Survey Results: A Kaleidoscope of Faith Viewpoints

While religion played an over-sized role in my early life, in my later years that role has changed so much that I’ve been reluctant to write about it for fear of offending family members and close friends. In the past ten years, I’ve begun to relax a bit more around the subject as I’ve been informed my lack of belief is not much of a secret. Many family and close friends have found meaning, purpose, and emotional comfort in their religious beliefs. It has, for some, provided a personal identity as well as socially safe places and the value of belonging to a group.

In advance of becoming more open with my family and friends on this topic, I interviewed those closest to me, and asked them to complete a survey of questions about their religious background, how their beliefs evolved, do they attend church and pray, opinions on the Bible, God’s Omniscience, stance on Heaven and Hell, do they see biblical edicts contradicting contemporary values, and finally do they see themselves as “spiritual” or “religious.” The final question, and personally relevant, was how they’d react to a friend or family member losing their faith.

Oh my! The response was overwhelming. I’d put no limit on answer lengths and some wrote pages of responses to each question.  Everyone was thoughtful, genuine, and honest.  Below are the twelve questions and a summary of the answers.

Question 1:  “Were you brought up with religious instruction and belief, if so, what denomination? Did it involve parochial school?”

This question revealed a diverse range of religious upbringings. There were those raised in Christian denominations like Catholicism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). A few had devout upbringings that included parochial schools, with one attending Catholic schools from 1st through 12th grade and another attending a Lutheran boarding school.

Religious education spanned Sunday school to church services and a variety of dominations, almost all Christian. Unfortunately, no Hindus, Islam, Buddhists, or Jews. One respondent, raised by evangelical Christian parents, received intensive religious instruction through parochial schooling and church activities multiple times per week.  Others had more secular backgrounds. One described being “loudly atheistic” as a teenager before developing empathy for personal belief systems. Another, from a formerly communist part of the world, had little religious exposure beyond cultural traditions and visits to churches as historic sites. Another felt they’d been raised in “a cult”, with beliefs and practices that led being to ostracized from other Christian groups, with religious instruction all-encompassing. For a few, religious identity seemed more a matter of culture and tradition than devout faith. There are mentions of celebrating Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter but in non-religious or symbolic ways.

This broad spectrum represented a greater variety of experiences than I’d expected, from mainline large religious organizations to very intense, sect-like religious indoctrination to secular upbringings with varying degrees of religious exposure. The unifying thread is that religious background, or lack thereof, played a role in shaping each person’s sense of identity and worldview.

Question 2 asked: “Are you more or less religious than when you were young? Has your faith evolved over time? Has it deepened or gotten less? Stayed the same?”

Here the range was all over.  Some became less religious or lost their faith altogether. Some mentioned learning about other cultures, studying fields like anthropology/archaeology, and befriending those of other faiths or identities which had the effect of making strict religious doctrine seem less compatible with reality. A couple people explicitly rejected organized religion while maintaining some spirituality.

Still others said their faith deepened with age, even if their involvement in organized religion waned. One recounted how initially following their parents’ beliefs gave way to a “dark” period of leaving the church, before finally finding personal renewal through exploring their spouse’s faith. Another described initially pursuing priesthood and an academic study of theology before settling into a more grounded spirituality.  Finally, there were even a two who said their level of religiosity stayed relatively constant over their lives, with one simply saying their faith has “not changed.” Another said they became more spiritual as a young adult through a 12-step program and the use of psychedelics. My conclusion: Religiosity is a highly personal journey that can deepen, fade, or transform significantly based on life experiences, exposure to new ideas/cultures, maturing worldviews, and one’s unique mindset over the course of life.

Question 3 was: “Do you consider yourself religious? Do you go to church? How frequently? Do you pray? How often? Do you believe God hears and answers prayers?

By now you’re probably noticing some trends.  The responses reveal many viewpoints of religiosity and spiritual practices. On one end were staunch atheists who did not attend church, pray, or believe in a God at all. Multiple respondents firmly stated they are not religious, do not go to church except for civic duties like voting, and do not pray in any traditional sense. A few clarified that while they may have intentions or “will” things, they do not believe in a higher power listening to prayers.

On the other side were very devout respondents who attend church regularly, have structured daily prayer practices, and firmly believe in the power of prayer. One Catholic deacon describes going to church weekly as part of their job, praying the breviary daily, and using Ignatian spiritual exercises to remain dedicated to their faith. Another respondent, though no longer belonging to an organized religion, maintains a Buddhist-inspired daily “Jesus Prayer.”

In the middle are those who may attend church only a few times per year for holidays or life events like weddings and funerals. Some in this group do pray or meditate but with varying degrees of faith in whether it is heard by a supernatural being. Some believe in an afterlife or some sort of cosmic force, but not necessarily the Christian conception of God or heaven.

There are also a few who incorporate prayer and spirituality into secular frameworks, like 12-step programs, removing Christian language but maintaining practices like stating daily intentions and cultivating desirable traits.

Again, the responses ran the full gamut from complete non-belief and atheism to very active religious observation and conviction in the power of structured prayer routines.

Question 4 gets to the meat of the survey – core beliefs: “Do you believe that God is the creator of the universe and all living things? If defining yourself as a Christian, do you go along with the exclusivity of salvation for only those who believe in Jesus, as He said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me?”

Again, responses represented a wide spectrum of beliefs about God, the origins of the universe, and the role of Jesus Christ in salvation. On one end were staunch atheists who flatly rejected the notion of any divine creator or God. A few stated they do not believe God exists, seeing it as an attempt by humans to explain the unexplainable or exert control.

Others expressed more agnostic views, saying they are uncertain about how the universe began or whether any force truly “created” it in an intentional sense. Some left open the possibility of an advanced intelligence being involved, almost like the universe is a simulation, though they found that unlikely. Others simply stated that they were not smart enough to understand the origins fully.

A few Christian respondents expressed nuanced beliefs about God as the creator working through forces like love and freedom rather than strict control over all creation. One gave an intriguing perspective that God pronounced creation “good” in Genesis because it was free, not micromanaged.

On the topic of Jesus being the exclusive path to salvation, there were opposing viewpoints. Some Christians rejected the idea that only those believing in Jesus can be “saved,” allowing for “anonymous Christians” who live Christ’s teachings without knowing him explicitly. One atheist responder pushed back firmly against words being put into Jesus’ mouth about his exclusivity.

Most intriguing to me was the array of perspectives challenging traditional doctrine or biblical literalism. From uncertainty about origins to nuanced beliefs about God’s manner of creation to visions of inclusive salvation – these responses highlighted how religious beliefs can be highly subjective and personal even among those identifying with the same faith traditions.

Question 5: “Do you agree that God revealed Himself to humanity through various means, including scriptures (the Bible) and religious experiences? Is the Bible God’s ultimate communication to mankind, holy and the authoritative word of God?”

On the atheist and agnostic end, several dismiss the Bible as a human-created work of mythology, contradictions, and stories cobbled together from earlier religious traditions like the Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh. A few bluntly stated “No” when asked if the Bible is God’s word. One viewed it more analytically as an “interesting set of windows into past beliefs and traditions,” rather than a divine document.

Others expressed uncertainty, saying the Bible attempts to explain what humans cannot comprehend through religious legends and fantasies that offer hope for an afterlife. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they view it as authoritative scripture from God.

A couple of Christian respondents affirmed their belief that the Bible broadly reveals God’s truth, with one calling it “God’s word” and “a guiding framework,” though not providing detail. Another gave a more nuanced view that the Bible records the “religious experiences” of human authors and witnesses, making it an “inspired” work of the people involved rather than the literal word-for-word communication from God.

An expansive perspective came from a Catholic deacon, who stated the Bible has a “privileged place” in God’s revelation to humanity, but that revelation continues through lived tradition and the guidance of the Church community over time. This respondent saw Scripture and sacred Tradition as “complementary sources” for understanding God’s truth.

I found the contrasting views between hardline atheist dismissals of the Bible as mythology versus the Catholic view of it being inspired and complemented by ongoing lived revelation to be among the most interesting perspectives. It shows the divide in how the same religious text is understood through vastly different philosophical lenses.

Question 6 was, “Do you view God as omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (present everywhere) and omnibenevolent (all-good)?”

On the atheist/agnostic side, I got several simple “No’s.” No omniscient, omnipotent God since they don’t believe in a divine being. A couple went further, arguing that the concepts of being all-knowing and all-powerful are contradictory or physically impossible based on principles like the Uncertainty Principle. One expressed the feeling if some higher power exists, it cannot be truly omnibenevolent given the suffering in the world.

Among believers, they view God as embodying all these traits without caveats. However, several provided some nuanced perspectives. One suggested God may be omniscient and omnipresent by being the “source energy” in all living things, but not necessarily omnipotent since humans have free will. Another posited an interesting vision of human life being an “experiment” for God to better understand being God, hinting at some limitations.

The most intriguing perspective, once again, came from our unnamed Catholic deacon, who acknowledged the difficulty in reconciling those attributes, suggesting part of the “unraveling” involves the interplay of God’s omniscience with human freedom and the “free play of atoms and natural selection” in events. This points to the classic philosophical debate over predestination versus free will.

In the novel, “Seventh Son” by Orson Scott Card, there is a character who can see the future. The memorable part is that she acknowledges that a person has many possible paths, depending on their choices.  Each choice eliminates some paths and make others possible. The author was describing omniscience and free will.  It stuck with me.

Question 7: “Do you believe there is a heaven and a hell? That people will go to one of these places after they die and they will spend eternity in one of them?”

My atheist/agnostic folks, no surprise, dismiss heaven and hell outright as contrived ideas used to control people through promises of reward or eternal punishment. As one said, “No, these were contrived to force people to bow to the will of the powerful.” Some saw them as comforting fictions helping humans grapple with mortality, grief, and a desire for justice, but not reflections of any actual reality. One respondent said: “I don’t know what happens when we die. I’m inclined to think simply nothing happens and the nature of consciousness itself makes it very difficult for us to conceive of the permanent absence of consciousness.”

An interesting perspective came from someone who doesn’t “believe in absolute moralism” and therefore couldn’t accept a binary heaven/hell system based on absolute definitions of good and evil. Another believed some form of heaven and hell exist, “although not the stereotypical one portrayed in movies.” My immediate thought was, “But what about ‘The Good Place,’?” the Michael Shur produced television series with Ted Danson and Kristen Bell.

On the believing end, a few respondents expressed fairly traditional Christian views of heaven and hell as eternal destinations, with one saying directly: “Yes, I believe in heaven and hell.” However, some added caveats or uncertainties around the specifics. One thought-provoking responder grappled with the paradox:  “If hell does not exist, human freedom would not exist, since if no one were able to reject God completely, would we think that loving God would be worth anything? Therefore, hell is a real possibility. It might be a hotel where no one has checked in.”

Another description was more metaphorical: “In a manner, yes. Our deeds on earth make us either rooted in goodness or evil, and that will be our legacy. Our legacy will last forever and thus, our memories will live either in heaven or hell in terms of the impact they had on the world.”

It’s interesting to see how concepts like heaven and hell can be interpreted quite literally by some as eternal spiritual destinations, but also metaphorically or philosophically by others grappling with ideas of justice, morality, and life’s impact.

Question 8: “Do you have any issues with a benevolent and all-powerful God coexisting with pain, injustice, and tragedy? Do you ever wonder about a merciful God letting children die, seeming to do nothing while parents desperately pray for help? Or why He allows tsunamis, twisters, and the like to kill multitudes of people if he has the wherewithal and ability to stop these things?”

No surprise, the atheist/agnostic have it easy.  Since they don’t believe in God, they don’t have to rationalize suffering in the world. As one said: “These issues are proof that god doesn’t exist.” Another viewed the question as based on a flawed assumption that “if god were real, they’d care about humans. Why?”

One intriguing viewpoint was the hypothetical consideration, “if the universe was intelligently designed, then the creators’ motivations could be utterly divorced from human notions of benevolence – with humanity as “infinitesimally inconsequential” in this grand experiment.

Among believers, some maintained we were never promised a suffering-free life:  “I don’t believe we were ever promised a life without pain, heartache, sorrow, grief, etc. We were promised God would be with us through all of those scenarios.”

Others provided more philosophical perspectives. One viewed evil and tragedy as stemming from human free will after Creation, not God’s intent. Another saw God’s “self-limitation” of power as the “ultimate act of omnipotence”, allowing natural laws to play out without miracles.

Several struggled with the paradox: “Absolutely. I cannot reconcile the senseless tragedies and injustices that occur daily with an omnipotent, benevolent being. If this is all part of God’s plan, then he needs a better plan.”

An especially nuanced theological viewpoint came from (can you guess?), one Catholic deacon, who argued that ultimately, the human capacity for compassion itself models God’s compassion, as embodied by Jesus’ suffering; “Explaining God’s compassion will not comfort…but when we imitate that compassion…it is another way of continuing what Jesus came for.”

Question 9: “Have you ever struggled to reconcile some scientific theories with an understanding of God as a creator? Do you agree with the day-by-day description of God creating the heavens and earth in seven days as described in Genesis?”

Things were easy on the atheist and agnostic end: A rejection of any need to reconcile science with religious concepts of God as a creator. Specifically stated, “Science is fact; god is fiction.” Another stated that belief in God creating the world in seven literal days as “patently absurd,” while allowing religions can serve as useful “fictions” to provide moral and existential frameworks.

Some separated the domains of science and religion; “It isn’t science brother, it’s faith.” This approach argues science explores the mechanics of the universe through empirical study, while religious teachings operate in the spiritual/metaphysical realm. Others saw no inherent conflict, with one respondent stating “I believe science is a wonderful explanation for how things work and/or exist/operate. And I think the two things can exist together.”

Another believer said, “One must distinguish between poetic truth and literal truth,” and a couple made distinctions between ultimate sacred truths and how those are expressed through the cultural lenses of ancient writers. Someone else stated: “Each of these have legitimate ways of approaching truth. The scientific method is a self-correcting system with its form of faith: the hypothesis is a ‘commitment to the unknown.’ Similarly, religion has its self-correcting mechanism when it seeks consistency between Scripture and Tradition and when it addresses historical dilemmas according to Christian values. In addition, our dear Deacon cited examples of the Catholic Church embracing scientific study of Scripture through archeology and other methods in the 20th century and listed some instances of the Vatican’s astronomical observatory, illustrating the church’s embrace of scientific inquiry when properly bounded.

Question 10: “If you said you believe in the Bible as a sacred text and that it contains the holy word of God, do you ever have issues when contrasting it with contemporary values? For instance, the Old Testament is full of violence, wars, conquests, and destruction (the flood) and the New Testament is all about love and forgiveness. Any thoughts or issues related to biblical instructions surrounding slavery, treatment of women, homosexuals, treatment of non-believers, teachings on divorce and remarriage, and the like?”

Atheist replies were short as they rejected the premise of the Bible as the holy word of God from the start. One called it “mumbo jumbo” or “humans constructing a reflection of values in earlier times. “The bible and other religious texts are mumbo jumbo, reflecting the thoughts and fears of prehistoric peoples.” Another states, “Since I believe that the Bible is man’s construct, none of what’s in the Bible surprises me.”

Believers acknowledge conflicts between biblical teachings and contemporary values but approach them through the lens of their religious tradition. One respondent rejects the stark contrast between the violent Old Testament and peaceful New Testament, seeing continuity in the values expressed. On controversial issues like slavery and the treatment of women and homosexuals, this respondent argues that religious tradition has evolved: “The rejection of slavery is an example of how general morality, not just for Christians, has evolved…” They see religion as an ongoing process of reinterpreting scripture through the lens of modern ethics.

Others wrestle with specific biblical passages conflicting with modern values. On divorce and remarriage, some cite Jesus’ strict prohibition but note evolving church practices like annulments to accommodate contemporary norms: “Pope Francis’ recent approval of blessings for couples in alternative relationships opens up for me the ability to bless couples in situations of second marriages…”

Some respondents express frustration at how the Bible is used to justify unethical behavior, with one saying “It pisses me the FUCK off that people use this book to justify their poor behavior and their judgments of others.”

Again, one of the more intriguing and nuanced responses was from our Deacon, who thoughtfully grapples with uncomfortable biblical passages while asserting an evolving religious tradition that reinterprets scripture through a modern ethical lens. For instance: “Regarding homosexuals, again my Tradition is moving slowly to listen to their needs. As I read the Biblical condemnations of “homosexuality,” all of them are referring to a violent form of abuse…Biblical accounts of homosexuality do not refer to loving, caring relationships we now know are expressed in many alternative ways.”

Question 11 “Often people define themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious,” with the difference being those who identify as “religious” actively participating in an organized tradition (church) while those defining themselves as “spiritual” do not. Do you think one can be “Christian” (a specific major religious designation, regardless of denominational affiliation) without participating in a Church? If you were to define yourself in this context, “religious” or “spiritual,” which would it be? Or neither? Maybe a “humanist?” – i.e. base your understanding on reason and science and reject divine beliefs.

Again, there was a wide range of perspectives on the distinction between being “spiritual” versus “religious.” Several define themselves as humanists who base their understanding on reason, and science and reject Divine beliefs. One states: “I’m definitely humanist and neither religious nor spiritual although there are things we don’t understand.” Another says: “I define myself as none of the above, though I might be closest to a ‘Christian humanist.'”

Some felt little affinity with this distinction, saying, “If someone is a Christian, they’re still religious even if they’re not actively attending church because they believe in that religion and ascribe to the teachings/beliefs of that religion.”

Others saw spirituality and religion as overlapping or existing on a spectrum, like this perspective: “I am both religious and spiritual, but how can I deny anyone else who is on a spiritual journey that is not attached to a religion?” On whether one can be Christian without church participation, most lean towards yes. One of the most intriguing responses explores a balanced view of spirituality drawing from both religion and science: “Basing one’s spiritual quest on reason and science is a sound practice. However, in addition to the limits of religion, one must understand the limitations of science…Science uses analysis, ‘takes things apart to see how they work.’ Religion uses synthesis, ‘puts things together to see what they mean.'”

Q12 was about friends or relatives losing faith: “If a close friend or family member told you they’d lost their faith and were no longer a believer, how would you react? Would you think less of them? (Have you seen this happen?) Would/has it bothered you? Do you think they are more or less “moral and ethical” than someone who still holds closely to religious views?” 

Most indicated they would not think less of the person or be overly bothered by their loss of faith. As one puts it: “It would not make a difference to me. I would be interested in their path, what led them to this decision, and how I can support them.” Another says “I wouldn’t care because their belief system has nothing to do with me.”

Some express concern that losing faith could negatively impact the person’s sense of meaning or ethics, with one stating: “If they cannot express what it is, we may be in a danger zone leading to self-neglect or self-harm.” However, others reject any inherent link between religion and morality, like this view: “You can be ethical or moral regardless of your views on religion.”

A few admit they would judge the person to some degree, with one confessing: “I am not going to lie, I do feel a sense of judgment for people who say they are religious. It makes me question if they have values that I hold dear, such as curiosity or intelligence.”

As I prepare to write more about my religious journey, learning how my close family and friends think and feel is invaluable to me. I appreciate all the time, effort, and care that went into completing the survey by everyone.  I was greatly pleased with how much careful thought and attention went into everyone’s replies and so impressed the depth of knowledge many respondents had on this subject.  My thanks and deepest gratitude go to all respondents.

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