The God Survey

Mark Dov Shapiro

Always I’ve wondered about God. To tell the truth, I became a rabbi not because I had all the answers about God, but in part because questions about faith and meaning in life pressed me with special force.

My dad was a physician. In high school I considered medicine for my life’s work and took all the chemistry, biology, and physics courses expected of me for a pre-med college track. But toward the end of my senior year, I realized I was less interested in how an atom worked than why there was an atom to begin with. Questions about why we are here and the purpose of life tilted me away from science toward religion and inquiries about faith.

Such questions have remained with me, and I think they are shared by many adult Jews who ponder whether there is a God and what that God does or does not do.

Last Yom Kippur I set out to explore these questions with my congregation, Sinai Temple in Springfield, Massachusetts. Before the singing of Kol Nidre, I spoke about the challenges of faith and then asked my congregants if they would help me complete my sermon. “Up until now,” I explained, “this conversation has been one-sided. You have heard me speak about my ideas of God, but I haven’t heard from you, and you haven’t heard from each other. Let’s remedy that on Sunday morning, when I hope you will talk to me via a survey on God and belief. Read your New York Times or whatever Sunday paper you wish, but take 10 minutes as well to complete this survey.”

On the day after Yom Kippur every temple member received a computer questionnaire I had designed with the help of several congregants. Over the course of the next few weeks, 338 congregants—40% of the congregation—completed the God survey.

Their responses revealed a great deal.

The Existence of God

When given the statement, “There is no God,” 60% of the Sinai respondents disagreed. In other words, most people were not comfortable with no God. When asked if the universe reveals evidence that God exists, 45% agreed.

Interestingly, the women in the congregation are more likely than the men to believe in God. Many more men (33%) than women (8%) agreed with the statement, “There is no God,” and 44% of men agreed that “Science can explain everything,” as compared to 23% of women.

Age also matters in relation to God beliefs. Fifty-one percent of respondents in their 20s agreed with the statement, “Science can explain everything, making God an unnecessary hypothesis,” whereas only 17% in their 50s did so. When it came to the statement “There is no God,” 25% of those in their 20s agreed, whereas only 7% in their 50s agreed.

Connecting to God

What about experiencing God? In what settings have Sinai congregants felt connected to God?

More than half (53%) report having felt close to God at Shabbat services and funerals. Smaller numbers have felt close to God at lifecycle events such as such as b'nai mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah), a wedding, or a baby naming. Some have felt close to God while experiencing great art, literature, or film. Above all else, 64% of congregants have felt close to God outdoors, when encountering what the survey called “nature’s wonders.” It appears that during liminal moments—times when a human being comes to the edge of regular experience and senses the boundaries of life—God’s presence is most often felt.

Understanding God

It turns out, however, that when Sinai congregants use the word “God,” they do not do so in classic Jewish terms.

For example, when asked about the traditional belief that God rewards good people and punishes bad people, 73.8% said that did not happen. When asked if God is all powerful, 39.5% said yes while 39.5% said no and 21% said they were unsure. And is God just? Although 26.3% say yes, 30.4% say they do not believe God is just and 43.4% are not sure.

Defining God

How, then, do most Sinai congregants characterize God?

More than 70% of the congregation agreed with these four statements: “God is hope,” “God is love,” “Healing the sick is Godly,” and “Feeding the hungry is Godly.” Between half and two-thirds agreed that “There is purpose and design in the world,” “We are partners with God in the ongoing process of creation,” “There is one God,” and “God is a presence in the universe supporting us to do our best.” Taken together, these responses represent the survey’s strongest affirmations of God.

Wrestling with Faith

For all this, congregants are also struggling with faith.

A notable 93.8% agreed with the statement that “Innocent people sometimes suffer without any reason.” A majority of congregants said they felt distant from God when “seeing the devastation caused by natural disasters,” “when seeing the state of the world in general,” and especially “when a relative or friend encounters illness or personal loss.”

And when the survey invited people to ask God their own questions, more than 200 congregants expressed concerns about justice, such as: “God, why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Why? Why? Why?”

Purpose on Earth

As people addressed questions to God, they also began to ponder the ultimate questions of existence and our purpose here on earth. They asked God, “What do you want me to do with my life?,” “How can I find peace?,” “What happens next—after I die?”

Two congregants wrote:

“I used to think about God much more in my 30s through my early 50s. Now it seems as though I’ve come to a state of comfort with my formulation about what God has meant to me at varying times and stages in my life, so right now I’m less perplexed and intrigued and simply more accepting that I am part of God’s plan for this earth, that I have a specific task to do, and I may not even know when I’ve completed it. And, that seems to be OK for right now. In another decade or two that may or may not be such a reassuring position.”

“As I have approached (and now passed) age 50, and the real sense of the limited number of days I have on this Earth, the sense of how to make life meaningful seems a more pressing question.”

So what have I learned about my congregants’ approach toward God?

I now know that those who wonder and question God are not alone. Large numbers of those surveyed make positive affirmations about God, but at least 15% say there is no God, and a sizeable minority (20%) see no purpose or design in the universe. Although slightly more than half believe that God is the creator of the universe, 28% disagree, and 21% are not sure.

I am particularly struck by the finding that the largest percentage of congregants—74.6%—identified God as “hope,” followed by “Healing the sick is Godly” (73%), “Feeding the hungry is Godly” (71.5%), and “God is love” (71.3%). This is not theology as usual—not the traditional God of our prayerbook, who is usually described as Melech/Ruler of the Universe and spoken to as Atta/You in every blessing. Most of my congregants do not construe God as a celestial figure who acts in this world. For them, God is a presence or power. For them, God is not so much “above” us in heaven as God is “beside” us or “within” us. Most believe that God “acts” when we act with God’s attributes, such as love, kindness, and justice.

I find it significant that this metaphor of God as hope or love is largely absent from Reform liturgy. No wonder that some people feel disenfranchised coming to services where the prevailing God metaphor is Melech or Ruler. Broadening the vocabulary of worship to include new God language for the majority of my congregants may be my next step as a rabbi.

On a personal note, when the results began to arrive last fall, I asked myself how I would define success for the survey. From my rabbinic perspective, it would have been gratifying to learn that most respondents “believed.” But what if only 50% or 25% believed, or if very few even cared about matters of faith? Would that constitute failure?

I realized then that, for me, the statistics on faith would tell only part of the story. Beyond the numbers, if the survey led people to think about what God did or didn’t mean for them and to talk about their struggles with faith, that alone would be a benefit to the congregation.

Jews are meant to “wrestle” with God. That is how Jacob, our patriarch, receives his second name in Genesis. After a night of dreaming, he is renamed Yisrael, meaning “one who struggles with God.”As long as Jews are doing that, I am satisfied. If we are learning, growing, and questioning, we are on the right track.

God & I

Members of Sinai Temple, Springfield, Massachusetts offered these anonymous reflections on the following three questions: “I have felt close to God…,” “I have felt distant from God…,” and “If God was accepting questions I would ask….”

I Have Felt Close to God…

“At times of life (babies being born) and at times of death (funerals). Or, it could be that I feel close to my mortality, which then leads me to hoping/believing in God.”

“When I have been on the edge of despair (due to circumstances of life), often something has happened the next day or the next little while that has helped me back from the edge and keep going.”

“On Yom Kippur, looking at the Eternal Light I felt overwhelmed with the feeling G-d was with me.”

“I have been singing in the choir for three years. I feel close to God in our singing.”

“When I cared for my mother in the last months of her life and was having some serious health problems of my own.”

“When I was in second grade, coming home from school, the sky looked so beautiful. And I stood outside my door staring up at the sky and I felt such joy, such a rapturous feeling. I knew that God was there. And when I felt disturbed by something, I knew that God knew what was going on inside me, and I knew that he loved me and that he accepted me.”

“During the births of my children.”

“I get a powerful dose of God-ness in nature.”

“I would say I do not know what it means to be close to God.”

“I feel close to God by watching and playing with my nephew and by remembering my grandfather—his love, support, and the lessons I have learned from him.”

“At Shabbat services, it is great to just relax, forget about the events of the day or week, and feel at peace thinking of God.”

“When I have had a moment of shared insight.”

“When I’m in community.”

“When I am most distressed, no matter where it may be, I feel God guiding me through the trouble. I know He has not left me alone and walks for me when I cannot walk for myself.”

“In the midst of an ordinary day—as long as I take the time to pause and notice.”

I Have Felt Distant From God…

“All the wars, famines, and seemingly unnecessary suffering that is present every day cause one to want to either hide one’s eyes, weep in despair, or become angry that it occurs (and who can we get angry at—it makes sense it would be God). I think we all feel so powerless and insignificant to make it better, so we (I) tend to give up trying (and then just feel guilty). Being angry at God is easier than trying to take some responsibility for the suffering we see.”

“When I realize that everything I have read about cosmology, medicine, evolution, anthropology, and primate behavior belies the existence of the sort of God we are taught about.”

“When I think of the Holocaust.”

“When good people die way too young, I struggle with ‘Why?’ and wonder if there is a G-d, how could he let these things happen….Then I think, G-d can’t prevent tragedies but he can help us through them; he can help us see the wonders that are still with us.”

If God Was Accepting Questions, I Would Ask…

“What do you do all day up in the sky?”

“Are we, collectively, God?” “How can I do for me when so many need me to do for them?”

“Will I see those I loved on earth after death?”

“What is death like?”

“What is it that You want me to do with the rest of my life?”

“Who are you? What are you? Where are you? Why are you? What/who was there before you?”

“If you exist, why have you not given us ample evidence?”

“How can you observe the world and the actions and choices of the people in it and not be totally distressed?”

“What is the purpose of life?”

“Am I pleasing to you?”

“Are you a person, spirit, a force in each human soul? Do you manifest yourself differently and uniquely in each human being?”

“Why do we live only to die? Do we have any lasting presence?”

“How can you use me best?”

“How did it all begin?”

“How can we all come together to use your power for good?”

“Why is redemption taking so long, and will the world ever be redeemed?