11/30/2012 09:48 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

The G-Word: What Does It Mean to Believe in God?

Whenever I'm asked if I believe in God, I say, "It depends on how you define 'God.'" Use one definition and my "no" is unequivocal; use another and I'm on the side of believers. I know scientists who say they believe in God, but they define the term rather differently from the way fundamentalists do. Osama bin Laden believed in God; so did Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. That's why I don't pay much attention to surveys about how many people believe in God; they don't reveal much about people's actual spiritual lives, or how their beliefs manifest in reality. They don't even tell us what people actually believe, because they seldom ask, "What do you mean by God?"

The latest God survey to capture public attention was released last week by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. Titled "Belief About God Across Time and Countries," the study draws upon data from thirty countries, and some of the findings are interesting, if predictable. Predominately Catholic countries, especially developing ones, have the highest percentage of believers, while Northern Europe and the former Soviet bloc have the lowest. The Philippines tops the list, and the former East Germany comes in dead last. Not surprisingly, the U.S. stands out among historically Protestant countries for its high numbers of believers. And everywhere, belief increases with age.

The closest the NORC researchers came to elaborating on what belief means was a question about whether God is concerned about people in a personal way. Sixty-eight percent of Americans answered in the affirmative, but overall the number has decreased over time. That's about it. The study doesn't ask if people see God as a human-like personage with likes and dislikes, or as a transcendent, ineffable something (or non-thing). Or if God has a form, or many forms, or no form. Or if God is masculine, or feminine, or both, or neither. It doesn't ask if God has likes and dislikes, or doles out rewards and punishments like a parent, or is, instead, beyond such attributes altogether. It doesn't ask if God communicates with human beings or uses certain people as stenographers to create sacred texts, or if God is instead an indifferent abstraction, more like an energy system or a creative force. The possible questions are endless, but all that is typically asked is "Do you believe in God?" as if one person's "yes" is pretty much the same as everyone else's. This makes a mockery of the complexity and diversity of individual spiritual lives.

For what it's worth, my own impression, based on research (journalistic, not scientific) for two books, is that the G-word has undergone a radical change in recent decades. For one thing, large numbers of spiritually oriented people are reluctant to use the term at all, because they know how easy it is to be misunderstood. They'll say "the universe" or "nature" or "spirit" or "the divine," or some other neutral, non-sectarian word that doesn't carry the same kind of baggage as "God." The fastest growing religious cohort in the country -- the so-called Spiritual But Not Religious -- rarely use the word. Those who do use it are increasingly likely to mean it in a non-anthropomorphic sense, as something more like the abstract "Force" of Star Wars or a field phenomenon in physics than the Jehovah of Bible-based religion.

The emerging sense of "God" is consistent with what scholars call panentheism: the understanding that the eternal mystery that some call "God" is both transcendent and immanent. Put another way, God is in the world and the world is in God; or everything is Divine and the Divine is everything. It's a vision of the Infinite that is, when you think about it, more Hindu than conventionally Judeo-Christian, and it is the direction we seem to be heading if you look deeper than a "yes" or "no" answer to "Do you believe in God?"

This is a significant phenomenon, but perhaps even more significant is that we are coming to realize that, in matters of the spirit, what we experience inside, and what we do outside, are more important than what we believe -- or say we believe.