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Posted on Fri, May 25, 2012 : 9:21 a.m.

Belief in God: Are Americans’ beliefs meaningless after all?

By Wayne Baker

0525 Bill Tammeus blog screenshot.jpg

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing belief around the world, and where Americans stand in comparison.

Most Americans believe in God, as a new compilation of international survey data confirms once again. More than six in ten (61 percent) do not have any doubts about God’s existence. Americans do have different conceptualizations of God, at least four major ones. But Americans’ strong beliefs in God go back as far as we have survey data, and these strong beliefs may have something to do with America’s cultural DNA.

But what does it really mean to say that 61 percent of Americans believe in God without any doubts?

Our friend Bill Tammeus, an award-winning religion newswriter based in Kansas City, read our posts this week and offers his insight in his “Faith Matters” blog.
Here’s part of what he said:

”Americans seem almost prideful at times about the fact that in poll after poll, huge majorities of citizens profess a belief in God. Indeed, religious pollster George Barna says Americans have so many different ideas about God that, in effect, Americans worship 300 million gods.” Bill writes that he thought about this as he read the OurValues series this week, especially the first-day column about 61 percent agreement. He continues, “The obvious question, of course, is: Which God? I suppose it’s useful to know general trends like this, but in the end I find such statistics close to meaningless because of the vast differences in what people mean when they use the term God. Some mean the Triune deity of Christianity. Others mean Allah of Islam. …Still others think of a bearded old man in the sky while others have in mind some kind of nameless, faceless force….”

I had two reactions to Bill's column...

Reaction 1: Bill’s right. Some Americans are too proud of the high percentage of American believers, often claiming to “own” all of them. Surveys of religious beliefs are not meant to determine the win-place-show in the Preakness of Believers. The truth is far more complex than that.

Reaction 2: I disagree with Bill about the value of the bottom-line aggregated number. Looking more broadly, levels of religious intensity compare in important ways globally that tell us something about American uniqueness. Consider, for example, that only 13 percent of the Danes say they know God really exists and have no doubts about it. The contrast with the U.S. is stark. Americans may have 300 million versions of God, but most Danes have none. Persistent, strong beliefs in God are part of the DNA of our construction of American identity.

We've got a good discussion going this week. What do you think?

What do the survey results say to you?

What do you make of stark differences in belief between U.S and Europe?

Dr. Wayne E. Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at ourvaluesproject@gmail.com or on Facebook.