Religious beliefs of Americans
The reliability of poll data: Part 2
Data from polls are often deceptive. This is particularly true of
religious polls. Some reasons why the information is not particularly accurate
- 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.
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.
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
The Pew report asked people to select one of two options, either exclusivism
- "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:
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.
- 70% of Americans believe that there are many paths to eternal life, and
- 57% of those who identify themselves as evangelical Protestants agree.
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
The term "religious tolerance:"
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
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
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
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
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:"
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
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
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
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
Again, the results are 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.
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.
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
"U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life,
http://religions.pewforum.org/ This is a PDF file.
"Michael Foust, "Wording of Pew poll question criticized," Baptist Press,
"Evangelical Christians," Barna Research Online, at:
Copyright © 1999 to 2012 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-MAY-13
Latest update: 2012-FEB-06
Author: B.A. Robinson