This is pretty amazing. Evangelicals are among the most churchgoing and religiously attentive people in the United States, and one of the ideas they're most likely to hear from the minister at church on a given Sunday is that the path to salvation is through Jesus. Apparently, rank-and-file evangelicals have a different view. [Editor's Note: Readers have suggested a variety of possible reasons why evangelicals may have answered this way. Beliefnet will present an entire package on the salvation issue on Friday]
Nationally, 79% of those surveyed said the same thing, and the figure is 73% for non-Christians and an astounding 91% among Catholics. The Catholics surveyed seemed more inclined to listen to the Catechism's precept that those who "seek the truth" may gain salvation-rather than, say, St. Augustine's view that being "separated from the Church" will damn you to hell "no matter how estimable a life he may imagine he is living."
For a few thousand years, wars have been fought over this point; countless sermons have been given-by people of all faiths-to prove the opposite point. It is one of the main ways that clergy of any given faith can explain why it's important for people to show up at their particular church and read their particular sacred text.
How could so many Americans be tossing aside such a central element of theology? I think the Newsweek cover story that grew in part out of this poll has the best theory. Americans have become so focused on a very personal style of worship-forging a direct relationship with God-that spiritual experience has begun to supplant dogma.
Other results from the poll indicate that the appeal of religion is more spiritual than cultural. Thirty-nine percent said the main reason they practiced their religion is to "forge a personal relationship with God" while only 3% said it was to be part of a community. This would help explain why many people report having a regular prayer life but not attending church. Seventy-nine percent said they pray at least once a week compared to 45% who said they went to worship services during that time. In addition, 40% said they felt "most connected with God or the divine" when they were "praying alone or meditating" compared to 27% who said they had that sense when they were in a house of worship or praying with others.
The poll also showed a more basic point that may be obvious to Beliefnet readers but not others: spirituality is crucial to most Americans. 57% said spirituality was "very important" in their "daily life" and another 27% said it was somewhat important. Their behavior seems to back up this notion. 79% said they prayed at least once a week and 55% said they read a sacred text -- Bible, Koran, etc -- at least once a week.
The Newsweek/Beliefnet poll produced a number of other fascinating findings:
One quarter of Americans have veered from their childhood faith. When asked to compare their current faith lives to that of their childhood, 68% said it was the same or mostly the same, while 24% said they'd changed faiths mostly or completely or become an atheist or agnostic. The spiritual approaches that seem to be gaining fans were evangelical Christianity and atheism, while Catholicism and non-evangelical Protestants lost ground. Nevertheless...
Most American families have experienced religious diversity up close. We attempted to assess a typical American's exposure to other faiths or spiritual approaches. In all 42% of Americans either have a different approach from their childhood, saw a sibling shift approaches, or married someone of a different faith. These overall numbers don't explain how these changes might have affected them but it does mean that a large number of Americans have had very personal and direct experience with some religious approach that's different from their original spiritual practice.