When asked to precisely define my religious beliefs, I always say I am first and foremost a universalist – one who believes there are many paths to find God and Truth, and that no one will be condemned to eternal damnation. As I said in my first post on this blog, I grew up in a fundamentalist church, but I was unable reconcile the concept of hell with a God of Love.
Now it appears that I’m far from the only person who feels that way. A new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life says that a majority of Americans believe that at least some non-Christians can attain eternal life.
This came out in an earlier survey, but its question was phrased ambiguously: “can followers of other religions gain eternal life?” That might cause, say, Baptists to think “other religions” means Methodists or Catholics. A follow-up survey was more specific. Among all respondents, 53% say Hinduism can lead to eternal life, 52% say Islam can, and 42% say Atheism can.
Even more encouraging was that among White Evangelicals (who are by and large the most conservative, most exclusivist of all Christians) 64% give a positive response for Judaism, 35% for Islam, and 26% for Atheism. While that’s far from a majority, it’s still a significant minority, it’s an improvement and it gives hope for the future of these denominations.
Naturally, not everyone sees this as a good thing. Rev. Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (a part of the ultraconservative Southern Baptist Convention) says:
“This survey cannot easily be dismissed. The specificity of the responses and the quality of the research sample indicate that we face a serious decline in confidence in the Gospel. When 34% of white evangelicals reject the truth that Jesus is the only Savior, we are witnessing a virtual collapse of evangelical theology.”
As the old bumper sticker says, “if the people will lead, then the leaders will follow.” Rank and file members of even conservative denominations live in a diverse world, and their experience shows them the inherent injustice of religious exclusivity. That’s something the theologians in their closed-off fundamentalist worlds can’t see.
This is good news for all religious liberals, as well as a reminder of the value of diversity.