Moments of truth

A new study finds that half of all Americans have had a spiritual experience that altered their lives.

For Neil Gussman, a young man dismissive of religion, it wasn't quite like the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. He was blinded, and the experience brought a spiritual transformation, but it occurred over several months.

During his stint in the Air Force, a missile explosion on a firing range sent him to the hospital with multiple shrapnel wounds. There he overheard a nurse say he could be blinded for life. While his sight was mostly restored within a month, another change had begun.

"It made me think in a humble enough way that I could actually listen," Mr. Gussman explains by phone from Lancaster, Pa. "The turning point occurred when I was willing to pray and acknowledge that God existed - two months after the accident."

While Gussman's experience 30 years ago was unique, millions of Americans say they share the experience of a religious or spiritual turning point that alters one's life and outlook. A national study released earlier this month, "Spiritual and Religious Transformations in America," reveals that 50 percent of adults claim one or more such occurrences in their lives.

"Spiritual change is a powerful experience in America," says Tom W. Smith, of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The Center conducted the study in 2004 as part of the General Social Survey, interviewing a statistically random sample of 1,328 adults.

"This gives statistics to what we sort of knew," says Martin Marty, historian and professor emeritus at University of Chicago Divinity School. "It indicates spiritual hungers and that people are now at ease talking about religion and spiritual matters."

The study also shows that transformational experiences are more common among African-Americans (64 percent) than among whites (50 percent) or groups such as Asians and Hispanics (46 percent). And they are more frequent among Protestants (62 percent) than Catholics (30 percent).

Surprising to some, the survey found few meaningful differences attributable to gender, marital status, education, or income. But regional differences were pronounced: Only 24 percent of New Englanders report a spiritual turning point, while 60 percent of Southerners do; those in other regions fall in between, from 40 to 53 percent.

That simply shows the power of culture, Dr. Marty suggests. While some Christian denominations emphasize gradual spiritual growth, others expect a dramatic conversion experience, and they predominate in different parts of the US. Not surprisingly, conservative evangelicals reported the highest frequency of change (72 percent).

In discussing the causes of their change experience, many respondents said it came as they dealt with a personal challenge, such as illness, accident, death of a loved one, or another difficulty.

Helga West, of Frederick, Md., found her faith put to the test 12 years ago during a spate of random attacks on tourists in Florida. Her car was forced off the road and she was severely beaten by two men. A TV producer, the young woman was also a long-distance runner, but doctors told her she would never run again.

Struggling emotionally, spiritually, and physically for three years, Ms. West at first became alienated from her friends and church community, whom she felt failed to understand what she was facing.

"I wondered how God could sit by and watch His child walk into harm's way. I thought hard about what I could have done to deserve this," she says.

At first her constant prayers didn't seem to get answers, and she became angry. At a low point, she attended a healing service at Washington National Cathedral, where she was moved to tears by a sermon on struggles in life, and the biblical passages it included.

"I felt it was God's way of saying, 'You are not alone, you've not been alone, you don't stand alone,' " West recalls during a phone interview.

"I realized in the healing process that what happened had little to do with me. In a bigger perspective, sometimes we're led down paths to learn very important things that enrich us in a much deeper way," she adds. "I'm grateful I've found a deeper spiritual understanding."

She has since run two marathons and founded a national organization to help victims of violence, Witness Justice (www.witnessjustice.org).

Gussman, too, has gone on to organize men's groups at his church. As a father, he values opportunities to teach his kids how challenges can spur spiritual growth: "Suffering has made me see things clearly. I want them to have that clarity without having a face full of shrapnel!"

Close to 40 percent of American adults have switched religions, and the study found that 58 percent of those experienced a transformation. But only 10 percent of people who experienced a change said they switched religions because of it.

Yet for Vicky Thompson, of Portland, Ore., changing denominations helped set her on her spiritual journey.

"My 'faith tank' had had a slow leak my entire life," she says. Despite religious devoutness in her family, sexual abuse had occurred over two generations, and the contradiction not only caused deep pain but also put her off her faith.

After marriage, she yearned to open the door to religion and began attending a Presbyterian church. For some time she was unable to conceive a child, but as she lay in the examining room after an infertility treatment, she reached out in prayer.

"Leaving the hospital, I was about to open my car door when I heard a voice very clearly say, 'God wants you to have a child,' " Ms. Thompson recalls. "I turned toward the voice, but no one was there.... I suddenly knew that I would get pregnant that month, and I did."

That parking-lot event "was the major turning point in my life to taking a spiritual path," she adds. "I suddenly felt that I do have faith, and it was like opening a gift you've always wanted."

Many who experience such changes say that they bring wide-ranging consequences. Most common, the study found, is the strengthening of spirituality, followed by improved character and behavior. Many spoke of changed outlooks on life, including a recognition of meaning or a sense of purpose, along with improved interpersonal relations.

Life even seems more exciting to those who have had such experiences than to those who have not, though the study found no other distinctions in physical or psychological well-being.

Statistics

50 % of American adults say they've had one or more spiritual and religious experiences that altered their lives.

65 % of them describe the experience as being "born again."

18-29 was the age range during which most (41%) said they'd experienced their most recent spiritual change.

90 % of those who attend church more than weekly report a transformation, vs. 26% of those who never attend.

73 % of those who pray report a change, vs. 15% of those who say they don't.

Source: "Spiritual and Religious Transformations in America: The National Spiritual Transformation Study, " National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, Dec. 9, 2005.

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