Pew Survey Finds Surprising Flexibility in American Religious Tolerance

Seventy percent of Americans believe many religions can lead to eternal life.

ByABC News
September 18, 2008, 8:02 PM

June 23, 2008— -- In today's society, faith can sometimes become a weapon in so-called "culture wars."

However, new poll numbers released today from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show that Americans are overwhelmingly open-minded about faith. A majority of Americans -- 70 percent -- say that many religions, not just their own, can lead to eternal life.

Click here to read the Pew Forum's latest U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

Mary Burrell, a St. John's Episcopal Church member in New York City, accepts that believers of other religions can also be saved. "I believe in every religion. It's hard for me to be just nailed down to Christianity," she shared with ABC News.

Christopher Scott, a member of Burrell's congregation, echoes her inclusiveness: "I don't think there's any doubt that that's possible. ... Anyone can find their way."

John Green, who conducted the poll, was genuinely surprised by the results. The findings show that 83 percent of mainline Protestants, 79 percent of Catholics, 82 percent of Jews, and 56 percent of Muslims concur that eternal life is not exclusive to their faith.

"I didn't think it would be that high," Green remarked, "and I didn't think that the figures would extend to so many different religious communities."

Fifty-seven percent of Evangelicals, a group which often speaks the loudest in faith-fueled debates, also takes a non-dogmatic stance. Still, many evangelicals, such as congregants at Grace Christian and Missionary Church in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, believe that Jesus is the only way to eternal life.

Janette Washburn represents this group. "Jesus said, himself, that he's the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father but through him," she said. "But, the cool thing is that, even though Jesus says he's the only way, he offers it to everybody. It's not some exclusive club. It's offered to every man, woman and child who choose to receive it."

The survey explores how Americans think about God, highlighting a remarkable range of opinions. Though 92 percent of Americans believe in God, 71 percent are absolutely convinced and 21 percent are less certain.

Sixty percent believe God is a person with whom you can have a relationship.

Dr. John Chae, a Grace Church congregant, opened up about his personal connection with the divine. "It's a very personal relationship with Him -- and yet, I am in awe of Him, as well," Chae said, "because of what He has done and what He has created -- and that He would choose to have a relationship with me."

While Chae personifies God, 25 percent of Americans say God is, instead, an impersonal force.

Scott described a more abstract vision of God. "I picture the universe -- speeding through the galaxies," Scott explained. "If I'm imaging God, that's what I imagine. It's an all-powerful force."

Today's findings may show Americans' surprising flexibility on faith, but Americans are still serious about their religions, attending services regularly and praying daily.

Unlike in some other countries, Americans have enough tolerance to prevent faith from spreading from a culture war to a real war.

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