Measuring Pluralism: A Difficult Task

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Steve Cable examines the data concerning American Christians’ beliefs about pluralism, the belief that all religions are true and valid ways to know about God, the world, and salvation.

We are in the process of examining two related Pew Research surveys taken by about 35,000 people, once in 2007[{1} and again in 2014{2}. In today’s post we want to consider the question of religious pluralism among American Christians. As there are different views concerning the meaning of “religious pluralism,” for this post we will use this definition: Pluralism is basically the belief that the various world religions are true and equally valid in their communication of the truth about God, the world, and salvation. I.e., there are multiple religious beliefs and practices which will suffice to get one to heaven. It does not mean that all religions are sufficient, but that more than one distinctly different religious concept will result in eternal salvation.

In their 2007 survey, Pew had one question dealing with pluralism:

Which of these two statements comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right?

1. My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life. [OR]
2. Many religions can lead to eternal life

The responses to this question for Evangelical Christians and for Non-Evangelical Christians{3} are given in the table below.

Table 1 – Percent of Respondents Who Said “My Religion is the One, True Faith”
Age Range 18 – 27 30 plus
Evangelical 44.6% 36.4%
Non-Evangelical Christian 19.0% 14.2%

Not surprisingly, the percentage of Evangelicals who selected statement #1 far exceed the percentage of Non-Evangelical Christians.

However, it is disappointing that significantly fewer than one half of Evangelicals would select that statement. And it is surprising that the younger cohort is much more likely than the older cohort to make such a statement.

Which brings up the question: When someone says “my religion is the one,” are they referring to Christianity vs. other major religions, OR are they referring to their denomination vs. other Christian denominations? One would guess that many Christians, especially from older generations, may be thinking about the latter.

In fact, the Pew Research organization realized this issue almost immediately after releasing the results of the 2007 survey. They did another smaller survey in 2008{4} to get insight into this question and reported:

One of the most frequently asked questions to arise from the 2007 Landscape Survey findings is how the 70% of religiously affiliated respondents who said “many religions can lead to eternal life” interpreted the phrase “many religions.” For example, do Christians who express this view have in mind only Christians from denominations other than their own, or are they thinking more broadly of non-Christian religions? To shed light on this issue, the new survey asks those who believe that many religions can lead to eternal life a series of follow-up questions . . . nearly three-quarters (72%) of evangelicals who say many religions can lead to salvation name at least one non-Christian faith that can do so.{5}

Turning this around, they found that 28% of evangelicals who said that many religions can lead to eternal life were only talking about other Christian religions. Thus, this group of evangelicals would not be considered pluralistic. So, I analyzed the data from this 2008 survey and used those results to calculate data of Christians’ views on pluralism as shown in Table 2.

Table 2 – Results from 2008 Religion and Public Life Survey
Age Range 18 – 27 30 plus
Evangelical One True Faith 64% 49%
Only Christians in Heaven{6} 74% 61%
Non-Evangelical Christian One True Faith 24% 16%
Only Christians in Heaven 37% 22%

 

So we can see that adding these people who were pluralistic only among different Christian faiths, we add another ten percent or so to those Christians who are not pluralistic. However, this 2008 data introduces another issue. Those who said their religion was the one, true faith appears to have increased by almost 20 percentage points for Evangelicals under 28 (from 45% to 64%). I don’t believe this is possible given the lack of events in 2008 to account for such a significant, sudden change. However, the Pew report comments on it this way, “. . . the number of people saying theirs is the one, true faith that can lead to eternal life increased slightly between 2007 and 2008, from 24% to 29%. The increase is especially pronounced for white evangelical Protestants, among whom the figure rose from 37% to 49%.”{7}

In the 2014 Religious Landscape survey, the ambiguity was resolved by asking two questions:

1. The question asked in the 2007 survey listed above, and
2. ASK IF CHRISTIAN AND SAY “MANY RELIGIONS” to prior question: And do you think it’s only Christian religions that can lead to eternal life, or can some non-Christian religions also lead to eternal life?

a) Only Christian religions can lead to eternal life
b) Some non-Christian religions can lead to eternal life

We can then compare the results from both Religious Landscape surveys as shown in table 3 below:

Table 3 – Comparing 2007 and 2014 Religious Landscape Results with Estimates for Shaded Areas
Evangelical Non-Evangelical Christian
Year Surveyed 2007 2014 2007 2014
Age Range 18-27 30 plus 18-24 25-34 18-27 30 plus 18-24 25-34 35 plus
My religion is one, true faith 45% 36% 52% 42% 39% 19% 14% 23% 19% 15%
Only Christians in heaven 55%{8} 50% 60% 54% 59% 32% 20% 27% 27% 25%

 

Note: the numbers for 2007 Only Christians in heaven are estimates and could be off significantly.

And the results from the 2008 Religion and Public Life with the 2014 Religious Landscape survey as shown in table 4:

Table 4 – Comparing 2008 Religion and Public Life Survey with 2014 Religious Landscape Survey
Evangelical Non-Evangelical Christian
Year Surveyed 2008 2014 2008 2014
Age Range 18-27 30 plus 18-24 25-34 35 plus 18-27 30 plus 18-24 25-34 35 plus
My religion is one, true faith 64% 49% 52% 42% 39% 24% 16% 23% 19% 15%
Only Christians in heaven 74% 61% 60% 54% 59% 37% 22% 27% 27% 25%

I think the important things to note from the two tables are:

1) Adding those who said “Many religions can lead to eternal life but non-Christian religions cannot” to those who said “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.” we see an increase of between 8 and 20 percentage points;

2) The increased percentages in 2014 also even out the results from across age groups. For example, for Evangelicals you can see a swing of 13 percentage points from the 18 to 24 age group compared to the 35 plus age group on the “one, true faith” response. But, when you look at “only Christians in heaven,” you see the swing across age groups has dropped to 1 percentage point. Apparently, the youngest adults are less likely to be thinking only of their denomination when they answered the first question with “My religion . . .”

3) Finally, there is a slight drop off in Evangelicals who are not pluralists between 2007 and 2014.

As this somewhat tortuous journey through the subject of pluralism exploring three different surveys clearly shows, it is hard to nail down what people are thinking when asked about pluralism. The primary takeaway is that slightly less than one out of two Evangelicals (~40%) have a pluralistic view, while three out of four Non-evangelical Christians have such a view. An Evangelical with a pluralistic viewpoint has no reason to be concerned with evangelism and technically is not an Evangelical. In a subsequent post, we will examine the difference in worldview beliefs between non-pluralist Evangelicals and pluralist Evangelicals

Notes

1. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2007, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (a project of The Pew Research Center). The Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here. The data were downloaded from the Association of Religion Data Archives, www.TheARDA.com, and were collected by the Pew Research Center.
2. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2014, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (a project of The Pew Research Center). The Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here. The data were downloaded from the Association of Religion Data Archives, www.TheARDA.com, and were collected by the Pew Research Center.
3. Consists of Mainline Protestant Denominations, Catholics, and some Historically Black Denominations.
4. Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Survey 2008, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (a project of The Pew Research Center). The Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here. The data were downloaded from the Association of Religion Data Archives, www.TheARDA.com, and were collected by the Pew Research Center.
5. Pew Research, Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life, December 18, 2008
6. This factor was determined by looking at the people who answered the first question: “Many religions can lead to eternal life” but in answering subsequent questions said Islam, Hinduism, Atheism and No Religious Faith cannot achieve eternal life. When they answered the first question with “many religions”, they obviously were referring to many Christian religions (or possibly Christian and Jewish religions). I did not include the subsequent question about the “Jewish religion” because the Bible is clear that many OT Jews will be in heaven.
7. Perhaps the candidacy of Barack Obama triggered this decrease in pluralism for white evangelical Protestants. If it did, its effect had dissipated by the 2014 survey with results much closer to the 2007 survey than the 2008 survey. I think it was probably the result of surveying cell phone users as well as landlines in 2008.
8. This number is estimated by taking the number for One, True Faith and adding the percentage of those Christians in the 2008 survey who said that many religions could lead to eternal life but not Islam, Hinduism, atheism, and No Religious Faith.

© 2018 Probe Ministries

Steve Cable

Steve Cable is the Senior Vice President of Probe Ministries. Steve assists in developing strategies to expand the impact of Probe's resources in the U.S. and abroad. Prior to joining Probe, Steve spent over 25 years in the telecommunications industry. Steve and his wife, Patti, have served as Bible teachers for over 30 years helping people apply God's word to every aspect of their lives. Steve has extensive, practical experience applying a Christian worldview to the dynamic, competitive hi-tech world that is rapidly becoming a dominant aspect of our society.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

Probe Ministries
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2 Comments
  1. Scott 1 week ago

    This article is missing some necessary definitions.

    How does the research define “Evangelical vs Non-evangelical”?

    Also, there are “evangelical religions” which teach salvation by works, which is unbiblical. Therefore, those should not be counted as true evangelical religions.

    I think a better set of questions than evangelical/non-evangelical would be to determine whether they believe is salvation by faith or salvation by works.

    If they believe salvation by works, then you would expect them to be significantly more likely to believe multiple religions lead to eternal life, since all non-biblical religions on earth believe in salvation by works, including those claiming to be Christian religions, like Catholicism, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, traditional Methodists, and more.

    It is a shame and embarrassment to the true Christian faith when these other religions (not denominations, they are other religions), are included within evangelical Christianity.

  2. TRUDY AND NORMAN 5 days ago

    STEVE,
    I DID NOT KNOW YOU WERE WITH PROBE. WHAT A SWEET SURPRISE WHEN I JUST HAPPENED UPON THIS ”TRUTH” THIS MORNING. TELL PATTY, ”HELLO”, FOR ME. WOW, SUCH MEMORIES. I BEGIN TO THINK OF ALL THE PEOPLE I KNOW THAT YOU MIGHT KNOW. KIRBY WAS AT OUR DAUGHTER,PAIGES, WEDDING BECAUSE HE IS A FRIEND OF JON BUELL,SR. OUR SON-IN-LAW IS JON’S SON. I ASSUME YOU KNOW JON. HE MINISTERED IN GETTING THE INTELLIGENT DESIGN BOOKS INTO EDUCTIONAL INSTITUTIONS. DO YOU KNOW JACK AND JANIE MCNAIRY? HE WORKS AT HOPE WITH JUNE’S HOPE FOR THE HEART, I THINK. THEY ARE IN OUR BIBLE STUDY CLASS AT HUNTERS GLEN. CONTINUING ON, THEY AND WE ARE IN GARY AND DALE MCGILVARY’S BIBLE CLASS OF WHICH GARY IS A TEACHER. WE GOT TO SPEND A WEEK WITH THEM IN THEIR COLORADO HOME AND I BROUGHT MY OLD PRAIRIE CREEK DIRECTORY SO WE COULD TALK OLD TIMES AND OF COURSE YOURS AND PATTY’S NAME CAME UP ALONG WITH ALOT OF OTHER PEOPLE. IT MADE ME REALIZE THAT YOU AND THEY WERE IN A MUCH YOUNGER GROUP. PRAIRIE CREEK WAS A SPECIAL TIME IN NORMAN’S AND MY LIFE–WE STILL MISS IT.

    I HOPE I DIDN’T TAKE TO MUCH OF YOUR TIME. JUST WANTED TO SAY, “HI”.

    ENJOYED YOUR ARTICLE ABOUT PLURALISM VERY MUCH.

    TRUDY NICHOLSON

    TRUDY NICHOLSON

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