This is a fascinating revelation from the Pew Research Center: In a new survey out today, they found that most Americans — even religious ones — don’t attribute tragedy to God.
When there’s suffering in the world, they don’t believe it’s simply God acting in “mysterious ways” — it’s often just humans being awful to each other, structural deficiencies, or straight-up coincidence. God still exists, many of them say, but it’s not like God is planning out the horrible things as part of some supernatural game of 12-dimensional chess.
They do, however, also believe God is capable of responding to those tragedies, even if He chooses not to.
It’s still a blow to the faith-based notions often taught in churches that God controls everything, that tragedy is always part of God’s Plan even if we don’t understand why, and that God is inherently good. Most people at least agree that God isn’t fully in control of things.
Just consider these two charts. The first one shows how people responded to certain statements about suffering (they were allowed to say “yes” to all of them).
86% of American adults agreed that bad things “just happen” sometimes. A majority also agreed suffering is mostly a consequence of our own actions (71%) or structural (69%). Those are not the things you would say if you absolutely believed God was omnipotent. That said, many Christians have historically rationalized those beliefs that by arguing God gave us free will, so the existence of suffering along with the belief in a Good God aren’t contradictory.
This is all spelled out even further when people were asked if they agreed with a different set of statements:
As you can see in the top row, the vast majority of all Americans say God is not responsible for most suffering — correct! — though nearly half (44%) said Satan is to blame. I suppose that’s to be expected in a nation full of irrational people.
The new survey finds that nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults (58%) say they believe in God as described in the Bible, and an additional one-third (32%) believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. The combined nine-in-ten Americans who believe in God or a higher power (91%) were asked a series of follow-up questions about the relationship between God and human suffering. (Those who do not believe in God or any higher power were not asked these questions.)
A large majority of U.S. adults (80%) are believers who say that most of the suffering in the world comes from people rather than from God. Relatedly, about seven-in-ten say that in general, human beings are free to act in ways that go against the plans of God or a higher power. At the same time, half of all U.S. adults (or 56% of believers) also endorse the idea that God chooses “not to stop the suffering in the world because it is part of a larger plan.”
If there’s any consolation here, it’s that if most Americans agree God didn’t create our problems — and that we did — then maybe they’ll agree we’re capable of fixing our own problems and elect politicians who work toward reasonable solutions. If God doesn’t control our fate, it means we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.
(Featured image via Adobe Stock)