Empirical Surveys of Religious Experience

Empirical research, mostly by questionnaire and social survey, generally shows that religious or transcendental experiences occur to somewhere between 35 to 55 percent of most populations. A. M. Greeley (1974) reported a 35 percent positive response in a national survey in the United States to the question, "Have you ever felt as though you were close to a very powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?"

The Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre in Great Britain asks the question, "Have you been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?" In a British National Opinion Poll in 1976, 36 percent of the population replied that they had, and this proportion increased to 56 percent among those who had received education beyond the age of twenty. Interestingly, Charles Glock and Rodney Stark (1965) found that, in the United States, 45 percent of Protestants and 44 percent of Catholics said they had experienced a feeling that they were somehow "in the Presence of God." Transcendental experiences, apparently, occur to less than half of the religiously committed, and to about the same proportion of people in the population in general.

In the first surveys published by the Alister Hardy Research Centre, responses had to be sent in voluntarily, so it is a rather self-selecting group. Over four thousand responses were received to an advertisement in the national press. The vast majority of reports were of increased sense of purpose and meaning in life, though there was a small incidence of fearful or frightening experiences of evil. Experiences of Transcendent Reality, if these reports are to be trusted, are overwhelmingly beneficent, giving rise to an increased sense of well-being or joy. The vague sense of "Something Other" is often, but not always, personalized into a deity.

David Hay (1990) conducted surveys in the U.K., based on the Greeley and Hardy questions and claimed a 36 percent positive response. At present, the Hardy Research Centre is undertaking global surveys, using suitably adapted forms of the Hardy question. So far, a survey in China (an officially nonreligious country) has suggested results very similar to those in the West. The interviewees were all Han Chinese. Only 8.7 percent described themselves as religious, but 56.7 percent said they had experienced a spiritual being or power. It seems that, regardless of race or official religion, about half the human race sometimes feel themselves aware of a spiritual force, power, or presence beyond themselves.

There are many problems with such surveys from a strictly scientific point of view. They are often very culture-specific, being largely addressed to English speakers in the Western world and sometimes selecting those who are already religiously committed or at least interested. More recent attempts to broaden the range to non-Western countries are helpful here, and if the Chinese results are confirmed, there is a greater chance of seeing this sort of experience as universal.

The other major problem is in deciding just what sort of question to ask. The Hardy question could gain a positive response from those who believe in the exalted spiritual force of flying saucers or in the presence among us of alien presences from the stars. The questions are very vague and susceptible to many interpretations, and they do not clearly distinguish between irrational fantasy and the sort of mystical union claimed by major saints. But at least they represent an attempt to gain information about what humans feel and think, and they indicate that "transcendental experiences" are recognized by about half the human race. It seems that, in an intense and distinguishable form, they occur fairly rarely and that they are vague enough to be interpretable in quite a number of ways.

Suppose we left the existence of a Spiritual Reality as an open question: what would the results of these surveys show? That claimed experience of Spiritual Reality is not common to all and is not an everyday occurrence. Yet a significant proportion of people have such experiences, which can be interpreted in various ways. William James characterizes "mystical" experiences as ineffable but having some intellectual content, as transient, and passive. R. C. Zaehner identifies three types of religious experience—nature mysticism, monism (a feeling of unity with all things), and loving relation to God. Ninian Smart prefers a twofold division into mystical (unitive) and numinous (encounter with an "Other"). The conversion experiences studied by Starbuck seem very different from numinous or mystical experiences. And there may be something odd about isolating a particular sort of experience as "religious" when experiencing Transcendent Reality may often be a matter of how a person reacts to all experience, not something special and intense.

The collected data suggest that there is no single identifiable experience shared by all, but there is basic agreement in feeling a sense of unity with or close relation to a Spiritual Reality, a union that takes various forms. The experiences may involve sensory perceptions—of nature or music, for example—but they seem to be direct, nonsensory apprehensions of a nonphysical reality.

If the experiences are illusory, then a large proportion of humans are deluded about some of the most important experiences of their lives. If they are genuine, then a roughly similar proportion of humans lack any significant apprehension of Supreme Spiritual Reality. It is as if they were "Spirit-blind." A naturalist account, on the one hand, can be given in terms of "peak experiences" or unusual mental states, so a naturalist can explain why they occur. On the other hand, a believer can explain spiritual blindness as a result of the alienation of humanity from Spirit, which has made both religious and moral truths difficult to discern and even more difficult to live by.

What most surveys show is that those who have such experiences seem to be, or at least to feel themselves, happier, more balanced, and more altruistic as a result of their experiences. Surveys by the Oxford psychologist Michael Argyle (1958) analyzed data both from social surveys and from clinical psychiatric reports from Great Britain and the United States between 1900 and 1957 and concluded that religious belief cannot be correlated with any personality type or identifiable psychiatric illness.

Religious beliefs and experiences are not caused by, or strongly correlated with, any form of psychiatric illness. On the contrary, there is a positive correlation between religious belief and mental health and well-being, which is well-documented by Harold Koenig's Handbook of Religion and Health (2000). That does not prove that religious beliefs are true, but it confirms the hypothesis of evolutionary psychology that such beliefs have positive psychological and social benefits. The fact remains, however, that such benefits would not accrue unless the beliefs were independently believed to be true. Such a sense of truth is partly but importantly given by the intensity of religious experience, which carries a sense of objective truth with it. Yet, since there cannot be public verification of such truth, a naturalistic explanation in terms of strong psychological inclinations to form untestable beliefs can always be given.

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