Only 50% of Americans say a definite yes when asked about the existence of God. Since about 7% claim God does not exist that means there are a lot of people questioning the existence of a creator/supreme being deity. One friend asked me if the problem is in defining the meaning of God. He challenged me to define the word God and give three examples. I refrained from answering by the trinity. It was not what he was saying. I know it.
The Definite Answer
The fact that 50% of the population claim without reservation belief in God is striking to me. Theology is thinking about God. If say 43% cannot give a definite answer but believe something or someone is behind the scenes arranging life, that means they have given some thought to the idea of God. Many of the 50% may have as well. But it seems more likely these people accept what they have been taught. The General Social Survey for 2022 tracks trends in views and notes changes.
The survey results reflect the growing suspicions Americans have toward institutions. The indefinite answer is what continues to grow. The rise of the number of “nones” to about 27% shows the rise in no religious affiliation does not reflect a growing disbelief in deity. I am left to ask if “no religious affiliation” means “no religion” at all.
Deism, the belief in the creator god that does not intervene in the world, has always been a part of western culture. Some believe it was merely a product of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment. The God of Plato and Aristotle was not one who could be worshipped. Christian neoplatonists knew that deity would have to reveal something about himself in Jesus to be truly understood. As Mortimer Adler claimed in an interview, it would otherwise not be a god worth praying to. Early modernists read the classics to get their views of divinity.
Theism, the belief in the creator/supreme being who was active in the world, lost a lot of miraculous ground with scientific explanations of the world. Deism filled the gap left by existence which could is not fully scientifically explained. Why do we exist? Because nothingness is unstable, physically speaking. Why is nothingness unstable? You may as well try to answer where did God come from?
Most people continue to be suspicious of atheists. In America, anti-communist propaganda leaned heavily and therefore reinforced this. Godlessness is synonymous with immoral, for most people. But that is not a new phenomenon. Many state constitutions included forbidding atheists to hold public office long before Marxism existed.
It is still socially safer to be a definite agnostic than an atheist. Agnosticism either allows a person to continue searching or deny there is enough information to conclude the question of the existence of God.
The Economic Narrative
Atheism, deism, and agnosticism are on the increase, many argue, due to technological, economic, and social development. I believe this is true. But the narrative given to explain it is suspect. It goes something like this. Increasing material comfort, goods, and security takes away people’s need for religious comfort and explanation. This is problematic.
Among the most prosperous nations in the world the United States is an outlier when it comes to religiosity. The wealthiest nation in the developed world is also the most religious. Western Europe from the time of the Renaissance to the 1st World War was ravaged by religious conflicts. Secularization is now a means of peace among these countries. It is secularization that led to Western Europe’s economic development not the other way around.
America is experiencing an attack on secularization using religion to uphold an authoritarian worldview. The suspicion against secular institutions for more personal self-absorbed experiences leads people to reject religious institutions as well. While Christianity in general is in decline according to the Public Religion Research Institute, the growth of more “nondenominational” churches based on the pastor as CEO model of leadership is increasing. Suspicion of institutions leads to trust in authoritarian religious structures.
Who then are the 50% definite believers? It is a good question. As my friend implied, what kind of god do they hold onto? Do they know? God’s existence is not a closed question for a society. It is an open question. Secular institutions are neither “officially atheist” nor “officially agnostic.” They are disinterested in the question for the purposes of their work.
What is Definite
The culture warriors will rue their victory if they ever achieve it. Authoritarian states unfortunately for everyone become their own gods replacing the one they seek to establish. The French Revolution turned from Reason to Bonapartism who argued he was spreading enlightenment. History shows religion thrives separately from the State. Religions upheld by governments only appear successful for a time. A new pluralistic non-institutional religious way of seeing life will come. The 50% who will give a definite yes will increase while big box churches die.