Poll: The Pew Forum and a Personal God

By July 17, 2008

Last night, a few bloggers from the JI, along with some other friends, informally gathered for some good food (chips and Jared T.’s homemade salsa … mmm) and good conversation. We discussed, among other things, the bloggernacle, grad school, and the perils of the job market in academia for scholars interested in Mormonism. The main subject at hand, though, was the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (discussed previously by Matt B. here and here). We discussed various issues, laughed at others, and expressed mild shock at still others. As Rodney Stark has suggested, the phrasing and language of some questions were probably interpreted differently by different respondents, depending on their religious identity.

I’m curious about one such question and what Mormons mean when they think/hear/answer the question.  In the question dealing with “conception of God,” the survey results show that 100% of Mormons believe in God. Among those Mormons, 91% believe in a “personal God” (higher than any other group), 6% believe in an “impersonal force” (lower than any other group), and 2% responded “other/don’t know” (again lower than any other group). Last night when we discussed this particular question, there was a discussion on what “personal God” meant. Curious to know how other Mormons interpret that language, I’m turning it over to the readers of the JI with a poll. Please feel free to comment and explain/expand on your answer.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’m interested in your best guess as to how OTHER religious people interpreted that question, too.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 17, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

  2. I tend to read “personal God” as a God who is a person. Given the KFD and Snow’s famous couplet, the results on this question don’t surprise me.

    Of course, it must be asked, what does it mean to be a “person.” But then, two of your choices above include the word “personal” or “personally” without defining those terms, so they are not entirely clarifying.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 17, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

  3. Ardis, my guess is that most other Christians read “personal God” to mean something close to the first option, and possibly the third option as well.

    Jacob, the results don’t surprise me, either, though I think that is because Mormons interpret “personal God” to mean a variety of things, probably more so than others. And my apologies for the poor answer choices. I used the general wording of the different possibilites mentioned last night.

    Comment by Christopher — July 17, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

  4. Christopher, I suspect your guess is right as to how other Christians would view it. In religious talk, “personal” has been separate from the concept of a “person”. Even for Mormons the link between “personal” and a “personage” isn’t very apparent all the time.

    Very curious as to what else you guys were talking about. Those blog parties are pretty fun.

    Comment by Steve Evans — July 17, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  5. I have to say that I read the question as referring to a corporeal God, and it didn’t occur to me to think of it in terms of a God who is personally involved in my life. However, after hearing that last night, that makes perfect sense. I would have to answer more than one of the above now.

    Comment by Jared T — July 17, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

  6. This month’s visiting teacher message is about our having been created in the physical image of God. If this poll were taken among the [admittedly miniscule] number of LDS women who actually had visiting teachers this month who actually gave the message and who actually paid attention and who actually know what “anthropomorphic” means, we would have an overwhelming winner in the second/fourth options.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 17, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

  7. Steve, there were of course a few obligatory jokes about the JI not being “mainstream” or “orthodox.” We also had Matt Grow and Pat Mason there, who told us a bit about their current research (on violence against Mormons in the South and Parley P. Pratt’s biography, respectively). We also discussed the current job market and whether or not being a Mormon (combined with being white and male) helps or hurts job chances. Matt was of the definite opinion that it does more harm than good, while Pat argued that the job market is tough for everyone, and as long as you do good work, you have a good chance at getting a job.

    Comment by David G. — July 17, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

  8. I guess it’s the wannabe philosopher in me, but I always thought a “personal” deity referred to a God with personality (passibility). But, after our discussion last night, I came away pretty convinced that many common LDS folk are thinking a number of things.

    Steve: Just to give you a taste, we talked about, among other things, what a “Dialogue” Stake would be like (as opposed to a Singles Stake, Spanish Stake, etc). 🙂

    Comment by Ben — July 17, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  9. Including who the Stake Presidency would be…

    Comment by David G. — July 17, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

  10. The adjective “personal” in religious context makes me think of the whole, “Jesus is my personal Savior.” Would that be #3?

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 17, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

  11. I’m going to succumb to the urge of theological pendantery and say that I’m not quite satisfied with any of these, but I’ll take a combination of 2 and 3. The key idea in the term as it’s usually used, it seems to me, is that God has identity and self-awareness, rather than being the sustaining force of the universe or the name we give the infinite or something like that. This implies, then, that we _can_ have an I-Thou rather than an I-It relationship with him. It does not necessarily mean he’s anthropomorphic. Very true, though, that these things become less precise on the ground.

    Paul Tillich struggled with this and said that God (who is Being-itself) embraces all that is personal without being a person. I usually like Lutheran paradox, but that’s a bit beyond me.

    Comment by matt b — July 18, 2008 @ 12:32 am

  12. matt b, that all seems about right to me.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 18, 2008 @ 1:10 am

  13. I would guess a lot of Mormons would check off “all of the above,” if that were a category, so I guess it’s not too surprising that the Pew poll pegged Mormons so high on the question about belief in a personal God.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 18, 2008 @ 2:41 am

  14. I have been reviewing McMurrin’s book, and so now a personal God means to me that God has a body (the anthropomorphic angle) and that God is part of the universe. He has a past, present and future. He is somwhere, and sometime. Thus the processes of the world and the universe have meaning to him. He has body, parts and passions.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — July 18, 2008 @ 7:49 am

  15. The adjective ?personal? in religious context makes me think of the whole, ?Jesus is my personal Savior.? Would that be #3?

    J., I think that would probably fit under #1, but #3 could work also.


    Based on the majority of respondents checking “more than one of the above” in this survey, I wonder if that might indicate that the Mormon notion of an anthropomorphic God (or that he at least has identity and self-awareness, as Matt suggests) is inextricably linked (in the minds of Mormons) to the idea that we can have a “personal” relationship with him.

    Comment by Christopher — July 18, 2008 @ 10:27 am

  16. Interesting. Doesn’t “a God with whom [one has] a ‘personal’ relationship” require a God “involved in the affairs” one’s life specifically. And if involved in the affairs of one’s life, it is a bit narcissistic to think that he would not be involved in the affairs of the World, no? So, in today’s age, does having “personal Savior” in Jesus, require an Arminian theology? I guess I tend to see interpersonal relationships as requiring independent actors. Can a Provident, ceasationist, and Calvinist God really have a personal relationship with anybody?

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 18, 2008 @ 11:00 am

  17. On thinking about this, I guess it is possible to “have a personal computer” without having any sort of relationship with it. Though I tend to think that the “personal Savior” language conveys interpersonal relationship.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 18, 2008 @ 11:53 am

  18. J., I don’t think the Calvinist God can have a personal relationship with anyone, but I also don’t think there are any real Calvinists left anymore, either.

    Comment by Christopher — July 18, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

  19. “also don?t think there are any real Calvinists left anymore, either.”

    Hee hee. There are! I’ve even met a few.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 18, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  20. 17: don’t get me started on my mad love affair with my laptop …

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 18, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

  21. Stape – on Jesus, definitely. Indeed, the whole point of the phrase is to indicate that through Jesus, the Incarnation, we _can_ have a personal relationship of the sort we mere mortals are capable of with the God who transcends the creation. God’s desire to cultivate such is why it was fitting for God to be born as a man.

    Comment by matt b — July 18, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

  22. Virtually all evangelicals would choose 1&3 and find the idea of an anthropomorphic anathema. And good Calvinists interpret such biblical passages as God’s accommodation to limited human capacities.

    It’s hard for me to believe that white, male Mormons would be at a disadvantage vis-a-vis white, male evangelicals. At least most everyone finds Mormonism and Mormons interesting, whereas evangelicalism is regarded as truly threatening by secular academia and evangelicals are regarded as at best a nuisance. Basically, I’m lightheartedly trying to suggest I’m more discriminated against than most of you.

    I agree with Mason, at least in the long run. Do good work, publish whenever possible, and the chances of long-run success climb. Academia becomes slightly more meritorious the longer one sticks around, and publishers are VERY interested in Mormon topics, so that’s a positive.

    Comment by John Turner — July 20, 2008 @ 9:25 pm

  23. John, thanks for weighing in. Your suggestion that “virtually all evangelicals would choose 1&3” confirmed my assumptions that that’s how evangelicals read the question.

    How dare you try and undermine the Mormon persecution/discrimination complex! That’s deep water to tread around a Mormon blog. I’m just warning you. 🙂 Even if you’re right that white, male evangelicals are as discriminated against, as least you all form a sizable minority. We’re still a relatively small group without much of a collective voice.

    I think the verdict is still out on how interested publishers are in Mormon topics. It appears that they’re very interested in work on Mormonism done by those outide the faith (see Shipps, Gordon, Brooks, hopefully you, etc.), but perhaps not as much in work done by those within the faith. It is interesting to note that most of the students in attendance at our little get-together the other night either are or plan to avoid an explicitly Mormon topic for their dissertation. Many of us have been dissuaded from doing a Mormon topic by mentors and/or the fear of pidgeon-holing one’s self as a inward-looking Mormon historian, incapable of addressing larger issues in the historical and/or religious realm.

    Comment by Christopher — July 21, 2008 @ 10:53 am

  24. Christopher,

    You make an excellent point, though I would point out that many publishers would snatch up work by Bushman, Givens, etc. But I think you are absolutely correct that there would be an inherent suspicion of Mormon history done by Mormons, much more than of evangelical history done by evangelicals.

    When I was approaching publishers about my Campus Crusade for Christ history, one asked me “Are you one of them?” I took that to mean with the organization, so I said no. Yes obviously would have been disqualifying. Nobody asked if I was an evangelical Christian.

    Here’s another advantage for evangelicals. As long as one’s not specifically addressing one’s current denomination’s recent history or the like, there’s also no church reaction to worry about. My gut tells me that as much as things have changed, perhaps that’s another good reason to avoid an explicitly Mormon topic.

    Comment by John Turner — July 21, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

  25. The actual question wording in the Pew survey (found here, on page 46) was as follows:

    Q.30 Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?
    Q.32 Which comes closest to your view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a relationship or God is an impersonal force?

    So, most Mormons (and evangelicals) were probably thinking of your first option.

    Comment by Allie — July 23, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  26. […] Pew Forum Survey and the belief in a personal God. A defense of the Pew Survey. […]

    Pingback by Best of the Week 4: Academic LDS : Mormon Metaphysics — August 2, 2008 @ 12:37 am


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