One more look at Pew Forum survey

bluePews2A funny thing happened last week after I dashed off a quick post about that omnipresent "eternal life" item in the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Once I had read some of the survey details, I knew that I was going to have to talk to some of the researchers at the forum before I could handle a Scripps Howard News Service column on the topic. With my long lead time -- write on Tuesdays, file early on Wednesday mornings for weekend papers -- there just wasn't time.

So I had to wait a week.

But then something strange happened. Some of the questions in that "Pew views: Questions about Oprah America" post kind of took on a life of their own. Before I knew it, Baptist Press had written a news story that included some of the GetReligion questions and then, a day or so later, evangelical activist Charles Colson did a radio commentary that also cited my post.

Frankly, I was happy for the feedback. Yet, at the same time, I also knew the Pew Forum team well enough to know that it would be very unusual for me to ask questions that they had not already noticed and discussed. Sure enough, some of my questions had already been discussed in the press conference announcing this latest blast of survey data. Click here to see that transcript.

Anyway, I still thought the earlier questions about salvation and eternal life merited a column. So here is the first half of what I ended up writing, ending with a crucial fact -- that the Pew Forum team is already planning follow-up research to clarify some of the earlier confusion. This is the version that will eventually be posted at tmatt.net.

Ask Southern Baptists to name their religion and most of them will simply say, "I'm a Baptist."

Ask Roman Catholics the same question and most will say, "I'm Catholic." Odds are good that most Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and occupants of other name-brand pews will take the same approach.

However, some of these believers may choose to define their religion more broadly and say, "I'm a Christian." A researcher would certainly hear that response in scores of independent evangelical and charismatic churches across America.

This may sound like nitpicking, but it's not. Confusion over defining the word "religion" almost certainly helped shape the most controversial results from the new U.S. Religious Landscape Survey produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In one of several questions probing the role of dogmatism in American life, interviewers asked adults which of two statements better fit their beliefs: "My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life" or "many religions can lead to eternal life."

The results leaped into national headlines, with 70 percent of those affiliated with a religion or denomination saying that many religions can bring eternal salvation.

In fact, 83 percent of those in liberal Protestant denominations affirmed that belief, along with 79 percent of Catholics, 59 percent of those from historically black churches and a stunning 57 percent of believers in evangelical pews. In other world religions, 89 percent of Hindus polled said many religions could bring eternal life, along with 86 percent of Buddhists, 82 percent of Jews and 56 percent of Muslims.

But there's the rub. It's impossible, based on a straightforward reading of the Pew Forum research, to know how individual participants defined the word "religion" when they answered.

"We didn't have a set of interview guidelines or talking points that we used when asking that question," said Greg Smith, a Pew Forum research fellow. "The interviewers didn't say, 'Well, that means someone who is a member of a different denomination than yours' or 'that means someone in a completely different religion than your religion.'

"So people may have answered that in different ways. There may have been Baptists that interpreted that question as simply referring to members of other churches. Others may have answered with a more universal concept of 'religion' in mind. That's possible. In fact, it's highly likely."

There is no way -- based on this round of research -- to know precisely how many believers have decided to reject what their faiths teach, if those faiths make exclusive truth claims about salvation and eternal life. Thus, said Smith, the Pew Forum is planning follow-up work.

So new information, based on a much more specific set of questions, will come out sooner or later. That's good news.

Click here to read the full text as shipped by Scripps Howard. There's some interesting new survey information from the Southern Baptists in the column, as well.

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