December 18, 2008

Many Americans Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life

In this report:
Who can go to heaven?
How does one obtain eternal life?
Trends in opinions about religious exclusivity
About the survey

A majority of all American Christians (52%) think that at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life. Indeed, among Christians who believe many religions can lead to eternal life, 80% name at least one non-Christian faith that can do so. These are among the key findings of a national survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life from July 31-Aug. 10, 2008, among 2,905 adults.

Figure 1The survey is designed as a follow-up to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007, which reported that most Americans who claim a religious affiliation take a non-exclusivist view of salvation, with seven-in-ten saying that many religions can lead to eternal life while less than one-quarter say theirs is the one, true faith leading to eternal life. But what exactly do these respondents have in mind when they agree that “many religions can lead to eternal life?” Is this primarily an example of most Christians (who account for nearly 80% of the U.S. adult population) acknowledging that some Christian denominations and churches besides their own can lead to eternal life? Or are most people interpreting “many religions” more broadly, to include non-Christian faiths?

The new survey asks those who say many religions can lead to eternal life whether or not they think a series of specific religions (including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism) can lead to eternal life, as well as whether they think atheists or people who have no religious faith can achieve eternal life. The findings confirm that most people who say many religions can lead to eternal life take the view that even non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal salvation. Indeed, among Christians who say that many religions can lead to eternal life (65% of all Christians), the vast majority (80%) cite an example of at least one non-Christian religion that can lead to salvation, and fully six-in-ten (61%) name two or more non-Christian religions. Even among white evangelical Protestants, nearly three-quarters (72%) of those who say many religions can lead to eternal life name at least one non-Christian religion that can lead to salvation.

The poll also finds that roughly one-third of Americans (30%) believe that whether one achieves eternal life is determined by what a person believes, with nearly as many (29%) saying eternal life depends on one’s actions. One-in-ten Americans say the key to obtaining eternal life lies in a combination of belief and actions. The remaining one-third of the public says that something else is the key to eternal life, they don’t know what leads to eternal life or they don’t believe in eternal life.

But while the survey confirms that most Americans who are affiliated with a religion continue to adopt a non-exclusivist approach to faith, it also finds that the number of people saying theirs is the one, true faith that can lead to eternal life increased slightly between 2007 and 2008, from 24% to 29%. The increase is especially pronounced for white evangelical Protestants1, among whom the figure rose from 37% to 49%, and black Protestants, among whom the number saying theirs is the one, true faith (45%) has increased 10 points since 2007.

Who Can Go To Heaven?

Figure 2One of the most frequently asked questions to arise from the 2007 Landscape Survey findings is how the 70% of religiously affiliated respondents who said “many religions can lead to eternal life” interpreted the phrase “many religions.” For example, do Christians who express this view have in mind only Christians from denominations other than their own, or are they thinking more broadly of non-Christian religions? To shed light on this issue, the new survey asks those who believe that many religions can lead to eternal life a series of follow-up questions.

Responses to these questions show that most American Christians are not thinking only of other Christian denominations when they say many religions can lead to eternal life. To the contrary, among those who say many religions provide a path to eternal life, strong majorities believe that both Christian and non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.

Among non-Protestants who say that many religions can lead to eternal life, roughly three-quarters (74%) say that Protestantism can lead to eternal life. A similar proportion (73%) of non-Catholics who say many religions lead to eternal life say that Catholicism leads to salvation.

The numbers are only slightly lower for Judaism, with the overwhelming majority (69%) of non-Jews who say many religions can lead to salvation saying that Judaism can bring eternal life. A slight majority of non-Muslims (52%) also say Islam can lead to eternal life, and a similar number (53%) of non-Hindus say the same of Hinduism. Interestingly, although a majority who say that many religions can lead to eternal life believe that people with no religious faith also can achieve eternal salvation (56%), far fewer (42%) say this about atheists.

Taken as a whole, these responses reveal that most American Christians, including evangelicals, have more than just other Christian denominations in mind when they say there are many paths to salvation. For example, among white mainline Protestants (85%), black Protestants (81%) and white Catholics (88%), more than eight-in-ten of those who say many religions can lead to eternal life cite at least one non-Christian religion that can do so.

Significant numbers of white evangelical Protestants also believe various non-Christian religions can lead to eternal life, though these figures tend to be lower than those seen among other religious groups; nearly three-quarters (72%) of evangelicals who say many religions can lead to salvation name at least one non-Christian faith that can do so. White evangelicals who say that many faiths can lead to salvation are just as likely as other groups to cite Catholicism as a valid path to salvation. However, evangelicals are less likely than other groups to say that non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life. About two-thirds of evangelicals (64%) who see multiple paths to salvation say that Judaism, for example, can bring eternal life, lower than the 73% among mainline Protestants and the 77% among white Catholics who say this. And only about one-third of evangelicals who say there are multiple paths to salvation say that Islam (35%) or Hinduism (33%) can lead to eternal life, with fewer still saying that atheists (26%) can achieve eternal life.
Figure 3

How Does One Obtain Eternal Life?

American adults express a variety of views on how people can achieve eternal life. When asked to describe in their own words what determines whether a person will attain eternal life, nearly three-in-ten (29%) say that a person’s actions are most important. A similar number (30%) says that belief is the key factor in achieving everlasting life. One-in-ten refer to a combination of belief and actions as necessary for eternal life, and almost as many (8%) cite some other factor as most important. In addition, more than one-in-ten (14%) indicate they are unsure of what leads to eternal life, and another 7% volunteer they do not believe in eternal life.
Figure 4

White evangelical Protestants stand out as the group most likely to name belief as the most important factor in obtaining eternal life, with 64% expressing this view. Nearly half of evangelicals (45%) are explicit in stating that belief in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation, while another 19% are somewhat more generic in their responses, citing belief in God or, more simply, “belief” or “faith” as most important. An additional 10% of evangelicals say that a combination of belief and actions are crucial for salvation, meaning that, in total, nearly three-quarters of this group (74%) identify an element of belief as necessary for salvation.

While white evangelicals look mainly to faith as the key to salvation, white Catholics tend to look to actions. Nearly half of this group (47%) says that one’s actions are the key to determining eternal fate, with nearly one-third (29%) saying that being a good, moral person is the key to everlasting life. An additional 14% of white Catholics identify a combination of works and faith as necessary for salvation, meaning that fully six-in-ten Catholics (61%) explicitly cite actions or works as integral to attaining eternal life.

White mainline Protestants and black Protestants are somewhat more evenly divided in their views of what is necessary for eternal life. One-third of mainline Protestants (33%) name actions as most important and one-quarter (25%) say belief is most important, while 10% say obtaining eternal life depends on a combination of belief and actions. And nearly one-in-five (18%) in this group say that they are unsure about what leads to eternal life. Among black Protestants, more than four-in-ten (43%) say faith is most important for achieving eternal life, while nearly three-in-ten (27%) identify actions as most important.

Figure 5The survey also finds a link between respondents’ views on what determines whether one achieves eternal life and views about what kinds of faiths lead to eternal life. Among Christians who see actions as the key to obtaining eternal life, the vast majority (68%) name at least one non-Christian faith that can lead to eternal life, including 56% who name more than one non-Christian faith that can lead to salvation. By contrast, among those who see faith or belief as the key for obtaining eternal life, most (60%) either say that theirs is the one, true faith leading to eternal life or do not cite any non-Christian religions that can lead to everlasting life; only four-in-ten among this group name at least one non-Christian faith that can lead to heaven, and fewer than three-in-ten (28%) name two or more such non-Christian religions.

Trends in Opinions About Religious Exclusivity

Figure 6Although this survey finds that roughly two-thirds (65%) of religiously affiliated Americans continue to say many religions can lead to eternal life, this number is slightly lower than the seven-in-ten who said this in 2007 and is down 11 points since 2002. White Catholics and white mainline Protestants are the groups most likely to say that many religions can lead to eternal life, with 84% and 82%, respectively, expressing this point of view. Attitudes on this issue among these groups have remained largely unchanged.

White evangelical Protestants and black Protestants, by comparison, have become noticeably more strict on this question over the past year. Among both groups in 2007, those saying many religions can lead to eternal life significantly outnumbered those saying theirs is the one, true faith (56% vs. 37% among white evangelicals, 59% vs. 35% among black Protestants). Now, however, both groups are about evenly divided on this question. Fewer than half of evangelicals (47%) say many religions can lead to eternal life, down nine points in the course of a year, while 49% say theirs is the one, true faith. Among black Protestants, 49% take the view that many religions lead to everlasting life, a 10-point decline since 2007, while 45% see theirs as the one, true faith. The proportion of black Protestants taking the view that theirs is the one, true faith has doubled in six years (from 22% in 2002 to 45% in 2008).

Figure 7Views on religious exclusivity are linked with frequency of religious service attendance, with those who attend frequently being significantly more likely than others to hold an exclusivist point of view. Among religiously affiliated people who attend worship services at least once a week, about four-in-ten (42%) say theirs is the one, true faith leading to eternal life. By comparison, fewer than half as many of those who attend worship services less often (18%) see their religion as the one, true path to eternal life.

This pattern is most noticeable among white evangelicals.  Among this group, most of those who attend church at least once a week (60%) say theirs is the one, true faith. But among evangelicals who attend church less often, only half as many (30%) take the view that theirs is the one true faith.

Mainline Protestants who attend religious services at least once a week are also somewhat more likely than their less-observant counterparts to describe theirs as the one, true faith, though large majorities of both groups say many religions can lead to eternal life (75% and 85%, respectively). The religious attendance gap is virtually nonexistent among white Catholics; more than eight-in-ten weekly churchgoers and less-observant Catholics alike say many religions can lead to eternal life (85% and 84%, respectively).

About the Survey

Survey topline (PDF)

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Abt SRBI, Inc., among a nationwide sample of 2,905 adults 18 years of age or older, from July 31-Aug. 10, 2008 (2,254 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone and 651 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 262 who had no landline telephone). Both the landline and cell phone samples were provided by Survey Sampling International.

The combined landline and cell phone data were weighted using demographic weighting parameters derived from the March 2007 U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, along with an estimate of current patterns of telephone status in the U.S. derived from the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, using an iterative technique that simultaneously balances the distributions of all weighting parameters. The weighting procedure also accounted for the fact that respondents with both landline and cell phones had a greater probability of being included in the sample.

For the full sample, the error attributable to sampling that would be expected at the 95% level of confidence is plus or minus 2 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.


1In the current report, the figures from the Landscape Survey have been re-estimated based on respondents’ race and self-identification as a “born-again or evangelical” Protestant in order to make them comparable to the results from the new survey. By comparison, in the original Landscape Survey reports, respondents were classified into one of three Protestant traditions based on their denominational affiliation. As a result, the numbers included in this report for white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants and black Protestants differ slightly from the results reported for members of evangelical Protestant churches, members of mainline Protestant churches and members of historically black Protestant churches reflected in the original Landscape Survey reports.

Photo credit: Sébastien Désarmaux/Corbis