The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life carried out a survey of 3,000 Americans in 2008 about whether people thought beliefs other than their own can lead to ‘eternal life’.
The survey was designed as a follow-up to their 2007 Religious Landscape Survey which reported that 70 per cent Americans who claim a religious affiliation saying that many religions can lead to eternal life. (This earlier survey by the BBC found that 51 per cent of Americans agreed that ‘My God (Beliefs) is the only true God (Beliefs)’ compared with 31 per cent of people in the UK who agreed with the same statement)
The 2008 survey asked those who say many religions can lead to eternal life whether or not they think a series of specific religions (including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism) can lead to eternal life, as well as whether they thought atheists or people who have no religious faith can achieve eternal life.
The survey found that most American Christians are not thinking only of other Christian denominations when they say many religions can lead to eternal life – strong majorities believe that both Christian and non-Christian faiths can.
Although a majority who say that many religions can lead to eternal life believe that people with no religious faith also can achieve eternal salvation (56 per cent), far fewer (42 per cent) say this about atheists.
White evangelical Protestants are least likely to believe various non-Christian religions can lead to eternal life although the numbers are still significant – 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.
Actions or beliefs?
Respondents expressed a variety of views on how people can achieve eternal life. When asked to describe in their own words what determines whether a person will attain eternal life, nearly 30 per cent said that a person’s actions are most important. 30 per cent said that belief is the key factor in achieving everlasting life. 10 per cent referred to a combination of belief and actions as necessary for eternal life, and almost as many (8 per cent) cite some other factor as most important. In addition, 14 per cent indicated they are unsure of what leads to eternal life, and another 7 per cent volunteer they do not believe in eternal life.
White evangelicals looked mainly to faith as the key to salvation, while white Catholics tend to look to actions.
Unsurprisingly those people who believed there were many ways to salvation were more likely to say actions are more important than beliefs.
The survey doesn’t appear to control for factors like ethnicity, age or religous practice though – it could for example be that White evangelicals are more narrowminded in their outlook because they are more devout rather than any core doctrinal reasons.
What do these results tells us? That there are huge numbers of people open to the idea that other beliefs (including non religious ones) are legitimate and valuable and that co-operation between different belief groups can be built on far more than a grudging pragmatism but on some form of real respect.
Also that the opportunities for co-operation are not equal and some religious groups will be more ammenable than others. But amenable there are and across all traditions offering hope that none of us are as feared, despised or condemned for our beliefs quite as much as louder voices might have us believe.