Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Economic Status and Your View of God

One of the cardinal rules of logic is that correlation does not equal causation. It is important for evaluating statistics and data.

In their book America’s Four Gods, Paul Froese and Christopher Bader present evidence that those with more judgmental views of God tend, on average, to be those who make less money.

“Indeed, one’s personal economic situation is closely connected to ideas about God and how he perceives the world. For instance, believers in all four types of God [see here for overview] differ significantly in their household incomes. Believers in a Critical God, on average, make less than any other believer. Believers in an Authoritative God are in the next lowest income group. Interestingly, American’s with the lowest incomes have the angriest and most judgmental Gods. Americans with a Distant God [i.e. the least judgmental view] tend to make the most money.” (p.114)

Froese and Bader have clearly shown a statistical correlation. They find that 60% of those making less that $35,000 a year believe “God is angered by sin” as opposed to 42% of those making $100,000 a year. There data further shows that 28% of those making less than $35,000 per year agree that “God punishes sinners with terrible woes” but only 15% of those making $100,000 a year would agree. (p.115, Figure 5.3).

But Froese and Bader go from evidencing a correlation to arguing for a causation.

“It is not immediately clear why income should be related to a God type. What is it about having more or less money that makes one imagine God in different ways? Do people believe that they have less money because God is punishing them in some way? Or do they assume that God is angry with the world because of their suffering and the suffering of others?” (italic original, p.114) The author do not tell us why we should suspect that low income causes or even contributes to a judgmental view of God.

They go on further:
“An angry and wrathful God appears to be a logical choice disadvantaged among us, when we consider the injustices, insults and injuries they have experienced. Why wouldn’t a loving God be angered by what he sees? For individuals who most directly face the cruelties and deficiencies of life in poverty and isolation, the thought that God approves of what happens to them, their families, and their friends is absurd. God must be upset. But what angers God becomes an important point of their theology. Interestingly, while they believe that God is troubled by the state of the world in general, individuals in poverty also tend to think God is very angry with them personally. But this image of an angry God reflects less a sense of self-loathing than a rational attempt to reconcile the idea of a caring and all-powerful God with the plight of those in need. If God isn’t helping them, it is not because he can’t, but because they don’t deserve it.” (p.115)

What is lacking to this summation is data. Correlation does not equal causation. The fact that those in poverty tend to see God has judging and even one who judges their sin does not mean that their poverty caused this worldview. There is no data asking question about whether or not they think their poverty is caused by God. There is no data about whether or not they believe God is blessing or cursing their daily life.

The authors do visit two churches in Colorado for a case study of sort to try to determine the link between our economic situation. They visit Christ Episcopal Church in upscale Aspen Colorado and Open Door Church in Rifle Colorado which is described as a working-class down with growing employment opportunities. CEC is pastored by Rev. Bruce McNab and ODC is pastored by Rev. Del Whittington.

The authors summarize a sermon by Rev. Whittington on suffering. According to the account, he focuses on the afterlife. He rejects a prosperity gospel. He exhorts his people to invest in eternity. He denounces the decadence of American greed. They recount:

“By concentrating on pleasing an angry God, many of these believers exhibit a kind of passive resignation to their love in life, a stance that harks back to Marx’s idea that religion acts as a type of opiate to numb the pain of poverty and encourage believers to accept their fate without bitterness of indignation. To that end, Reverend Whittington remind his congregants that “suffering is a part of life, but you will reign in the next life” and cautioned that they should not respond to their circumstances with hatred, violence, rebellion or sullenness. Instead, godly behavior requires deference and respect for God, one’s neighbors and secular authorities.” (p.119).

From this Froese and Bader conclude that “Surrounded by riches, the poor are sensible to ask, ‘What have we done to deserve our lot?’ The answer that a godless society bent on material gratification has angered God seems like a plausible response--especially if those who are celebrating now will be crying later.” (p.119)

It is plausible in the sense that it is certainly possible and it is not a feat of logic to get there. But again we are left with having shown a correlation the author argue for a causation. In fact, when they recount stories of God’s grace shared to them the authors are quite dismissive, “These few instances of God’s grace seemed to contradict the overarching message that God’s mercy awaits us in the afterlife, but these earthly mercies were still meager in comparison with what could be found in heaven” (p.119-20). So the authors encounter stories of God’s mercy now and discover a stronger hope in the glories of a heavenly treasure and suddenly the former contradicts the latter. Again we are not given data why.

It may be true that in the weeks where the churches were visited “both churches ultimately ask their congregation to accept things as they are” (italic original, p.120). We are however told later those who believe in an Authoritative and a Critical God are more likely to give priority to religious solutions to social ills while those believe in a Benevolent God are more likely to believe that government should make attempts to redistribute wealth (p.122).

The problem with the argumentation is that there are a whole host of possible causes to explain the relationship between income and one’s view of God and none of them demand that one’s economic status demand we answer “what is it about having more or less money that makes one imagine God in different ways?” (p.114, emphasis mine).

So for example, we might consider other social factors. Could there be related community factors that just naturally correlate such as:

Could people in low income areas tend to have a stronger faith and rely on a certain Biblical portrait while people who establish themselves in upscale jobs and are more self-sufficient see a less of a need for God thereby tending to find him distant?

Without using the theological terms pejoratively, could upscale communities tend to attract liberal theological views while rural or poorer communities tend to have conservative views? While related to economics couldn’t the issue have other causes instead such as epistemology, educational opportunities, etc.

Could it be that those with distant views of God are driven to work themselves for money while those with a more engaged God see Him as sufficient regardless of their income?

How static are income levels? For all but the most impoverished, in American society we have rather fluid income brackets. How do we know one’s view of God is not doing more to drive the socio-economic bracket we strive for?

The questions could abound and I do not claim these questions answer the correlation. I simply am making the point that America’s Four God proves a correlation and argues for a causation. In my estimation, the supposed causation seems both condescending and reductionistic. Since when does “God is angry with my sin” entail “God has cursed me with poverty”? Since when does “God punishes sinner with terrible woes” entail “my poverty is because God is punishing me”?

This leap makes it clear that further questions are never addressed: Are most people who have a judgmental view of God basically espousing a view similar to Job’s notorious three friends or akin to Pelagianism? Do many or most with a judgmental view of God simplistically hold that suffering is always God’s punishment and God’s blessing is always because we’ve curried favor with God? In an almost one-dimensional and clearly reductionistic response that is without data Froese and Bader seem to imply this is the case. “[I]ndividuals in poverty tend to think that God is very angry with them personally...[they think:] If God isn’t helping them, it is not because they can’t, but because they don’t deserve it” (p.115).

Perhaps the authors do by instinct reach the conclusions that reflect the population, however at this point the authors seem to overstep the bounds of the evidence they have collected. There is clear correlation between economic levels and one’s view of God but arguing that the poverty stricken are driven by poverty to see God as judging them is an unwarranted and fallacious conclusion. It in no way accounts for other concerns and issues that may drive the correlation.

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