Part II of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s massive “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” was released today. Among the important findings is that the large majority of Americans agree with the core Unitarian-Universalist ideal that there are multiple valid religious paths. In the language of the survey, 70% agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” while only 24% agreed that “my religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.” Even conservative religions were surprisingly likely to agree that their way was not the only way: 57% of Evangelical Christians, 79% of Catholics, and 56% of Muslims all took a universalist perspective, and even significant numbers of Mormons (39%) did too. Note that Muslims are very clearly under-counted by this survey, so their numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt.
Among the liberals, the numbers were of course even higher. Unitarian-Universalists and close kin came in at 93% (with just 2% actually believing UUism to be the one true path). Liberal Christians scored the same, at 93%. Reform Jews topped that with 96%, and were beaten in turn by Conservative Jews at 97% (if that confuses you, just ignore the antiquated names–the Conservative denomination of Judaism is in fact and always has been a liberal form of Judaism, just not as progressive as Reform). Just behind them were Buddhists at 96% (note that Buddhists and Hindus are also under-counted in this survey), while New Agers lagged slightly at 90%. The winners: Hindus, who at 99% managed to out perform everybody else. Orthodox Christians turned out to be liberals of a sort too, at 72% accepting other religions, and members of historically-black Christian churches also turned in a majority in the “accepting” category, with 59%.
Least accepting: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, at a mere 16% agreeing that other religions could be valid. Atheists, agnostics, and their kin were not asked, for fairly obvious reasons.
Is this survey perfect? No, of course not. For one thing, many people won’t relate too well to the language about “eternal life,” though in context I think most folks will understand they can interpret that to mean “my religion’s ultimate goal, whatever it may be.” Non-English speakers, especially Asian immigrants, are dramatically under-represented in the Pew survey, which particularly affects Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. And the low sample size of Muslims vs. what we know of the actual numbers of Muslims in the United States suggests that a significant percentage chose not to participate, perhaps alarmed by being questioned on the phone by a cold-caller about their religious sentiments in the wake of post-9/11 government surveillance of this population. Also, Hawaii, where Buddhists are the second-largest religion, was simply left out of the survey. Oops.
Nonetheless, these are important numbers. They show that Americans as a whole are significantly liberal in their religious sentiments, even in groups traditionally considered to be staunchly conservative. A major contributing factor is America’s ever-increasing diversity, which puts people of various religions into daily contact with one another, gradually eroding stereotypes and fears about “the other.”