Saturday, December 27, 2008

Of Surveys and Salvation

The Pew Forum has released a follow-up survey subsequent to the previous U. S. Religious Landscape Survey to focus on the question of what Americans who profess to be Christians believe concerning the exclusivity of their faith.

The previous survey of 35,000 Americans found that 70% of professing Christians and 57% of those who identify themselves as evangelicals believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life". In a previous post I suggested that perhaps respondents were thinking of many denominations within the Christian religion rather than other religions outside of Christianity when answering this survey question.

This suggestion was raised by many who analyzed the results, and the Pew Forum proceeded with the subsequent survey which included a much smaller sample of 2905 adults. It clarified to the people being surveyed that the exclusivity of Christianity compared to non-Christian belief systems was in view and, as expected, the results were significantly different. While the numbers of professing Christians who don't understand what Christianity is remains dramatically high (my conclusion, not the survey's), the Religious Landscape Survey's 70% of those who feel "many religions can lead to eternal life" drops to 52% that feel at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life (a distinction in both number and degree) when the ambiguity is removed from the question. That 52% of professing Christians erroneously allow for the possibility that some non-Christian belief systems may result in salvation is still cause for great concern.

Among Protestant evangelicals surveyed the results went from a 57% majority in the previous Religious Landscape Survey to less than half (47%) in the current survey who feel many religions can lead to eternal life. Therefore, it appears there was some misunderstanding of the question in the first survey.

Another issue I pointed out in my previous post on the Religious Landscape Survey is the question of the extent to which someone who identifies themself as a Christian or evangelical actually understands or practices the faith with which they identify. I pointed out in a blog post in July 2008 that a LifeWay Research study found that 80% of evangelicals reject the idea that eternal life can be obtained through a belief system outside Christianity when an evangelical is identified as someone affirming certain minimal doctrinal beliefs and attending church at least once a month.

In my blog post last summer about the Pew Forum's Religious Landscape Survey I had written:

For example, we think of an evangelical as one who attends church regularly, yet according to the survey, only 58% of those who said they were evangelicals claimed to attend church at least once a week. It would be interesting to know how the regular attenders would respond to the "many religions" question.

The recent Pew Forum Survey shows 60% of evangelical Protestants who attend church at least weekly affirm that theirs is the one true faith leading to eternal life, double the figure for those who attend less than once a week. Thus an obvious distinction between a said faith, or religious category selected by default (e.g., someone's relative belongs to a particular religion or the respondent attended a particular church as a kid) and a practiced faith is also going to affect the answer given. Obviously we don't know which respondents fall in which category but a further clarification of minimal doctrines and church attendance such as the LifeWay survey attempted would be helpful.

Interestingly, only 2% of the respondents believe in Universalism, or the erroneous belief that everybody goes to heaven.

According to the Pew Forum, nearly 80% of the U. S. adult population claims to be Christian, but only 17% affirm the Protestant doctrine of faith alone in Christ alone. The message to us evangelical Protestants is: America is a mission field. Let's proclaim the gospel. The message to the church: Let's make disciples.

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