Think you know what Americans believe about religion? You might want to think again.

Seven in ten Americans who follow one particular faith believe many religions can lead to eternal life.

Despite the intense attention paid to evangelical and Catholic voters in a high-stakes election year, only half say they pay close attention to politics.

And more than a quarter of people who are not affiliated with a faith nevertheless attend religious services at least occasionally.

A new report released Monday, June 23, by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life demonstrates the myriad ways that faith in America is more variegated and nuanced than it may appear at first glance.

Researchers for Pew's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey analyzed the religious practices of more than 35,000 U.S. adults and found that they generally embrace their own faith while respecting — and sometimes even practicing — aspects of other religions.

"Many religions — maybe even most — can be perceived as having an exclusivity clause: We're right and therefore everybody else is wrong," said John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum.

"What we've found is that many Americans apparently don't invoke the exclusivity clause."

Researchers did not track which other faiths people might say lead to salvation, so a Protestant or Catholic might be thinking of, for example, fellow Christians like the Eastern Orthodox, or non-Christians like Jews or Muslims. Either way, respondents seemed more focused on pragmatism than conversion.

"While Americans may have firm religious commitments, they are unwilling to impose them on other people," Green said. "It may be a kind of attitude that works very well on a practical level in a society that is as diverse religiously as the United States."

Some highlights of that diversity include:

  • More than half of evangelical respondents said that many religions can lead to eternal life, despite the central evangelical tenet that Jesus is the sole path to eternity with God.
  • 12 percent of Orthodox Christians, who are known for their by-the-book liturgical worship, reported speaking or praying in tongues at least once a week — a practice most commonly associated with Pentecostal traditions.
  • 29 percent of Catholics see God as an impersonal force, even though the Catholic Catechism teaches that "the faith of all Christians" rests on the belief in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • One in five self-described atheists, whose main tenet is to reject belief in God, say they believe in God or a universal spirit.
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"I think it really underscores the sense that the issue with religion in America is not that Americans don't believe in anything, it's that they believe in everything," said Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University in Houston. "Religion is 3,000 miles wide, but it's only three inches deep."

One example of that, which doesn't surprise scholars, is that while the Bible has long been known as America's best-selling book, researchers found that 45 percent of U.S. adults say they never or seldom read Scripture.

"Lots of Americans will tell you faith is very important to them … but not everybody regularly acts upon their faith in a public way," said Green.

Beyond religious practices and beliefs, the survey delved into political views and how they are influenced by religion. Researchers found that about one in four evangelicals, and less than one-tenth of Catholics, said religious beliefs most influence their political thinking.

"I just think the media has created this idea that people vote based on their religious convictions, but a lot of us have felt that that's really never been true of a lot of people," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

"Certainly in the present election, the big issues are Iraq and the economy and … religion doesn't help you understand how people are going to vote on these things."

Nonetheless, researchers found that religious activity plays a large role in shaping views on hot-button social issues. Among respondents who attend religious services weekly, 61 percent said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and 57 percent said homosexuality should be discouraged by society.

Green said that while researchers found near-unanimity on belief in God — something espoused by 92 percent of Americans — just 51 percent said they were both absolutely certain about that belief and view God as a person (not some kind of impersonal force) with whom they can have a relationship.

"We're very religious but we're very diverse in our religiosity," Green said.

The Pew Forum survey, first released last February, is based on telephone interviews, some in Spanish, between May and August 2007. The margin of error for the overall sample is plus or minus 0.6 percentage points, but ranges widely for distinct religious groups (plus or minus 1.5 percentage points for evangelicals, for example, compared with 7.5 percentage points for Hindus).

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Highlights from U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

Of the 35,000 U.S. adults surveyed,

  • 92 percent believe in God
  • 79 percent believe in miracles
  • 68 percent believe in angels and demons
  • 58 percent pray daily (outside of religious services)
  • 39 percent attend religious services at least once a week
  • 39 percent meditate at least once a week
  • 35 percent say they read Scripture at least once a week; 45 percent say they seldom read Scripture
  • 34 percent have experienced or witnessed a divine healing of illness or injury
  • 31 percent say their prayers are answered at least once a month; 19 percent say their prayers are answered at least once a week
  • 14 percent cite religious beliefs as the main influence on their political thinking

Related Elsewhere:

Elesha Coffman wrote about "The Problem with Counting Christians" at the release of the first part of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

Some of the articles about the survey released today include:

Survey Shows U.S. Religious Tolerance | Although a majority of Americans say religion is very important to them, nearly three-quarters of them say they believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (The New York Times)
Christians: No One Path to Salvation | Americans of every religious stripe are considerably more tolerant of the beliefs of others than most of us might have assumed, according to a new poll released Monday. (Time)
Believers in the Pews — and the Polling Booth | A new study on the intersection of politics, religion and race. (Newsweek)
Survey: More Americans dropping dogma for spirituality | Religion in the USA has a new anthem. No longer Give Me that Old Time Religion, now it's Don't Fence Me In. (USA Today)