The Inherent Limitations of Religious Polls

Religious Landscape Survey

According to a new Pew Forum survey, “large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions.”  One of the more striking poll results is that many American “blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects.”  For example, 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation, the idea that “people will be reborn in this world again and again.”

Though some religious types may see these poll results as alarming and/or as an indictment of the modern American church, I think they only point out the inherent limitations on religious polling.  These polls necessarily rely upon self-identification — if Joe Public says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian.  But the poll numbers for self-professing Christians are remarkably similar to the numbers for the general American public.  For example:

  • 24% of all Americans believe in reincarnation, compared with 22% of Christians
  • 26% of all Americans believe in spiritual energy in trees and the like, compared with 23% of Christians
  • 25% of all Americans believe in astrology, compared with 23% of Christians
  • 23% of all Americans believe in Yoga as a spiritual practice, compared with 21% of Christians

In other words, those that claim to be Christians are only marginally less likely to hold un-Biblical beliefs than the rest of the nation (Yes, reincarnation is distinctly un-Biblical.  See, e.g., Heb. 9:27 (“it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment”)).  I suspect you’d see similar results when asking these “Christians” whether they believe in certain non-negotiable tenets of the Christian faith,  like whether Jesus was divine or whether he physically rose from the dead three days after he was crucified.

The next time you read a story detailing what polls reveal about Christians, take it with a grain of salt.  Polls that rely upon self-identification are only as good as the information given by the self-identifiers, and if this poll is any indication, a lot of those self-identifiers are a bit confused about what they’re identifying with.


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