Apr 18, 2011

From the Archives

What Americans Believe About Universalism and Pluralism

Most Americans believe they, themselves, will go to heaven. Yet, when asked to describe their views about the religious destiny of others, people become much less forgiving. Some people might be described as inclusive—that is, embracing the notion that everyone—or nearly everyone—makes it into heaven. Others possess a generally exclusive take on faith, viewing the afterlife in a more selective manner.

A new analysis of Barna Group trend data explores whether Americans embrace inclusive or exclusive views of faith as well as how they operate within a context of religious pluralism, or the multi-faith nature of U.S. society. The research examines what Americans believe, whether there have been changes over time, and the degree to which younger generations are different from older adults.

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Broadly defined, universalism is the belief that all human beings will be saved after death. On balance, Americans leaned toward exclusive rather than inclusive views. For example, 43% agreed and 54% disagreed with the statement, “It doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons.”

Similar splits in public opinion emerged for the statements, “All people will experience the same outcome after death, regardless of their religious beliefs” (40% agreed, 55% disagreed) and the sentiment, “All people are eventually saved or accepted by God, no matter what they do, because he loves all people he has created” (40% versus 50%).

However, even as millions of Americans believe God saves everyone, most still place strong responsibility on human effort and choice regarding their ultimate destiny. Nearly seven out of 10 adults agreed with the idea “in life you either side with God or you side with the devil; there is no in-between position” (69% versus 27%). And about half of adults concurred that “if a person is generally good or does enough good things for others, they will earn a place in heaven” (48% agreed, while 44% disagreed).

One aspect of exclusion and inclusion is how Americans’ relate to faiths other than their own, which is particularly important in a pluralistic, multi-faith society. On the evangelistic side, a slim majority of Americans (51%) believe they have “a responsibility to tell other people their religious beliefs.”

At the same time, more than three out of every five adults (62%) said it is important “to have active, healthy relationships with people who belong to religious faiths that do not accept the central beliefs of your faith.”

In a mash-up of pluralism and universalism, 59% of adults believe that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God even though they have different names and beliefs regarding God.” Americans are less likely to endorse the idea that “the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths,” although 43% agreed, conforming closely to the percent of Americans who endorse inclusive ideas about faith.

One of the interesting findings regarding Islam was the fact that residents of Texas (62%) were equally likely as residents of New York (62%) to believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same deity. Florida residents (58%) were statistically similar. Yet, the inhabitants of the nation’s most populous state, California, were less likely than average to embrace this view (48%).

Christians’ Perspectives
When looking at the Christian community, born again Christians were more likely to be interested in sharing their faith with others as well as more likely than average to say they desire active, healthy relationships with people of other faiths. [Born again Christians are defined by Barna Group as those who have made a commitment to Jesus Christ and who believe they are going to heaven because of their confession of sins and accepted Christ as their savior. It is not based upon self-identifying with the label “born again.”]

Nevertheless, despite their own personal faith convictions, many born again Christians embrace certain aspects of universalist thought. One-quarter of born again Christians said that all people are eventually saved or accepted by God (25%) and that it doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons (26%). An even larger percentage of born again Christians (40%) indicated that they believe Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

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Generational Changes
In an analysis of the changing perspectives since the mid-nineties, the Barna database revealed little significant change in public opinion on matters of universalism and pluralism. However, there were some intriguing generational patterns that shed light on what may be impending shifts.

Across all adults, including Christians and other faith groups, young Americans ages 18 to 39 were considerably less likely than older Americans to believe that in life you either side with God or the devil; there is no in-between. Similarly, young people were less enamored with the idea of telling others about their religious beliefs. Upticks were also found among younger generations in terms of believing that Christians and Muslims worship the same God; endorsing the idea that all people are eventually saved or accepted by God, no matter what they do; and embracing the notion that it doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons.

Despite the many ways younger adults report more open-minded faith attitudes, the research showed that adults over forty were actually more likely than 18- to 39-year-olds to desire healthy relationships with people of other faiths.

Interestingly, younger born again Christians stand in stark contrast to their peers, being much less open to inclusive or universalist views of eternity. Still, while they are holding firm on many matters of orthodoxy, young Christians also expressed less certainty than previous generations did about what will happen to them, personally, when they die.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, pointed out that “the difference between the Christian community and the cultural norms is even more pronounced among the youngest generations than the older generations. In other words, younger born again Christians’ attitudes about religious inclusivity and exclusivity are more divergent from their peers than is currently true of their parents’ generation.

“This gap represents increasing pressure on young believers to understand those differences and to find meaning and confidence in their faith convictions. This may be part of the reason young people are hesitant to share their faith with others and why they have so many questions about the nature of heaven: they are less certain what they believe and crossing the divide to communicate with their peers on this issue is a big jump. Helping to prepare young people for this belief gap and enabling them to understand biblical teaching—while also encouraging healthy friendships with people who hold other spiritual views—are crucial challenges for today’s Christian leaders.”

About the Research

This report is based upon telephone interviews conducted in the OmniPollSM and drawn from Barna Group’s theolographicTM database. This analysis pulls from studies conducted from 2005 through 2011. Each survey involved a minimum of 1,000 respondents, randomly selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older. The research includes a representative proportion of people who no longer have a landline and now solely rely on cell phones.

The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables. “Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon church or denominational affiliation or involvement.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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