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Religious beliefs of Americans

The reliability of poll data: Part 2

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Some considerations:

Data from polls are often deceptive. This is particularly true of religious polls. Some reasons why the information is not particularly accurate are:

  • Questions can be misunderstood. Sometimes a common English word will be given different meanings by members of different faith groups.

  • The order of the questions can often bias the result.

  • Individuals will sometimes answer Internet polls multiple times.

Definitions of terms:

Members of a single faith group tend to assign similar meanings to religious terms. But when the full diversity of Christians are considered -- fundamentalist, other evangelical, mainline, liberal and progressive Christians -- one finds very different definitions in use for common religious words. This often makes ecumenical dialogue extremely difficult.

Comparing the definitions used by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. one sees even greater variety. We have a cross-cultural dictionary online that compares the definitions used by fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians with the meanings used by others.


  • The term "religion:"
    A massive poll by the Pew Research Center contained some surprising results. 1 The Baptist Press noted that the poll showed many "evangelicals holding universalistic beliefs concerning salvation." 2 Evangelicals often quote John 14:6 and other biblical passages as proof that a person can only attain Heaven after death if they have been saved. That is, they have trusted Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) as Lord and Savior during their life on Earth. This belief is referred to as exclusivity or particularism. The flip side to this belief is that those who are not saved -- even though they have never heard of Yeshua, the Gospel message, or Christianity -- may spend eternity being tortured in Hell. There is a movement among many evangelicals to accept the inclusive view found in mainline Protestantism and recent Roman Catholicism. They believe that it is possible for some non-Christians to be saved and attain Heaven.

    The Pew report asked people to select one of two options, either exclusivism or inclusivism:
    • "My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life" or
    • "Many religions can lead to eternal life."

    Pluralism, the belief often found among religious liberals that all religions are true and valid within their own culture, was not presented as an option.

    The Pew report states that most Americans believe in inclusivism, at least as far as Heaven and Hell are concerned. They found that:

    • 70% of Americans believe that there are many paths to eternal life, and

    • 57% of those who identify themselves as evangelical Protestants agree.

    If the 57% value were true, it would seem that most evangelicals hold inclusive views in opposition to their own denominations' teachings. However, the Baptist Press article points out that the value may be false. They point out that many evangelicals equate "religions" with "other Christian denominations." That is, when asked whether followers of other "religions" can attain Heaven, they think in terms of Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and members of other Christian denominations. Non-evangelicals generally think of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc.

    There is a second source of confusion in the Pew Research question. It refers to "eternal life." Most Christian denominations teach that the soul is immortal, and that everyone will have eternal life spent in either Heaven, Hell. Roman Catholics also include Purgatory.

    The result is that the Pew Research question is deeply flawed and the results are useless.

  • The term "religious tolerance:"
    • To many conservative Christians, religious tolerance relates to beliefs. To them, tolerance means to treat all religions as equally valid. Since most conservative Christians believe that their wing of Christianity, alone, has all the truth, they are resistant to this concept of religious tolerance.
    • To most others, religious tolerance means to allow everyone to pursue their own spiritual path freely without discrimination or oppression.
    If a poll asked whether the individual was in favor of religious tolerance, they might find some surprising answers from people across the full range of Christianity.

  • The terms "born again" and "evangelical:" The Barna Research Group, the largest religious polling group in the U.S., asks its subjects to identify themselves as "born again" or "evangelical." Barna has adopted certain definitions:
    • A "born again Christian" is a person who said that "they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior."
    • An "evangelical" is a "born again" person who also state that "their faith is very important in their life today;...they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; ...Satan exists; ...eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; ... Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; ...God [is]...the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today." Rejecting even one of these beliefs makes the person a non-evangelical according to Barna.

Barna estimates that about 5% of the population, and 11% of all Protestants meet their rather specific definition of "evangelical." 3 Other groups estimate the percentage of evangelicals in the U.S. at about 25% and "born agains" at about 35%.

Some polling agencies attempt to differentiate between the beliefs and practices of evangelicals in comparison to other Christians. Most often, the individual's own assessment is used to determine who is an evangelical. Polling results will vary greatly depending upon that assessment.

  • The term "homosexual:"
    • Most religious conservatives define homosexuality in terms of behavior. Homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality is what one does.
    • Most religious liberals, mental health professionals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, etc. define homosexuality in terms of sexual orientation. Homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality is what one is.
    A person who has a homosexual orientation and who has decided to become celibate is generally regarded as an ex-gay by conservatives and as a homosexual by liberals and others.

    A person who has a bisexual orientation, was involved in same-sex relationships, and who has decided to only pursue relationships with the opposite sex is also regarded as an ex-gay by most religious conservatives but as a bisexual by others.

    Asking a person whether they are a homosexual will give unpredictable results, depending upon which definition of "homosexual" a person uses.

    Asking a person whether they believe that homosexuality is moral is essentially meaningless:
    • Some will interpret the question as relating to homosexual behavior which they may regard as immoral.
    • Others will view the question as referring to sexual orientation which they may regard as morally neutral.
    • Some will answer the question in terms of whether homosexual behavior is moral:
      • for them personally, or
      • for persons with a homosexual orientation, or
      • with respect to casual same-sex behavior, or
      • sexual activity within a loving committed relationship.
    Again, the results are essentially meaningless.

Order of questions:

Sometimes, even the sequence of questions is important. We found one Canadian poll that asked a series of questions about criminal activities. Then they asked the individual whether they supported same-sex marriage (SSM). The polling agency was able to conclude that most Canadians opposed marriage equality. Polls conducted by other groups at about the same time indicated that a significant majority of Canadian adults support SSM.

Multiple voting:

Many polls, perhaps almost all of them, create a cookie on your computer after you vote. A cookie is a very small file containing minimal information -- for example, data identifying the poll. If you try to vote again, the poll coding checks for the cookie. If it finds it, it will not allow you to revote. However, it is a simple task to vote, go to directory C:\Windows\Temporary Internet Files on your computer, delete the cookie, and revote. This allows you to vote as often as you wish.

Channel 56 TV in Boston took a public opinion poll during 2001-JUL, on whether "Tooky" Amirault should be released. He had spent over a decade in prison for horrendous abuse of multiple children -- crimes that he did not commit. In fact, the crimes did not even happen. The poll question was: "Do you agree with the parole board's recommendation to release Gerald 'Tooky' Amirault?" With 355 people responding, Yes outnumber No by 61.4% to 38.6%. However, a very dedicated person later used the above technique to enter dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of "No" votes. This completely negated the accuracy of the poll. It became meaningless.

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  1. "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2008-JUN, at: This is a PDF file.
  2. "Michael Foust, "Wording of Pew poll question criticized," Baptist Press, 2008-JUN-26, at:
  3. "Evangelical Christians," Barna Research Online, at:

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Copyright © 1999 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-MAY-13
Latest update: 2012-FEB-06
Author: B.A. Robinson 
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