Measuring America's spiritual hunger

George H. Gallup Jr., chairman of the George H. Gallup International Institute and co-chairman of The Gallup Organization, the nation's best-known polling firm, has been surveying the spiritual life of Americans. This is an excerpt of a session he recently held in Boston with employees of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, which publishes this newspaper.

You call your work something of a ministry?

I do believe my work is a kind of ministry, because the most worthy pursuit and profound purpose of surveys is to determine to the extent it's possible how people are responding to God. Not only in terms of the response, but also what information can be useful to people in understanding where others are in their spiritual lives too. This is a new frontier of research, the inner life.

Tell us about your survey on 24 hours in the spiritual life of America and the development of a spiritual profile.

What we're trying to do in the survey on 24 hours in the spiritual life of Americans is to see how religious beliefs and spiritual beliefs relate to practice, minute by minute, hour by hour, through a whole 24-hour period. In this way we can relate beliefs to practice in a very close way. Are people thinking about God? Are they talking about God from hour to hour? And, how does this relate to their lifestyles.

We can project the results from 250 families to the entire population with a high degree of accuracy. It'll give us exciting insight into the depth of spirituality in this country.

In the other study, after three years, we've developed a scale which will enable us to look at the relationship of the vertical dimension, love of God, with the horizontal, love of neighbor, and how the two are integrated.

What are some of the more encouraging signs you're seeing in terms of the public's interest in faith, spirituality, and religion?

There's a remarkable surge in spirituality in this country today. We've documented it in surveys. The proportion of people who believe that it's very important for them to examine the meaning of life has soared in the last 13 years. The proportion of people eager to search for the sacred in their lives has soared in the last four years. So, we're at a moment of great discovery and a retreat from materialism. The disappointments of this century, the failure when we don't let God into our lives, when we try to run things ourselves, is dramatically apparent in the events of this century.

There's a great interest in spiritual life, and people are removing themselves from bondages of various sorts. Whether it's chemical or otherwise, the root to recovery is "letting go, letting God."

Is this just a trend or is it something deeper?

It's deeper, because when people escape from their bondages - hedonism, materialism, narcissism, alcoholism, and addiction to food, addiction to everything - that's when they usually discover God. I think that people don't often come to God until they have walked through a valley.

Are you seeing churning and elevation of thought in your surveys?

Yes. We see churning in all of the problems that afflict us, that don't seem to yield to solutions. And there are so many of them: Every other marriage will break up; the proportion of people that say that drinking is a problem in a family is at an all time high; child abuse and spouse abuse are much worse than the figures that you read about, because ... we can get into homes with telephone surveys, and you can't sometimes with social workers. The crime figures are much worse than we read about because half of people don't report a crime. So, we're just surrounded by problems that afflict us, and some of them aren't getting better. But, it's in those dark times that people find release. It usually takes two forms if an individual is in an addiction of any sort. They will look to God or they'll look to their neighbor - in those two directions.

We find that the small group movement in this country is really building. It's been called a silent revolution, and people are reaching out to others to get meaning in life, to come together.

What do studies show about faith and healing?

We've discovered that a third of the populace have had a remarkable healing experience - emotional, physical, or psychological. People see these experiences as the result of supernatural power in their lives. It's encouraged them to be more sincere in their spiritual, and religious, pursuits, and it has an effect on their lifestyles, too.

As faith and spirituality play a larger role in people's lives, how will society change?

In a very concrete way we're seeing that there is a lot of attention to faith-based organizations coming together in communities, bringing together various churches to work together with the other part of the nonprofit world; with the profit world, too; with law enforcement agencies, and other groups to bring about change. It's really the faith-based organizations that are in a position to make a tremendous change, because when you get right down to it, it's the faith dimension that really has the most power in changing a life.

You've said the focus of the 20th century was outer space, and the focus of the 21st century will be inner space?

One of the curious things about this century just about over is that we've paid very little attention to spiritual life. There hasn't been any really scientific effort to explore the validity of religious and spiritual experiences in people's lives. A third of the populace has had profound religious, or spiritual, experiences, yet we know virtually nothing about them. And these experiences encourage people to be more loving toward other people, to fear death less, to find life more luminous, to be less tense and worried about life. What could be more important than exploring that?

The other study we did, called "Varieties of Prayer," was, as far as we know, the first scientific study in history done on the impact of prayer on areas such as forgiveness, on the way people live their lives. Yet 9 out of 10 people pray, and people overwhelmingly believe that prayer works. They can cite prayers answered, they believe miracles are performed today, overwhelmingly. The supernatural is not something removed from people. They may not see God, but they feel the presence of God constantly, and I'm saying that on the basis of survey findings.

Regarding this probing: in the close of the 19th century people began to wander to see what else there was ... but now they are coming back?

People have been in a spiritual adolescence, going off in all directions, and not maybe terribly informed, in a sense. The total failure of totalitarian regimes, the incredible loss of life, the incredible bondages that we find ourselves in if we don't look outside ourselves. Maybe this is a period of reassessment, and let's pray that it is.

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