2016-06-30
How shocking is it that people who visit a spirituality-and-religion website like Beliefnet say they talk to God? Not very. But perhaps it's more surprising that those same people say they talk to God almost everywhere but in a house of worship.

Even more remarkably, God seems to be talking back. In fact, God is quite the chatterbox, gabbing away with people in almost every place and every way imaginable--in traffic, at work, on the beach, in the woods, in their own thoughts, in the words of others, and in the words of scriptures.

These are among the most eyebrow-raising results of a survey conducted by Beliefnet and Spiritual Cinema Circle. With the upcoming release of the movie "Conversations with God"--produced by Spiritual Cinema Circle and inspired by the bestselling book of the same name--the survey asked Beliefnet users about their own dialogues with the divine, and 9,866 people offered their thoughts.

Their response? Almost everybody--97 percent--talks to God. About three-fourths of those say they do it everyday. But almost none of them--only 1.5 percent--say they do it in a house of worship. And more than 90 percent say that God speaks to them in some form or another.

"These percentages are extraordinary," says Neale Donald Walsch, author of "Conversations with God" and its sequels. "Not only am I surprised, but I am also inspired.... We search for what we intuitively know must be true--that we are part of something larger, that we are not alone, that there has got to be something else."

Like Walsch, who began talking to God in a homeless encampment, most of the survey-takers don't do their talking to God inside a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. Only 2.5 percent say they think God is "more accessible" in a house of worship, while less than one percent feel that clergy have "better access" to God than anyone else. A large chunk--42.3 percent--feel God is most accessible in their daily lives.

"Everyone has equal access," one person wrote. "God knows your heart." Another wrote, "I have the best access to God because it is between only Us." "Excuse me," another wrote, "No one has better access to One."

Chatterbox God

Of those who talk to God, the majority say they do it "through my internal thoughts." Three-fourths say they speak through prayer, and almost 60 percent say they "talk out loud" to God. Others speak to God through meditation, dance, music, art, journaling, yoga, gardening, dreams, and a range of divination tools, such as tarot cards and the pendulum.

"All of the above," one person wrote. "God is not limited."

Nor are there limits, apparently, in how God speaks back. Asked how God communicates with them--and allowed to list as many answers as they like--people say they hear from God through the sound of their own thoughts (more than 75 percent), through music and art (almost 40 percent), visitations of angels (27 percent), and through other people (61.5 percent). Twenty percent say God's voice sounds different every time they hear it--kind of a "Joan of Arcadia" experience.

God speaks "through miracles that happen to me everyday," one respondent wrote, "but seem too small to be noticed by anyone else around me. It happens between me and God!" Another said God sounds like "the voice of truth, a recognition beyond the every day chatter."

According to one person, God sounds like Denzel Washington. "Gets my attention," the person--presumably a woman--said. "It is inexplicable!" another exclaimed. "It feels somewhat like a very still sound within my consciousness. I can hear Him, but I am unable to say precisely how He sounds. But that 'still voice small voice' is real."

These conversations take place in almost as many places as there were people who took the survey--in cars, on walks, at work, even in the bedroom, before sleeping and after waking up.

"I have conversations with God all the time," one person wrote. "I ask so much of Him. I ask that He help me get through whatever trouble I find myself in. When I can't manage a situation, my prayer is usually, 'God, I can't handle this. You are going to have to take over now!' I say praise words when I travel through the hills of my home to and from work. I talk to Him when I am stuck in traffic jams. That's a great place."

Most religion scholars and spiritual leaders contacted for reaction to the survey were not surprised that people were talking to God, or even that God was talking back. But they were downright cheered by the depth and the range of the conversations the respondents described.

"God is dynamic," says Mark Galli, an evangelical Christian and managing editor of Christianity Today. "He will use anything and everything to communicate with people, both the tangible and the intangible, and that is what these responses witness to in their variety."

But there was also a note of alarm. The Rev. Guy Sayles, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C. says he, too, was heartened that so many people talk to God, but that so few do it in a house of worship is "sobering" and "a call for reflection" to leaders of traditional congregations.
"I am still pondering what it means," Sayles says. "It really is a challenge if people are saying we believe we hear from and speak with God but it is least likely to happen in a place that is dedicated to that experience. I think it requires those of us who lead congregations to ask, Are the experiences people have inside our walls nurturing their ability to hear God, or are they distractions from such an experience?"

What's The Buzz?

What's all the talking about? Sixty-four percent say they talk to God about their personal lives as well as societal issues--and a majority--57.9 percent--say they have argued with God.

Being able to challenge God--to argue with God--is a sign of a mature faith, according to most of those contacted for reaction.

"Anyone who reads the newspaper everyday and doesn't want to shout at God isn't really reading the newspaper," says Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi and vice president of the Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "You should be able to look up to heaven and shout at God. On the other hand, the fact that you are annoyed with God doesn't mean you are going to walk away. That's what a real relationship is."

But the fact that three-quarters of the respondents say God speaks through their own internal thoughts is cause for both approbation and apprehension. If God sounds like us, how can we discern between reinforcing our own desires and the more objective "voice" of God?

"That people think God sounds like them is quite beautiful," Hirschfield says. "But if you hear God and he is always telling you what you want to hear, you should be honest and say you are not listening to God but, to yourself. Part of listening to God should be to occasionally be surprised or unnerved. There should be moments of sacred surprise and growing that comes from the discomfort of not always hearing what you want to hear."

Kay Lindhal is the author of "The Art of Sacred Listening" and the founder of The Listening Center, where she teaches people to recognize and revere the divine in the ways they communicate with others and with God. She describes God's voice as "a voice from one's center."

"It's a voice, but not necessarily a voice you hear," she says. "It is a voice that you feel. I think the more people have a daily spiritual practice they will know when it not their ego voice."

An American God?

While the news that people gab with God everywhere but a house of worship had some people concerned, others say such freedom reflects a very American ideal of the way religion works.

"What this portends is a wonderful democratic sense of God," says Jack Kenny, the creator of NBC's short-lived television show "The Book of Daniel," which featured an Episcopal priest who had daily discussions with a Jesus only he could see and hear.

"You do not have to go to church, you do not have to be a clergyman, you do not have to be anything," Kenny says. "It speaks to an incredible democracy to say you do not have to be on your knees to talk to God, you can be in traffic. It speaks of a real equality for people to embrace."

To Galli, the Christianity Today editor, it is the nature of the American character to define oneself outside the structure of institutions, including organized religion.

"To be American is to leave institutions and shape your own existence based on your will and your sense of consciousness," he says. "That has been a trend since the coming of the Puritans and their 'City on the Hill,' and it continues now inside people's hearts and minds."

But the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and former editor of America magazine, is alarmed that so many people seemed to commune with God only in solitude. "God," he says, "does not call us as individual atoms."

"Religion should not be a me-and-God reality," he says. "Prayer can be a richer experience when people do it together."

Akbar S. Ahmed, a Muslim and chair of Islamic Studies at American University, says the survey reflects the diversity of America's religious landscape. "Outside the U.S., we think of America as a secular society, with separation of church and state," he says. "But this confirms that people respond to God, that American people are religious in a very broad sense."

Final Answer?

The survey takers were also asked: If you could ask God one question, what would it be? To many people, it would be some version of the really big spiritual questions: Why is there death and evil, and why do bad things happen, especially to good people and the innocent?

"Why all the bad stuff," one person wrote, "hatred, wars, murder, etc . . . why does He allow it?" "How can you love such a perverse world," another wanted to know, "including me." And one person put it simply, "WHY??????"

But a chunk of responses were a variation on the Ed Koch line, "How'm I doin'?" As one person put it, he or she would use that moment to ask God, "Why can't I have what I want?"

So is this narcissism? Not according to Walsch.

"We keep trying to heal the world by directing our focus outside of ourselves and we can't do it," Walsh says. "People understand that when I solve my problems--get rid of my greed, get my behaviors straightened out--when I solve it over here, only then can I begin to solve it over there."

And if God were going to say one thing to humanity, what would that be? There were more than 7,000 individual responses. If Beliefnet can take a little literary license and create a composite paragraph based on some of the answers of what God might say, it would be this:

"Listen. Stop complaining and just listen to me. Love one another. Love unconditionally. Don't worry, I will always be with you. Trust me. Be patient. I am not finished with you yet. Be at peace."
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