Religious Americans: My faith isn’t the only way

Religious Americans: My faith isn’t the only way

America remains a deeply religious nation, but a new survey finds most Americans don’t believe their tradition is the only way to eternal life — even if the denomination’s teachings say otherwise.

The findings, revealed Monday in a survey of 35,000 adults, can either be taken as a positive sign of growing religious tolerance, or disturbing evidence that Americans dismiss or don’t know fundamental teachings of their own faiths.

Among the more startling numbers in the survey, conducted last year by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: 57 percent of evangelical church attenders said they believe many religions can lead to eternal life, in conflict with traditional evangelical teaching.

In all, 70 percent of Americans with a religious affiliation shared that view, and 68 percent said there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their own religion.


“The survey shows religion in America is, indeed, 3,000 miles wide and only three inches deep,” said D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist of religion.

“There’s a growing pluralistic impulse toward tolerance and that is having theological consequences,” he said.

Earlier data from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, released in February, highlighted how often Americans switch religious affiliation. The newly released material looks at religious belief and practice as well as the impact of religion on society, including how faith shapes political views.
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By many measures, Americans are strongly religious: 92 percent believe in God, 74 percent believe in life after death and 63 percent say their respective scriptures are the word of God.

But deeper investigation found that more than one in four Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and Orthodox Christians expressed some doubts about God’s existence, as did six in ten Jews.

Another finding almost defies explanation: 21 percent of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit, with 8 percent “absolutely certain” of it.

“Look, this shows the limits of a survey approach to religion,” said Peter Berger, a theology and sociology professor at Boston University. “What do people really mean when they say that many religions lead to eternal life? It might mean they don’t believe their particular truth at all. Others might be saying, ‘We believe a truth but respect other people, and they are not necessarily going to hell.'”

Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, said that more research is planned to answer those kinds of questions, but that earlier, smaller surveys found similar results.

– Source: Eric Gorski, Religious Americans: My faith isn’t the only way, AP, via the San Francisco Chronicle, June 23, 2008

The study of Americans’ religious beliefs and practices is the second analysis of an unusually detailed study of faith in America, a Pew poll of a representative sample of 35,000 Americans interviewed by telephone last year. The first report, released in February, examined the religious affiliation of Americans, and found a remarkable degree of fluidity, in which 44 percent of Americans have switched faiths or denominations, and that Protestants, who founded the nation, are poised to become a minority here.

– Source: Michael Paulson, Americans see truth in a range of faiths, massive study finds, The Boston Globe, June 24, 2008

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

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This post was last updated: Jun. 24, 2008