Pew views: Questions about Oprah America

rainbow vestments 04As you may have noticed — if you have taken a turn or two around the WWW in the past 20 hours or so (click here) — those amazingly productive people over at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have rolled out the second half of their lay-of-the-land study of religion in the United States.

I’ll kick off the GetReligion discussion of the coverage by looking at the national stories in the New York Times and USA Today. I would also urge you to head straight over to the Pew Forum site and check out the survey for yourself. We are very much at the stage where most — repeat, “most” — of the press reports are sticking to the Forum’s own talking points.

But first let me make three comments about the main headlines, which center on this question in the survey:

[IF RESPONDENT HAS A RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, ASK:] Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. First/next: My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, OR: many religions can lead to eternal life.

Question No. 1: What is a “religion”? What is a “faith”?

I am being a bit picky here, but I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I’m a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ. There are others who might have a “dual covenant” view of Judaism, but not apply that belief to Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, etc.

Other Christians may believe that, somehow, all people will — in this life or the next — face some kind of spiritual decision about Jesus being “the way, the truth and the life.” But if you asked them if that means that only Christians will “be saved,” they will say that only God can know that. It is highly unlikely that they will say that the Bible is wrong or that centuries of Christian teaching are wrong. Yet it is unlikely that all of them — even Billy Graham — will be strictly dogmatic about what THEY know about eternity. How do they answer this Pew question?

In other words, there is a reason that the first two questions in the infamous “tmatt trio” are:

Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

Question No. 2: Is the American press now officially defining “tolerance” in doctrinal terms instead of in social or public terms? In other words, to be “tolerant” now, does one have to hold a certain doctrine of salvation? Do you have to be a “universalist” on that issue and believe that all religious paths lead to the top of the same eternal mountain?

What happened to the old definition — at the heart of American church-state separation — that citizens were supposed to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs and allow them full rights of free speech and association? In other words, is it now “tolerant” to be intolerant of people that you do not believe to be adequately tolerant on issues of salvation? There was a time, early in American history, when one of the main points of religious toleration was to provide freedom for people to proclaim their beliefs, even if that meant evangelism by, let’s say, Baptists in a state that was led by, let’s say, intolerant Anglicans (think Virginia). This point of view influenced the freethinkers of that day, including a deist or universalist like Thomas Jefferson.

Question No. 3: Has there been much actual change in the beliefs of the more committed 40 percent of the U.S. population that tends to practice its faith in a more strict manner? For a generation or two, the Gallup Poll numbers have consistently shown that about 40 percent of all Americans are frequent worshipers and people whose beliefs impact their daily lives in a strong way.

You can read the Pew Forum data and reach the conclusion there is a lot of change in the other 60 percent and perhaps some change in younger people in the 40 percent. But I am not sure that this survey shows that the vague, foggy faith of “Oprah America” has really cracked that much deeper into the beliefs of the people who are in the pews and on their knees week after week. I am sure there is change — James Davison Hunter has been seeing warning signs for decades — and I think the Pew Forum folks are sharp enough to find it and underline it. But I still want to know more about how the “true believers” are faring in this day and age. Has there been much change there?

So with that background, let’s turn to the lede in the Times:

Although a majority of Americans say religion is very important to them, nearly three-quarters of them say they believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, reveals a broad trend toward tolerance and an ability among many Americans to hold beliefs that might contradict the doctrines of their professed faiths. For example, 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” including majorities among Protestants and Catholics. Among evangelical Christians, 57 percent agreed with the statement, and among Catholics, 79 percent did. Among minority faiths, more than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did.

The findings seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are, scholars who reviewed the survey said.

stoles 01Several questions: How is that mush word “evangelical” defined? And, again, has a real tie between religious commitment and this new doctrinal toleration actually been demonstrated?

After all, a few lines later we read:

The survey confirms findings from previous studies that the most religiously and politically conservative Americans are those who attend worship services most frequently, and that for them, the battles against abortion and gay rights remain touchstone issues.

And later:

As past surveys have shown, this report found that Americans who prayed more frequently and attended worship services more often tended to be more conservative and “somewhat more Republican” than other people. Majorities of Mormons and evangelicals say they are conservative, compared with 37 percent of Americans over all. (Twenty percent say they are liberal, and 36 percent say moderate.)

This turns into politics so quickly, doesn’t it? I wish there was a survey that really went hard, in very detailed language, about the underlying doctrines.

Meanwhile, if you want a fuller survey of all the results — and the over-arching trends in the vague 60 to 70 percent of the population — turn to Cathy Lynn Grossman’s reporting in USA Today. Here is a key piece of her long story:

The survey finds U.S. adults believe overwhelmingly (92%) in God, and 58% say they pray at least once a day. But the study’s authors say there’s a “stunning” lack of alignment between people’s beliefs or practices and their professed faiths. …

Among the highlights:

* 78% overall say there are “absolute standards of right and wrong,” but only 29% rely on their religion to delineate these standards. The majority (52%) turn to “practical experience and common sense,” with 9% relying on philosophy and reason, and 5% on scientific information.

* 74% say “there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” but far fewer (59%) say there’s a “hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”

* 70%, including a majority of all major Christian and non-Christian religious groups except Mormons, say “many religions can lead to eternal life.”

* 68% say “there’s more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

* 44% want to preserve their religion’s traditional beliefs and practices. But most Catholics (67%), Jews (65%), mainline Christians (56%) and Muslims (51%) say their religion should either “adjust to new circumstances” or “adopt modern beliefs and practices.”

Like I said, there are many, many, many more angles and stories to investigate. Tell us the best ones that you have seen in other media.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dale

    My favorite bit of data from the latest Pew survey information was this:

    Curiously, more than one fifth — 21 percent — of those who counted themselves as atheists said they believed in God while eight percent expressed absolute certainty about this state of affairs.

    That qualified for a belly-laugh in my book. I do think its interesting how most of the coverage has completely skipped over this anomaly, and the questions it creates about the reliability of the information contained in the survey.

    I also think its interesting how journalists have chosen to describe the phenomenon of faithful atheists. Eric Gorski at AP says it “defies explanation”. Ed Stoddard over at Reuters says that “some U.S. atheists seem to be confused”.

    Nobody is proclaiming the good news of greater tolerance among atheists.

  • Andy

    tmatt:

    “I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I’m a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ.”

    That was my first thought too. I’m reminded of my barber, an old Lebanese Catholic gentleman, who argued vehemently that Buddhists had just as good a shot at getting into heaven as Catholics. “After all,” he said, “We’re all Christians, ain’t we?”

    I figured out later that he had mistaken the Vietnamese Buddhists next door for baptists.

  • rw

    Terry,

    Your Question #1 is the big, noisy elephant in the living room of this story.

  • gfe

    I noticed the same thing that Dale did. It really does cast doubt on how seriously to take some of these numbers.

    Tmatt said:

    Question No. 1: What is a “religion”? What is a “faith”?

    I am being a bit picky here, but I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I’m a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ. There are others who might have a “dual covenant” view of Judaism, but not apply that belief to Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, etc.

    You raise a good point. Some of these questions are open to a fairly wide range of interpretation.

    One of them is the question about “eternal life.” What does that mean? I can’t imagine that the term means the same thing to a Buddhist, for example, as it does to an evangelical.

    And in Mormonism (to take the religion I’m most familiar with), “eternal life” as the term usually (not always) is used has a very specific meaning (what some might call deification). In the Mormon scheme of things, many good people will spend eternity in a place that is very much like the common evangelical view of heaven, but that isn’t considered “eternal life,” a term reserved for a higher level (so to speak) of heaven.

    Along a similar line, the Mormon teaching is that to attain “eternal life” one must accept the Gospel. But that can take place in the afterlife, so it is at least theoretically likely that the highest level of heaven will be populated by a majority of people who were non-Mormon in this life, and that they will benefit by the good things they learned from their religions in this life. So how do you answer the question of whether other religions can lead to eternal life? In one sense the Mormon teaching is yes, in another sense no. I would answer the question in the positive, while many who believe the same as I do might answer it in the negative.

    Tmatt said:

    We are very much at the stage where most — repeat, “most” — of the press reports are sticking to the Forum’s own talking points.

    And that is perhaps why many of the articles I have seen have used the term “dogmatic” to describe what Americans are not about their religion, because it is the term that Pew used in its summary. I’m not sure that’s the word I would use. Couldn’t one believe that many paths lead to heaven (for example) and still be dogmatic about it? Or believe that only one path to heaven leads to God and not be dogmatic about it?

    “Dogmatic,” although in one sense can mean little more than “religious,” can be a disparaging term. I don’t think it’s a term that can be fairly applied either positively or negatively to the survey results. As a journalist, I’d avoid using it in this context.

  • Brian Walden

    I think poll questions, as tmatt pointed out, are by their blunt nature often inadequate at truly capturing people’s religious beliefs. They also usually fail to capture the the tension between the beliefs of the group and the beliefs of the individual. Some religious groups place a very high emphasis on their official group teachings with little room for dissenting beliefs – on this end of the spectrum the word faith tends to refer to what the group teaches rather than what individuals believe. Others place a high emphasis on individual belief leaving room for a plurality of opinions under the umbrella of their group – on this of the spectrum the word faith tends to be more about what individuals believe rather than official teachings of the group.

    And just one comment on a stat cited above:

    * 78% overall say there are “absolute standards of right and wrong,” but only 29% rely on their religion to delineate these standards. The majority (52%) turn to “practical experience and common sense,” with 9% relying on philosophy and reason, and 5% on scientific information.

    I think this is hitting on something. This situation is often posed as a fight between absolutism and relativism – but I don’t think that’s truly the case. From what I’ve seen, while a large number of people may hold relative beliefs about salvation, most are not total relativists (that’s a good oxymoron) who believe that each individual has their own moral standards. Instead they tend to be more pragmatists – sort of seeing everything as a question of what’s most prudent or what works out best for everyone. In this sense they are absolutists, but not in the traditional style of believing in an underlying moral law that one must consult before looking at a situation pragmatically. I think the results of 78% believing in absolute standards, yet 52% relying on personal experience rather than religion to determine those standards tends to support this hypothesis.

  • FW Ken

    No time to read it all and comment, but I did want to point you to the Dallas Morning News. Their website won’t come up, but this was the big-middle-above-the-fold story this morning.

  • Ron

    I am struck by how hopelessly inadequate the poll’s questions about exclusive truth claims are to capturing the complexity of traditional Christian teaching. “Do you believe that the Orthodox church is the true church?” I would answer, “Yes.” “Do you believe that all those who are not members of the Orthodox church are going to hell?” I would answer, “No.” That’s a big distinction, but at least in the versions of the poll I have read about, it is not addressed. So, when people answered questions about other religions as paths of salvation, which possible interpretation of the question were they addressing?

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    To choose the second statement “many religions can lead to eternal life” is the mere Christianity taught by C. S. Lewis, the most popular Christian apologist of the 20th century, in the Narnia series and in Mere Christianity.

  • Gary

    I agree that the word “religion” can cause lots of confusion. Many Christians I know consider Baptists, Methodist, Presbyterians, etc. to be different “religions”; but all Christian. The word “denomination” does not seem to be used much by the laity.

  • Julia

    say their religion should either “adjust to new circumstances” or “adopt modern beliefs and practices.”

    Why are these lumped together? They don’t seem to mean the same thing at all. Heaven help a group that refused to do some adjusting to new circumstances.
    - – - – - – - – -

    In the UK, the common opinion these days seems to be that if you are strong in your faith, then you must necessarily think badly of other faiths. And that is a big no-no over there. It’s OK to go through the motions, but highly frowned upon to believe much of anything. People are even going through fake conversions to get into Catholic schools with no compunction about it.

    - – - – - – - – - -
    gfe said:

    “Dogmatic,” although in one sense can mean little more than “religious,” can be a disparaging term. I don’t think it’s a term that can be fairly applied either positively or negatively to the survey results. As a journalist, I’d avoid using it in this context.

    “Dogma”. From the 1911 Catholic encyclopedia:

    Among the early Fathers the usage was prevalent of designating as dogmas the doctrines and moral precepts taught or promulgated by the Saviour or by the Apostles; and a distinction was sometimes made between Divine, Apostolical, and ecclesiastical dogmas, according as a doctrine was conceived as having been taught by Christ, by the Apostles, or as having been delivered to the faithful by the Church.

    But according to a long-standing usage a dogma is now understood to be a truth appertaining to faith or morals, revealed by God, transmitted from the Apostles in the Scriptures or by tradition, and proposed by the Church for the acceptance of the faithful. It might be described briefly as a revealed truth defined by the Church — but private revelations do not constitute dogmas, and some theologians confine the word defined to doctrines solemnly defined by the pope or by a general council, while a revealed truth becomes a dogma even when proposed by the Church through her ordinary magisterium or teaching office.

    A dogma therefore implies a twofold relation: to Divine revelation and to the authoritative teaching of the Church.

    In other words, dogmas don’t have anything to do with what individual people think – they are the teachings of a particular church, or at least that is how the word was used for nearly 2,000 years now in the Catholic Church. Notice that the very important ones must be accepted by members of the Catholic church, but not necessarily believed. Nobody can force belief on another. The same way you might not get or agree with everything in the Constitution, but still you accept and abide by it to be a citizen of the US. So using what individual Catholics say they believe to characterize the church as a whole is going off in the wrong direction.

    The word “dogmatic” is often used to disparage Catholics, but by people who don’t define the word the same way as the church they are disparaging.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Polls like this are sometimes only good for cutting down trees to make newsprint.
    Many of the questions raised here by tmatt should be investigated more thoroughly–if, indeed there is a way to quantify and delve into people’s souls.
    I particularly like the raising of the issue of what has “tolerance” come to mean today. It seems that doctrinally or morally disagreeing with someone has come to be classified as “intolerance.”
    This is a big danger in the political world where democracy is based on a “division of the house.”
    Our current passion for “Can’t we just all get along and agree on everything” in politics and make it far more tame is the early faint whisperings of a desire for some form of totalitarianism where all conflict is crushed.

  • FW Ken

    Ok, I’ve read it, and here’s what Jeffrey Weiss had to say in the DMN. Well, the website has shut me out, so that’s that… I think I need to remember my registration name and password, and I don’t.

    There are really two problems with the NYT article (in my opinion). First, the data simply doesn’t support that:

    The findings seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are,

    because the findings making news aren’t controlled for actual religious practice. Which is interesting, since they did control on the hot-button social issues – abortion, and same-sex issues. Don’t pass out, but people who actually attend worship and pray regularly are more likely to oppose abortion and hold classic Christian views on same-sex acts. From the survey report:

    As with abortion, there are important links between intensity of religious beliefs and practices and attitudes about homosexuality. Across religious traditions, those who attend services more frequently, pray more frequently, say religion is very important in their lives or express certain belief in a personal God are less accepting of homosexuality than those who are less observant.

    So, here’s my question: is it unreasonable to suppose that people who actually go to church also hold more traditional views on their religion?

    And then there’s this from the NYT article:

    “It’s that we believe in everything. We aren’t religious purists or dogmatists.”

    What “we” would that be?

    Given the various problems with the study (noted in the comments above, not to mention the original post, I suggest this study says little that’s meaningful about religion. Heck, they even found that half of atheists think religion is beneficial, rather than destructive of society. No, “we” is Americans. This study is useful information about society, not religion.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I fear that, with MSM articles on the the latest Pew Forum survey and report, we have the perfect storm of:
    * An overreaching survey that tries to cover too much ground and includes many questions that are poorly constructed
    * A summary of the resulting 276-page report that tries to boil down results that, frankly, are all over the map
    * MSM reporters who are obsessed with politics, know little (and care less) about how surveys are conducted or what flaws may exist in this one, and are itching to call characterize the survey results as “proof” of what they have been reporting for the past few years

  • http://religion.beloblog.com/ Jeffrey Weiss

    Oh, sigh, about registration. Here’s the key section in my story that addresses a question raised here:

    About seven in 10 of those surveyed said they believed that many religions can lead to eternal life and that there is more than one true interpretation of the teachings of their own religion. Researchers admit, however, they don’t know whether, say, some Baptists consider Methodists another “religion,” or how different the interpretations might be and still be considered true.

    But a willingness to accept diverse views could be found even in members of many faith traditions known for strictly defined religious truths: More than 60 percent of those who said they were Southern Baptists said many religions can be right about how to get to the hereafter. And about eight in 10 Catholics said there was more than one true interpretation of their faith.

  • Dave

    Terry, where do you get these great graphics of religiously diverse stoles?

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