An unexpected percentage of Americans seem confused about the teachings of their faith, Christian scholars and leaders commented after viewing findings from the latest Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey.
Both Americans of faith and those who don't believe in God gave conflicting responses to questions about their religious beliefs, according to the "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," released this week.
A majority of evangelical church attendees (57 percent) agreed with the statement that many religions can lead to eternal life, which contradicts with traditional evangelical teachings. Likewise, 66 percent of all Protestants, 79 percent of all Catholics, and 56 percent of all Muslims believe there are other ways to gain eternal life besides their religion.
Additionally, one third of Catholics view God as an impersonal force and, perhaps most puzzling, one fifth of atheists say they believe in God.
"While one applauds what could be thought of as an openness to other religions, one has to wonder if this is essentially bland secularism (in which all religions are constructed by humans and therefore equally true or untrue) among religionists who don't understand their own faith," commented Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
He added, "I think leaders of religious communities will look at this finding and ask how they can more effectively educate their communities, both about their own faith and that of others."
Some Christian leaders questioned Pew Forum's categorization of respondents as evangelicals. They contend using denominational affiliation and self-description as criteria for who is an evangelical is too broad.
"Being an evangelical Christian is not about a denominational label, and affiliation with a political party, or simply defining yourself as an evangelical," said Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance.
Rather, an evangelical is defined by a set of core beliefs, Tunnicliffe contends. These beliefs include a person being "converted from sin to salvation" and a commitment to proclaim the Gospel and participate in the Great Commission.
The Pew Forum survey interviewed 35,000 adults and found overall that 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion believe there are other ways besides their own faith that will lead to eternal life. Still, Americans were found to be strongly religious with 92 percent believing in God, 74 percent believing in a life after death and 63 percent saying their sacred text are the word of God.