Those jokers at the Pew are at it again, as reported today in the NYTimes under the headline Survey Shows U.S. Religious Tolerance. Here is the first paragraph.

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.

What does this mean?

“It’s not that Americans don’t believe in anything,” said Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University. “It’s that we believe in everything. We aren’t religious purists or dogmatists.”

No, Mike, that’s not what it means.

Look at that first paragraph again. A whole lot of people “believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation,” the survey found. How did it find this? Well, it asked. Here are the survey instructions, copied from Pew’s web site. (From the page linked here, click Beliefs & Practices, and then Views of One’s Religion as the One True Faith).

Question wording: [IF RESPONDENT HAS A RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, ASK:] Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. First/next: My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, OR: many religions can lead to eternal life.

Does anyone really think that the way to discover someone’s sincere thoughts regarding “eternal life” is to ask them this question? The epistemological and phenomenological obstacles to such a determination are practically infinite.

Here’s one. If I consider “eternal life” to be a real thing, I will probably have to admit that I am far from being able to understand its nature or how to get there. So I will probably have to trust my pastor to give me this information. I still won’t understand it–how can a poor sinner understand the deep structure of the Divine Plan?–but at least I’ll have some words I can say to people who ask. In this scenario, the Pew interviewer is getting a pastor’s opinion, recited second-hand, through the mouths of the congregation. I wonder how many of their respondents behaved this way. A third? Five eighths? Nine tenths?

Here’s another. There is no eternal life, so anything you think you understand about it is wrong. A person cannot have a coherent opinion about the requirements for the attainment of eternal life. You can’t find out anything, you can’t know anything about this topic, so if you say anything either you made it up, or you are repeating what someone else made up.

Why does this matter? Because Pew’s methodology reinforces a dangerous myth: the myth that one’s religious beliefs are to some extent a conscious choice. If my beliefs are deligerately chosen, you need to take care when you challenge them. You need to let me at least try to explain them, otherwise you’re being intolerant. But religious beliefs are not consciously chosen. Religious affiliation is chosen, and people change their affiliations surprisingly often. And whatever your affiliation, your pastor will tell you what to think about eternal life, the age of the Earth, whether God is male or female, and anything else you want to know. But you didn’t join his church because you found its cosmology to be correct. You joined because his church is across the street, and your friend Grace goes there, and everyone seems so nice.

This means that when the Pew Foundation asks you about your doctrinal opinions, they are asking you about something that sounds important but that you seldom think about. (And if you do think about it, your thoughts are guaranteed not to make any sense.)

To emphasize people’s “beliefs” in a survey like this is to distort the discussion about religion, because that’s not what religion is about. Religion is about money and power. The central question about religion in public life is not whether people are interested in being “tolerant” but why they are happy to pay their pastors so much in exchange for nothing more than pretty words to parrot to the Pew.