I recently came across the 2017 Pew Research Center survey of more than 4,700 U.S. adults which found that of those who say they believe in God, 30% say they believe in some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe rather than the God of the Bible. Among those who say they do not believe in God (aka atheists), 47% say they believe in some other higher power or spiritual force. What do people mean when they say this? And do atheists and theists mean the same or different things?
Before discussing this, I first present some similar data for the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada (the mother country and two other English speaking ex-colonies).
A 2020 YouGov poll in Britain found that 27% say they believe in “a god”, 16% say they believe in the existence of a higher spiritual power, but not a god, 41% do not believe in a god or a higher power and 18% don’t know. Among British Christians, just over half say they believe in God, 16% believe in a higher power, 10% don’t believe in God or higher power, and 16% don’t know.
The 2019 Australian Community Survey found that 29% of Australians say they believe in a personal God and 32% say they believe in some sort of spirit or life force. Around two in 10 (21%) do not believe and 18% remain unsure.
A very recent Canadian survey carried out in November 2022 found that just over a third of Canadians believe in God or gods (33.6%), with a further 32.1% saying that they believe in a higher power or spiritual force, but don’t necessarily believe in a god or gods. More than one-in-five (22.1%) don’t believe in any spiritual power.
Personal god(s) versus an impersonal higher power
Survey questions probing beliefs about “god” vary widely in wording and you don’t have to look at many surveys before you realize that question framing, wording, context dramatically affect responses. What do people (and survey writers) mean by “God” or by other powers or forces. Here are some of the phrases I have come across that are contrasted with god or gods: higher power, spiritual force, life force, fate, karma, universal consciousness, the Absolute, the ground of being.
A personal god or goddess is a deity who can be related to as a person, instead of as an impersonal spirit or force, such as the Absolute, or the “Ground of Being”. A personal god is conscious, sentient, has will and purpose, and is capable of feelings.
A god that is not personal cannot be worshiped or prayed to, let alone answer prayers. Only a personal god dispenses rewards and punishments in this life or an afterlife. This is not something an impersonal force would do.
An impersonal force or spirit is usually much less defined for people who say that is what they believe in rather than a personal god. It can refer to impersonal forces such as karma or fate, or to some guiding force underlying the universe, or perhaps to a universal life-force or to a universal field of consciousness. The “god” of pantheism is an impersonal god (God is everything) as is the god of panentheism (God is in everything).
The god of deists is a creator god who does not intervene in or react with the universe after its creation. I find it quite puzzling why someone would bother thinking up this type of god. I assume it must be because many people seem to have a compelling need to make up a reason for the existence of the universe in the absence of any evidence or proposed mechanism.
The apparent need for a creator is claimed by many theists to be an important reason to believe in a personal god, though clearly an impersonal god or force could also be responsible for creation. God-did-it or The-Force-did-it are equally unhelpful non-explanations for a postulated creation. And who knows, possibly some as yet theory of everything that combined all the known physical forces in a single theory, and included an explanation for consciousness, might also contain an explanation for the existence of the universe. And those who say they believe in a universal life force might say, aha, that theory of everything is exactly what we have been talking about.
Christianity and Judaism conceptualize a God who is both universal, like The Force, and personal. The Abrahamic God is able to be everywhere at once. He has all energy and power; in fact, he created the universe. At the same time, he is able to visit individuals, speak with them, express his feelings, thoughts and opinions to them, and do things for them in a very personal way.
I have no knowledge of Islamic theology but was surprised to find that Wikipedia describes Islam as rejecting the notion of a personal god as anthropomorphic. This is certainly in conflict with my impressions from what I have heard and read various Muslims say and with the data from the Integrated Values Survey which I discuss below. Based on limited data for Muslim countries, Muslims have the highest level of belief in a personal god of any of the major religions or culture zones.
An analysis of global survey data on belief in a personal god
In my previous analysis of the worldwide prevalence of and trends in atheism and religiosity (see here and here), I used questions in the World Values Survey and the European Values Study asking whether you believe in God (Yes/No/Don’t know), but also “Are you a religious person” (Religious, Non-religious, Confirmed Atheist) and questions on frequency and type of religious practices, and on the importance in your life of religion and God. The combined data of these two survey programs is referred to as the Integrated Values Survey (IVS) covering the period 1981-2020 and 105 countries.
The IVS includes a question on whether belief is in a personal god vs. a spirit or life force in surveys in 54 countries, predominantly in Europe. The surveys for the USA and Canada that included this question were carried out in 1981 and 1990, when the prevalence of atheism was lower than now. This will obviously impact the prevalence of those who believe in a personal god. The UK included this question in five surveys across the period 1981-2018 and I plotted the distribution of responses separately for theists (those who said they believe in god) and atheists (those who said they did not believe in god). As can be seen in the graphs below there is very little change in the distribution of responses across time within each group.
On the assumption that this is generally the case in other countries, I have estimated the distribution of beliefs in 2023 as follows. I estimated the distribution of beliefs within each of four religiosity categories (practicing religious, non-practicing religious, non-religious, atheist) using the pooled IVS survey data for each country for the entire period 1981-2020. I estimated the prevalence of each of these religiosity categories by projecting previously estimated recent time trends for 2015-2020 three years forward to 2023. To be a little conservative in the projections, the projected rates of change were adjusted downwards 20%. The distribution of beliefs for each of these categories was then weighted by 2023 prevalences of religiosity categories and added to give an overall estimate of belief prevalences by country and culture zone in 2023. Table 1 gives the results tabulated by culture zone.
Belief in a personal god is lowest in the Sinic East (based on data for China and Japan), the Indic East (based on data for India) and the Reformed West (based on data for 10 countries).
Despite Wikipedia’s documented description of the God of Islam as a non-personal god, the survey data above show that the Islamic East has the highest prevalence of people, at 90%, who say they believe in a personal god. The only survey in the Islamic East which included the meaning of belief question was for Turkey. Its possible Turkey is non-representative of other Islamic countries. However, I also analysed the prevalence of belief in personal vs. impersonal god by religious affiliation and there are many Muslims in other countries outside the Islamic East. The table below tabulates the prevalence of beliefs by religious affiliation. Muslims still have the highest level of belief in a personal god.
Countries ranked by prevalence of belief in a personal god
For the 54 countries with data on the distribution of beliefs concerning god(s), I also estimated the prevalence of beliefs in 2023 using the same methods as above. The following table ranks countries from lowest to highest prevalence of belief in a personal god.
A number of key points to note about these results. Two of the three countries with very low prevalence of belief in a personal god are China and Japan. The other is Czechia. China has high prevalence of non-religious and atheists and its main religions are non-theist. The main religions of Japan are Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhism is non-theist and Shinto, while it has many gods, these are mostly sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility.
As expected, levels of belief in a personal god are low in most of the formerly Protestant countries of western and northern Europe, where levels of atheism are also high. My estimate for the UK that 22% believe in a personal god is somewhat lower than the earlier 2017 estimate of 27%, but probably not inconsistent given the continuing decline of religion in Britain since then.
My estimate that only 49% of Americans believe in a personal god in 2023 is also reasonably consistent with the Pew Survey of 2017’s finding that 56% of Americans believe in the God of the Bible, given the IVS data for America that shows and acceleration in the prevalence of atheism in recent years, likely in response to the increasing right-wing extremism of Christians in the USA. At the bottom of the table are some predominantly Orthodox Christian countries and two Muslim countries where the prevalence of belief in a personal god is around 70% and 90% respectively.
Some questions and conclusions
I will look a little more closely at the distribution of beliefs in atheists and theists in the Reformed West. These are the largely Protestant countries of western and northern Europe, characterized today by a low proportion of the population practicing religion and a large minority or majority of the population who are atheist. This culture zone includes Britain, Australia and Switzerland as well as the Scandinavian countries. The table below shows the distribution of beliefs for theists and atheists in the Reformed West. Only 39% of people who say they believe in God believe in a personal god. A higher proportion (43%) say they believe in a spirit or life force and 15% don’t know what to think.
Among atheists (those who say they do not believe in God) 25% say they believe in a spirit or life force and only 42% are clear that they do not believe in God, spirit or life force.
I am not surprised and somewhat comforted by the low level of belief in a personal god among theists. It’s the personal god who is responsible for most of the unacceptable behaviour of religious people in trying to impose their views of moral behaviour on others and in promoting hatred and discrimination against others. An impersonal force is not going to care about your sexual preferences, the colour of your skin or whether you believe in it, let alone judge you and send you to heaven or hell. Premodern beliefs and values assocated with concepts of a personal god are increasingly hard for modern well-educated people to accept.
Given the continuing decline in religious belief, I can hope that the proportion of people who believe in the God of the Bible continues to drop. It is already less than 50% for Americans if my projection is reasonable, and around 20% for the UK, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands. I don’t have data from IVS for Australia, but the proportion of Australians who believe in the God of the Bible will be less than 27% now. For both the Reformed West and North America, the countries where Protestantism has been the leading form of religion, it is now the case that less than half the adult population believes in the God of the Bible.
One quarter of atheists (those who say they do not believe in God) also say that they believe in a spirit or life force. Are these beliefs similar to those of the theists who say they believe in a spirit or life force? I have not come across research looking more closely at this, but I suspect there are differences. I think its likely the theists who say they believe in a spirit or life force are those who have rejected the mythical bearded father figure in the sky but are not yet ready to fully let go of belief in a god. Their impersonal god is likely a fuzzy ill-defined thing, perhaps with residual “personal” characteristics eg. God is love, or god is creative power.
The atheists who believe in a “spirit or life force” may include some who have stepped away from theism but not entirely comfortable with letting go of any belief in something “larger than themselves”. But it may also include those atheists who are not out-and-out materialists or reductionists. For example, Buddhist atheists, and some others, might believe that non-dual consciousness is some sort of universal field or ground of being.
From time to time I come across atheists or philosophers, even atheist philosophers, who assume that all atheists must be materialists or believe only physical things exist. This is clearly not the case, since the proportion of atheists who positively state that they do not believe in god, spirit or life force is relatively low, ranging from around 25% in the USA to 30-40% in other regions where Christianity is the dominant religion. Other atheists may simply have some vague feeling that there is something more to reality that they don’t want to pin down and conceptualize as something with specific attributes, or simply don’t know what to think, or they may have some well-developed view of reality (in their mind) which might involve some non-physical field or force (universal love, consciousness etc). It would be interesting to interview people and find out more about what they mean when they say they believe in a higher power or other similar phrase, and how this might differ between theists and atheists.
Endnote. Definitions of culture zones used to group countries
I am using the 10 culture zones defined by Welzel , with one modification. Because Australia’s and New Zealand’s culture values are much closer to the countries of the Reformed West than to those of the USA and Canada, I have included Australia and New Zealand in the Reformed West and renamed the New West as North America. The culture zones are defined as follows:
Reformed West — Western European societies strongly affected by the Reformation: Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, plus Australia and New Zealand;
North America — USA and Canada;
Old West — Mostly Catholic parts of Western Europe being core parts of the
Roman Empire: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembrg, Malta, Portugal, Spain;
Returned West — Catholic and Protestant parts of post-communist Europe returning
to the EU: Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia;
Orthodox East — Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the post-communist world,
mostly parts of former USSR;
Indic East — Parts of South and South East Asia under the historic influence
of Indian culture: Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste;
Islamic East — Regions of the Islamic world that have been parts of the Arab/Caliphate,
Persian and Ottoman empires;
Sinic East — Parts of East Asia under the historic influence of Chinese culture: China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam;
Latin America — Central and South America and the Caribbean;
Sub-Saharan Africa — African countries south of the Sahara.
 Welzel C. Freedom Rising. Human Empowerment and the. Quest for Emancipation. 2013. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/freedom-rising/80316A9C5264A8038B0AA597078BA7C6