Tuesday, June 24, 2008

When It Comes to Religion, It Seems to Be a Toss-Up

This month the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a 268 page report entitled, The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. It is not surprising that the trends it reports reflect a continuing shift in the views of Americans relative to matters of religious beliefs and faith.

The response to one question is particularly revealing regarding the blurring of distinctions among the various “faiths” held by Americans. The question asked was:

“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.

(a) My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life, OR Many religions can lead to eternal life.

(b) There is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of my religion, OR There is MORE than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

In an age when brand loyalty is marketed and emphasized, one might think that Americans would be particularly loyal to their own faith of choice. However, only 24% of those polled believe that their religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life. Even among Evangelical Churches, only 36% said their religion is the only one that leads to eternal life.

The Pew Report found that, “Seven-in-ten Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions can lead to eternal life. In fact, majorities of nearly every religious tradition take the view that many religions can lead to eternal life, including more than eight-in-ten Jews (82%), Buddhists (86%), Hindus (89%) and members of mainline Protestant churches (83%), and nearly eight in ten Catholics (79%). Fewer members of evangelical and historically black churches (57% and 59%, respectively) agree with this, as do 56% of Muslims.”

While this was but one finding of a very extensive report and doesn’t appear in the report until page 58, it is garnering many of the headlines relative to this survey; headlines such as:New Findings About U.S. Religious Life (Christian Science Monitor), Most American Say Many Religions Can Lead to Eternal Life (Dallas Morning News), Christians: No One Path to Salvation (Time), and – perhaps the most telling of a cultural shift in this area – Survey Shows U.S. Religious Tolerance (New York Times).

Neela Banerjee of The NY Times astutely reports, “[It]reveals a broad trend toward tolerance and an ability among many Americans to hold beliefs that might contradict the doctrines of their professed faiths…The findings seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are, scholars who reviewed the survey said. ‘It’s not that Americans don’t believe in anything,’ said Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University. ‘It’s that we believe in everything. We aren’t religious purists or dogmatists.’”

David Van Biena, of TIME, drew a similar conclusion but emphasized the breadth of this stating, “Even more remarkable was the fact that 57% of Evangelical Christians were willing to accept that theirs might not be the only path to salvation, since most Christians historically have embraced the words of Jesus, in the Gospel of John, that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me.’ Even as mainline churches had become more tolerant, the exclusivity of Christianity's path to heaven has long been one of the Evangelicals' fundamental tenets. The new poll suggests a major shift, at least in the pews.”

Clearly, with the influx of Eastern religious views during the past several decades and a simultaneous withdrawal of the Church from the marketplace, Americans have become softened to the idea of religious pluralism. We have been conditioned to be a tolerant society, particularly when it comes to matters of religion and faith. And tolerance, it seems, has been redefined as accepting any belief as valid, even if it is in conflict with your own belief.

So, what this survey reflects, in part, is that Americans have concluded to hold one’s personal faith as the only “true way” would not be acceptable in a “tolerant” society. Michael Lindsay is correct in saying we believe everything. However, we should add, we’ll also believe “anything”. Unfortunately, this survey also indicates this is becoming increasingly true in the Church, as well.

While we have no problem promoting our favorite soft drink, fast food, movie, etc. as being the best on the market, political correctness demands that we do not hold to such a hard and fast commitment to our faith. It appears that when it comes to religion “brand loyalty” is being thrown under the wheels of “political correctness”.

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