Four Gods’ Sake

AmericasFourGodsStatistically speaking, most people don’t like statistics. I’m one of those. Numbers can do funny things to a person’s perception of things, nevertheless, I appreciate those who can work with them and make sense of them. When I saw the title America’s Four Gods, my disappointment engine kicked in. Is this book going to be about numbers? It was written by a couple of sociologists after all (and even a couple is a number). I’ve read enough of Christopher Bader’s work, however, to trust him. Paul Froese should be the same. Subtitled What We Say about God & What That Says about Us is an appropriate introduction to the book. Based on the Baylor Religion Survey, this study looks at what one of the most religions nations on earth believes about God. Since God is a key political player these days, that’s not a bad idea. Their conclusions are well worth noting.

Froese and Bader find that belief in God is highly idiosyncratic. It is likely the case that, similar to sacerdotal snowflakes, no two ideas about God are precisely the same. Categories, however, help to analyze things, and America’s Four Gods does just that, suggesting four main images of God that have very different characteristics. The Authoritative God we all know well. This is Jonathan Edwards’s deity that dangles spiders above the fire—active and angry in the world. The Benevolent God is also active, but more avuncular and kind. The Critical God is not very active, but is still annoyed with us. The Distant God tends to be kindly, but is rather remote. Using these four kinds of God, Froese and Bader examine what people believe about all kinds of issues, from war to social reform to adultery. When Americans say “God bless America” they mean very different things.

When it comes time to troop to the poles, we listen to what our candidates say about the Almighty. It is a virtual certainty that an atheist is unelectable in these religious states, so we want to hear what the candidates have to say about God. What they say and what their listeners hear, however, are clearly different things. Still, religious conviction is one of the most important variables when it comes to selection a President, Governor (at least in some states), or congress-person. Some candidates, with God off the plate, have nothing left to commend them at all. So it is in one of the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the world. A basic truth that we choose to ignore decides our fate for us. Mired in a Gulf War? Who you gonna call? Chances are we all know the answer to that. Chances are equally as high that we all mean something different by it.

Back to Paranormalcy

Belief is a paranormal phenomenon. Or so it would seem. Having just finished the fascinating sociological study of Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph Baker, Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, the implications are thought-provoking. I’ve known the work of Christopher Bader, the lead researcher, for some time. Instead of trying to prove or disprove the phenomena under study, he performs a rare feat in actually addressing something most scholars avoid: what people really believe. As becomes clear throughout the book, a substantial majority of Americans believe in some paranormal phenomena at some level. The official story is that nobody believes this stuff, but the numbers beg to differ.

It is appropriate that such a topic should be undertaken by sociologists of religion. One of the difficulties the authors have is differentiating between religion and paranormal. Both religion and paranormal subjects involve going beyond empirical evidence. There is no “proof” that their objects of interest/devotion exist. The authors ultimately decide that what separates belief from God from belief in aliens is a matter of numbers: is it a generally accepted belief or one that is outside the norm (i.e., paranormal)? Since a vast majority of Americans believe in God, that is religion. Since far fewer believe in ghosts, they are paranormal. As I have suggested before, the main problem is one of definition. Religion stands on a continuum with “paranormal” beliefs. One society validates, the other it castigates.

I sensed a hesitation as I read this study. Grouping psychics alongside ghost hunters may seem reasonable, but how do Bigfoot and UFOs fit in? Those who research these latter topics often claim they are physical phenomena, as real as the keyboard I’m using, only undiscovered. Does an unsubstantiated phenomenon qualify as paranormal? Who decides what is really real? Academic institutions often distance themselves from subjects that might be suspect. (They also distance themselves from fair hiring practices as well, but that is perfectly normal.) It seems to me that the problem with “paranormal” comes in the grouping. Some of the individual subjects may indeed have merit: ghosts are perceived, reported, and some would say even photographed and recorded. They make up one of the earliest facets of religious belief. The psychic down the street has a less sure pedigree.

These fringe subjects, regardless of veracity, have a wide following. Even highly educated people generally believe in some form of “paranormal” phenomenon. Religion, widely accepted and practiced, ventures beyond the empirical as well. The difference is only, it seems, a matter of degree. Where is Fox Mulder when we really need him?