Last year the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its findings on the religious beliefs and practices of Americans based on an extensive sampling (35,000 people). I blogged on their findings, noting that 70% of religious Americans in general, and 57% of evangelicals in particular, believe many religions lead to eternal life.
Many questioned the accuracy of the data due to the ambiguity of the question posed to respondents. “Religions” could be interpreted to mean non-Christian religions, or other Christian denominations. So in August 2008 Pew clarified the issue by re-asking the same question in expanded form to a sampling of 2908 people. Not only did the number of evangelical who affirmed “many religions can lead to eternal life” drop from 57% to 47%, but of that number, only 72% had non-Christian religions in view. That means “only” 34% of evangelicals believe non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life (within all of American Christendom, that number is 52%). So it’s not as bad as originally believed, but 1 in 3 is still bad!
When it is broken out by who these evangelicals thought could be saved apart from Christianity, the data is pretty scary. A full 64% of them thought Jews could be saved; 35% thought Muslims could be saved; 33% Hindus; 26% atheists; 35% non-religious. When 1 in 4 of them think somebody can deny God’s existence and still be saved, something is wrong!
On the positive side, the number of evangelicals who believe one must be a Christian has actually increased from 37% in 2007 to 49% in 2008. From Pew: “Fewer than half of evangelicals (47%) say many religions can lead to eternal life, down nine points in the course of a year, while 49% say theirs is the one, true faith.” So it appears that Christian particularlism is on the rise, and religious pluralism is on the decline in evangelical circles.
Religious pluralism among religious believers of any stripe is also in decline, decreasing from 76% in 2002, to 65% in 2008. These figures do not isolate “strong religious pluralists” from those who simply allow for the salvation of those in various factions of their own religion (“weak religious pluralists”). When we isolate the strong from the weak religious pluralists, the numbers are smaller. That subset constitutes a slim majority of religious Americans (52%). The 2002 data did isolate this subset, but if we apply the 2008 ratios of strong-to-weak religious pluralists to the 2002 data, it would yield a figure of 61% strong religious pluralists. A 9% reduction in religious pluralism over a 6 year period is significant indeed.