What Do Americans Really Believe?

A religion blogger at Beliefnet muses on some statistics on American religious beliefs, and struggles to relate them to his experience…

Have You Had These Religious Experiences? – O Me of Little Faith.

“Have you had the following religious experience?” That’s the question asked by the 2008 Baylor Religion Survey, authored by Dr. Rodney Stark and others, in an extensive look at the “depth and complexity” of America’s religious landscape. The survey’s findings are revealed in the book What Americans Really Believe, by Rodney Stark.

And to be honest, the statistics really surprise me. But maybe they shouldn’t. The surveyors spoke to 1,648 adults chosen randomly from across the country. When asked the question about having certain religious experiences, this is how many Americans answered YES:

I heard the voice of God speaking to me: 20%
I felt called by God to do something: 44%
I was protected from harm by a guardian angel: 55%
I witnessed a miraculous, physical healing: 23%
I received a miraculous, physical healing: 16%
I spoke or prayed in tongues: 8%

Whoa. This is why, around certain religious people, I feel like a spiritual weakling. Because I can barely identify with these experiences.

As an ordinary layperson in a mainstream, quite liberal Protestant Christian denomination, I myself find it difficult to relate to the above list of “common American religious experiences.” Does this make me a spiritual weakling? Am I of little faith? I don’t think so – because my experience tends to be personal and subtle, it’s not something that I feel comfortable talking about with total strangers (or blogging about, for that matter). I suspect that it’s not that unusual a case in many parishes like St Nicholas, either – we Episcopalians tend to avoid a fuss, or displays of great emotion or mystical transport.

This does not, however, mean that we won’t occasionally have priests dancing or playing the banjo, or people blowing bubbles in church (this actually happened last Sunday).

Jason Boyett goes on to say:

What’s the purpose of my personal commentary on these stats? Is it for me to point out that people who answer yes to these questions about religious experiences are crazy?

No. Not at all. It’s to say that my religious experiences don’t match up. I don’t fit in with these believers. It is hard for me to identify with them. The only religious experience I could honestly have owned up to is the second one about God’s calling — and then only with disclaimers and footnotes.

The problem is semantics and certainty. I just have trouble talking about God that way. I’m not willing to speak of God’s activity in and around my life with such concrete, this-is-how-it-is terms.

But some people don’t share my hang-ups. These are the people who answered YES in this survey. As a Christian, these are supposed to be my people. But I’m not like them.

I live and worship in a world where people hear from God, are protected by angels, and get healed. This doesn’t happen to me. Am I a spiritual weakling?

It’s not necessary to experience all the things on this list in order to consider yourself a religious person, or a strong believer; many people are not comfortable expressing their beliefs in so straightforward a manner.

And of course, many people would never darken the door of a church, because that would mean admitting that they have a spiritual inner life that they want to explore, but don’t know how.

None of us think we fit in anywhere, but sometimes we do find a place that becomes comfortable – and we’re not spiritual weaklings if we’re strong enough to admit that we’re different from the statistical norm of believing Americans. There’s a forum for questioning and rational discourse – even in church.

Such a forum takes place whenever the Book Club meets, for example – which was what we ended up with when the Adult Education forum finished discussing world religions.


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