How not to do a poll
January 6, 2009
The Pew Forum released last month the results of a poll that has made its rounds in the evangelical blogosphere. It is hard to imagine a more poorly made survey. According to the Pew Forum, “Most Christians say non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.” That phrasing should raise some red flags, such as, “Is it the religion itself that leads to eternal life or some other criteria? What is the role of Christ within such an alternate criteria?” Of course, that requires some thinking and nuance — something that pollsters avoid like the plague (makes for less sensational tag lines). But, for evangelicals who obsess about the inclusivism dominant in the pews, this poll is a gift. Don’t expect from these bloggers any criticism of the poll itself — that would detract from the agenda at hand.
Here is how the incompetent pollsters at the Pew Forum framed the questions:
The problem for a Christian is clear: Is it actually “religions” that lead to eternal life? Or is it a Person? Would any (roughly orthodox) Christian say that Hinduism, Islam, etc. “lead to eternal life,” without qualification? No. But when the other alternative is basically “explicit Christian faith alone leads to eternal life,” I would have picked the second “pluralist” choice. That’s the problem. The poll is framed to yield either an exclusivist position or a pluralist position, yet the majority of Christian theologians are inclusivists (and, I would say, the majority of Christians who are familiar with the issue). But for evangelicals (err, fundamentalists) who continually collapse inclusivism and pluralism together, it doesn’t matter.
As if that weren’t bad enough, this is how the Pew Forum broke down the first question:
Can Catholicism (Protestantism, Judaism,..) lead to eternal life?!!! Are you serious?! How can anyone take this poll seriously?
The Pew Forum is a major outlet for religious data in America, but they need to consult some reputable theologians lest they construct a worthless poll.