Do Americans really believe in God, or do they just say they do?

In a recent political thread, the opinion was expressed that there are very few true theists – most are just lying to please others.

According to the most recent Gallup poll, 86% of Americans said that they believe in God. I’m curious to see how many people believe them, and how those opinions differ among atheists, theists and agnostics.

I personally believe in God, and have no reason to think that the rest of th 86% are lying about it.

In real life a great many atheists apparently are harassed for their non-belief in some parts of this country, so I can imagine them saying yes to a question of belief from someone they know to avoid that. But that’s not an issue with an anonymous poll so why lie?

I’m sure that most of them believe in a Divine Being — Who entirely coincidentally happens to Agree with their beliefs and biases in every particular.
That’s what gives them certitude.

I don’t doubt the 86% number.

Now, if you look at percentages for things that require action on people’s part - like going to church - you see that numbers drop rapidly, often to the 30-40% range. So I would say that about 50% of Americans believe in some kind of nebulous God-like concept, but that it doesn’t impact their daily lives in any meaningful way. Those people may act like atheists most of the time, but to call them atheists would not be true.

Of course they’re atheists, almost all of them. My evidence? Look at the way they behave. If they believed that an all-powerful being was monitoring their behavior they wouldn’t act the way they do.

I waver between “unsure about” and “do not believe”, but I’m almost certain that nowhere near 86% firmly believe in the Abrahamic God (the main god people are usually referring to in polls like these).

Because this is the US, I’ll assume most of that 86% are Christian, aka they profess to believe in a heaven/hell afterlife. To be fair, I’m approaching this assuming the poll was talking about a fairly strict interpretation of the Bible, etc - in reality, if the 86% is accurate, most of them probably subscribe to a very abstract, loving god. Still: if a majority of Americans actually, honestly, fully believed that if they were not dedicated enough to their faith in this life, they’d be tortured eternally, we would see a far greater percentage of extraordinarily, almost OCD-level religious people. Just comparing our measly 75-or-so years to the vast, unthinkably large span that is eternity, 86% of people should logically dedicate every ounce of their being to making sure they don’t go to Hell. Anything else would be incredibly reckless and foolish.

In reality . . . less than 40% of Americans put in the effort to go to church once a week. Basically, the threat of eternal hellfire isn’t enough to get them out of bed on Sunday morning. Either they’re remarkably cavalier about their futures, or the God they’re talking about isn’t the one organized religions promote.

Not all of them believe in the crazy God who gets mad at you for dancing, or whatever.

“Lying” is almost certainly the wrong word; very few (adult) people are thinking “I know this God stuff is bunk, but I don’t want my parents to yell at me, so I’m going to keep going to church,” and most of of the people who do feel that way would just tell the truth in an anonymous Gallup poll anyway.

However, I do think there are a lot of people in the modern-day U.S. who *think *they believe, but it’s just a pro forma kind of belief where they haven’t really thought about it or let it affect their lives in any meaningful way. So, maybe “lying to themselves.”

I had a college professor who opined, “Nobody actually believes that shit. You can’t truly be a Christian and live your life like everyone does in America.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but there’s something to that. If you really think that there’s a God and a heaven and eternal judgment, then it’s totally irrational for that to be anything but the most important thing in your life – really the only important thing. If you’re not fasting & praying & proselytizing to the exclusion of all other activities, you’re nuts. I mean I guess you can have a job if it’s necessary to fund your one-man ministry, but everything has to be subservient to your faith.
I don’t know, I’m probably being a little harsh. Certainly I much prefer lax Christians to the types who are knocking on my door for Jehovah or blowing themselves up for Allah.

I do not believe in any gods, but I believe that most of the ones who claim to, do.

I think the whole “they’re just lying to themselves” or whatever is really just the religious version of atheists are only people who are mad at God.

(I believe in God, and I believe that the 86% of those that said yes were telling the truth.)

Thanks for the thoughtful responses. I hadn’t thought about the judgment/hell aspect. I don’t believe in judgment or hell, so that doesn’t really enter into my assessment. I can see how it would seem hypocritical to say you believe in hell, but then behave as if you didn’t care about the consequences.

Gallup found that 75% of Americans believe in hell, and I have to think that a lot of them are either fudging the truth, or in serious denial about where they are going to end up. Then again, very few people really make themselves the villain of their own story.

My “big thought” when I was in Uni was the “Reverse Pascal’s Wager”. Someone who, really, truly, believes that there is a god who will give them eternal reward or eternal punishment based on their behaviour in this finite life, would not just be “good”, they would be desperately doing every “good” thing everyone could possibly do to try to get the reward and avoid the punishment.

Any possessions you have, would be immediately given to the poor. Nothing all day and all night but serving your neighbours. Keeping kosher just to be on the safe side. Even if someone can make a good case that God doesn’t care about some of these rules, you wouldn’t break them just on the very slight chance that he does. After all, what’s a few decades of mortification of the flesh compared to even the slightest increased chance of eternal reward?

And anyone who doesn’t act like that doesn’t really believe in God. At least not as a real thing that doles out eternal reward and punishment.

A Biblical God is not quite as strict as you say. The whole point of Jesus as sacrifice for sins is that you are saved from eternal damnation by accepting the sacrifice, not by doing good things. Even when Paul condemns the idea of sinning for the heck of it, he basically leaves it as something that’s not good for you.

Well, how many Americans do things that aren’t good for them? Drugs? Alcohol? Overeating? Too much TV? It’s practically a pastime to do things that are bad for you; hard to believe that religious behavior would be any different. But most Christian denominations believe that doing bad things doesn’t make a saved person not-saved, it’s just bad for them.

Of course, you’re also right that most of these people do not believe in a Biblical God. Out here in the Pacific NW, it’s common to hear people say “I don’t go to church. I commune with God by hiking and camping.”

Not everyone who believes in God believes people go to hell.

But that’s not how people are. People do things all the time in the moment, without considering future consequences. If people still smoke cigarettes, don’t save for retirement, drive drunk and ignore serious health problems, they’re not going to walk the straight and narrow just because of some future punishment.

I believe in God but not in hell, but I can still see that even people who believe in hell might not be perfect angels on earth.

How many of those would pass the test God supposedly gave Abraham (sacrificing his son)? For the Christians, it’s straight from their own book and devised by God himself. I say less than 10%. I would hope anyway.

My grandma goes to church every week, says her prayers every night right up until she falls asleep, carries a rosary and crucifix with her at all times and her only idea of decoration is pictures of jesus. Mom married an atheist, had two atheist children, does not step in a church unless there is a funeral or wedding and doesn’t even include a nativity scene in her christmas decorations. Yet if you handed both of them a survey that asked for their religion they would both mark “Catholic”. Religion plays absolutely no part in my mom’s life other than when presented with a survey. Do i think she is lying to herself or anyone else? Well, i don’t think it is that easy. I just find it hard to believe that people who honestly believe in God would not all act a lot more like grandma than mom.

When people of two different religions get married, usually one of the two takes on the religion of the other. E.g., a Christian becomes a Hindu or a Sikh becomes a Buddhist.

To me, that paints a fairly shallow portrait of faith.

It’s also fairly apparent that very few give very much thought or care to the old or revised strictures in the Bible. We don’t stone disobedient sons to death nor do we disallow interest-based loans. As others have noted, there’s no strong evidence that anyone believes that what is written in the Bible is true in any meaningful sense.

I think it’s likely that most people believe or want to believe in a greater, spiritual, caring something. But I’d say that makes them agnostic not their stated religion. Due to the phrasing of the survey, I’m not sure whether to count that as “lying” or not, since an agnostic may believe in “God” but not the Bible God.

I think it’s worth noting that for most people (personally, I would say for anyone, but I’ll leave the door cracked), belief in gods isn’t a simple on-off switch. There’s a continuum, based not only on whether we believe in a god, but on what we believe about that god. If I believe in a personal deity who loves me, hears my prayers, intercedes on my behalf, and will determine my destination in the afterlife, I think anyone would say that I “believe in God.” But what if my deity is the kind that wound the clock at the beginning of time, setting in motion the events that led to human evolution (and thus me), but is invisible, impersonal, and doesn’t intervene directly in human (or any other) affairs? If I believe in a deity that may as well not exist, do I still “believe in God?” What if I’m one of the ones who believes that God is nature, or God is the energy all around us, or God is love?

I mean, my wife is an observant Reform Jew. She keeps kosher (pretty strictly compared to most RJs I’ve known), observes the holidays, hangs mezuzot in our home…and prays even though she is very doubtful that there’s an anthropomorphic deity listening at the other end of the line. She does it because the feeling of tribal identity, and of connection with ancient tradition, make her feel happy.

Would she qualify as “believing in God?”

This. They go through the motions, and claim they believe…but then they continue acting in disobedience to their church’s teachings anyway. They say they believe in the Ten Commandments…and give false witness on Tuesday, cuss their parents on Wednesday, and covet their neighbor’s wealth on Thursday.

I knew a Christian once who, in anger, said, “Yeah, I’ll turn the other cheek…and then I’m gonna deck that son of a bitch!”

He was only a make-believe Christian, and that’s the same for an awful lot of Americans.