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.

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