A majority of Americans (81%) report that they have experienced God’s love, according to a new study. Even more have felt God’s love increasing their compassion for others (83%), showing that for many Americans, the experience of divine love and benevolence are inseparable. It’s an overlooked component of contemporary Christian benevolence, contend Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post, authors of The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love (Oxford University Press, $29.95 hardcover, December 2012).

Their findings reflect the spiritual revolution that has occurred in American culture, as the dominant image of God has shifted from hellfire-and-brimstone to love, and in which loving relationships with people and with God matter more than creeds or denominations.

The Godly Love National Survey (GLNS), an extensive random survey of 1,200 people from across the country, also reveals a surprisingly common pentecostal worldview in which the Spirit of God is experienced in everyday life. The authors describe a “pentecostalization of Christianity”—an emotional experience of faith that might include speaking in tongues, healing, miracles, and hearing directly from God— found in all denominations that is more important than any other factor in accounting for experiences of divine love. Self-identifying as a pentecostal Christian is the leading single sociodemographic characteristic for describing persons who frequently experience divine love.

The three authors—two sociologists and a theologian—are co-principal investigators for the Flame of Love Project (www.godlyloveproject.org), which has been studying the relationship between spiritual experiences and benevolent behavior in America for more than four years. The project was made possible by a generous award from the John Templeton Foundation. The study focuses on the Christian tradition, but the authors believe their findings may be applicable to other religions too.

Notable findings from The Heart of Religion include:
•African-American and Hispanic people are more likely than Euro-Americans, and women are more like than men, to report experience of God’s love.
•Prayer is a richly textured religious phenomenon that has been largely overlooked by social scientists. A “love energy,” it energizes people to help others. Some forms of prayer—devotional, prophetic, mystical—are more empowering than others.
•Knowing God’s love often allows people to see beyond circumstances when faced with pain and suffering, in ways that are self-sacrificial and self-affirming.
• Anger at God is a normal part of the process of experiencing divine love. Far from indicating lack of health in the human/divine relationship, anger—at a certain dose—is a signal that a deep relationship exists.
• Religious beliefs are important, but the affective side of the human condition has often been overlooked. Emotionally powerful experiences often reshape beliefs. Interviewees generally moved in one direction: discarding a judgmental image of God picked up during childhood in favor of a loving representation of God more consistent with their personal experience.

“Plenty of evil has been done in the name of God, so what good is religious experience for making the world a better place? Is there a true religion of love to be contrasted with a false religion of hate?” the authors ask. “We must humbly confess that as scholars we too see only in part, as through a glass darkly. But we have seen the ways in which the experience of divine love matters in America.”

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