By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
(June 24, 2008) Newly released data from a Pew Forum research project reveals that 70 percent of Americans – including 79 percent of the Catholics polled – do not believe their religious tradition is the only way to eternal life, even if their churches teach otherwise.
The research is part of the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey which was conducted last year among 35,000 people.
The good news is that Americans remain strongly religious: 92 percent said they believe in God, 74 percent said they believe in life after death, and 63 percent said their respective scriptures are the word of God.
But deeper investigation found that more than one in four Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Orthodox Christians expressed some doubts about God’s existence, as did six in ten Jews.
Another finding almost defies explanation: 21 percent of self-identified atheists said they believe in God or a universal spirit, with eight percent “absolutely certain” of it.
The majority of religious Americans said they believe many religions can lead to eternal life: mainline Protestants (83 percent), members of historic black Protestant churches (59 percent), Roman Catholics (79 percent), Jews (82 percent) and Muslims (56 percent).
Catholic respondents appeared to break with the Church more than members of other denominations, and not just on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. For instance, only six in ten Catholics described God as “a person with whom people can have a relationship” – which the Church teaches – while three in ten described God as an “impersonal force.”
“The statistics show, more than anything else, that many who describe themselves as Catholics do not know or understand the teachings of their church,” said Denver Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput to OneNewsNow.
“Being Catholic means believing what the Catholic Church teaches. It is a communion of faith, not simply of ancestry and family tradition. It also means that the church ought to work harder at evangelizing its own members.”
Father J. Brian Bransfield, a specialist in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s (USCCB) Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis told the Catholic News Agency that the survey’s results point to a need for more robust catechetical efforts in the Church.
“It is hard to quantify the tremendous thirst for truth among families and people of all ages, as demonstrated by the overwhelming response to the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States,” he said. “This thirst is sometimes misdirected through the effects of secularism, with its focus on individualism and consumerism.”
Father Bransfield repeated a statement Pope Benedict made before his election to the papacy, “God does not count in large numbers.”
He added: “In the face of any measure, the steady and ongoing response of the Church is an ever renewed commitment to robust catechetical efforts.”
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