“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:
felt called by God to do something: 44%
from harm by a guardian angel: 55%
miraculous, physical healing: 23%
physical healing: 16%
Whoa. This is why, around certain religious people, I feel like a spiritual weakling. Because I can barely identify with these experiences. Let’s break it down:
• I heard the voice of God speaking to me.
One in five people say this? That’s unbelievable. Like, the audible voice of God? I have to be perfectly honest: I’ve been a Christian for three decades, but I have never heard anything close to what I’d feel comfortable identifying as the voice of God. In fact, if you tell me you’ve heard the audible voice of God, the first thing I think is probably not “You must have just had a profound religious experience.” No, it’s much less charitable than that. Call me a cynic or a skeptic, but my tendency is to take a step away from people who talk openly about hearing voices — God or otherwise. Maybe I’m just a jerk.
• I felt called by God to do something.
This is the only one I can come anywhere close to acknowledging. Maybe. But it’s the “I felt” part that makes me hesitate. The Bible is clear that Christians are called to a number of things. Loving others. Serving others. We are called to freedom and peace. So I may be called by God, biblically, toward certain behaviors and certain directions.
But “feeling” called by God? If I feel a certain way, I’m more likely to attribute that to my conscience — a conscience infused, over the years, with exposure to the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. So if I feel, deep inside, that I need to do something specific, is it because God is calling me or because that’s what I know I should do? I know a lot of Christians will disagree with me vehemently on this, but it seems way too self-assured and super-spiritual to identify the promptings of my conscience with the direct activity of God in my life. I can’t speak of God with such certainty.
• I was protected
from harm by a guardian angel.
Wow. Do half of all Americans mean this literally, that a specific angel assigned to them has protected them from something? That’s amazing to me. But the survey also reveals that 61% of Americans adults believe “absolutely” that angels exist, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
For the record, I just can’t say definitively that I was protected by a guardian angel at some point in my life. I have had a couple of experiences where I was very lucky not to have been injured, but I hesitate to say it was because an angel protected me. Here’s why: If an angel is responsible for my well-being, isn’t that same angel also responsible when I do get harmed? Logically, if the same survey people got injured, wouldn’t that 55%
to also say “I was injured when a guardian angel failed to protect me”?
Somehow I doubt they’d say that. But my brain is wired toward logical consistency. If I’m not also willing to blame angels for sickness, injury, or misfortune, then it’s hard for me to credit angels for good fortune — whether I believe in them or not.
• I witnessed/received a
miraculous, physical healing.
Again, these answers go way beyond what I’d be willing to say with any certainty. Despite my immersion in church culture, the only “miraculous” healings I’ve heard of are the kinds where people had back problems and now they don’t, or someone’s cancer “miraculously” went into remission, or someone announces that God healed them from a chemical imbalance in their
brain. All stuff that either 1) you can’t document medically; or 2) you can totally explain medically.
I’m not discounting that people have been healed in unexplained ways. What I’m saying is that, personally, I’ve never seen anything that truly can’t be explained, like an amputated limb that grows back. But one in five people say they’ve seen a miraculous, physical healing.
One in seven have had it happen to them. Not me.
• I spoke or prayed in tongues.
I grew up Southern Baptist, so we were suspicious of tongues-speakers anyway. But in my late teenage years — which I wrote about in chapter 5 of my book — I actively pursued the charismatic gifts. I wanted to speak in tongues. I prayed for it, hard. I wanted it more than just about anything else.
It never happened.
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?
For what it’s worth, this survey has been pretty
controversial. For one thing, it found that more than 90% of
the American people believe in God; the Council
for Secular Humanism disputes these findings, citing Harris polls
that indicate up to 20% of Americans are skeptical about God…only they’re reluctant to identify themselves as atheists because of the
negative backlash they expect to receive. But we’ll save that controversy for another blog post.