While much attention has been placed on the rise in numbers of the religiously unaffiliated and outright disbelievers in a god, Mitchell Stephens looks at a less-publicized aspect and that is that even those who still consider themselves as believers now think of their god in very diminished terms.
He starts with an anecdote about a woman who was asked if she believed in god to which she replied in the affirmative. But when asked the follow-up question of whether she believed in a god who could change the course of events on earth, she replied, “No, just the ordinary one.”
Stephens explains what he thinks is happening.
God once was seen as commanding the entire universe and supervising all of its inhabitants — inflicting tragedies, bestowing triumphs, enforcing morality. But now, outside of some lingering loud pockets of orthodoxy, we have witnessed the arrival of a less mighty, increasingly inconsequential version of God.
In 1820, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, himself a committed atheist, predicted that religion would not be “o’erthrown” but simply become “unregarded.” Despite all the noise and news made in recent decades by beleaguered adherents of one or another supernaturally inspired orthodoxy, that is the direction in which we are headed.
Religion’s supporters can take comfort in the fact that, so far, most minds still find room for some sort of God. But as religion recedes and we contend less and less with the strictures of ancient holy texts, it is an increasingly distant, indistinct, uninvolved, ordinary God.
It is undoubtedly true, as this cartoon indicates, that over time people have been steadily decreasing their expectations of what the god they profess to believe in can do or is willing to do.
This is the problem with the word ‘god’. People can interpret it as meaning practically anything they want it to mean. So maybe surveys should ask the more pointed questions such as whether they believe in a god who can change the course of events, rather than just about god.