Unpacking the Pew Study and Evangelicals’ View of Pathways to Eternal Life

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The statistic that is getting a lot of airtime on the blogs is that 57% of evangelical Christians said that many religions can lead to eternal life (which is actually one of the lowest percentages among groups in the study).

Most people are drawing their conclusions based on this chart. Based on this chart how would you assume this question was asked? In all the synopsis and reviews of this study I don’t find anyone discussing how this question was asked and what this question is really measuring. Here is the original question: [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.

Surveys are tricky and the wording of the question is everything. This question doesn’t take into account people who view hell as an eternal existence, that others who are not of their faith will indeed live forever (just not in heaven). It also singles our religion over relationship “my religion is the one, true faith…” People equate religion with a set of practices rather than an actual relationship. Not many people are going to say the way they “do church” is the only way to get to heaven. It is also an either or with no middle ground. This data is not very rich because it only measures poles – this or that with no way to measure how close someone is to one or the other. A good survey instrument normally gives a few more options that try to measure between the extremes. I think this question is fatally flawed. It does shed some light on a general trend but it may not tell us what appears on face value and based on the short review of the study and charts provided by Pew.

I also wanted to mention that Pew did provide a link to another of their websites that allows you to explore the results a little more in depth. Here is the link to that tool. There you can break things down a lot more specifically and get a better picture than the article that most people are reading from. You can also read how the questions in the survey were worded. Also, if you want to download the full 268 page report click here.

0 Responses

  1. I appreciate the detailed attention you are giving this. Personally, I dislike dealing with surveys and stats.

    This is a tricky survey. If you ask the average Baptist (as an example) these questions they may equate “religion” with “denomination” and then the answer would most definitely be “no,” they don’t think their “religion” is the only way.

    There is also the fact that many evangelicals don’t like saying they practice a religion, but have a relationship with God (and are church-goers). I understand the reason they make the distinction, but I don’t think it’s terribly accurate, and it futher muddies the subject.

    Given all this, of course Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are more likely to ascribe salvation to their “religion,” as they see it distinct from all other denominations, sects or fellowships.

  2. I also want to say thanks, Matt.

    I wondered about the distinction Adam explained, also.

    I’m beginning to wonder if this survey has any substantive value at all…

  3. I think there is some value in the survey. With such a large sample size I am sure they captured something. You just have to make sure you understand how people would interpret the question. The more ambiguous the question, the less accurately you are measuring what you are attempting to measure. I would pay more attention to the questions on prayer and attendance that are much more clearly definable and were laid out very clearly and unmistakably in this survey.

    Just my 2 cents.

  4. a great deal of my life is spent in surveys & research data, so I appreciate your insights matt

    i must say, tho, that this syncs with so many other trends & anaecdotal data points – at least from my POV

  5. Bob,

    Thanks for stopping by. It is helpful if something has some “face validity” to it – that it matches up with common understanding/insights of experts in a particular field of study. At the same time we have to be careful not to read into something what we thought was there the whole time and miss clues that say maybe this data doesn’t quite mean what we think it means. I really wish they had worded that question better but this is all we have.

  6. In Surprised By Hope, NT Wright deals passionately with the Christian problem referred to here.

    “many religions can lead to eternal life”

    As long as we continue to struggle with fuzzy thinking on the Christian hope of bodily resurrection, people (inside and outside of the church) will continue to think that every religion is talking about the same kind of afterlife.

  7. Accurate or not, it has certainly lit a fire under some churches and ministry staff to firm up our belief that Christ is the only way to eternal life. In light of Oprah and others’ influence toward New Age relativism, this kick in the pants may prove to help the church.
    Thank you for opening this part of the discussion.

  8. Daniel,

    I think you make a really good point. We do need to get serious. I think many just don’t know how to get serious without being brutal and the guy with the bullhorn yelling at people that they will go to hell without Jesus.

    Instead of tucking our tail between our legs and running toward pluralism, we need a better/healthier response that Jesus is the only way and we say it with love and respect.

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