More than half of all adults, including one in five of those who say they are not religious, believe that they have been protected by a guardian angel during their life, according to a new survey by Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion.
The survey polled 1,700 respondents of diverse religious faiths: evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews.
Researchers found that a belief in guardian angels, affirmed by 55 percent of respondents, is a phenomenon that crosses religious, as well as regional and educational lines.
"While I knew there were a lot of people who had such [beliefs in angels]," said Rodney Stark, a professor of social sciences and co-director for studies of religion at Baylor University, "I wasn't prepared for the frequency of it."
But the results, to be published in Stark's new book, "What Americans Really Believe," underscore the fact that the United States is a religious nation. A June 2008 poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 92 percent of Americans believe in God.
John Ortberg, senior pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, who holds degrees in both psychology and divinity, believes in angels.
"A lot of times when people hear about angels, they think about these cartoon figures with wings, halos and harps," Ortberg said. "I don't think that's the idea. I think the idea is that we live in a spiritual reality and these are spiritual beings that God's created and we call them angels."
In the Bible, angels are portrayed as messengers, many of whom have the ability to intervene in human lives. Psalm 91 makes textual reference to angels as physical guardians: "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways."
Guardian angels have long been a pop culture staple -- starring in film classics like "It's a Wonderful Life" and the popular television series "Touched by an Angel."
An August 2007 Pew poll found that 68 percent of Americans believe that "angels and demons are active in the world"; 20 percent say they've had an encounter with an angel or a devil.
People may not be thinking necessarily about angels with wings, but instead about a loved one who has gone before them.
"My guess would be … that something has happened. People were in an auto wreck and there was some event that saved their lives and they interpret it as a guardian angel," Stark said.
On some online message boards about angels, many people discuss the role that they say angels play in their lives.
"I believe that my father, who died years ago, is one of them. My grandmother is one of them," one person commented.
"Without God and without his angels who have protected me in my life, I wouldn't be here, so it's a major impact," one person wrote.
Ortberg explains how angels may serve as a type of intermediary to better connect people to God.
"Sometimes I think people can be fascinated by angels and talk about them because angels are less threatening than God," Ortberg said. "The idea of a God who is holy and can hold people accountable can be a little scary."
Many established religions officially teach that miracles only took place during biblical times, but the fact that so many Americans believe that angels play an active role in their lives suggests that many have reinterpreted church teaching and engage in what one theologian has called "casual mysticism."
"There is a real and huge part of the human condition that we want to know that the spiritual is real, that there is a divine presence in our lives," Ortberg said, "and talking about angels is a very important expression of that hunger."