One more look at Pew Forum survey

bluePews2A funny thing happened last week after I dashed off a quick post about that omnipresent “eternal life” item in the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Once I had read some of the survey details, I knew that I was going to have to talk to some of the researchers at the forum before I could handle a Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic. With my long lead time — write on Tuesdays, file early on Wednesday mornings for weekend papers — there just wasn’t time.

So I had to wait a week.

But then something strange happened. Some of the questions in that “Pew views: Questions about Oprah America” post kind of took on a life of their own. Before I knew it, Baptist Press had written a news story that included some of the GetReligion questions and then, a day or so later, evangelical activist Charles Colson did a radio commentary that also cited my post.

Frankly, I was happy for the feedback. Yet, at the same time, I also knew the Pew Forum team well enough to know that it would be very unusual for me to ask questions that they had not already noticed and discussed. Sure enough, some of my questions had already been discussed in the press conference announcing this latest blast of survey data. Click here to see that transcript.

Anyway, I still thought the earlier questions about salvation and eternal life merited a column. So here is the first half of what I ended up writing, ending with a crucial fact — that the Pew Forum team is already planning follow-up research to clarify some of the earlier confusion. This is the version that will eventually be posted at tmatt.net.

Ask Southern Baptists to name their religion and most of them will simply say, “I’m a Baptist.”

Ask Roman Catholics the same question and most will say, “I’m Catholic.” Odds are good that most Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and occupants of other name-brand pews will take the same approach.

However, some of these believers may choose to define their religion more broadly and say, “I’m a Christian.” A researcher would certainly hear that response in scores of independent evangelical and charismatic churches across America.

This may sound like nitpicking, but it’s not. Confusion over defining the word “religion” almost certainly helped shape the most controversial results from the new U.S. Religious Landscape Survey produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In one of several questions probing the role of dogmatism in American life, interviewers asked adults which of two statements better fit their beliefs: “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life” or “many religions can lead to eternal life.”

The results leaped into national headlines, with 70 percent of those affiliated with a religion or denomination saying that many religions can bring eternal salvation.

In fact, 83 percent of those in liberal Protestant denominations affirmed that belief, along with 79 percent of Catholics, 59 percent of those from historically black churches and a stunning 57 percent of believers in evangelical pews. In other world religions, 89 percent of Hindus polled said many religions could bring eternal life, along with 86 percent of Buddhists, 82 percent of Jews and 56 percent of Muslims.

But there’s the rub. It’s impossible, based on a straightforward reading of the Pew Forum research, to know how individual participants defined the word “religion” when they answered.

“We didn’t have a set of interview guidelines or talking points that we used when asking that question,” said Greg Smith, a Pew Forum research fellow. “The interviewers didn’t say, ‘Well, that means someone who is a member of a different denomination than yours’ or ‘that means someone in a completely different religion than your religion.’

“So people may have answered that in different ways. There may have been Baptists that interpreted that question as simply referring to members of other churches. Others may have answered with a more universal concept of ‘religion’ in mind. That’s possible. In fact, it’s highly likely.”

There is no way — based on this round of research — to know precisely how many believers have decided to reject what their faiths teach, if those faiths make exclusive truth claims about salvation and eternal life. Thus, said Smith, the Pew Forum is planning follow-up work.

So new information, based on a much more specific set of questions, will come out sooner or later. That’s good news.

Click here to read the full text as shipped by Scripps Howard. There’s some interesting new survey information from the Southern Baptists in the column, as well.

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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.

  • Jerry

    the Pew Forum team is already planning follow-up research to clarify some of the earlier confusion

    It’s nice to read a report where feedback about lacks in a study are going to be redressed with a followup story. Sometimes things work as they should.
    .

  • FW Ken

    Broken record that I am, I have to ask: will the follow-up study include a control for actual religious practice, as they did on the hot-button social issues of abortion and same-sex marriage?

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Ken: I am not sure how much more specific they could get on practice. They asked about frequency of attendance and private prayer and even about the frequency of perceived answers to prayer. What other questions would you like to see asked in this regard?

  • FW Ken

    Fr. Greg,

    I read the survey as well as some coverage about it. Honestly, it was a quick read, but I was looking specifically for the relationships of practice to belief. They asked the questions you mention, but those questions aren’t explicitly correlated on the “eternal life” question or the question about agreement with your church’s teachings. The abortion and same-sex data were presented in terms of the person’s practice, these other two sets of data were not.

    If I missed something, please point me to it. Thanks.

  • Joe

    “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life” or “many religions can lead to eternal life.”

    These two statements don’t create a clear read because they are not mutually exclusive. Yes, I believe that my religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, because it possesses the fullness of Truth, who is the person of Jesus Christ. Is God able to grant eternal life to those outside of His Church? Well, yeah. At least for the monotheistic religions I’d like to see the results of this question, “My religion is the ONLY way leading to eternal life.”

  • http://www.rebelliouspastorswife.blogspot.com Rebellious Pastor’s Wife

    I’m a field interviewer on social science research studies like this one, and quite honestly, while I don’t know if the Pew Study was like this, all of the ones that I have worked on have confused this in the questions they asked as well.

    “What religion are you, if any?”

    and then there is a whole list of denominations, as well as Buddhist, Jewish, etc. worked in. If someone answers “Christian” they generally mean they are either non-denominational or not an avid church goer.

    There also is often a question that asks “Do you consider yourself a ‘born again Christian?’ Catholics will almost always answer ‘no.’ But I’ve tried submitting to the writers several times that what an Evangelical means by the term “born again” is usually “I’ve devoted my life to Christ.” A Lutheran would say “that happened at my baptism” even if it was an infant one. Catholics, even though they hold to baptismal regeneration cringe from that phrase, as does most anyone who is not devoted to their Christian faith, since it has some negative cultural connotations akin to being a “Jesus freak.”

    The confusion is there on the part of those who write the survey (they often don’t GET RELIGION either) as well as those who answer who will say that they are Catholic, haven’t gone to church in the last year, would live with somebody, believe abortion is fine, use birth control, but say their religion means a lot to them…which happens a lot.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Ken: Gotcha. Missed the reference to “control” in your original comment. That would indeed be interesting.

  • Margaret

    Thanks for covering this!

    Thanks also to Rebellious Pastor’s Wife for her input.

  • Thomas

    It’s really amusing to see how easily bias creeps into comments like this one on the subject of the words “born again”.

    Catholics, even though they hold to baptismal regeneration cringe from that phrase, as does most anyone who is not devoted to their Christian faith, since it has some negative cultural connotations akin to being a “Jesus freak.”

    How can someone sit there and blithely say that Catholics are not devoted to their Christian faith? Are they sitting in the pews each Sunday with iPods on and Christopher Hitchens’ atheist tome?

    If you question serious Catholics, you will often find them well-informed on the doctrines of their faith, and rather personally invested in it. It’s pretty insulting and disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

    As to the “problem” of mutually exclusive truth claims; I would suggest that most Americans consider religion to be a deeply personal thing, and with some notable and virulent exceptions, are loathe to force their faith traditions on those who do not share them. That’s how you can get a very orthodox Christian and a very Orthodox Jew agreeing to disagree on faith tenets, while respecting the value of each other’s.

  • http://www.one-episcopalian-on-faith.com/ Dan Porter

    I remember an Episcopal priest telling me a story. A local television station decided to conduct a round table discussion on religion. My friend was a participant. There was also an atheist. During the taping of the show the atheist turned to my friend and said, “I’m so sick of you Christians always telling me that I’m going to hell.”

    “Oh, I would never say that,” my friend replied. “I fully suspect that you are going to heaven.”

    The atheist was taken completely off guard and for a brief second he smiled. Then, realizing that the comment was nonetheless an affront to his belief, he stormed off the set, yelling at my friend as he left, “You go to hell!”

    The TV station did not air the show, choosing instead a debate between two gardening experts on the best way to plant daffodils.

    Terry Mattingly has taken a good look at a significant problem of interpretation in the Pew Forum study, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. It all has to do with the question of eternal life. The good stuff is in the middle, indented:

    >Ask Southern Baptists to name their religion and most of them will simply say, “I’m a Baptist.”

    >Ask Roman Catholics the same question and most will say, “I’m Catholic.” Odds are good that most Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and occupants of other name-brand pews will take the same approach.

    >However, some of these believers may choose to define their religion more broadly and say, “I’m a Christian.” A researcher would certainly hear that response in scores of independent evangelical and charismatic churches across America.

    And that is a significant problem when survey participants are asked to choose between these two statements:

    *“My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life” or

    *“many religions can lead to eternal life.”

    Does the respondent mean denomination, a wider sense of tradition (for instance Protestantism), or Christianity in general? The problem, I suspect, is even more complicated.

    Episcopalians can serve as a good example. Some Episcopalians I know consider that Catholics and members of some apostolic churches are correct on the matter of eternal life. Other Episcopalians I know would consider all or most Christians correct. But for some in this second group, the question of baptism is an essential criterion. Other Episcopalians consider all religions valid pathways to eternal life, with some going so far as to welcome agnosticism and atheism as religions, in this sense.

    So Mattingly writes:

    >The results leaped into national headlines, with 70 percent of those affiliated with a religion or denomination saying that many religions can bring eternal salvation.

    . . .

    >But there’s the rub. It’s impossible, based on a straightforward reading of the Pew Forum research, to know how individual participants defined the word “religion” when they answered.

    I have a very good friend who will only call himself a Christian. He belongs to a large non-denominational mega-church. He told me he believes that if you accept Jesus as your savior you are guaranteed eternal life. “That applies to all Christians,” he said. “But I also believe that God, and only God, knows the heart of everyone. There is infinite room for many non-believers.”

    I reminded him of certain wording in John and Acts. How did he reconcile them to what he said?

    “We discuss these all the time during adult class,” he told me. “Our pastor sees these passages as restrictive. Others see them as enabling. In class, most people agree with the pastor. But at the dinner table, unless he is invited to dinner, they do not.”

    Mattingly has clearly articulated a problem in the survey. The survey is flawed. He welcomes more data and analysis. We must wait for it.

    I wonder, how much the survey is flawed.

  • http://www.sequimur.com/banditsnomore Richard H

    They needed not only to be clearer on “religion,” but also on “eternal life.” While the spectrum of understandings of eternal life may be limited among Christians, once you include Hindus and Buddhists, you find models that are very different. Now if the interviewers were assuming the popular personal eschatology – i.e., people live, then die, then go to either heaven or hell – their question makes sense. But Hinduism and Buddhism (in general) simply don’t think in those terms. They’re trying to escape the cycle of rebirths, not perpetuate it.

  • Dave

    For that matter, isn’t an eternity in Hell “eternal life?”

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  • http://www.rebelliouspastorswife.blogspot.com Rebellious Pastor’s Wife

    I wrote:

    Catholics, even though they hold to baptismal regeneration cringe from that phrase, as does most anyone who is not devoted to their Christian faith, since it has some negative cultural connotations akin to being a “Jesus freak.”

    I apologize. It wasn’t bias. It was simply poorly written. I did not mean to say that Catholics are not devoted to their faith. I know this is definitely NOT the case. I meant to say that many Catholics cringe at this term (though there are some who would describe themselves as born-again Catholics) and ALSO so are many Protestants, but that tends to be those who are not very actively involved in church life. While Christ said that in order to be saved we must be born again, it has a 1960′s or 70′s connotation by many. Those who are of historical, liturgical, formal traditions shy away from it (and I put myself in this tradition, though I would positively answer that I am born again of Water and Spirit) as do those who are just not involved in church much.

    The phrase “born again” either through media exposure or otherwise tends to make many think of Fundamentalist Baptists and Pentecostals preaching dogmatically from their pulpits, speaking in tongues, and many other things that often are not viewed positively by many in society and the media.

    It puzzles me why the question is even used in these surveys. If it is a measure of “devotion” then it doesn’t apply to some denominations (because I have never yet had a Catholic that I interviewed answer affirmatively, even if they were daily Mass Catholics and clearly devoted). I’ve clearly had many people in other denominations, who if they knew their own doctrine would say “yes.” Then again, it could be trying to try to determine a correlation between that answer and questions on voting.


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