Define ‘religion,’ please

Define ‘religion,’ please July 2, 2008

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

The results leapt 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” can 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 this 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.

For example, it’s one thing for evangelicals to say they believe salvation can be found through “religions” such as Catholicism, Lutheranism, Pentecostalism or other forms of Christianity. It’s something else altogether to say a majority of American evangelicals now believe that salvation can be found through Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca and various non-Christian “religions.”

Meanwhile, many traditional Christians may believe that all people will — somehow, in this life or the next — face some kind of spiritual decision to accept or reject Jesus. However, when asked if that means that only Christians will “be saved,” these believers may say that only God can know that. The Rev. Billy Graham has given this kind of answer on many occasions.

The bottom line: It’s hard to write a question that will reveal how many Christians now believe that Jesus was mistaken when he said, as quoted in the Gospel of John, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In fact, a new survey by the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Research team specifically asked Protestants if they believed people can find eternal life through “religions other than Christianity” and only 31 percent agreed “strongly” or “somewhat.”

“The problem is that all religions make mutually exclusive truth claims,” noted evangelical activist Charles Colson, in a radio commentary criticizing the Pew Forum survey. “What Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus say about the person and work of Jesus Christ cannot be reconciled. They may all be false, but they cannot all be true.

“It’s called the law of non-contradiction. It goes back to Aristotle. If proposition A is true — that is, if it conforms to reality — then proposition B, making a contrary claim, cannot be true as well.”

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