RGS Articles

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Four Gods

Most political commentaries on the recent elections in the United States focused on the victory of the liberal Democrats over the conservative Republicans. But my American friends, most of whom are, well, liberals and Democrats, have been pointing out that you can be a conservative Democrat (which many of the winners were) as well as a (sort of) liberal Republican. Which is why I thought readers might be interested in the results of a recent survey by Baylor University in Texas, where an Institute of Religion has been conducting public opinion surveys for several years now.

Baylor, incidentally, is a Baptist university. The latest survey, released in September, focused on American concepts of God, which the social scientists found to relate to political views as well.

Big picture

Let's get a big picture first of the four concepts of God that came up in the surveys. As we run through the concepts, you might want to think of your own notions of God.

The researchers found that 31 percent of their respondents see God as an Authoritarian God, who influences global as well as personal events and is often angry. Not surprisingly, these are the ones who also tend to believe in the death penalty, who support the war in Iraq.

The ones who believe in an Authoritarian God are the biggest group, which might explain why George W. Bush got reelected in 2004 and why his policies on Iraq were so uncritically supported -- until recently.

The survey did find that 24 percent of respondents believe in a Distant God, someone who sets the laws of nature in motion but does not actively intervene in the world. Obviously such a God would not be angry or punishing.

The Distant God believers are about the same in number as those who believe in a Benevolent God, one who does intervene in our daily lives, but not in anger or in retribution. The Benevolent God believers accounted for 23 percent of respondents. As you might have guessed, the Distant God and Benevolent God believers are less likely to support the death penalty. People with higher incomes, and higher education also tend toward concepts of a Distant God and Benevolent God, which makes you wonder about how religion relates to the sense of control we have over our own lives and circumstances.

Votes and religion

I was constantly tuned to the US National Public Radio during the last election campaign and I could see new variations and configurations in the interactions between religion and politics. An example comes with the "conservatives" that Bush and the Republican Party had pinned their hopes on. Usually, the conservative agenda, which links to the notion of an Authoritarian God, is associated with support for the death penalty, American intervention in Iraq, opposition to abortion and gay marriages.

But fissures began to emerge in the recent elections, such as conservatives who were opposed to abortion but felt more compassion was needed for gays, including possible support for gay marriages. There were, too, conservative evangelical Christians who were beginning to wonder if their involvement in politics, and their acquiring power, was beginning to corrupt Christianity. Rick Warren, who was in the Philippines recently, is one of those conservative Christians who is talking more now about involvement in social issues.

There was more then to all this than the type of God that Americans believe in. The votes definitely related to broader concepts about how one translates one's religious values into political involvement. It's not surprising then that religious conservatives also speak out now for environmental conservation. A campaign initiated two or three years ago, "What Would Jesus Drive?" speculated that if Christ were here today, he wouldn't be driving a gas-guzzling Ford Expedition or one of the other SUVs. The campaign said he'd drive a smaller vehicle -- or take public transport and walk.


The Baylor study reminds us that there are many different types of beliefs in God, and in the supernatural. If similar studies were conducted in Asia, we'd find even more variations. Buddhism, for example, is basically non-theistic: It does talk about a creator God, or about a God intervening in people's lives. The buddhas are not gods; they were humans who have managed to break free from the cycles of reincarnation by cutting off all attachments to the material.

Now, at the level of popular culture, many Buddhists do pray to the buddhas much as Christians would to God, asking for help, so there we see some kind of an intervening God.

The Social Weather Stations has conducted surveys in the past on how Filipinos perceive their own religiosity and, as expected, many do see themselves as very religious. But I'd like to see surveys on specific beliefs and practices, including our perceptions of God, and how this might shape our behavior in non-religious spheres of life.

I suspect the majority of Filipinos believe in a somewhat distant but intervening God, literally a "tatay" [father] in the stereotyped sense. Natural disasters and personal misfortunes are often seen as "gaba," punishment from God, but we also tend to see our relationships with that God as negotiable. We bargain all the time, vowing to do several novenas or have ourselves nailed to the cross in Lent, on condition that a certain favor is granted. I'd be curious to see what we bargain for as well. From admittedly unscientific eavesdropping on people's conversations, I've heard it all, from patients asking to be healed from a serious illness, to students asking to pass a particularly difficult subject, to sex workers praying for more customers.

We are monotheistic, but we also believe in all-powerful saints. I suspect the belief in the Trinity allows us to believe in an authoritarian distant God the Father, and a more intervening benevolent God the Son, including the tiny but terrible Santo Niño, or Holy Child.

Then, too, there's the Virgin Mary and a plethora of saints, who act as intercessors or go-betweens. Our patriarchal society might be reflected in our beliefs in an Authoritarian God, but we are, too, a matricentric society where women can be very powerful, and that is reflected in our Mama Mary complex.

And we haven't even gone into Filipino animist beliefs that see the human world as constantly interacting with other worlds of supernatural and preternatural spirits, benevolent and malevolent.

Perhaps ultimately, we need to understand not so much how the Filipino looks at God as how we interpret morality, what is right and what is "kasalanan" ("sin" or wrong-doing). Maybe the tension isn't so much between an Authoritarian and Benevolent God than between ideas of "personal" and "social" sin. When we see sin mainly in terms of having missed Mass, or using the contraceptive pill, then we lose sight of the need to address social sin, such as cheating in elections, stealing through corruption, failing to provide decent social services for fellow Filipinos.

By Dr. Michael L. Tan. Published on Page A15 of the November 15, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer


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