The Heart of Religion Q&A (Part 2)

With Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma and Stephen G. Post

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 In order to find the data you needed from the survey, what kinds of questions did you ask? Can you give us a couple of examples?

Our national survey revealed that eight out of ten Americans view God as the most powerful force in the universe, feel God’s love directly, and feel God’s love increasing their compassion for others. We also created scales based on multiple questions in order to measure benevolent behaviors, not just attitudes or beliefs. We measured whether this benevolence was directed to friends, family, community, or the world.  For example, we asked whether respondents “actively support causes around the world that seek to help the less fortunate” (a behavior) as well as whether they agree or disagree with the statement “it is important for me to leave this world better than I found it” (a belief).  Never before has this level of detail about the experience and expression of divine love been collected.

What are some of the primary survey results? What did you learn from the people you interviewed?

Encounters with God’s love are quite common in America. They can be transformative, both for individuals and their communities. At times the effects reverberate throughout the world. Our national survey reveals that eight out of ten Americans claim to have had such experiences, at least on occasion. Eighty-one percent of respondents acknowledged that they “experience God’s love as the greatest power in the universe,” and 83 percent said they “feel God’s love increasing their compassion for others.” Those who feel God’s love more than once per day are more than twice as likely as the rest of Americans to give their time to help others in need, and more than twice as likely to give more than $5,000 per year to help others in need.  They are also much more likely to help at the world level, rather than just helping friends, family, or their local community. Divine love was the only significant predictor of all six of our measures of benevolent service, independent of other factors like age, race, gender, income, education, political ideology, and church attendance.  In order to better understand these broad patterns, we interviewed 120 Christian men and women from all walks of life. It was from them that we were able to explore the dynamic nature of benevolent service.” This process becomes a kind of “virtuous circle” that sustains them and gives their life deeper meaning and purpose.

Scholars in America have been discussing what they call the “heart of religion” for generations. How is your study distinctive from others?

Previous studies have not picked up on the centrality of experiencing a loving God in the lives of benevolent people. This deficiency might well reflect a more general bias against plumbing the depths of religious experience – as opposed to belief. We have been continually astonished by the ways that our findings revealed dimensions of the relationship between religious experience and benevolent service that have largely escaped sustained scholarly and popular attention up to this point. The reader might also be surprised by the following findings:

• “Prayer” is a richly textured religious phenomenon that has been largely overlooked by social scientists. Some forms of prayer (devotional, prophetic, mystical) are more empowering than others. A few virtuoso pray-ers have integrated multiple forms of prayer to great effect and benevolence might be better served by this holistic approach.

• A spiritual transformation rooted in divine love is often intertwined with significant suffering. Although some religious subcultures have avoided or downplayed the centrality of suffering to the human condition, many of our interviewees continue to unflinchingly—and constructively—confront this issue.

• Anger at God is a normal part of the process of experiencing divine love and engaging in benevolence. Far from indicating lack of health in the human/divine relationship, anger—at a certain dose—is a signal that a deep relationship exists and is worth fighting for.

  • Religious beliefs are important, but the affective side of the human condition has often been overlooked. Our work shows that emotionally powerful experiences are key, and they often reshape beliefs. Our interviewees generally moved in one direction: discarding a judgmental image of God picked up during childhood socialization in favor of a loving and accepting representation of God that is more consistent with their direct, personal, and affectively intense experiences.
  • But perhaps our single, most important finding concerns the extent to which experiences of divine love are related to a life of benevolent service. For many Americans, the two are inseparable. And indeed, repeated experiences of divine love can provide the energy for a “virtuous circle” in which a positive feedback loop fosters increasingly intense or effective acts of benevolence and greater levels of well-being.

In just a few words, what would you say is the base finding from the survey? Why is that important to us as Christians?

Divine love is the door to a life of benevolence and prayer is the key that unlocks it. But experiences of divine love vary dramatically by denomination and across cultural groups. Our research therefore poses two challenges to American Christianity: 1) what can be learned from denominations and cultural groups that foster intense experiences of God’s love and how can these lessons be applied to other groups? and 2) how can Christians move beyond theological differences in order to stop working at cross-purposes and figure out how to work together? The contemporary church has become a house divided. Perhaps knowing the love of God and hearing God’s voice may deepen our understanding of these issues and point towards a common foundation upon which solutions could be grounded.

What do you hope your book, The Heart of Religion, will accomplish? 

We hope that our book will help people move beyond the structural shell of religion to investigate the heart of religion.  Demographics, creeds, denominations, social networks: these form the structural shell of religion. But our narrative is about how Americans wake up to the reality of divine love in a Christian context and then attempt to express that love to others through benevolent acts. This is the heart of religion. Our study focuses on the Christian tradition, but our findings may be applicable to religion more generally. More broadly, we hope our book contributes to a national dialogue on the role of love, both divine and human, in religion.  This, we believe, is the key to fostering well-being and the life of meaning at the individual level, as well as solving conflicts at the group level.  Ultimately, our book has identified some fault lines within American Christianity that will not be solved by doctrine or debate, but by love.  If we have helped to clarify what love means in the experiences of actual people, then we will have contributed to such a solution.


This can be used with permission and credit to The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love by Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post. Oxford University Press 2012

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