Religious Confusion In America: The Need For Doctrinal Precision

Jun 2nd, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The Pew Research Center and the Gallup Organization recently released separate reports concerning the state of religious beliefs in the United States.  Both evidence an absence of certainty when it comes to major doctrinal issues, and point to one of the major themes of the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), namely that sound doctrine produces godly living.  There is a consequence when sound doctrine is not evident in religious belief systems. For example, nine-in-ten Americans believe in a higher power, the Pew Research Center shows, but only a slim majority believes in God as described in the Bible.  Permit me a summary of some of the other salient findings in these reports.

First, a summary of these two reports:

  • The Pew study demonstrates that one-third of Americans say they do not believe in the God of the Bible, but that they do believe that there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. A slim majority of Americans (56%) say they believe in God “as described in the Bible.  And one-in-ten does not believe in any higher power or spiritual force.  Nearly eight-in-ten US adults think God or a higher power has protected them, and two-thirds say they have been rewarded by the Almighty.  In addition, about 3/4s of American adults say they try to talk with God (or another higher power in the universe) and about three-in-ten US adults say God (or a higher power) talks back.
  • One of the recent developments in American religiosity is the emergence of the “nones,” those on surveys who check none of the above. (Recent studies show that about 16% of Americans fit into this category).  These two recent reports evidence that relatively few religious “nones” believe in God as described in the Bible, but most do believe in some higher power.
  • Young people are less inclined to claim belief in the biblical God. Those under 50 generally view God as less powerful and less involved in earthly affairs than do older Americans.
  • Higher educated Americans are less likely to believe in the God of the Bible. Among US adults with a high school education or less, fully two thirds say they believe in God as described in the Bible.  Far fewer adults who have obtained some college education say they believe in God as described in the Bible (53%).  And among college graduates, fewer than half (45%) say they believe in the biblical God.
  • In the US, Republicans and Democrats have very different notions about God. Among Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP, seven-in-ten say they believe in God as described in the Bible.  Democrats, and those who lean Democratic, are far less likely to believe in God as described in the Bible (45%), and are more likely than Republicans to believe in another kind of higher power (39% vs. 23%).  Among Democrats, Pew found big differences between whites and nonwhites in views about God.  Most nonwhite Democrats, who are predominately black or Hispanic, say they believe in God as described in the Bible, and seven-in-ten or more say they believe that God is all-loving, all-knowing or all-powerful, with two thirds ascribing all of these attributes to God.  Thus, nonwhite Democrats have more in common with Republicans than they do with white Democrats.
  • The Gallup report demonstrates that about three fourths of Americans identify with a Christian faith (broadly defined). Protestants continue to make up the largest religious group in America, totaling 49% of US adults.  Catholics are the next largest group with 23% of the population, while Mormons account for about 2%.  About 37% of Americans can be classified as highly religious based on their self-reports of church attendance and the importance of religion in their lives.  Using these criteria, Mormons are by far the most religious of the major religious groups in the US, with 74% classified as highly religious.

Second, these reports evidence a significant degree of shallow and superficial thinking when it comes to God, His attributes and His character as described in the Bible.  Compared to Western European countries, America remains a highly religious country.  But religiosity does not equal sound doctrinal convictions.  One of my favorite authors today is sociologist Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.  Smith has authored a series of books that superbly analyze the culture of American teens and emerging adults (18-30 years of age).  In his 2005 study, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Smith summarizes the worldview of America’s teen culture.  This worldview surfaced during a series of broad-based surveys and interviews conducted by Smith and his research team.  In my view, the results of this study also summarize the larger worldview of the broader American culture as well. 

Smith’s general thesis about teenage religion and spirituality in America is that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary US teenagers and young adults is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  The research of Smith and his team focused on how this group of Americans view God, their religious habits and practices, how they interact with those who are a part of their own faith tradition, and how they view prayer, church attendance, discipleship, youth group and other religious/spiritual exercises.  This de facto creed is particularly evident among mainline Protestant and Catholic youth, but is also visible among black and conservative Protestants, Jewish teens and other religious types of teenagers.  MTD has five key elements:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

MTD is having a decidedly important influence on all levels of American religions reflected in this model.  A more inclusive, diverse and syncretistic religious dynamic is emerging in America.  The important and central doctrines of historic, biblical Christianity are being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness and an earned heavenly reward:  “Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.”

Those of us who believe in the authority of God’s Word and in the centrality of sound doctrine must recommit ourselves to strong expository preaching, the proclamation of sound doctrinal truth, the defense of the trustworthiness of the Bible, and to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered” (Jude 3).

See “When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean?” Pew Research Center at www.pewforum.org. and “2017 Update on Americans and Religion” at www.gallup.com. Also see Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, pp. 118-171.

One Comment to “Religious Confusion In America: The Need For Doctrinal Precision”

  1. Richard Pendell says:

    It is not only the children and youth who have taken a hard, fast turn to redefine God as a dispassionate, but handily powerful therapist. I am frequently surprised by adults of all ages and backgrounds who hold very ‘fuzzy’ ideas about the concept of God. Most of their ideas are almost wholly without Biblical merit, promoted by popular entertainment and media, and lead to a very ‘fuzzy’ idea of Man and his meaning as well.
    This is a primary reason I very much enjoy reading Puritan theology and devotional writings. Besides the fact that their command of the English language is so strong and
    refreshing, their concepts of precisely who God is, who Man is, and their relationship to one another is never in doubt. R.C. Sproul was fond of saying that if you are clear on those three concepts, everything else in theology and life will fall into place. Their concepts of God/Man/Law/Sin/Grace and Repentance are absolutely fundamental and crystal clear assumptions. Those doctrines, when firmly rooted in Scripture, will carry one through all the life storms and confusion that are certain to come. I feel so, so sorry for those who are constantly searching and latching onto straws in the wind as their anchor. It certainly gives strong motivation for prayer and intercession at all times.

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