A recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study, in which over 35,000 Americans were interviewed, had an interesting result. According to this Time article, the Pew Forum study found that

70% of respondents agreed with the statement “Many religions can lead to eternal life.” Even more remarkable was the fact that 57% of Evangelical Christians were willing to accept that theirs might not be the only path to salvation.

Agreement was also made here by 83% of Protestant Christians and 79% of Catholics.

The Time article goes on to say,

In fact, of the dozens of denominations covered by the Pew survey, it was only Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who answered in the majority that their own faith was the only way to eternal life.

Now, here is the actual question that these results come from:

Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. (a) My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life, OR (b) Many religions can lead to eternal life.

Which would you choose? I would choose (b), putting me in the narrow minority of Latter-day Saints (57% chose a; for Jehovah’s Witnesses, it was 80%). However, I certainly wouldn’t argue much with a Latter-day Saint who selects (a) because depending on what you mean either choice is right — especially if we scrutinize how one might define “leading” and “lead.”

But beyond the relative ambiguity here, this particular question does significant violence to Latter-day Saint belief. Yes, it does, on one hand, communicate that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the few churches that believes there is something particularly unique about itself in terms of eternal life — and this is a good thing. However, according to this New Cool Thang post, the survey also paints a misleading picture of the fact that Latter-day Saints are arguably one of the most liberal churches in terms of universal salvation and even exaltation. As early as the revelation on the three degrees of glory (Doctrine & Covenants 76), Latter-day Saints have believed that people of all religions — including those who live and die as Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, etc. — can receive eternal life. Nowadays, this view is obviously becoming more popular — but as far as I know, only Latter-day Saints have it built in as part of their actual theology. (As far as I know, the typical Evangelical Christian answer to these concerns is without clear scriptural warrant.)

The Pew Forum question makes a false dichotomy between the two options. It’s perhaps similar to the problem of seeing “masculinity” and “femininity” as two non-overlapping and opposite constructs. From this perspective, if someone is masculine then it must mean that they are not at all feminine, and vice versa. However, according to psychologist Sandra Bem, who revolutionized thinking about gender, masculinity and femininity should not be seen as opposite constructs. It is possible for a person to be highly masculine and highly feminine; likewise, it is possible for a person to be lowly masculine and lowly feminine. In the former case, for example, there might be a person who is both aggressive in a stereotypically masculine sense and yet emotional in a stereotypically feminine sense. In the latter case, there might be a person whose aggression or emotion does not clearly map onto masculinity or femininity.

Comparing this psychological example to the Pew Forum question, it may be possible for a person to believe strongly with both (a) and (b). By forcing respondents to pick only one or the other, however, you receive no indication of this possible scenario. How might the results have been different if respondents could select one, both, or neither answer? *

And there’s another problem, as reported in this recent Deseret Morning News (Mormon Times) article. This article discusses criticisms by Baylor professor Rodney Stark. The article reports,

Stark found the question unclear when asking about “many religions” or even “my religion.” “Who are they talking about?” Stark said. “Because they didn’t tell them who they were talking about. They didn’t ask them if only believers in Christ could go (to heaven).”

He said most Christians would probably think “many religions” referred to other Christian religions. “A lot of people thought, ‘Well, I’m a Lutheran, but those Baptists get into heaven, too. I think most people in this country when you ask about other faiths, think about other Christian faiths. That’s what’s around,” Stark said.

Likewise, even the phrase “my religion” can create confusion. “You have to define that a little bit,” Stark said. “Mormons … will take the reference to mean LDS. I think for a lot of Christians it becomes a lot more difficult because you don’t know what the boundaries are: ‘Is it my Nazarene Church or is it Christianity or what in the world is it?’”

Stark said that if the Pew Forum really wanted to know what Christians believe about non-Christian religions, it would have specifically asked — something Baylor University did in 2007 in its Baylor Religion Survey.

In the Baylor survey, those who believed in heaven were asked, “How many of the following people do you think will go to heaven?” Looking at people’s opinion on how many Buddists were going to go to heaven, for example, the Baylor survey found that 16 percent said “none,” 8 percent said “a few,” 5 percent said “about half,” 22 percent said “most” and 10 percent said “all.” The largest group, 39 percent, said they had “no opinion.”

“Now that’s instructive in the sense that, I think that if had this been done in 1930 you would have had … many more saying ‘none,’” Stark said, “and most people would have had an opinion. Most people now, 40 percent basically, are saying ‘I don’t know.’”

So, basically the upshot of this, in terms of Latter-day Saint belief, is that the LDS Church is receiving an inaccurate comparison to other Christian religions. Had the question — for Protestants, Evangelicals, and Catholics — asked whether lifelong non-Christians could receive eternal life, you would have had much fewer responses in the affirmative. Now, had this same question been asked to Latter-day Saints (replacing non-Mormons for non-Christians), affirmative responses would have been much higher than the other Christian groups.

What should Mormons make of all this? From the Mormon Times article:

So how should Mormons react to being portrayed as intolerant without taking into account their expansive beliefs about salvation and differing degrees of heaven? “They should be offended,” Stark said, “because they are basically getting framed up on. That (Pew survey) question is so ill-conceived that who knows what it means?”

Well, offense or no offense, I’m happy to have an opportunity to spell out what I, as an average Latter-day Saint, believe about other religions. I believe, first of all, that all religions can help “lead” individuals to eternal life, whether it is through explicit belief in Christ or some other supreme being, strong family values, spiritual meditation, community involvement, or humanitarian service. I believe that many people who have lived and died as Catholics, Hindus, Protestants, Evangelicals, Mormons, Buddhists, atheists, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and just about any other religion or lifestyle will be heirs of eternal life. This belief is not simply a private one — it is grounded in the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only church, as far as I know, that has a clear, scripturally warranted position on how belief in Christ is necessary and yet how many of those who don’t accept Christ in mortality can accept Him after this life and receive eternal life. However, I also believe that it is only through accepting Christ through faith, repentance, baptism by one holding authority, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end in righteousness that one can receive eternal life. The authority that I am talking about is the authority of Jesus Christ Himself, and it has been restored in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the only Church that holds this authority. Many good people will not have a good opportunity to accept this truth and join with the Church, however, in this life — but they will be able to after this life, and can receive eternal life. For others, however, the Savior is calling them to come and be a part of His great Church right now, helping to improve it and to assist in the great work of building up the kingdom of God on the earth, in preparation for His millennial reign. That is why Latter-day Saints preach the gospel to all nations, even other Christians.

And, I suppose, that’s why I’ve written the above paragraph — in the hopes that someone out there will be intrigued by what I have said and desire to learn more. A good place to start is mormon.org.

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* UPDATE JUNE 30: The Pew Forum question (as with all their questions), I just found out, does in fact record a “both/neither” option as well as “I don’t know.” However, it appears that these options are not actually given as options — they would be recorded only if the person insisted on saying both/neither/I don’t know (from my experience with both psychological and market research, this interview approach is fairly common — don’t give them both/neither as an option, but record it if they insist). Thus, if the person were actually told that “both” or “neither” were possible answers, then it could have resulted in many more people answering with these options (as it is, a very small percentage, usually less than 3-5 percent, has answered both or neither).

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