>The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has published a major survey on religious life in America. The survey, U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, was an attempt at understanding the beliefs and practices of religious and non-religious people in the USA. The Pew Forum surveyed 35,000 Americans and compiled the results. A Summary of Key Findings is available free online in PDF format.
In a previous post I looked at a section of the survey and commented on how atheists, agnostics, and secular people responded to the questions about God. In the present post I will discuss evangelicals and their views about God. The survey also deals with the beliefs of mainline churches, black churches, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox churches. In this post I will only discuss the evangelical churches because of my interest in the evangelical movement in the USA.
The survey provides the following information about evangelicals:
1. Evangelicals view other religions
57% believe that many religions can lead to eternal life
53% believe that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion
2. Evangelicals and God
99% believe in God. Of these:
79% believe in a personal God
13% believe in an impersonal God
7% don’t know
3. Certainty about believing in God
99% believe in God. Of these:
90% absolutely certain
9% less certain
4. Belief in Heaven and Hell
86% believe in heaven
82% believe in hell
5. Prayer and Meditation
92% pray at least weekly
46% meditate at least weekly
The results of the Pew survey deserve careful consideration. Any committed evangelical will look at these numbers and conclude that something is wrong with the conclusions of the survey. As I mentioned in my previous post, these numbers may indicate that the survey was poorly designed and that the results are distorted and do not really reflect the views of those surveyed. It is also possible that questions, methodology in polling, and the sample size of those surveyed also skewed the results. It is even possible that many people misunderstood the intent of the questions.
Take the case of universalism. The survey reports that 57% of evangelicals believe that many religions can lead to eternal life. But, as the Baptist Press reports, many American Protestants believe that the word “religion” can also mean “denominational affiliation.” Thus, Scott McConnell, in the new release published by Baptist Press, said: “But the way they worded their question may have had some impact; many people think of ‘denomination’ when they hear ‘religion,’ so it isn’t that surprising that a Lutheran could think a Methodist would also go to heaven or a Catholic could think that a Protestant would go to heaven.”
The numbers of evangelicals who don’t believe in heaven or hell or in a personal God or who have a tendency toward universalism may reflect a problem in the evangelical movement in the United States: the problem of identity.
Northern Seminary’s Mission Statement says: “Northern Baptist Theological Seminary affirms its evangelical heritage through its commitments to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the authority of Scripture.” So, several years ago, Northern Baptist Seminary adopted a slogan to place the seminary within the evangelical community. Northern Seminary adopted the “Boldly Evangelical” slogan to position the seminary theologically. However, the slogan raised a number of questions. What does it mean to be “boldly evangelical”? Who is an evangelical?
The last question generated a lot of discussion. The late Bob Webber, my colleague here a Northern Seminary, conducted a study to discover what is meant by the word “evangelical.” In what follows, I quote a portion of Bob Webber’s observation on evangelicalism. Webber wrote:
Evangelicalism is characterized by unity and diversity. All evangelicals are unified in their commitment to the Lordship of Christ and to the authority of scripture. But within evangelicalism there is a great diversity. Dallas [Seminary] is dispensational, Calvin [Seminary] is Reformed, Asbury [Seminary] is Wesleyan, Fuller [Seminary] is Church Growth, Associates Biblical Seminary is Mennonite and so on. Then, beyond this denominational diversity, we can identify different streams of evangelicals – the intellectual stream, the mega-church stream, the emergent church stream, the Pentecostal stream and so on.
That is the problem the Pew survey probably never addressed. Who were these evangelicals Pew surveyed? Evangelicals can be Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Church of Christ, Reformed, and so on. I even know some Catholics who identify themselves as evangelicals.
Within this diversity of denominational affiliation many people can call themselves evangelicals without standing for basic evangelical principles.
The members of the Evangelical Theological Society is a group which calls themselves evangelicals. To join the society, members must subscribe annually to the Doctrinal Basis of the Society. Among the doctrinal statements members must accept, one deals with the Bible and another with the doctrine of God:
The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.
God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.
Members also must accept the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I doubt that anyone who signs this doctrinal statement or accepts the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy would deny the existence of God or deny that God is a personal being.
The variety of denominational affiliations within the evangelical movement will certainly skew the results of the survey. Members of the Church of Christ and of the Baptist, Lutheran, and Pentecostal churches may classify themselves as evangelicals but they believe different things and these differences in beliefs probably influenced how the questions in the survey were answered.
One thing about the survey deserves close consideration. According to the survey, 99% of evangelicals believe in God. Although the report emphasizes that the numbers may not add up to 100% due to rounding, the survey says that 1% of evangelical do not believe in God. This means that 1% of evangelicals are atheists. This is alarming. Who are these wolves in sheep’s clothing who call themselves evangelicals and yet do not believe in God?
Can an evangelical be an atheist? According to U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, the answer is yes. Amazing!
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary