Religion in American: Tolerant or Confused?

This week the Pew Forum released part 2 of its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. This study of 35,000 adults explored the religious affiliation and beliefs of Americans.  The results are rather interesting.

America continues to be a very religious nation, so don’t let people in Berkeley tell you otherwise.  Over all, 92% believe in a God or “universal spirit.”  There are 78.4% who consider themselves Christian in the broadest sense, including Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Only 1.6% are atheists.  According to the survey, the largest religious groups are:

  • Evangelicals (26.3%)
  • Catholics (23.9%)
  • Mainline Protestants (18.1%)
  • Unaffiliated – atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” (16.1%)

Everything else is under 10%.  The web site also provides a breakdown of the denominations in each category.

One interesting result, emphasized in news articles on this report, was that most religious Americans believe that other religions can also provide a way to heaven.  A majority believed that their religion was the only way only among the Mormons (57%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (80%).  Even among Evangelicals, only 36% believed that their faith was the only way to heaven.  That is surprising, considering part of the definition of “Evangelical” is a high view of Scripture and belief in Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God.  I wonder if they have forgotten about  John 14:6.

In the popular press, this evidence of religious tolerance is described in very positive terms.  An article in my local paper quotes James Donahue, president of Golden Gate Theological Union in Berkeley, as saying “It is the result of living side by side with people of other faiths. We see they are good people, they work hard, they have integrity — why shouldn’t they get eternal salvation too?”  Apparently Donahue believes that people get into heaven by being “good people.”  Despite being a seminary president, he seems unaware of the central teaching of Jesus and the Apostles.  This is a more charitable interpretation of his remarks than the other possibility, which is that he is aware of their teaching but thinks that they were wrong.

The atheists seem to be confused as well.  It’s understandable that 98% of Evangelicals are certain or fairly certain that God exists.  But why do 21% of athiests believe that there is a God or universal spirit?  Why do 12% believe in heaven, and 10% believe in hell? Are they confused about the meaning of “atheist” (=”no god”)?

At least in the case of Evangelicals, part of the problem may lie in the survey methodology.  The report talks about “religious affiliation,” and seems to classify people according the churches with which they say that they are affiliated.  If they attend a church categorized as Evangelical, then they are considered Evangelicals. But being a Christian does not come about by being affiliated with a church, and there are many who attend church who are not yet Christians or who have confused theology.  George Barna uses a different methodology, and classifies people as Evangelicals on the basis of 9 questions about their beliefs.  According to his approach, only 8% of the U.S. adult population in 2006 qualified as Evangelicals, not 26.3%.

Barna cites the following differences between these two groups of “Evangelicals.”  In comparison with those who are classified as Evangelicals in Barna’s survey, self claimed Evangelicals are:

  • 60% less likely to believe that Satan is real
  • 53% less likely to believe that salvation is based on grace, not works
  • 46% less likely to say they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others
  • 42% less likely to list their faith in God as the top priority in their life
  • 38% less likely to believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth
  • 27% less likely to contend that the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings
  • 23% less likely to say that their life has been greatly transformed by their faith

One of the implications of the Pew Foundation study is that there is plenty of evangelism to be done within the church.  There are plenty of people in churches as well as “unaffiliated religious” people who are in need of hearing the Gospel.

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