The Overlooked Dimension of American Religious Life

PaulDamascusRd.jpgThe Baylor Survey of Religion studied religious experience ( Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe. Almost scorned by theologians and professors and routinely ignored by research into religions, The Baylor Study found that 2 of 3 respondents reported having at least one religious experience and 45% said they had two or more such experiences.

Yes, the question is “What constitutes a religious experience?”
Here are the questions the Survey asked with the percent of affirmations after:
1. I heard the voice of God speaking to me: 20%.
2. I felt called by God to do something: 44%.
3. I was protected from harm by a guardian angel: 55%.
4. I witnessed a miraculous, physical healing: 23%.
5. I received a miraculous, physical healing: 16%.
6. I spoke or prayed in tongues: 8%.
Only 34% of Americans answered “No” to all six of these questions. It gets more interesting when you compare denominations:

High means 3-5 questions answered Yes (27%); Medium means 2 (18%); 1 or none (34%) is Low.

I give the Combined percent which measures how frequent such a denomination’s persons have religious experiences: 
Unitarians: 20
Presbyterians: 35%
Lutheran: 35%
Episcopalians: 37%
Methodist: 49%
Liberal mainliners total: 40%
Baptist: 59%
Pentecostal: 88%
Assemblies: 86%
Cons Prots total: 64%
RC: 40%
Mormon: 86%
Jewish: 9%
Women 50 vs. Men 38
Race: African American 68% and White 43%
Education: no significant impact. Woohoo!
Age: no significant impact.
Politics: Repubs 55% vs. Dems 38%
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  • Steve S

    Yes, the question is “What constitutes a religious experience?”
    I wonder, however, how much of this is colored by perceptions. I know of many people who would claim to have never had a religious experience of this type, until you start asking deeper questions…
    Case in point, and young man in the neighborhood told me he has never heard God speak to him, or had a spiritual experience. Upon further conversation however, he revealed that he regularly has dreams that he believes are from God. Until we spoke, however, he never really thought of them in those terms…
    One of the functions of leadership is to help others understand what they are experiencing..

  • Dear Steve S.,
    Yes, I think you make a good point. What I find interesting is how many people still name an experience religious or spiritual despite all the “logical” or “rational” explanations our culture provides. It seems as though, despite everything, God breaks through.

  • Diane Reynolds

    Also, this study seems very important as things like following God’s will (which would imply hearing God’s voice one way or another) and experiencing healing are at the heart of the Christian experience.

  • Jason Lee

    Steve S,
    You always lose detail when you go for breadth. But surveys give us a map of the broader terrain when all we’d be able to see by ourself is what’s in our field of vision. Maps always simplify, but that doesn’t mean they don’t tell us really helpful and interesting things. They also reign in our subjectivity. Someone may say Dallas is West of Phoenix. We can point them to good map and agree otherwise. When someone claims there are an equal proportion of Dems/Republicans among evangelicals a person could do a national survey and test this hypothesis.
    On the validity of survey questions: You can also make an argument that people give gut-reaction honest answers to a quick multiple-choice question. In an in-depth interview, they have time to think through and spin a yarn. An initial simple answer may often be a more accurate characterization of the person or their experience. Neither method is perfect, but brief survey questions are not necessarily inferior to in-depth interviews.
    Your comment, that there are probably experiences these questions don’t tap, actually makes the fact that education isn’t negatively related to having had a religious experience even more interesting.

  • josenmiami

    Thanks for posting this. I find it tremendously encouraging. One way I interpret the denominational and political breakdowns is through the incarnation. I like it when things are divinely initiated, but the truth is, almost everything God does is a unique mixture of the divine and the human … apparently beliefs do matter and those denoms that give a greater place to divine initiative and intervention prepare people to recognize and/or receive the divine initiative.
    I think the political party difference is influenced by an intervening variable: it is not that Republicans are more open to God per se, it is that more Republicans are Pentecostals, Baptists or Mormons and more Democrats are probably Unitarians and Presbyterians. Although that should be counter-balanced by the fact that more democrats are African Americans and women … I dunno … thinking out loud here.
    The good news is that God is busy interacting with people on a much greater scale than present church life might indicate.

  • Jeff Stewart

    How can “Pentecostals” and “Assemblies” be split (I mean in the survey – I know otherwise ;-D )

  • Reminds of the story of Presbyterian worship service. Some guy in the pews began softly saying things like “Amen” and “Praise God” during the sermon. As the sermon progressed he was getting louder. Finally an usher from the back of the sanctuary scurried down the aisle to the man and said, “Sir, you must control yourself.” The man replied, “I can’t help it. I’ve got religion!” To which the usher retorted, “Well you didn’t get it here!” 😉

  • I live in Kenya and among a population that makes no separation between religious and nonreligious, spiritual and secular. One would be hard pressed to find anyone who had not recently had any ‘religious experience’. But even though religious experiences are almost universal here, such experiences do not mean that they are necessarily Christian, or that one should imply that we are therefore more or less Christian. It does say something interesting about an African world view, as opposed to a secularist, Buddhist or postmodern world view, but that’s about it.
    The results of Stark’s survey are interesting, but in the absence of correlation with other surveys which indicate that the understanding of such experiences is minimal, or confused (I used to have religious experiences singing George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’, happily singing hare krshna until I later realized what was going on, and I was a committed Presbyterian at the time (so I suppose this doesn’t reflect so well on us Presbyterians). All kinds of people all over the world have religious experiences all the time. The problem is that we Americans tend to assume such experiences from a Christian framework. Maybe that was possible 100 or even 50 years ago, but it certainly isn’t possible now. That a majority of Americans have ‘religious experiences’ says nothing significant about how ‘Christian’ those experiences are; they do indicate that we are, after all, human.
    I find these sorts of surveys unhelpful mainly because they aren’t tied to any sort of reality, merely to personal preferences. For example, the statistics you cite in your earlier post on megachurches are paraded as some sort of proof that megachurches are ‘better’ than small churches. But Stark’s survey says no such thing. All it says is that when asked about particular things, more people prefer this sort of thing to that sort of thing. The question of which is ‘better’ or ‘more deluded’ of ‘healthier’ or ‘more biblical’ or ‘more Christian’–these sorts of things cannot be answered by opinion polls. Such statistics are not ‘facts’ in the sense that they prove something better or worse. They at best measure a kind of popularity. If doing things that are perceived to be popular is important to people, then I suppose there is some value in doing such ‘research’ and making use of such ‘results’. But I would suggest that megachurches, or American religious experiences stand or fall on the basis of other criteria, and that to confuse surveys with such criteria is not to clarify, but to obfuscate. I wrote more about your previous blog at if you’d like to engage with more of my thinking.

  • Wyatt Roberts

    It wouldn’t surprise me if you also found a correlation between IQ and those statistics based on religious affiliation.

  • Scot McKnight

    Bill, you’re over-reading what I said. Read it again: the narrative of what I say has to do with criticisms and whether those criticisms meet the text of survey results, which results are better than bald opinions. But come on … “paraded” … did I parade this? (Unless you suppose that the title was a claim — the apologetic is what the Baylor study is offering.)
    And in the sketch of the survey report today, no one is claiming these experiences are Christian experiences. What the Baylor study did, and the chp makes this clear, is bring back to the table the value of talking about religious experiences because in the past researchers have not dealt with experiences.
    I don’t know how you can talk about his evidence unless you have that evidence in hand.
    I’ve read your post and I like it; what you are missing is that the post is about debunking criticisms.

  • Jason Lee

    Quick, everyone close down all of the political science, sociology, anthropology, epidemiology, and market research departments and organizations around the world! And all of the survey research on AIDs in the developing world and social attitudes toward condoms and other health behaviors and beliefs is worthless. Tell everyone they should just work at those social problems haphazardly based on their day to day field of vision. Don’t bother allocating resources where attitudes are most contrary to positive public health outcomes according to survey data and census files. Surveys are not perfect 100% of the time, so disregard them all. Ignore the fact that numerous independently conducted surveys provide roughly the same results on more than people’s preferences, such as educational attainment and earnings.
    I realize my sarcasm here probably creates more heat than light, but c’mon … tell us you’re exaggerating. At least just a little.

  • DRT

    I hotly contest this with my son. I had what objectively could be called a moment of clarity that I feel I can attribute to God and my son says was a completely natural (meaning not-supernatural) event. I choose to say it was God, he says nature. In the end it happened.

  • Good one Michael. When I used to work in a warehouse (30 years ago), I was once trying to witness to a coworker. I asked him if he was a “Christian” and he replied, “hell no! I’m a Methodist!”
    William, there seems to be an assumption in your comment that only “Christian” experiences with God have value. I understand the need to guard orthodoxy, but what about the concept of the “seeds of the Logos” scattered in the world? I have heard of frequent revelations and dreams about Christ in the Muslim world. I seriously doubt that all of those people stop being Muslims and instantly become orthodox Christians.
    I think there must be some value in God’s grace working through natural revelation in pre-Christians …

  • DRT

    The most interesting statistic to me right now is the lack of correlation with age. Since age usually means the amount of time one has lived that means that if people are going to have such an experience then it usually happens at an early age. If not, then the percent having would increase with age.
    captcha: poles devolve

  • Jason #11
    A favorite adage: It is easy to lie with statistics, but it is even easier to lie without them. 😉
    captcha: forum survey

  • John M.

    Interesting post; good comments. Joseph, I like your point about God speaking and working with “non-Christians”. A very famous Jewish Pharisee had a “religious experience” one day on the road between Damascus and Jerusalem that not only changed his life dramatically but dramatically affected the course of Christianity right up to the present. Based on the data available he was neither seeking it nor expecting it.
    I wonder what it is about the world view of Mormans that cause their reporting of religious experience to be as high as Pentecostals? That one surprised me.
    Regarding age and religious experience. I’ve lived for six decades and my first religious experience (that I’m conscious of) occurred when I was 7. Experiencing God and his activity has continued regularly up to the present. I think a conservative estimate would be at least one a year. I would say, though, that probably the middle decades of my life (20’s – 40’s) were the most active in those experiences. That could be an effect of age, or my own devotion and passion, or, most likely, it’s because I fellowship in a different context now, that is less Charismatic/Pentecostal in it’s emphasis.

  • MattR

    To me, as already mentioned, the real question is ‘what is religious experience?’
    The only thing that I would mention is that the nature of the questions themselves assume a ‘religious experience’ that generally lines up with more conservative evangelical interpretation… so no wonder there is a higher percentage of those from evangelical denoms.
    I think when I talk to people, and even those from more progressive perspectives, you have to dig a little deeper… I know many who have a rich ‘prayer life’ where they encounter God but would not report it as that.
    And what about having ‘religious experiences’ through acts of compassion? (I’ve talked to those who would say they’ve experienced Jesus in the eyes of a homeless man) Or through intellectual pursuit? Or through reading/studying Scripture? Why are none of these, considered by most very traditional religious experiences, asked about?
    I know Stark is respected as a researcher… these last few examples to me though Scot seem like he’s coming with a specific bias.

  • Jason Lee

    This is a fair critique. But in defense of Stark, social scientific researchers have to start somewhere. Science builds on itself incrementally, often refining what came before. It is now up to him or others to test and extend these same or other measures of religious experiences common to other religious subcultures.

  • MattR

    Jason Lee (#18),
    Agree… and I would say anyone doing research is ‘biased’ in some way, just by nature of being human.
    I guess I was just asking, does this go a bit beyond that?
    To me, the way the questions were asked favored not only conservative evangelical experience, but in some cases specifically charismatic/pentecostal religious experience (“heard the voice of God,” “miraculous healing, “prayed in tongues”)… so why would it be a big deal to find people in those categories report the highest? Sounds more like a feedback loop to me.
    Research on religious experience in America of the ‘Christian’ variety, though including this, would certainly have to go beyond this.

  • Mike M

    In summary, African-American females who are non-AG Pentecostals are the most prone to “religious experiences”? I’ll buy that. And of course Pentecostals compared to Assemblies of God is like small business compared to Corporate America: smells and quacks the same but ain’t the same duck.