Pew Forum Question Does Violence to Mormon Belief

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

Email a friend

* 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).


19 Responses

  1. The problems with this survey remind me of many surveys that have attempted to measure the influence of the Bible on Christians’ concern for environmental crises. The basic problem is the same– instead of engaging the beliefs/texts of these religions to understand the teachings of a church in its own terms, the surveyor claims to try to get more to the “bottom” of the problem by directly asking members what they believe. It’s a secondary, illegitimate (and lazy) method, however, for understanding the beliefs of a particular church or its scripture. I agree that there are serious problems with the questions that were asked and I like the feminine/masculine analogy.

  2. Another nuance is the use of the word “to” rather than “toward”.

    I believe that all Christian religions that center on Christ and his Atonement lead _toward_ eternal life, that is, _in the direction of_ eternal life.

    But which religion actually gets one “closest to” eternal life, or even actually gets one _there_ ?

    Where the other religions end, I believe there must be a transition, either in this life or the next, to that which we call the LDS ordinances of baptism and temple endowments.

    There are many buses headed _towards_ eternal life, but at some point, either in this life or the next, all the buses but one have an end point, and once at that end point, one must transfer to the true gospel bus to complete the journey.

  3. Bookslinger,

    Good points.

    I will say, though, that I prefer a slightly different analogy. There are many stones rolling down a hill, and in time they will all come together. There is certainly a core stone that we can identify with the authority and ordinances of the Church (the central and largest stone, we could say); however, that one stone changes as other stones mold into it. Similarly, the church changes as people from other traditions come into it. The core teachings and ordinances, of course, don’t change, but other things might — including certain in-group Mormon culture traditions that need to be sloughed off. This analogy is similar to your bus analogy, but it speaks more truthfully, I think, to the fact that (a) there is much good that one continues to take with them as a member of the Church and (b) the “true gospel bus” (or stone) is one that is continually in process.

  4. I wrote something about this in response to the New Cool Thang post you cite, and I’ll include an abbreviated version of that comment here.

    I don’t think your phrase “does violence to Mormon beliefs” is fair. An opinion poll measures what people (in this case, members of various religions) think, not what the actual theology of those groups is. And whatever you want to say about actual Mormon theology on this, my experience is that most Mormons have a “one true church” mentality that is not what I would term universalist. The Pew report didn’t say Mormons are intolerant — it simply said that a majority of Mormons answered this particular question in this particular way — and it didn’t say anything about Mormon beliefs or teachings. And let’s be honest, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses DO have more of an exclusionary bent on things like this than other religions (”one true church”, anyone?), and the survey picked that up, even with a demonstrably imperfect question. We feel defensive because we don’t want our religion perceived a certain way, but in my experience, the results of this question do capture a sentiment that I see in testimony meeting every month.

    The Pew survey also asked a battery of questions about political issues, including questions about the role of government, abortion, welfare and international diplomacy. Clearly, Jehovah’s Witness teachings about avoiding political involvement impact their perception of these questions in a way that is different from that of any other group. There is also a question on meditation; Buddhists will clearly interpret this question differently than will, say, Mormons or evangelical Christians. Survey questions can’t always be tailored to the peculiarities of minority groups. But I don’t think that makes the results of the questions invalid or uninteresting; it just makes it important to know something about the lens through which various groups will understand the questions, and why they might answer as they do.

    See my comment on the New Cool Thang post for info on a Newsweek survey in 2004 that asked about which religious groups can go to heaven. Their results matched what Pew found more closely than the Baylor results.

  5. a few thoughts.

    1) i really enjoyed reading the survey results and trying to answer the questions myself. however, even before reading your response and Stark’s, i found myself struggling with the options provided. they aren’t all mutually exclusive in my mind.

    2) that particular question (about who will or won’t receive eternal life) reminded me of c.s. lewis’ “the last battle” in the narnia series. aslan basically tells the children that those who did good things in the name of tash (the evil “god”) really did it in aslan’s name, and those who did evil in the name of aslan were really serving tash. it helped me feel more comfortable with my personal belief that all righteous people are serving the same true and living God, regardless of what they call Him, and He will reward them accordingly.

    2.5) i’m referencing children’s literature. yikes. too immature for this forum, maybe? ;-)

    3) i get the bus analogy (thanks bookslinger) and i like it, but am not really following you on your rolling stone one, dennis. unless your stone is more like a snowball, in which case i think i understand what you’re getting at.

    4) if there really is only one way to be exalted (and i believe there is), wouldn’t you rather be actively pursuing exaltation NOW than have to wait for a ride to the top, as it were, and receive those ordinances via proxy? i guess that’s why i’m glad the LDS church actively proclaims the gospel instead of just waiting for people to die and be converted in the afterlife.

  6. Allie,

    And let’s be honest, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses DO have more of an exclusionary bent on things like this than other religions (”one true church”, anyone?), and the survey picked that up, even with a demonstrably imperfect question.

    You are right that the survey did, in fact, pick something up. And certainly the things you say about LDS understandings of “one true church” play into that. But when it comes to comparisons with other religions, I think I may disagree. In line with Stark’s argument, the main comparative finding could be nothing more than that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses see “my religion” and “my faith” in a more narrow way than other groups. Unlike Protestants, Jews, and many other religious traditions, there is only one LDS and Jehovah’s Witness religion and faith. For Catholics, there might be ground for comparison (even then, many Catholics see themselves as a larger body of Christians nowadays). But for the other groups, there is not because we have no idea how they were thinking of “my religion” and “one true faith.” For all we know, the evangelicals were thinking of including Catholics. Because the different groups think of these terms in different ways, it makes all room for comparison illegitimate. It is IN COMPARISON that violence is done to LDS beliefs. A false impression is given that Latter-day Saints are more exclusionary than, say, Evangelicals, when in reality the two have not been fairly compared. (This implies, of course, that violence is being done to other Christians’ belief as well, which was Rodney’s main point, I think.)

    Survey questions can’t always be tailored to the peculiarities of minority groups. But I don’t think that makes the results of the questions invalid or uninteresting; it just makes it important to know something about the lens through which various groups will understand the questions, and why they might answer as they do.

    First, I’m not sure if any of the groups can properly be called “minority groups.” They each are groups that have a sizable representation in America and it’s not like there are 100 groups — 14 I think. Regardless, you are right in the sense that surveys are necessarily reductionist. But this doesn’t mean that there cannot be bad survey questions. Often surveyors fall into the trap of thinking the questions have to be the same for all groups because that makes for a more valid comparison. However, comparisons are much more valid and interesting if questions aim to be comparable but yet ARE tailored to the beliefs of the group. Perhaps they could have kept this question, but then also had religion-specific questions — like Stark recommended.

    I definitely agree with what you are saying about seeing things through the right lens. The problem is, people won’t do this (you see no discussion of this, for example, in the Time article). So, when I say that the Pew Forum does violence to LDS belief, I am not necessarily implicating the makers of the question alone. The question lives on and continues to do violence — as a tool by those who take these surveys at face value. Even still, the Pew Forum failed to create a question that is a good umbrella question regarding the issue of who receives eternal life, at least in terms of comparing groups like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses with other Christians. It didn’t take a survey to show that these groups have different views regarding what it means to be a church, religion, or faith. I see the survey question as showing little more than this obvious difference. That’s all it “picked up,” as far as I can tell, at least in terms of singling out these two groups.

  7. Jen,

    i get the bus analogy (thanks bookslinger) and i like it, but am not really following you on your rolling stone one, dennis. unless your stone is more like a snowball, in which case i think i understand what you’re getting at.

    Jen, I’m referring to the stone that would roll forth and fill the whole earth (see D&C 65:2; Daniel 2). I think that a snowball effect is indeed the right image.

    if there really is only one way to be exalted (and i believe there is), wouldn’t you rather be actively pursuing exaltation NOW than have to wait for a ride to the top, as it were, and receive those ordinances via proxy? i guess that’s why i’m glad the LDS church actively proclaims the gospel instead of just waiting for people to die and be converted in the afterlife.

    I agree, Jen, but I would take it a step further (as I think you would too). If this really is a decision for someone (should I join now or later?) then the answer is now. Now is the time for repentance. There are no second chances, in regards to eternal life — the “second chance” doctrine is one of the most pernicious doctrines that has ensnared Church members (and would-be Church members). The reality is that some have the chance to join the Church (and be faithful) in this life, and others in the next. No one has the chance in this life AND in the next, in terms of receiving eternal life. (I wouldn’t bank on it, anyway.)

    Of course, I’m not going to be the judge on what might be meant by “chance.” But I’ll be bold enough to say that if a person knows they should join the Church but don’t in life because of the cares of the world (perhaps banking on the afterlife), then this person has lost his/her opportunity for eternal life. (But I won’t be the judge on what is meant by “knows” and “cares of the world.” That is for the Spirit to convict each person regarding.)

  8. Dennis,

    I do agree that the question is overly broad and therefore doesn’t tell us as much as a more detailed set of questions would — I’m sorry if I didn’t state that clearly before. Pew also acknowledged this point during a press conference (available at at the release of the survey, and said they are planning a recontact survey to follow up on exactly this point (among others), precisely because it is unclear exactly what it means. I believe the recontact survey will include the types of questions you suggest here.

    Incidentally, the survey actually contains a lot of other fascinating information about Mormons. For example, Mormons stand out for their responses to questions on the importance of religion in their lives, frequency of answers to prayer, reading scripture with their children, and feeling a sense of peace and well-being. I think it is unfortunate that this one particular question (about which religions lead to eternal life) has been emphasized over these others in the news media and subsequently in several Mormon blogs. In a time when there is so much negative coverage of Mormons in the media, I think it would be nice for a site like the Mormon Times to accentuate the positive when it exists, especially from an organization like Pew that has tried to be extremely fair to Mormons (whatever else Rodney Stark might say in one rather unbalanced article). I encourage you to take a look at the other 60+ questions in this survey and the fascinating overall portrait they draw of Mormons.

    I have a few other responses, but being a newcomer here I don’t want to wear out my welcome or risk appearing too controversial. I’ll just add that I bookmarked your blog recently because I really liked the concept behind the title of thinking in a marrow bone and I think you’re exploring some interesting things here that I’ve enjoyed reading about, so keep it up.

  9. Allie,

    First of all, you are certainly welcome to comment without risk of wearing out a welcome or risk appearing too controversial. Respectful commentary that does not speak negatively of core LDS doctrines or authorities (as you appear to exemplify in your comments) is always welcome here — especially by people like yourself who appear to know what they’re talking about. I’m glad you like some of what you’ve seen, and I hope you continue to speak up. One reason I started this blog was to have an LDS forum that did not have the usual (unintentional) in-group barriers for newcomers.

    I’m heartened that the Pew Forum acknowledged that there is some ambiguity on the question and more exploration to be done. I probably should have been clear that I actually really respect the work that the Pew Forum has done. I do think they are a remarkable organization. And I agree that Stark seemed to have too much of a conspiracy theory against the group.

    I suppose I’m somewhat guilty of jumping on the bandwagon of negative press regarding this question. After I wrote the post, I looked at the other questions that you have mentioned — and I certainly agree that for the most part they provide some very good data (at least for Mormons — that’s about all I’ve really focused on).

    I will say, though, that I tried to make a positive spin over the issue. It allowed me an opportunity to clarify what I believe as a Latter-day Saint regarding other churches. But I certainly angled the article from a more negative angle, so — guilty as charged.

  10. dennis: i did see a parallel to daniel’s “stone cut out of the mountain,” but didn’t think you were directly referencing it. the way i’ve always understood those scriptures, the stone refers to the restored gospel which does not so much accumulate other faiths (whether those be personal belief systems or organized religions in their entirety) but rather grows as a force in and of itself until it fills the earth.

    your analogy–and correct me if i’m not following correctly–is more to show how members of the gospel “roll” down the mountain toward eternal life. members of other faiths (or no faith in particular) may join that throng at some point, whether in this life or the next, but all will end up in the same place because they are rolling in the same direction. in my mind, the two ideas are similar but very distinct from one another.

    i hope that made sense…

  11. Jen,

    I think that both ideas could work with my analogy. Regarding the first, I see the restored gospel as picking up good wherever it goes, including good that might be relatively unique to another religion.

    I’m not sure what it means to say the restored gospel is “a force in and of itself.” I don’t see how we can separate it from the people it consists of, including people from all faiths and backgrounds and the good they bring with them.

  12. dennis:

    i meant that the gospel does not accumulate parts of catholicism or buddhism or islam that are appealing. instead, it is pure and whole by itself. it continues whether we are part of it or not. if one person will not further the work, the Lord finds another who will, but with or without us, the fullness of His gospel will not be added to, removed from, or stopped from reaching all nations, kindred, tongues, etc.

    the church, on the other hand, consists of diverse peoples and the good they bring with them. i think of the gospel as the truths and the ordinances and such, whereas the church is the medium through which we receive these truths and ordinances.

    and now i really don’t know if i’m explaining myself adequately, and i’ve completely hijacked this post. sorry about that. :)

  13. Jen,

    I think your gospel and church distinction is fine for me. I think that I would think of my example in terms of the kingdom of God on the earth. There is a sense in which it is unchanging (the gospel), but there is another sense in which it progresses and picks up the good wherever it goes.

  14. A nice post at Juvenile Instructor in defense of the Pew Forum survey. This post helps round out my criticism of this one question.

  15. […] a recent religion poll completely and totally distorts key Mormon religious concepts as he explains how Mormonism both exclusivist and largely universalist at the same time, one of more fascinating aspects of our theology, […]

  16. One trouble with surveys is that by necessity the wording of the questions provides a limited number of round holes into which square pegs are fitted.

    This is compounded with religion, where perhaps not one man in ten can clearly articulate his own faith and not one man in a thousand can clearly articulate his neighbor’s faith.

  17. The questions as to which faith/church is the “path to salvation” and as to which faith/church is the “way to eternal life” do not articulate the best inquiry.

    What articulates the best inquiry is the question as to which faith/church is the path or way to the “fulness of salvation”…

    It appears that it is from within the Mormon Church that the idea of the “fulness of salvation” was first articulated, defined and explained, and presented with the means whereby it can be achieved.


    The phrase “fulness of salvation” is briefly but precisely treated in the appendix of the ebook offered in the referenced website. It is presented with a very sensible and very profound Christian view and is presented in the light of rather indisputable Biblical references given in the ebook’s appendix.

    Interestingly, the ebook also delves into scientific (cosmological and philosophical) perspectives that support the LDS claims.

    I think we will have more meaningful and definitive results if the survey questions are formulated in consideration of the idea of the “fulness of salvation”.

    If you read the ebook, consider these questions:

    What is the fulness of salvation?

    How is the fulness of salvation obtained?

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