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Most US Christians Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life

By: for The Pew Forum on Dec. 20, 2008
World News
A 6th century mosaic of Jesus at Church San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.

A majority of all American Christians (52%) think that at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life. Indeed,among Christians who believe many religions can lead to eternal life, 80% nameat least one non-Christian faith that can do so. These are among the key findingsof a national survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Lifefrom July 31-Aug. 10, 2008, among 2,905 adults.

Figure 1The survey isdesigned as a follow-up to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conductedin 2007, which reported that most Americans who claim a religious affiliationtake a non-exclusivist view of salvation, with seven-in-ten saying that manyreligions can lead to eternal life while less than one-quarter say theirs isthe one, true faith leading to eternal life. But what exactly do theserespondents have in mind when they agree that “many religions can lead toeternal life?” Is this primarily an example of most Christians (who account fornearly 80% of the U.S. adult population) acknowledging that some Christian denominations and churches besidestheir own can lead to eternal life? Or are most people interpreting “manyreligions” more broadly, to include non-Christian faiths?

The new surveyasks those who say many religions can lead to eternal life whether or not theythink a series of specific religions (including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism)can lead to eternal life, as well as whether they think atheists or people whohave no religious faith can achieve eternal life. The findings confirm thatmost people who say many religions can lead to eternal life take the view thateven non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal salvation. Indeed, among Christianswho say that many religions can lead to eternal life (65% of all Christians),the vast majority (80%) cite an example of at least one non-Christian religionthat can lead to salvation, and fully six-in-ten (61%) name two or more non-Christianreligions. Even among white evangelical Protestants, nearly three-quarters (72%)of those who say many religions can lead to eternal life name at least onenon-Christian religion that can lead to salvation.

The poll alsofinds that roughly one-third of Americans (30%) believe that whether oneachieves eternal life is determined by what a person believes, with nearly asmany (29%) saying eternal life depends on one’s actions. One-in-ten Americanssay the key to obtaining eternal life lies in a combination of belief andactions. The remaining one-third of the public says that something else is thekey to eternal life, they don’t know what leads to eternal life or they don’tbelieve in eternal life.

But while thesurvey confirms that most Americans who are affiliated with a religion continueto adopt a non-exclusivist approach to faith, it also finds that the number ofpeople saying theirs is the one, true faith that can lead to eternal lifeincreased slightly between 2007 and 2008, from 24% to 29%. The increase isespecially pronounced for white evangelical Protestants1, amongwhom the figure rose from 37% to 49%, and black Protestants, among whom thenumber saying theirs is the one, true faith (45%) has increased 10 points since2007.

Who Can Go To Heaven?

Figure 2One of the mostfrequently asked questions to arise from the 2007 Landscape Survey findings is howthe 70% of religiously affiliated respondents who said “many religions can leadto eternal life” interpreted the phrase “many religions.” For example, do Christianswho express this view have in mind only Christians from denominations otherthan their own, or are they thinking more broadly of non-Christian religions? Toshed light on this issue, the new survey asks those who believe that many religionscan lead to eternal life a series of follow-up questions.

Responses tothese questions show that most American Christians are not thinking only of other Christian denominations when they say manyreligions can lead to eternal life. To the contrary, among those who say manyreligions provide a path to eternal life, strong majorities believe that bothChristian and non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.

Among non-Protestantswho say that many religions can lead to eternal life, roughly three-quarters (74%)say that Protestantism can lead to eternal life. A similar proportion (73%) ofnon-Catholics who say many religions lead to eternal life say that Catholicismleads to salvation.

The numbers are onlyslightly lower for Judaism, with the overwhelming majority (69%) of non-Jewswho say many religions can lead to salvation saying that Judaism can bringeternal life. A slight majority of non-Muslims (52%) also say Islam can lead toeternal life, and a similar number (53%) of non-Hindus say the same ofHinduism. Interestingly, although a majority who say that many religions canlead to eternal life believe that people with no religious faith also canachieve eternal salvation (56%), far fewer (42%) say this about atheists.

Taken as awhole, these responses reveal that most American Christians, includingevangelicals, have more than just other Christian denominations in mind whenthey say there are many paths to salvation. For example, among white mainlineProtestants (85%), black Protestants (81%) and white Catholics (88%), more thaneight-in-ten of those who say many religions can lead to eternal life cite atleast one non-Christian religion that can do so.

Significantnumbers of white evangelical Protestants also believe various non-Christianreligions can lead to eternal life, though these figures tend to be lower thanthose seen among other religious groups; nearly three-quarters (72%) ofevangelicals who say many religions can lead to salvation name at least onenon-Christian faith that can do so. White evangelicals who say that many faithscan lead to salvation are just as likely as other groups to cite Catholicism asa valid path to salvation. However, evangelicals are less likely than othergroups to say that non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life. Abouttwo-thirds of evangelicals (64%) who see multiple paths to salvation say thatJudaism, for example, can bring eternal life, lower than the 73% among mainlineProtestants and the 77% among white Catholics who say this. And only aboutone-third of evangelicals who say there are multiple paths to salvation saythat Islam (35%) or Hinduism (33%) can lead to eternal life, with fewer stillsaying that atheists (26%) can achieve eternal life.

Figure 3

How Does One Obtain Eternal Life?

American adultsexpress a variety of views on how people can achieve eternal life. When askedto describe in their own words what determines whether a person will attain eternallife, nearly three-in-ten (29%) say that a person’s actions are most important.A similar number (30%) says that belief is the key factor in achievingeverlasting life. One-in-ten refer to a combination of belief and actions asnecessary for eternal life, and almost as many (8%) cite some other factor asmost important. In addition, more than one-in-ten (14%) indicate they areunsure of what leads to eternal life, and another 7% volunteer they do notbelieve in eternal life.

Figure 4

Whiteevangelical Protestants stand out as the group most likely to name belief asthe most important factor in obtaining eternal life, with 64% expressing thisview. Nearly half of evangelicals (45%) are explicit in stating that belief inJesus Christ is necessary for salvation, while another 19% are somewhat moregeneric in their responses, citing belief in God or, more simply, “belief” or“faith” as most important. An additional 10% of evangelicals say that acombination of belief and actions are crucial for salvation, meaning that, intotal, nearly three-quarters of this group (74%) identify an element of belief asnecessary for salvation.

While whiteevangelicals look mainly to faith as the key to salvation, white Catholics tendto look to actions. Nearly half of this group (47%) says that one’s actions arethe key to determining eternal fate, with nearly one-third (29%) saying thatbeing a good, moral person is the key to everlasting life. An additional 14% ofwhite Catholics identify a combination of works and faith as necessary forsalvation, meaning that fully six-in-ten Catholics (61%) explicitly cite actionsor works as integral to attaining eternal life.

White mainlineProtestants and black Protestants are somewhat more evenly divided in theirviews of what is necessary for eternal life. One-third of mainline Protestants (33%)name actions as most important and one-quarter (25%) say belief is mostimportant, while 10% say obtaining eternal life depends on a combination ofbelief and actions. And nearly one-in-five (18%) in this group say that theyare unsure about what leads to eternal life. Among black Protestants, more thanfour-in-ten (43%) say faith is most important for achieving eternal life, whilenearly three-in-ten (27%) identify actions as most important.

Figure 5The survey alsofinds a link between respondents’ views on what determines whether one achieveseternal life and views about what kinds of faiths lead to eternal life. AmongChristians who see actions as the key to obtaining eternal life, the vastmajority (68%) name at least one non-Christian faith that can lead to eternallife, including 56% who name more than one non-Christian faith that can lead tosalvation. By contrast, among those who see faith or belief as the key for obtainingeternal life, most (60%) either say that theirs is the one, true faith leadingto eternal life or do not cite any non-Christian religions that can lead toeverlasting life; only four-in-ten among this group name at least onenon-Christian faith that can lead to heaven, and fewer than three-in-ten (28%)name two or more such non-Christian religions.

Trends in OpinionsAbout Religious Exclusivity

Figure 6Although this survey finds that roughly two-thirds(65%) of religiously affiliated Americans continue to say many religions canlead to eternal life, this number is slightly lower than the seven-in-ten whosaid this in 2007 and is down 11 points since 2002. White Catholics and whitemainline Protestants are the groups most likely to say that many religions canlead to eternal life, with 84% and 82%, respectively, expressing this point ofview. Attitudes on this issue among these groups have remained largelyunchanged.

Whiteevangelical Protestants and black Protestants, by comparison, have becomenoticeably more strict on this question over the past year. Among both groups in2007, those saying many religions can lead to eternal life significantlyoutnumbered those saying theirs is the one, true faith (56% vs. 37% among whiteevangelicals, 59% vs. 35% among black Protestants). Now, however, both groupsare about evenly divided on this question. Fewer than half of evangelicals(47%) say many religions can lead to eternal life, down nine points in thecourse of a year, while 49% say theirs is the one, true faith. Among blackProtestants, 49% take the view that many religions lead to everlasting life, a 10-point decline since 2007, while 45% see theirs as the one, true faith. The proportion of black Protestants taking the view that theirs is the one, true faith has doubled in six years (from 22% in 2002 to 45% in 2008).

Figure 7Views on religious exclusivity are linked with frequency of religious service attendance, with those who attend frequently being significantly more likely than others to hold an exclusivist point of view. Among religiously affiliated people who attend worship services at least once a week, about four-in-ten (42%) say theirs is the one, true faith leading to eternal life. By comparison, fewer than half as many of those who attend worship services less often (18%) see their religion as the one, true path to eternal life.

This pattern is most noticeable among white evangelicals.  Among this group, most of those who attend church at least once a week (60%) say theirs is the one, true faith. But among evangelicals who attend church less often, only half as many (30%) take the view that theirs is the one true faith.

Mainline Protestants who attend religious services at least once a week are also somewhat more likely than their less-observant counterparts to describe theirs as the one, true faith, though large majorities of both groups say many religions can lead to eternal life (75% and 85%, respectively). The religious attendance gap is virtually nonexistent among white Catholics; more than eight-in-ten weekly churchgoers and less-observant Catholics alike say many religions can lead to eternal life (85% and 84%, respectively).

About the Survey

Survey topline (PDF)

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Abt SRBI, Inc., among a nationwide sample of 2,905 adults 18 years of age or older, from July 31-Aug. 10, 2008 (2,254 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone and 651 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 262 who had no landline telephone). Both the landline and cell phone samples were provided by Survey Sampling International.

The combined landline and cell phone data were weighted using demographic weighting parameters derived from the March 2007 U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, along with an estimate of current patterns of telephone status in the U.S. derived from the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, using an iterative technique that simultaneously balances the distributions of all weighting parameters. The weighting procedure also accounted for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones had a greater probability of being included in the sample.

For the full sample, the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence is plus or minus 2 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.

1In the current report, the figures from the Landscape Survey have been re-estimated based on respondents' race and self-identification as a "born-again or evangelical" Protestant in order to make them comparable to the results from the new survey. By comparison, in the original Landscape Survey reports, respondents were classified into one of three Protestant traditions based on their denominational affiliation. As a result, the numbers included in this report for white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants and black Protestants differ slightly from the results reported for members of evangelical Protestant churches, members of mainline Protestant churches and members of historically black Protestant churches reflected in the original Landscape Survey reports.

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