A very surprising fact has emerged from the second part of the Landscape of American Religion study by the Pew Research Center. And spin doctors have emerged from many fronts. In their large, random sample of Americans, Pew interviewers asked this question among others:
- 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: My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life, or Many religions can lead to eternal life.
Much to everyone's amazement 70 percent of Americans picked the second statement and only 24 percent picked the first statement. Among Hindu, Buddhist, mainline Protestant, Jewish and Catholic respondents, 80 percent or more picked the second statement. The majority of Evangelicals (57 percent) did the same. Only members of the Later-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses had a majority who picked the first statement.
The percentages who picked the second statement in some denominations of interest:
- Seventh-day Adventist Church - 65 percent
- Church of the Nazarene - 63 percent
- Southern Baptist Convention - 61 percent
- Church of Christ - 56 percent
- Assemblies of God - 53 percent
- Church of God in Christ (COGIC) - 54 percent
- Independent Black Baptist churches - 60 percent
Dr. Rodney Stark, one of the foremost sociologists of religion in America today, professor at Baylor University, was quickly quoted in the news media unhappy with the results. He expressed what can only be described as a put-down for the Pew Research Center and stated that the terms "my religion" and "many religions" were not clear enough. He thinks that many of the respondents were thinking of other Christian denominations and not more widely.
Dr. Stark points out that a Baylor survey asked the question this way: "How many of the following people do you think will go to heaven?" which was followed by a list of specific religions that respondents reacted to yes or now. For example, Dr. Stark says, when asked about Buddhists, 16 percent said "none," 8 percent said "a few," 5 percent said "about half," 22 percent said "most" and 10 percent said "all." The largest group, 39 percent, said they had "no opinion."
Dr. Stark thinks his question is better, but it has a very large percentage of respondents who had no opinion, which is often a good indicator that a question is poorly constructed. People don't answer because they don't understand it. If you remove the 39 percent "no opinion," then 60 percent of the respondents think that half or more of Buddhists are going to heaven and 73 percent think that at least a few Buddhists will go to heaven. That is surprisingly close to the Pew results.
I think Dr. Stark really understands what is happening. He admits that changing attitudes are moving in a more universalistic direction. In the past, he told a journalist, "you would have had ... many more saying 'none' and most people would have had an opinion. Most people now are saying 'I don't know.'"
Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist researcher, director of LifeWay Research, also expressed disagreement with the Pew study. He too was concerned about the way the question was asked. He has asked a similar question in a study that will be published later this year:
- How much do you agree or disagree: If a person is sincerely seeking God, he/she can obtain eternal life through religions other than Christianity. [This could be answered on a five-point scale; Agree strongly or somewhat, Disagree strongly or somewhat, or nor sure.]
Stetzer says that 31 percent of "Protestant churchgoers" agree, 40 percent disagreed and 28 percent were not sure how to answer. Among Evangelical church attenders, 49 percent disagreed.
But in the same statement, Stetzer's associate director, Scott McConnell, says "the Pew study is directionally right" and admits that "a surprisingly small number of self-identified American Christians believe in the exclusivity of Christ" as the path to salvation.
Bottom line, the disagreement is about the speed at which attitudes are changing, not the direction or actuality of change. How fast is postmodern faith arriving in America?
What does this mean?
More and more Americans of almost all faiths, even in the more conservative Protestant churches, no longer hold to the traditional claim that "this is the only path to salvation." They are much more open to the idea that different people may find their way to God through different theologies, practices, organizations and approaches. They are probably not ready to say that all faiths are equally good; they still have preferences. But, they are unwilling to deny salvation to the person who chooses a different brand of religion, if that person is just as sincere as they are.
This is the essence of postmodern religion. Authentic spirituality is more important than organized religion. Sincere faith is more important than orthodox doctrines. There is nothing at hand that will make those ideas go away, except to move back to the kind of segregation and conflict between religions that has existed throughout much of recorded history. The heat dims in northern Ireland, Bosnia, etc., we are all relieved. We pray for the same tolerance among sects in Iraq and Pakistan. But that heat is related to what has kept so many people exclusive in their notion of "true religion." And as religions are less likely to persecute or kill one another, then they being to live in mixed neighborhoods, inter-marry and becomes impossible to believe that the parents of one's adored daughter-in-law are going to hell because they pray in a different way and study a somewhat different scripture.
How do we maintain the claims of Christ in such an environment? What is the mission of faithful followers of Jesus in the postmodern context?