hispanic, say they believe in God as described in the Bible, and seven-in-ten or more say they believe God is all-loving, all-knowing or all-powerful, with two-thirds ascribing all of these attributes to God. In these ways, nonwhite Democrats have more in common with Republicans than they do with white Democrats.

In stark contrast with non-white Democrats, just one-third of white Democrats say they believe in God as described in the Bible, while 21% do not believe in a higher power of any kind. And just one-in-three white Democrats say they believe God (or another higher power in the universe) is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving.

In their beliefs about God, nonwhite Democrats more closely resemble Republicans than white Democrats

Beliefs about the Nature of God

Virtually all U.S. Christians say they believe in God or a higher power of some kind. Among evangelical Protestants, 91% put their faith in God “as described in the Bible,” as do 92% of those in the historically black Protestant tradition. Most Catholics and mainline Protestants also believe in the God of the Bible, though sizable minorities within these groups say they believe in some other higher power or spiritual force.

Like Christians, most Jews believe in a deity. But compared with Christians, Jews are much more likely to say they believe in a higher power other than the biblical God (56%), and much less likely to say they believe in God as described in the Bible (33%). And one-in-ten Jews say they do not believe in God or a higher power of any kind.

The survey shows that a complete lack of belief is relatively uncommon even among religious “nones.” Seven-in-ten religious “nones” say they believe in God or a higher power of some kind, including 17% who believe in the biblical God and 53% who believe in a different higher power or spiritual force. Self-described atheists are the only group surveyed in which a majority (81%) rejects belief in a higher power altogether, and even among atheists, roughly one-in-five (18%) say they believe in some spiritual force.

Belief in God as described in the Bible is more common among women than men (61% vs. 50%), among older people than among younger adults, and among Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP than among Democrats (70% vs. 45%). The survey also shows that belief in the biblical God is least common among the most highly educated Americans.

Eight-in-ten Christians believe in God as described in the Bible; many religious ‘nones’ believe in some other higher power

Nine-in-ten Christians say they believe God or another higher power in the universe loves all people despite their faults, and nearly as many say they think God is all-knowing. A smaller majority of Christians believe God is omnipotent, with the power to direct or change everything that goes on in the world (78%). Evangelicals and those in the historically black Protestant tradition are most likely to attribute these characteristics to God, though majorities in all Christian groups say God is loving, omniscient and omnipotent.

In U.S., three-quarters see God/higher power as loving

Among demographic groups, women are somewhat more likely than men to say God is all-loving or all-knowing, though they are not much more likely than men to view God as all-powerful. The beliefs that God is all-loving, all-knowing or all-powerful are more common among older people than younger adults, and among Republicans than Democrats.

Three quarters of U.S. Christians believe God is all-loving, all-knowing AND all-powerful

Three-quarters of U.S. Christians, including 91% of those in the historically black Protestant tradition and 87% of evangelical Protestants, believe God is all-loving, all-knowing andall-powerful. By comparison, Jews and religious “nones” are far less likely to say God (or another higher power in the universe) possesses all three of these attributes.

Among respondents who say they believe in God as described in the Bible, fully eight-in-ten (83%) say they believe God is all-loving, omniscient and omnipotent. By contrast, among those who believe in a higher power but not the God of the Bible, just 28% say God has all three of these characteristics.

In U.S., six-in-ten believe God will judge all people based on their deeds

There are similar patterns on another question: whether God will ultimately judge all people based on what they have done in life.

Overall, six-in-ten Americans believe God or a higher power will someday judge all people. This view is most common among evangelicals (87%) and those in the historically black Protestant tradition (85%), and held by smaller majorities of other Christian groups. Most Jews and religious “nones” (some of whom do not believe in God or a higher power in the first place) reject the idea that people’s deeds will ultimately by judged by a higher power.

Seven-in-ten adults ages 50 and older think all people will ultimately face God’s judgment. By contrast, just 56% of those in their 30s and 40s and half of adults under 30 (49%) say the same.

Three-quarters of Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP (74%) think all people will have their actions judged by God. Among Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party, about half (51%) express this view.

Beliefs about God’s Involvement in the World

In U.S., most talk to God; three-in-ten say God talks back

About three-quarters of Americans say they try to talk to God or another higher power. And 28% indicate that their attempts at communication are answered, saying God or the spiritual force in the universe talks directly with them.

Communicating with God is most common among evangelical Protestants and those in the historically black Protestant tradition, with nearly everyone in both groups saying they talk to God. Six-in-ten people in the historically black Protestant tradition say this communication is a two-way street and that God talks directly with them; 45% of evangelicals say the same.

Compared with Christians, fewer Jews (63%) say they communicate with God, and just one-in-ten U.S. Jews (9%) say God talks to them. Even fewer religious “nones” (46%) say they speak to God or a higher power they believe in, but among the subset of “nones” who describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” two-thirds (65%) say they do indeed try to talk to the deity – and roughly one-in-five say God talks back.

As with so many other measures of belief and engagement with the divine, women are more likely than men to say they communicate with God, and those over 50 are more likely than younger adults to say this. Talking to God is less common among college graduates than among those with less education.

Two-thirds say they have been rewarded by God, four-in-ten have been punished

When asked whether they have ever been protected by God, three-quarters of Americans (including 93% of Christians) say yes. And two-thirds of U.S. adults (including about eight-in-ten Christians) say they have been rewarded by God at some point in their lives. Far fewer people – just four-in-ten U.S. adults and 47% of Christians – say there has been a time when they were punished by God.

Overwhelming majorities of all Christian traditions say they have been protected by God. Similarly, the share of Christians who say they have been rewarded by God ranges from 70% among mainline Protestants to 96% among those in the historically black Protestant tradition. By contrast, those in the historically black Protestant tradition (61%) and evangelicals (56%) are the only Christian subgroups in which more than half of respondents say they have been punished by God.

In U.S., seven-in-ten say they have been rewarded or punished by God

Analysis of the survey data reveals that those who believe they have been rewarded by God are divided between those who have been rewarded and punished (38% of all adults) and those who believe they have been rewarded but not punished (29%). Very few Americans say they have been punished by God without also having been rewarded (3%).

This relative optimism about God’s involvement in life is consistent with previous studies that have shown, for example, that the share of Americans who believe in heaven is significantly larger than the share who believe in hell.

Half of U.S. adults think God determines what happens in their lives “all” or “most” of the time, including 27% who say God alwaysdetermines what happens to them and 21% who say God is behind most of what happens to them. One-in-five (18%) say God determines what happens to them “some” of the time, and 23% say God hardly ever or never determines the course of their life. (An additional 10% do not believe in God or a higher power.)

The belief that God is responsible for all or most things that happen in life peaks at 82% among those in the historically black Protestant tradition, and this view is shared by 72% of evangelical Protestants. More than half of Catholics (56%) also see God’s hand at work in all or most things that happen to them, as do 53% of mainline Protestants.

Among demographic groups, more women than men see God at work in all or most of what happens in their lives. There is also a big gap between college graduates and those with less education. Among adults who have a high school degree or less education, a majority (59%) believe God is largely or entirely responsible for what happens to them; roughly a quarter believe God hardly ever or never determines the course of their lives (17%) or reject belief in a higher power altogether (6%). By contrast, among college graduates, nearly half say God determines little or nothing of what happens to them (29%) or doesn’t exist at all (16%), while only one-third see all or most of what happens to them as God’s handiwork.

Half of Americans believe God or higher power directly determines what happens in their lives all or most of the time

Respondents who indicated that God determines what happens in their lives occasionally (i.e., at least “hardly ever” but not “all the time”) were asked whether God determines only the big things in life or the little things (or both), and were separately asked whether God determines only the good things, only the bad things, or both.

The survey shows that most people think God or another higher power in the universe is at work in both the big and little things in life, and in the good things as well as the bad. For instance, two-thirds of Americans believe God is behind at least some of the big things and some of the little things in life; this group includes those who say God is responsible for everything that happens to them, as well as those who think God is sometimes responsible for both big and little things that happen to them. Very few people say God is responsible for only the big things (4%) or only the little things (2%) in life. (Others say God does not determine anything that happens in their life, or does not exist.)

Most Americans say God has a hand in big and little, good and bad things in their lives

Similarly, just 5% say God is responsible for only the good things that happen to them, and 1% say God is behind only the bad events in life. Most adults see God’s hand at work in both positive and negative things.


Pew Research Team

Alan Cooperman, Director of Religion Research
Gregory A. Smith, Associate Director of Research 
Becka A. Alper, Research Associate
Elizabeth Podrebarac Sciupac, Research Associate
Claire Gecewicz, Research Analyst
Besheer Mohamed, Senior Researcher 

Editorial and Graphic Design

Michael Lipka, Senior Editor
Rich Morin, Senior Editor
Aleksandra Sandstrom, Copy Editor
Bill Webster, Information Graphics Designer

Communications and Web Publishing

Stacy Rosenberg, Associate Director, Digital
Travis Mitchell, Digital Producer
Anna Schiller, Communications Manager
Jessica Pumphrey, Communications Associate

Nick Bertoni, panel manager for the American Trends Panel, and Claudia Deane, vice president of research, also gave valuable feedback on this study.


Originally published by Pew Research Center, reprinted with permission for non-commercial purposes.

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