Evaluating God

Fascination with polls is so great that an epidemic of attempts to measure the views of the public on a wide range of issues has broken out, as though such polling reveals something important about society. 

Often politicians, citing the results of polls will tell us, for example, that the “American public” is in favor of reducing government spending rather than raising taxes or is in favor of raising taxes, especially on the wealthy, rather than reducing government spending. Politicians pay handsomely for polls which they think will tell them how their constituents feel about a certain matter and, thus, how they should cast their votes. 

There does not seem to be an issue that pollsters do not think should be the subject of inquiry. As many realize, how one frames questions and what audience one polls can produce results which support a particular political or social bias.

After Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae (1968), some Catholic commentators, citing polling results, noted that Catholics who were no longer going to Mass on Sunday reported that they objected to the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception. This led some to draw a spurious causal connection: namely that in rejecting birth control the Church caused a decline in Catholics’ practicing their faith. 

It may very well be that many non-practicing Catholics reject certain features of Catholic moral teaching, but it does not follow that the teaching is the cause of Catholics no longer going to Mass. Correlation is not the same as causal connection. Nor does it follow that a sociological study of such correlations ought to be the basis of judgments in moral theology. Fr. Andrew Greeley, sociologist and novelist, famously remarked that the way to get Catholics to come back to the Church is for the Church to change its teaching about birth control. 

Neither moral theology nor Church dogma, however, ought to be based on sociological claims. If we discovered that many non-practicing Catholics found the Church’s teaching about Christ’s divinity unacceptable, should we then change Church teaching on who Christ is in order to increase Church attendance? 

Similarly, public policy, which seeks to advance the common good, requires wise judgment on the part of those who make such policy. In a democratic republic, the views of the electorate are expressed in regular elections, and elections are really the ultimate and only authoritative polls. Tracing daily shifts in public opinion as a basis for political decisions is corrosive of the common good.

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Sometimes its takes a poll to help us to see the idiocy of polling mania. At the end of July, Public Policy Polling reported on a survey it conducted of 928 American voters.  Questions concerned normal topics such as what one thought about the performance of Democrats and Republicans in Congress. There was even a question about Rupert Murdoch and the phone-hacking scandal, which engulfed his news organization. 

But four questions (out of a total of twelve) were about God. Here is the way Public Policy Polling summarized the results:

Though not the most popular figure PPP has polled, if God exists, voters are prepared to give it good marks. Voters approve of God’s performance by a 52% to 9%  margin . . . When asked to evaluate God on some of the issues it is responsible for, voters give God its best rating on creating the universe, 71% to 5%.  They also approve of its handling of the animal kingdom 56% to 11%, and even its handling of natural disasters 50% to 13%.  Young voters are prepared to be more critical of God on natural disasters with those between 18 and 29 rating it 59% to 26%, compared to 47% to 12% among those over 65.

Each of the questions about God took the same form as the first question: “if God exists, do you approve or disapprove of its performance?” Although 52 percent of the respondents approved, and only 9 percent disapproved, 40 percent were not sure. I suppose that it is heartening to think that when it comes to God’s primary role as creator, 71 percent approved.

But what is one to make of such nonsense? Of course, there is the obvious weirdness in calling God “it.” If the use of the traditional pronoun “He” is troublesome, one could simply replace this pronoun with “God.”

Furthermore, it is difficult to see what it means to evaluate the actions of a hypothetical being: “if God exists. . . .” Of course, there were no adjustments for the various senses of “God” in the minds of the respondents – or, for that matter, in the minds of those who conducted the poll.

The theological illiteracy in the poll’s questions has its source in the error of treating God as just another agent in the universe, whose actions are subject to our approval or disapproval. God is not a super moral agent, only more powerful than creatures. If God exists – to use the phraseology of the poll – what would it mean for creatures to judge God’s actions? 

Everything about every creature, including the ability to judge, is the result of the act of the Creator. When God speaks to Job in response to the many questions Job had raised, He begins by asking: Where were you when I created the universe?  Who are we to approve or disapprove of God? Shouldn’t we recognize that it is God who approves or disapproves of our actions?

In a way, it’s foolish to take seriously a poll about approving or disapproving the actions of God. Even if the poll is meant to be a kind of joke, it falls flat, since the very concepts and presuppositions it employs lack substance. Sadly, it’s just another example of the poverty of contemporary thinking in philosophy and theology.

William Carroll is Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Theology and Science, Blackfriars, University of Oxford.