The God Question
The "Survey of the Class of 1957" in our 50th Reunion book included the question, "Do you believe in God?" Fifty-eight percent (58%) of those responding said "Yes." While 22% were agnostic, 61% either "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that religion was "a force for good in society." In view of the even higher percentage of all Americans who are reported to believe in God (as high as 90% in some polls), the reduced but still significantly positive response of our class isn't so surprising. Yet for a subset of senior citizen college graduates in these times, at first it did strike me as still relatively high.
But how consistent is our little Princeton class poll with large national polls of recent years? What accounts for the reduced, but still significant, majority classmate belief relative to the national population? Age effect? Gender? Education? Political party? The surge of religiously inspired terrorism we see and read about every day? National poll results on this God question are available for various demographic categories. So, what is the net result for our senior citizen, college educated, largely Republican (49% vs 27% Democrat) group of men? Here are some demographics on belief in God from an extensive Harris Poll of October 31, 2006:
Absolute & Somewhat Certain Belief Absolute Belief
General Population 73% 58%
Age over 65 yrs. 79% 65%
Women 78% 62%
Men 68% 54%
Republican 83% 72%
Democrat 72% 54%
College non grad. 76% 62%
College grad. 64% 50%
For our class the Gender and Education categories might indicate a "net" loss in belief relative to the general population. While Age and Political party might indicate a net increase. Would these effects cancel out, or would the negative factors dominate and help explain the class poll findings? Of course, it's statistically incorrect to simply cumulatively sum differences from separate poll categories.
If classmates responding to our poll interpreted the God question to be asking about "absolute certainty," or "strong belief," then our poll results are consistent with the Harris national poll. Otherwise it might be argued that we are more ‘secular' than other Americans as a whole – opposite to my initial expectation.
My expectation was based in part on the religiously traditional society in which most of us were raised prior to the sixties – or at least for Christians, prior to the "God is dead and Jesus is his son" movement inspired by radical theologians like Thomas Altizer and John A. T. Robinson in the early sixties. More fundamentally, the "God question" is as ambiguous as the various professed understandings of the meaning of the word "God." How would ‘spiritual' people, who may or may not be affiliated with a particular religious group, nor believe in a supernatural personal god, interpret the God question? Should the distinction between religion and spirituality be made? Can a more pointed, less ambiguous, survey question(s) be devised?
The current spate of anti-religious books and commentaries by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, et al, might lead us to believe (with some justification) that religion is dangerous, on the rise, and must be vigorously opposed. Dawkins as well as the less strident Dennett examine religion as a dangerous "meme." Yet here again it is important to be clear about the sort of god they have in mind. Dawkins, in his The God Delusion book (p.15), defines the pious targets of his criticism as those who " believe in a supernatural creator that is ‘appropriate for us to worship.' He also asks us to "bear in mind that I am only calling supernatural gods delusional." Also note that he excludes Buddhism as a "philosophy" and not a religion.
Dennett in his Breaking the Spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomena "tentatively" defines religions "as social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought." Yet we can find the "sacred" in Dennett (p.245): "The Tree of Life is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm's ‘Being greater than which nothing can be perceived' it is surely a being that is greater than any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, I say with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. The world is sacred." I am reminded of Albert Schweitzer's "Reverence for Life."
Religion is a matter of our "ultimate concern" – to paraphrase our late classmate Rabbi Arnie Fink writing in a September 3, 2003 e-mail response to my initial piece on our Religion page. Arnie wrote: ". . . we all sense that this [study of religion] is unique, because it touches on our ‘ultimate concerns.' Religion is a response to that concern."
Well, what is our ultimate concern? As I pondered Arnie's words, a passage in Karen Armstrong's book, The Spiral Staircase – My Climb out of Darkness (p.235), came to mind. She quotes Hyam Maccoby, librarian of Leo Baeck College in North London: "Easy to see you were brought up Christian ... Theology is just not important in Judaism, or in any other religion, really. There's no orthodoxy as you have in the Catholic Church. No complicated creeds to which everybody must subscribe. No infallible pronouncements by a pope. Nobody can tell Jews what to believe. Within reason, you can believe what you like."
Bishop Fred Borsch, in his book, The Spirit Searches Everything, seems to prefer the term "Spirit" with a capital "S" over the word "God." In addition, throughout his text, we find a ‘soft' form of expression for divine "intervention." Fred refers to a mysterious "uptick" that operates on the most fundamental processes to direct the evolution of the Universe as well as the evolution of conscious life and "self awareness." Could this be an attempt to avoid the popular understanding of a supernatural personal form of God belief?
The distinction the Cambridge radical theologian Don Cupitt makes between "realism" and "non-realism" in religious beliefs may provide one set of potentially useful categories for quantitative assessment of our spiritual or religious understandings. In simple terms, a religious "realist" believes there is a God "out there." Whereas a "non-realist" gives up all ideas of a heavenly or supernatural world beyond. For the non-realist truth is a "human improvisation." Cupitt is Fellow and former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England. He was an Anglican priest and is a theologian/philosopher whose many books include Taking Leave of God (1980), Sea of Faith (1984), After All – Religion without Alienation (1994) and Life, Life (2003). He is the founder of the Sea of Faith Network (www.sofn.org.uk). (The name, Sea of Faith, is taken from Matthew Arnold's nostalgic 19th century poem "Dover Beach," in which the poet expresses regret that belief in a supernatural world is slowly slipping away; the sea of faith is withdrawing like the ebbing tide.) I have heard Cupitt counter apophatic or negative theology proposals by Karen Armstrong and spiritual experience proposals by Marcus Borg. Cupitt also remains a communicant in the Anglican church, although I have heard him say his perspective is closest to "Japanese Buddhism."
With a proper preface or explanation, a question such as "If you are religious, are you a realist or a non-realist?" might be included in a less ambiguous, more meaningful, survey. I like a quote from John Dominic Crossan: "Tell me something about your God, and I'll know all the rest."
In short, help me with the questions; then perhaps a more discriminating, even if non-scientific, class Religion survey could be designed. The following are some possibilities to provoke your reactions, criticism, and alternatives:
1. Is "Faith" possible without a corresponding "Religion?"
2. Is God a name for the "ultimate concern" that guides your life?
3. Is God a non-material "Spirit" that influences processes and conscious beings in the evolving universe?
4. Is it possible to lead an ethical life without belief in God?
5. Do you believe in a supernatural personal God?
6. Do you believe in a supernatural non-personal God?
7. Do you believe in a natural and universal life force, energy, or power of some sort?
8. Do you believe in any sort of God which may not be capable of definition?
9. Do you believe there is no God, material or spiritual, defined or otherwise?
10. Do you "trust in God?"
11. Is "God good all the time?"
12. Does "God love you?"
13. Is God Love?
14. Are you a spiritual "realist" or "non realist" using Don Cupitt's definitions?
15. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being absolute certainty) how certain are you of your belief?
Finally, I come back to Hyam Maccoby (Armstrong, p.236): "Right practice rather than right belief. That's all. You Christians make such a fuss about theology, but it's not important in the way you think. It's just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible. We Jews don't bother much about what we believe. We just do instead."
The "Golden Rule" of Hillel and Jesus comes to my mind; or the gospel writer Matthew's last judgement scene (Matt. 25:31-40) wherein there are no questions about belief, only questions about whether we helped the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, or imprisoned. Nevertheless, I press on with sorting beliefs and wrestling with my God question. If not God, then you classmates help me.
Jerry Moyar ‘57
December 9, 2007