Guest Co-Author Margaret M. Poloma on ‘The Heart of Religion’

Guest Author: Margaret M. Poloma

Margaret - CopyRecent news accounts on the demise of religion have a familiar ring. As a graduate student in sociology in the 1960s, I was invited by a professor to study this ancient institution that was dying before our very eyes. I accepted the invitation and have spent decades researching religion with a particular interest in the experiential dimension of religion. I observed that mainline religion in the United States indeed was undergoing what my graduate school professor described as a “gathering storm.”  At the same time it became apparent that evangelical Protestantism (especially the Pentecostal sector) was thriving. Once again media accounts are reporting that American religion is in peril in the 21st century as church membership ages, fewer elect to wear denominational labels, and the very word “religion” is in trouble as believers and non-believers alike claim they are not “religious.” So is religion dying – or is it simply undergoing another metamorphosis?

In The Heart of Religion co-authors theologian Stephen G. PostThe heart of religion and sociologist Matthew T. Lee and I chose to focus not on the changing structure of religion but rather on the effects of perceived encounters with God on social attitudes and behavior.  The analysis of our empirical data supports the thesis that there is an important relationship between an experiential knowledge of God and benevolence. Love is at the heart of religion – personal experiences of the love of God and then giving that love away to others in benevolent service. Matt and I interviewed over 100 men and women from across America known for their good works, listened to their stories and developed an instrument for a national survey. The statistical results of the survey demonstrated that our prominent interviewees were not alone. Throughout America, people of all ages, races, and ethnicities enter into prayerful relationships with God that energize good works.

Prayer can be likened to breathing as a spiritual life force. Almost nine out of ten survey respondents claimed to pray.  Nearly all prayers engaged in devotional prayer with formally and informally constructed messages directed to God.  For a significant minority prayer was limited to a one-way conversation likened to “leaving messages to God on an answering machine” — messages that may or may not be answered. But for the clear majority God responded with personal loving affirmations, encouragement, and directions. These prophetic prayers claimed to experience a sense of divine empowerment – even direct instructions –leaving them somewhat more likely to reach out to the stranger in their communities or to those in need beyond America’s shores. And while almost all prayers talk to God and a majority dialogue with God, a significant minority (four out of ten) reported experiencing union with God.  These three forms of prayer – Devotional, Prophetic, and Mystical – apparently work together to bring prayers into deeper awareness of God’s love –divine love that they feel compelled to share. Just as different breathing techniques can be used to enhance physical goals, so too can varying prayer activities and experiences promote ongoing spiritual transformation, including an increased desire to help others.

Author Bio:

Margaret M. Poloma, Ph.D. (Professor Emerita; The University of Akron) has written extensively about religious experience in contemporary American society, including pioneering studies of prayer, Pentecostalism, contemporary revivals and divine healing. 

Her most recent work is a team effort that explores the dynamic process through which experiences of the divine contribute to a better understanding human benevolence. Major findings from this research are found in Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post, The Heart of Religion:Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Leave a Reply

Stay Connected