More data coming from the second part of the massive Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Most Americans (92%), regardless of religion, believe in God in some fashion. This belief may be absolute or quite tentative, and God may be interpreted as anything from a white-bearded Bible guy to a “universal spirit,” but in one way or another God is a concept of enduring relevance to Americans.
This includes relevance to Unitarian-Universalists. 82% of UUs and their close liberal kin affirmed some level of belief in a God/universal spirit. Nearly half–49%–were absolutely certain in this belief, and another 24% were pretty certain. Only 10% fully rejected the concept–higher than the national average of 3%, but still not that huge a difference.
Other liberals also racked up big God beliefs. 96% of mainline Protestants, 81-90% of liberal Jews, 77% of Buddhists, and 92% of Hindus affirmed a belief in God/universal spirit.
Of course, this part of the survey also shows the flaws inherent in such enterprises. With no definition of God, and the profoundly broad and fuzzy concept of “universal spirit” included, this data becomes so diluted that its usefulness for some groups can be questioned. The Buddhists are a good example: Buddhism does not have any traditional doctrines that correspond well to “God” or “universal spirit” as the Pew researchers seem to have intended, yet they managed to get 77% of Buddhists to affirm such beliefs anyway. Worse yet, the Pew survey discovered that 22% of atheists believe in God, as well as a majority (55%) of agnostics! Surely this should send a red flag about relying too strongly on this part of the survey.
The problem arises when trying to use uniform questions to survey a gigantic and extremely diverse sample of people. Often, generic questions can usefully get at some data related to such a population–the questions discussed earlier on this blog are good examples. But the mechanism breaks down at points, such as when trying to apply ideas derived from a specific religion–in this case, Christianity, the core model for the Pew researchers–to other religions that explicitly take a different approach. God is not an important concern to Buddhists, and universal spirit could mean things like Buddha-nature, Amitabha Buddha, Dharmakaya, or even sunyata in some contexts–concepts that are utterly different from the usual Western notion of God and should not be put into the same category. Where this data is most reliable, then, is when looking at how groups close to the Pew researchers’ ideas answered–Christians, Jews, Muslims–and it quickly gets weaker and less reliable as we move away from these (large and important) populations.