In July, Gallup, a more prestigious polling authority one is unlikely to find, tested the temperature of the American populace in regard to the spiritual — not the political — realm. Results were informative: Gallup’s data showed 74% of those polled believed in God; 69% believed in angels; 67% believed in heaven; 59% believed in hell. Interestingly, at least to me, was who came in “last place” in this poll: Satan himself at a measly 58%.
I thought the numbers would have been lower, but that is just the Irish in me and my ability to see the dark storm cloud within every silver lining. Two-thirds of those polled believing in God should be cause for celebration. Yet, the variance in the numbers is cause for concern.
We Catholics are not immune from polls with uncomfortable data, as the Pew Research Center poll a few years back exposed the glaring lack of belief in the Real Presence. If you can be a Catholic without adherence to the core belief of the faith, then logic tells me this “god” that people in this latest poll are praying to may not be the same one found within the Bible.
The discrepancy may be attributable to one of our culture’s favorite bromides: “I am spiritual but not religious” mindset. My sixth-grade brain also pondered how the poll could have such a variance between those who believed in God versus those who believed in heaven?
On the bright side, we can be happy that people believe there is a higher power. On the not-so-bright side, we can worry this poll demonstrates a significant percentage of those polled are worshipping “a” god and not “the” God.
If you can believe in God but not in heaven — and not in the devil or hell — then it sounds like this is a god of one’s own design. A god who basically reflects back to an individual all the preconceived notions and attributes he or she already possesses. Pope Benedict XVI referred to this “belief in God in a superficial manner” as a kind of practical atheism.
At first blush, Pope Benedict’s words sound harsh. But like so much of what he taught, the more one thinks about it, the more it makes sense. Those in the first century had their own ideas about what a messiah was going to look like, and it certainly was not an out-of-work carpenter from a lowly place like Nazareth. They wanted someone on a white horse with a sword in his hand to drive the Roman occupiers out.
Today, if these poll results are accurate, then people want god as head cheerleader or a life coach they can access when they need him and put him safely away the rest of the time.
How else to explain hell’s poor polling numbers? That is the “hard” part about what the God of the Old and New Testament claims. It makes people want Jesus on their terms. They want only a gentle teacher filled with pleasant things to say about peace, love, and understanding.
One only has to look back to a Gospel from the same month this poll was released to discover what happened to the unrepentant evildoers. “This is how it will be at the end of time. The angels will appear and separate the wicked from the upright to throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth” (Matthew 13:49–50). There, Jesus gives us hell, angels, and by simple logic, the devil all in one short Gospel excerpt.
If the “god” people are worshipping in the poll is Jesus Christ, and they do not also stipulate the existence of heaven, hell, angels, and demons, then they need to go back to their Bibles.
When I was a child, I thought everyone was Catholic. When I got a little older, my faith grew and I believed there actually existed two types of people on earth, Catholics and those that should be. Maybe not wisdom on the Solomon scale, but with more years, I began to understand the complicated spectacle of human experience and human nature.
But although my 11-year-old self should have never been put in charge of a theological think tank, nevertheless the simplicity of taking Jesus at his word remains true. A deeper understanding of God is always possible, but a god who is changeable and malleable to our own desires, as this Gallup poll seems to suggest, is not logical or theological — and not God.