This just in from the AP:
Americans’ faith lacks dogmatism
By Erik Gorski
June 24, 2008
America remains a nation of believers, but a new survey finds most Americans don’t feel their religion is the only way to eternal life – even if their faith tradition teaches otherwise.
The findings, revealed yesterday in a survey of 35,000 adults, can either be taken as a positive sign of growing religious tolerance or disturbing evidence Americans dismiss or don’t know fundamental teachings of their faiths.
Among the more startling numbers in the survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: 57 percent of evangelical church attendees said they believe many religions can lead to eternal life, in conflict with traditional evangelical teaching.
In all, 70 percent of Americans with a religious affiliation shared that view, and 68 percent said there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.
“The survey shows religion in America is, indeed, 3,000 miles wide and only three inches deep,” said D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist of religion.
“There is a growing pluralistic impulse toward tolerance and that is having theological consequences,” he said.
Earlier data from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, released in February, highlighted how often Americans switch religious affiliation. The newly released material looked at religious belief and practice as well as the impact of religion on society, including how faith shapes political views.
The report argued that while relatively few people – 14 percent – cite religious beliefs as the main influence on their political thinking, religion plays a powerful indirect role.
The study confirmed some political dynamics, including stark divisions over abortion and same-sex marriage, with the more religiously committed taking conservative views on the issues.
But it also showed support across religious lines for greater governmental aid for the poor, even if it means more debt, and stricter environmental laws and regulations.
By many measures, Americans are strongly religious: 92 percent believe in God, 74 percent believe in life after death and 63 percent say their respective scriptures are the word of God.
Deeper investigation found more than one in four Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and Orthodox Christians expressed some doubts about God’s existence, as did six in 10 Jews.
Rabbi Moishe Leider of the Orthodox Chabad Center of San Diego welcomed the findings. Jews believe many religions can lead to heaven, he said.
Leider said he believes more people would attend church or temple if God were returned to the focus of services.
“The churches and the synagogues today do not answer the needs of these people,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of the churches and synagogues are not really places of godliness. They are places of politics, places of social action, places of fellowship, where people come together to meet each other. But in many respects, spirituality is lacking.”
Another finding almost defies explanation: 21 percent of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit, with 8 percent “absolutely certain” of it.
Jeff Archer, president of the Atheist Coalition of San Diego, was at a loss to explain how one in five atheists said they believed in God.
“I find it quite preposterous that an atheist believes in God,” Archer said. “The only qualification to be an atheist is a nonbelief in God. When you take that away, then they’re not an atheist.”
Nearly across the board, the majority of religious Americans believe many religions can lead to eternal life: mainline Protestants (83 percent), members of historically black Protestant churches (59 percent), Catholics (79 percent), Jews (82 percent) and Muslims (56 percent).
By similar margins, people in those faith groups believe in multiple interpretations of their traditions’ teachings. However, 44 percent of the religiously affiliated also said their religion should preserve its traditional beliefs and practices.
The Rev. Molly Vetter of the First United Methodist Church of San Diego said the tendency of Americans to believe in God but not to attend church, and to pick and choose among religious tenets, reflects the individualism of our culture.
However, she said people who don’t participate in organized religion are missing out on the chance to experience their faith with others. “One of the things I treasure about church life is the way it brings us together as a community,” Vetter said.
Beliefs about eternal life vary greatly, even within a religious tradition.
Some Christians hold strongly to Jesus’ words as described in John 14:6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Others emphasize the wideness of God’s grace.
The Catholic Church teaches the “one church of Christ . . . subsists in the Catholic Church” alone and Protestant churches, while defective, can be “instruments of salvation.”
Roger Oldham, a vice president with the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, bristled at using the word “tolerance” in the analysis. “If by tolerance we mean we’re willing to engage or embrace a multitude of ways to salvation, that is no longer evangelical belief,” he said. “The word ‘evangelical’ has been stretched so broadly, it’s almost an elastic term.”
More than most groups, Catholics break with their church, and not only on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Six in 10 Catholics described God as “a person with whom people can have a relationship” – which the church teaches – while three in 10 described God as an “impersonal force.”
“The statistics show, more than anything else, that many who describe themselves as Catholics do not know or understand the teachings of their church,” said Denver Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput. “Being Catholic means believing what the Catholic Church teaches. It is a communion of faith, not simply of ancestry and family tradition. It also means that the church ought to work harder at evangelizing its own members.”