One of the most profound and life-changing experiences for many people -- yet one that has been little explored through scientific research -- is the "religious experience," a period or moment of deep religious insight or awakening in one's life.
In a June 2002 Gallup survey*, Gallup asked respondents to rate the statement, " I have had a profound religious experience or awakening that changed the direction of my life," on a scale from 0 to 5, with 0 standing for "does not apply at all" and 5 for "applies completely." Forty-one percent of Americans -- which projects to about 80 million adults nationwide -- said the statement completely applies to them.
In the latest survey, as in previous surveys on the topic, women and people without a college degree were somewhat more likely than others to give ratings of ‘5', but there was little difference by age. Religious experiences are not tied solely to those with formal religious involvement. For example, even 25% of people with no religious preference said the statement completely applied to them, as did 27% of people who said they rarely or never attend religious services.
Gallup first polled on this topic in 1962, when 20% responded, "yes," when asked, "Would you say that you have ever had a ‘religious or mystical experience,' that is, a moment of sudden religious insight or awakening?" In subsequent measurements of this question over the last four decades, the percentage has hovered near the one-third mark.
The religious experience, sometimes described as an otherworldly feeling of union with God or a universal spirit, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the spiritual life of Americans. William James made one of the earliest attempts to study this phenomenon in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902. Now, by means of national scientific surveys, it is possible to take a more systematic approach to this aspect of religion.
Many who have had a religious experience are able to recreate details, even the exact date of the occurrence. Such an experience often appears to have a profound effect on the outlook and direction of a person's life. Many recount experiences at times of crises, others in answer to prayers. Survey evidence also reveals that the experiences are more often gradual than sudden.
The Catholic Church scandals have put organized religion under a microscope in recent months, and many social observers are leveling accusations of superficiality at the Catholic Church and organized religion in general. But it is reassuring to find that for many people, faith rests upon what would seem to be a firm foundation: personal experience of a transformational nature. Whether or not one regards these experiences as actual instances of divine intervention in human life, the fact remains that for 80 million Americans, such experiences are very real and meaningful.
Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the finding that these religious experiences are widespread and not limited to particular groups. The devout would say that God has opened a way to find him, regardless of one's circumstances in life -- regardless of whether one is rich or poor, educated or uneducated, churched or unchurched.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,509 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2.6%.