Gene Expression

Theological beliefs by denomination

One of the problems with intellectual conversations is that they are generally restricted to intellectuals. By their nature intellectuals tend to value reflection and some semblance of comprehension and consistency. This is a “curved” scale; I’m not contending here that intellectuals really attain a very high absolute level of analytic clarity or coherency, but, the process itself tends result in a minimal baseline of plausibility to a propositional sequence.

I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that the problem with attempting to understand human cognition as a sequence of inferences generated from propositions is that most people don’t even make the nominal attempt to engage in the act of deep reflection. The heuristics and biases which shape modal psychology are determined by a combination of intuition, custom and conformity. Paradoxes of inconsistency are no great issue when ideas and propositions have only a minimal level of contingency. Arguments are ad hoc and operationally instrumental. The aforementioned guides of intuition, custom and conformity hone mental reflexes which can be accessed rapidly and with reasonable surety, despite the lack of deep comprehension.

In most cases I don’t believe that the disjunction between the preferred ideal way that intellectuals reflect and the modal operation of human cognition is much of an issue. Intellectuals, or those who fancy themselves as such, might struggle with issues of ontology. But I do not believe that this is particularly on the radar of the typical individual whose concerns are more prosaic, the basic material and emotional comforts and securities of life. Confusions only emerge when institutions and systems aim to span the full gamut of conventional cognition. For example, in politics or religion, where intellectuals build systems which are very relevant to the lives of most humans. Because of the general obscurity of intellectual constructs to the “average Joe” there is a large body of literature which exists to make abstruse concepts “relevant” in everyday terms to everyday people (e.g., instead of “soteriology,” what is “God’s plan for you”).

Because of the chasm between those inclined to think, write and expound, and the typical human, I believe it is critical that we inspect the shape of what people actually believe, as opposed to what one might expect if they were idealized inferential machines. So with that, I will reproduce below the fold a selection of religious data from the Barna Group:

Theological Beliefs, by Denomination (agree with statement)
Bible is totally accurate Satan is real Works don’t earn Heaven Christ was sinless God: all-powerful Creator
All adults 41% 27% 30% 40% 69%
Assembly of God 77 56 64 70 96
Baptist (any type) 66 34 43 55 85
Roman Catholics 26 17 9 33 70
Church of Christ 57 36 42 54 80
Episcopal 22 20 26 28 59
Lutheran (any type) 34 21 27 33 72
Methodist (any) 38 18 24 33 73
Mormon/Latter Day Saints 29 59 15 70 84
Christian non-denominational 70 48 60 63 89
Pentecostal/Foursquare 81 47 62 73 90
Presbyterian (any) 40 22 31 45 76

The one datum I want to emphasize here are the proportion who agree that God is an all-powerful Creator: Mormons are the one group who have developed the most advanced scholarly exploration of the position that God is not all-powerful because of the materialist stream in Mormon thought. And yet it remains the more liberal Protestant groups who are most skeptical of the Omni-God. On the other hand, one could contend that elite religious thought does influence the popular level when one looks at the opinion in regards to the ability to works to attain heaven; Mormons and Catholics are obviously the most distanced historically from Protestant ideas of justification by faith alone, and they do exhibit the greatest skepticism of that idea. All that being said, these general trends still encapsulate a great deal of within group variation which one should not expect if theology results in necessary certainty in relation to doctrinal matters.

It seems to me that the ultimate lesson of these sorts of data are that insight into human thought and behavior must be firmly grounded in empirical evidence, not a priori analysis. The specific nature of humanity is contingent, not necessary.


  1. #1 pushmedia1
    July 28, 2008

    Why do these data give any insight into behaviors? The belief in god is completely undetermined by behavior. The stories one tells about *why* they behaved in some way may depend on such beliefs but they don’t, in fact, determine behavior one way or the other.

    People have killed in the name of God and they’ve saved lives in the name of God. There’s good and bad atheists, too. More prosaically, demand for candy bars does’t depend on the number of believers.

  2. #2 razib
    July 28, 2008

    Why do these data give any insight into behaviors?

    i didn’t say they did (necessarily).

    People have killed in the name of God and they’ve saved lives in the name of God. There’s good and bad atheists, too.

    right, though there’s non-trivial data correlating some propensity toward social pathology in the american GSS.

    More prosaically, demand for candy bars doesn’t depend on the number of believers.

    depends on if it has any pig products in it….

  3. #3 pushmedia1
    July 28, 2008

    “there’s non-trivial data correlating some propensity toward social pathology in the american GSS”

    ok, but which way do the causal arrows point? Extreme personalities would lead to extreme beliefs (e.g. not believing in a believing community) and extreme behaviors (e.g. anti-sociality).

    I suspect pro-sociality is a fitness enhancing norm in atheist communities, too, so an interesting test would be to see if the correlation reverses in irreligious communities.

  4. #4 Inductivist
    July 28, 2008

    Data surprises me all the time. I didn’t expect that so few believe that Satan is real and that Jesus was sinless. I might expect theologians to questions these notions, but Catholic catechism, for example, teaches that both of these are true. It’s the people in this case who are the skeptical ones (or more likely, they are ignorant of their church’s doctrines and simply follow the secular culture).

  5. #5 jim
    July 28, 2008

    Interesting data. I think perhaps intellectuals don’t so much have a different thinking style, as an additional thinking style. When intellectuals get fatigued or emotional, they seem to resort to the more basic and simplistic ways of thinking and end up behaving like an average person.

    I do find the data on Mormons fascinating. Actually I just find Mormonism fascinating. Sort of like a early 19th century version of Scientology, Mormonism mixed in some of the proto-science fiction ideas of the era with Christianity, Masonry, Manifest Destiny, and a little Napoleonic Egyptology. And it worked!

    I’m sure there are some new religions being formed now that have some odd mix of Christianity, Buddhism, environmentalism, and the singularity. Actually, except for the Singularity, I just described Unitarian Universalism.

    I demand more religions based on science fiction. They are simply more fun. Or fantasy. Bad fantasy. I want Piers Anthony to start a religion. Actually, I bet Neil Gaiman could start a wicked awesome religion.

  6. #6 tguy
    July 29, 2008

    If you want to experience intellectual conversation among non-intellectuals, I recommend television sci-fi fan forums. The general shortage of intellectuals doesn’t deter, and in a pinch they’ll even do without intellect.

  7. #7 bgc
    July 29, 2008

    In a strict-ish sense, survey data isn’t really evidence of what people actually believe; it is evidence of what people say they believe.

    On the whole, I am more impressed by what people do than what they say.

    Of course, that still leaves open the question of which beliefs lead to the behaviors. At that point we can create a causal model that links inferred beliefs to observed behaviours, then we can test the model.

    That’s the way I think it should be done.

    So, for example, we would need to operationally-define the behaviours expected of people who believe that Satan is real (off-hand I can’t think what these might be – maybe engaging in rituals of exorcism? – but if the beliefs are meaningful they must have an affect on behavior); then make observations as to whether those behaviours in fact occur in line with the predictions of verbally-expressed belief.

    Then if things match-up, continue to elaborate the model, and make further predictions etc.

  8. #8 Jason Malloy
    July 29, 2008

    Mormons are the one group who have developed the most advanced scholarly exploration of the position that God is not all-powerful because of the materialist stream in Mormon thought.

    That scholarly materialism doesn’t seem to trickle down to the Mormon on the street very well. Another example: evolution. The Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey asked if evolution was the best explanation for human life (Disagree):

    Protestant 58%
    Evangelical 70%
    Catholic 35%
    Mormon 76%
    Jewish 17%
    Hindu 14%
    Muslim 51%
    Atheist 9%

  9. #9 bgc
    July 29, 2008

    This may be a good example of the distinction: I have been trying to understand the basis of the unique ‘eugenic’ reproduction found among US Mormons (i.e. that Mormons have above average IQ, use contraception effectively, reproduce above replacement levels and the richer the Mormon the more children they have. I believe that this pattern is unique to US Mormons.)

    There are various explanations based upon what Mormons are supposed to believe (e.g. that the unit of salvation is the married couple, and they will live with their children in the afterlife); or what the LDS church encourages (to have as many children as possible) – perhaps with an implicit ‘autonomy’ rider (on the lines of ‘have as many children as you can afford to bring up well, without outside help’).

    There is an idea that this may partially be a by-product of sharply sex-differentiated roles among Mormons (so that women and men explicitly have a different nature and destiny; and having chidlren is a highly valued role for women).

    But the point is that this question is not settled by reference to ‘official’ Mormon theology, or LDS church teachings.

    From the above surveys it looks as if the rank and file are either not aware of all they are supposed to believe; or else they are aware but don’t believe it.

    But even if they did believe official doctrine, it might not be that official doctrine which was shaping their behaviour. The link between doctrine and behavior is an hypothesis needing testing.

    For example, it used to be said that Roman Catholics had large families (e.g. in Ireland or Italy or Spain) because the Church encouraged large families and Catholics liked large families. But now that these nations have dropped to such low fertility rates it looks as if the reason for large families was the unavaiability of contraception – pure and simple. The effect of the Church was as a pressure group to make contraception unavailable.

    But so long as Mormons are the only members of the ‘eugenic’ group it will be very hard to test any causal hypothesis – except perhaps by longitudinal studies or international comparisons of Mormons.

  10. #10 DarwinCatholic
    July 29, 2008

    The other factor that may come into play here is the type of identification that people have with a religion. Skimming over the methodolog, it looks like they simply asked people to self-identify denomination (if any) and didn’t split out by level of practice. Thus, a denomination which people continue to identify with heavily at an ethnic level even when they’ve abandoned practice and/or belief will tend to show more divergence between the doctrines of the denomination and the reported beliefs of its members.

    For instance, I would guess that a poll of self identified Jews would show a high percentage not believing in God, but that would have more to do with people’s propensity to continue identifying as Jewish even if they do not hold Jewish beliefs than it would with the practice of Judaism qua religion.

  11. #11 Tony Jeremiah
    July 29, 2008

    Interesting data.

    I took the liberty of running a pearson-correlation to assess the internal consistency of the beliefs (i.e., how strongly they are interconnected) independent from denomination:

    Variable Labels:

    BibAcc (Bible is Accurate)
    SatanReal (Satan is real)
    NoWorks (Works don’t gain entrance to heaven)
    SinlessChrist (Jesus was sinless)
    OmniGod (God is an all powerful creator)

    Correlations ranked from strongest to weakest (1 or -1 indicating strongest relationships):

    1.SinlessChrist:SatanReal (.949)
    2.BibAcc:NoWorks (.947)
    3.Sinless Christ:OmniGod (.922),
    4.BibAcc:OmniGod (.860)
    5.OmniGod:SatanReal (.845)
    6.OmniGod:NoWorks (.752),
    7.SinlessChrist:BibAcc (.747)
    8.SinlessChrist:NoWorks (.666[!])
    9.BibAcc:SatanReal (.607)
    10.NoWorks:SatanReal (.574; p =.065; non-significant)

    These correlations indicate that belief in one thing corresponds with belief in another. According to the data, the strongest belief set is, sinlesschrist:satanreal (e.g., believing that jesus was sinless is consistent with satan being real). This seems to correspond with a more generic belief in Western religions of (pure) good vs.(pure) evil (especially in contrast to the Chinese yin-yang concept).

    It’s interesting that the 3rd strongest belief set (OmniGod:Sinless christ), suggests that belief in an all powerful god might be contingent on jesus being sinless (i.e., all GOOD), and perhaps not so much on the presumed personal traits of being omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent (although those are probably a different set of beliefs not assessed for this study).

    The second strongest belief set (BibAcc:NoWorks) is consistent with justification by faith alone (i.e., greater belief in the Bible’s literal word corresponds with the belief that faith is more important than good works).

  12. #12 deadpost
    July 29, 2008

    Christians skeptical about God not being all-powerful?
    Hmmmm… If so, what do they believe that God cannot do?

  13. #13 razib
    July 29, 2008

    Hmmmm… If so, what do they believe that God cannot do?

    some mormon thinkers assert that god is constrained by the laws of logic. sunni muslims, for one, traditionally deny this.

  14. #14 razib
    July 29, 2008

    That scholarly materialism doesn’t seem to trickle down to the Mormon on the street very well

    two points

    1) mormons don’t have a professional priesthood to mediate scholarly thought to the masses. their beliefs are an “eclectic” mix and the typical mormon on the street has a hard time making sense of them….

    2) there’s a fair amount of data to show that over the past 3 generations mormons have assimilated in many ways to the folkways and outlooks of conservative protestants. so that’s where average mormons are likely getting a lot of their views. e.g., BYU students in 1930 were pro-evolution, and today they are anti….

  15. #15 Charlie
    July 29, 2008

    My reading gives me the impression that Mormonism requires absolute obedience to “the one strong and mighty” and that individual choice in the matters you are discussing is considered undesirable. Mormons behave in this fashion because they are explicitly instructed to do so, and they have a hiearchical power structure that issues reinforcement of God’s instructions to his latter-day saints nearly every day.

    But I have not been a Mormon, and I have been so far unable to personally confirm or deny these allegations despite several trips to Utah.

  16. #16 Charlie
    July 29, 2008

    Jim: UUs I know are OK with the singularity. No UU church would stop you if you wanted to have a religious event focused on the idea (assuming you’re not doing human sacrifices or the like, UUs are OK with religious individualism).

    If it would take the fun out of it for people to take you seriously, you should try the Church of the SubGenius. They might be just what you’re looking for, and I hear they have very entertaining parties.

  17. #17 Clark Goble
    July 30, 2008

    Sorry, noticed the post late:

    Mormons are the one group who have developed the most advanced scholarly exploration of the position that God is not all-powerful because of the materialist stream in Mormon thought. And yet it remains the more liberal Protestant groups who are most skeptical of the Omni-God.

    It’s a bit more subtle than that. Most Mormons accept that God is all powerful. The question is what the “all” consists of. Mormons tend to say what is physically allowable whereas most other Christians say what is logically consistent. But I think most Mormons who’ve thought more deeply about theology would say God is maximally powerful.

    The more interesting question to me was the number of Mormons (nearly 1/3) who say the Bible is totally accurate when it’s a formal doctrine that the Bible has errors. I’d love to ask the people who answered that what they were thinking.

  18. #18 Clark Goble
    July 30, 2008

    That scholarly materialism doesn’t seem to trickle down to the Mormon on the street very well. Another example: evolution.

    My sense upon talking with people on this is there is confusion over what evolution entails. Unfortunately so. But it’s also important to realize that at any given time something like 1/2 of all Mormons are converts. So many hold their prior beliefs still in varying degrees. And, as with any religion, the number of people who actually think closely about their doctrine isn’t large.

    I’d seen that figure before regarding evolution. I was pretty shocked the first time I saw it given how prevalent evolution is at BYU. (It has a rather respected number of prominent theorists in the biology department) But there were some significant figures who adopted a lot of conservative Protestant rhetoric against evolution. I think we’re seeing the remnants of that even though the formal doctrine is pretty neutral on the matter.

    And of course materialism and evolution aren’t the same thing. I suspect most of those rejecting evolution still hold to materialism of some sort.

  19. #19 Clark Goble
    July 30, 2008

    Charlie, that doesn’t describe Mormonism terribly well in either a purely theoretical “ideal” structure or the actual social structures that people live. There’s pretty strong choice. Most choices are left to the prayer of the individual to figure out although there is obvious a strong hierarchal structure as well. But it ends up being more complex simply because there a strong emphasis on individualism and personal revelation as well. Some might say there’s an essential tension there. How it plays out tends to differ quite a bit.

  20. #20 John Emerson
    July 30, 2008

    Lumping Missouri Synod and ELCA creates confusion. The ELCA affiliates with Episcopals, whereas the Missouri Synod tends fundamentalist. The two churches have different origins (Scandinavian vs. German) and have been separate since since the mid 1800s.

    Off-topic: a friend of mine teaches at an ELCA Lutheran school in Texas, and says that her students are significantly less crazy than the average Texan.

  21. #21 Bob the Chef
    August 4, 2008

    A couple things…

    Evolution is often coupled by writers such as Dawkins along with Darwinist philosophy, which is a materialist philosophy that was previously used to justify such social ethics as social Darwinism. However, this is a philosophy layered over evolution (particularly Darwinian evolution, which itself is no longer accepted, and has been replaced with more accurate theories of evolution). The reason you will see more disagreement with evolution among Protestants than say Catholics is because Protestants are very often, to one degree or another, biblical literalists, where biblical stories are interpreted in an almost technical sense and in terms of the modern parlance, which is not the case with Catholics. The Protestant idea of bible study (where each member attempts to interpret biblical texts himself) is completely absent from Catholicism (where the bible is used by the lay as a source of inspiration; debate over interpretation is left up to theological scholars, very few of which make it as ex cathedra declarations by the papacy). Catholics also place little emphasis on the Old Testament, largely because of the obscurity of the language, and the difficulty of interpretation (which requires background in history, language, and theology to be able to place the writing in a particular context), whereas Protestants will give very similar treatment to the Old Testament as they would with the New Testament (that is, in a literal fashion).

    Second, the idea of an omniscient and omnipotent god is often not understood as it is elaborated in theology. This is made obvious when semantic games are constructed where it is required that God fail; for example, can God make a rock so large that He himself would not be able to lift it (a question originally put forth by a Moorish scholar about a 1000-1500 years ago). However, failing would be a privation, and thus imperfective. Omnipotence is the ability to meet any established end; failure thus is not the result of ability but a lack of it. Using the language “inability to fail” is itself a violation of the definition of ability.

    Similarly, the assumption that God must be confined by time leads to the belief among some Calvinists, although their view of fate is vague, that God’s omniscience is mutually exclusive with free will. The question is usually “How can a God know what choices I’ll make before I’ve made them if free will by definition requires nondeterminism?” However, outside of space and time, all events are perceptible simultaneously as having occurred, as occurring and as going to occur.

    I suspect some Mormons understand (or, misunderstand, if we view it as a privation) logic in a similar semantic way, understood ontologically.

  22. #22 Matt Springer
    August 5, 2008

    It’s not terribly suprising that most of those theologial beliefs vary by denomination, but I have to admit I’m very suprised by the low numbers for “Christ was sinless”. It’s almost weird enough to wonder if there was some anomaly in the wording of the question. If you were to create a list of beliefs which were pretty much the definition of “Christian”, that one’s either on the list or close.

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