Wednesday, September 13, 2006

How You Comprehend God Determines How You Vote

After reading in this article in yesterday’s Deseret News that researchers at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion postulate that political beliefs are simply an outgrowth of how one perceives God (see also here and here), I spent a day digesting the information before writing about it.

The data gathering method employed a 350-question survey that was used to class belief in the divine into one of four categories: authoritarian, benevolent, critical, and distant. The first two philosophies have at their center a God that is actively involved in people’s lives, in world affairs, etc. They differ in that the first holds God to be meting out judgment and punishment, while the second holds God to be more merciful and less judgmental.

The latter two philosophies believe God to be less involved in personal lives and world affairs. The last of these sees God as largely disinterested in this world and its events, while the other sees God as judgmental, but not meting out judgment in this life.

Paul Froese, a survey researcher and Baylor assistant professor of sociology said, “If I know your type of God, I know all kinds of things about you.” For example, it appears that the more involved you believe God to be in your life and in world affairs, the more likely you are to hold more conservative political views. The inverse of this also appears to be true.

As with all thorough researchers these days, the Baylor researchers divide everything up demographically by age, race, gender, income, and geography. I found the following points interesting:
  • Almost nobody believes that God favors a particular political party.
  • Only 5.2% of Americans can be classed as actual atheists.
  • The more involved you believe God to be in your life, the more likely you are to pray and attend church regularly. (No surprise there).
  • The higher your income and the higher your education, the less you tend to believe in an involved God, and the more likely you are to tend toward atheism. It sounds like the more your circumstances impose humility, the more you tend to believe in an involved God.
  • “Paranormal beliefs (including astrology, communicating with the dead and UFOs) are more prevalent in Eastern states, least prevalent in the South.” This kind of goes against some prominent stereotypes.
  • Women tend to believe in an involved God, while men tend to believe in a distant God or in atheism.
  • “Easterners disproportionately seem to believe in a Critical God; Southerners tend toward the Authoritarian God; Midwesterners worship the Benevolent God; and West Coast residents contemplate the Distant God.”
  • “Catholics and mainline Protestants are more apt to see God as distant, as are Jews,” while “Evangelical and black Protestants lean toward the Authoritarian God.”
  • Religious people increasingly do not personally associate themselves with a particular religious denomination, although, their actual place of worship probably does.
  • God’s anger alone is not a big motivator for religious behavior. Indeed, “religion may most successfully motivate individuals through what it can offer them in spiritual intimacy and congregational connectivity rather than through demands backed by threats of divine punishment.”
  • “About 41 percent believe Atlantis existed; 37 percent believe places can be haunted; and 52 percent believe that dreams can foretell the future. About 12 percent believe in astrology and psychics, and about 25 percent believe in UFOs.” But none of what I read split these beliefs out demographically.
I have to admit that I have a little bit of difficulty with the four belief classifications. I haven’t seen the questionnaire used in the survey, so I don’t know how the researchers would rate me personally. But I have difficulty squishing my belief in God firmly into any of the four categories.

Given that all studies suffer from imperfections, and therefore, suffer from a certain amount of skewing, I have to wonder how skewed this study is. The survey had fewer than 1800 respondents. How well do the respondents represent the U.S. population? What type of person was most likely to participate in the survey? Is my belief system represented? Is that important? Perhaps my particular belief system has such a small representation in the U.S. that it does not matter whether it is represented in the study. What does this study mean for Utah? Or is Utah such an outlier that it would fall far outside of the study’s statistical model?

The researchers plan to do a follow-up study next year to firm up their findings. It will be interesting to see the outcome of that study. I would love to see the study repeated with far more participants, with specific results split out on a state-by-state basis. It would be interesting to see a study of this nature done just for Utah.

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