Religious Diversity Survey Results

Posted on

coexist1Thank you to all at University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, AZ who participated in the survey sent out in February for one of my Doctor of Ministry classes at McCormick Theological Seminary. The class title was “The Church in the World Today,” and focused primarily on the shape of global Christianity and how it has and is changing.

As with any survey, and even though some people thought the survey was too long, this survey will not paint a perfect picture of our community of faith. What it might offer, I hope, is some insight into the theological leanings of our congregation. For a more complete picture we would have to engage in much deeper and longer-term surveys, including personal interviews with as many people as possible. As it is, I only received back about 1/3 of the surveys sent (111 out of 328). But I find the results very interesting, none-the-less. Read through this and offer your perceptions, noticings, and “wonderments” in the comment section below.

The questions for the survey may have seemed odd and maybe even a bit nit-picky (you can see a copy of the survey by clicking here). That was for a reason, as it always is with surveys of this kind. As part of the class we discussed Christian views of other religions using a book by Dr. Terrence W. Tilley entitled: Religious Diversity and the American Experience: A Theological Approach (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007). Tilley uses a typology approach to understand the views each of us has of religions, including our own.

While Tilley subdivides his typologies much further, his broad categories are: exclusivist, inclusivist, particularist, pluralist, and comparativist. The class found it was difficult to put these typologies on any sort of traditional liberal-conservative spectrum, so here is a brief rundown:

  • Exclusivist: Christians who believes that only those who confess Jesus Christ as Savior are “saved” from hell. Exclusivists generally believe that God does not hear the prayers of non-Christians, except prayers of conversion to Christianity through repentance.
  • Inclusivist: Christians who believe that since Christ died for all humankind (substitutionary atonement), salvation includes all human beings whether or not they outwardly profess a Christian faith. According to this view Christianity is deemed really the only complete religion, but other religions do possess some truths, albeit to a lesser degree than Christianity.
  • Particularist: Christians who are particularists assent the differences among world religions, affirming the “universal salvific will of God and the unique mediatorship of Jesus Christ inside that will.” This perspective is exclusivist in that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ and participation in Christian community, but open (or inclusive) in that ultimately it is God who establishes who is inside the “saved community.” A more radical version of particularist views even offers different salavations for different religions.
  • Pluralist: Pluralist Christians recognize a parity among the major world religions in terms of truth. Pluralists tend to be more theocentric (less Christocentric), focusing on an understanding that God views all the major religions as valuable and leading to truth. Christ certainly plays a key role in salvation, but Christianity is not the only way. Collaboration with people of other religions can even help enlighten and enrich a pluralist’s understanding of salvation.
  • Comparativist: Here is where a Pluralist Christian takes the next step of actually engaging in the practices of other world religions. Some may call comparativists “religious migrants,” often residing temporarily in other religions or even claiming “dual citizenship”—this is where we sometimes get Christian Buddhists, or Christian Hindus, etc.

In the survey, questions 25 through 44 offered four statements that reflect the view of each of the five typologies above. Each participant was asked then to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement: completely disagree, disagree, agree, or completely agree. This is what is called a “forced choice,” as there was no “I don’t know” or middle answer. I then assigned numbers to each response: “completely disagree” was a zero, “disagree” was a one, “agree” was a two and “completely agree” was a three. Tallying the results offered a rough theological map of UPC:


There does not seem to be any one great majority, but there is a strong leaning toward various forms of inclusivism and even engagement with other religions. UPC is a congregation that predominantly claims the “liberal” or “progressive” labels, but I have become aware of a number of folks who are members or who regularly attend and hold more conservative theological, political, or social views. While the vast majority do not share the exclusivist perspective, there were some who agreed with these statements in the survey, and a surprising number of people who did not “completely disagree” with the statements provided.

What surprised me was the comparativist perspective: encountering other world religions through actually practicing them. I’m really curious about that. Of the ninety or so people who shared this perspective, 48 indicated they had actually been attracted to and participated in the practices of religions other than Christianity and found it enlightening. For some reason I had not anticipated this response and find it interesting and maybe worth further exploring at some point.

I asked some other questions just to get a sense of the demographics and how people viewed themselves.

  • 77% of those who responded have completed at least a bachelors degree.
  • 80% were members of UPC.
  • 91% were born between 1925 and 1964, the Silent and Baby Boomer generations
    [I have not had a chance to divide the responses based on generations].
  • 78% are married.
  • 66% were female, 34% male.

When asked about political views:

  • 11% claimed to be very liberal/progressive,
  • 41% claimed liberal/progressive
  • 31% claimed moderate,
  • 15% claimed conservative
  • Less than 1% claimed very conservative.

In question 20 respondents were asked about how they view the bible.

21. The Bible is…
A. the Word of God and should be taken literally and word for word. (Literalist)
B. the Word of God, but needs to be interpreted in the light of its historical and cultural context. (Contextualist)
C. the Word of God, but must be interpreted in the light of the church’s teaching and traditions. (Traditionalist)
D. not the Word of God, but a unique book through which God’s word may come to us. (Unique book)
E. not the Word of God, but still has value for our lives. (Valuable book)
F. an ancient book with little value today. (Of little value today)

Each answer was representative of six typologies (listed above in italics). This was fascinating also:

  • 3% Literalists
  • 61% Contexualists
  • 11% Traditionalists
  • 21% view the Bible as a “unique book” through which God’s word may come
  • 5% view the Bible as a valuable book at best
  • 0% view the Bible as having little value today

I am wondering if there is some identity shared between contextualists and the “unique book” responses. Some people chose one or the other, but then drew lines to the other to indicate some connection between the two.

A question that continues to plague me as a pastor is how much do we allow our experiences, understandings, or views of God influence our engagement in political and social realms, as well as our worldviews. I asked that in question 17: When you think about government or public affairs, which of the following factors most influences your thinking? Here are the most popular:


As a pastor, I was happy to see “religious views” a close second to “personal experience.”

So, here are the results (or at least most of them). Of course, this survey didn’t go that far, but it might be interesting to talk about. But I’m curious if anything strikes you as interesting or surprising? Or, does all this make sense to you? As this survey is part of a larger class paper I hope to complete very soon, it would really help to hear people’s perspectives. Please share your responses here and maybe respond to other people’s responses.

4 thoughts on “Religious Diversity Survey Results”

  1. Hi Eric,

    I found this survey very interesting. You did a nice job of reviewing the results. It shows me that we don’t have to all believe the same thing to be in community. Ultimately, we are a loving community that accepts the different views of others and open to changing our views with continuing discussion.

    Thank You!
    Jim Niemann

    1. Jim, thanks for your input. I share your perspective that we don’t all have to agree to be in community, but I would add that we do need to seek understanding especially of those with whom we do not share perspectives. It also begs the question of what binds us together as community. You mention love. I would hope that is a foundational element of our communion of faith. But how is that lived out within the diversity of perspectives (as opposed to “in spite of”)? I’ve come to the belief that “tolerance” is just a baby step toward fully understanding one another. But tolerance still has an element of “you’re wrong, but I’ll let you be wrong and love you in spite of it.” What would it look like to authentically say: “You and I have different perspectives on some things, and I’m not sure I fully understand yours. Can you tell me more?” This would not be for the purposes of conversion, but purely for purposes of understanding in order to build deeper relationships that can exist through challenges.

      I am pretty strong in a lot of my views and perspectives. But I work very hard to understand that my views are but a micro-sliver of all the possibilities in the universe. When I have discussions with others from across the street who see the world differently, I am informed deeper in my own understandings (and misunderstandings and lack of understandings), which then further informs my worldview (or broadens it to incorporate those other perspectives while still allowing me to maintain or re-shape mine as needed).

      Hmm…still in progress. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Eric, what a marvelous way of sharing the survey and making it understandable. I am not surprised by the breakdown showing such strong moderate to very liberal placings. More than six decades as a congregation has led to clear “settling out” or self-culling of those who would be inclusivists or exclusivists. I am heartened that there is still wide diversity and we hold together. Like with any group, we find those elements of the church that keep us there and feed us, even if some parts of theology or teachings trouble us. Many of us hear Bible stories that we absolutely do not believe literally, but can accept that there is still a teaching in it. How many of us are “holding out” for the day our pastors can conduct full-fledged weddings for same-sex couples in our churches without Arizona law preventing it. In recent years, there have been times we wondered how much longer our denomination can allow exclusion, but it seems to be lumbering in the right direction.
    I am pleased that “your personal experience,” “your religious beliefs” and “media” are higher in importance than views of family and friends, because, ultimately, we determine what we believe and why we believe as we do. The tyranny of so many conservative religions is that family members have to “believe” dogma just to get along in their families and peer groups.
    That at least 77 percent of respondents had completed at least a bachelor’s, I suspect, is higher than the full congregation and may reflect the intellectual inquiry that comes with those who’ve had higher education. They are more predisposed to fill out a survey. What a shame that so many people fail to see the great value to the integrity of a rich survey result by bothering themselves to fill it out.
    I believe those of us in the Baby Boom generation were especially blessed with the Great ’60s, with the tumult and question-authority mantra, all of it shaping a liberal perspective, giving us a healthier way of facing religious teachings.
    The survey speaks volumes on the challenges of a pastor to minister to the broad spectrum.
    But what a useful exercise to behold this survey and get an insight of what we are about.

    1. Lawn, thank you, as always, for your thorough responses. The challenge, as a pastor and as a member of the church, is how we reconcile our relationships with those who may share a different perspective. This survey was more a gauge of our willingness to listen to one another in order to seek better understanding of how God might be engaging us in our present contexts.

      I’m sure many people had many different reasons for not completing the survey or not sending it in. While I was somewhat disappointed by the response, I’m not sure I’m willing to judge them based on my assumptions. I know people are busy. It is very likely that the surveys just got lost in the shuffling of other mail and papers.

      In any case, I am thankful for those who did respond. While I am making some preliminary assumptions as a result of these responses, I look forward to further conversation and unpacking of what all this might mean for UPC, the Church at-large, and our communities’ attempts to dialogue about difficult and controversial issues.

Leave a Reply