Consequences of the Reformation Continue to Fade Five Centuries Later


Illustration of a small crowd gathered to watch as Martin Luther directs the posting of his 95 theses, protesting the practice of the sale of indulgences, to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Dated 1517. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)


      

By (left-to-right) Dr. Gregory A. Smith, Dr. Jessica Martinez, Dr. Becka Alper, and Dr. Neha Sahgal / 08.31.2017
Smith: Associate Director, Research
Martinez: Senior Researcher
Alper: Research Associate
Sahgal: Associate Director, Research
Pew Research Center


After 500 Years, Reformation-Era Divisions Have Lost Much of Their Potency

After Protestants marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in October, new Pew Research Center surveys show that in both Western Europe and the United States, the theological differences that split Western Christianity in the 1500s have diminished to a degree that might have shocked Christians in past centuries. Across Europe and the U.S., the prevailing view is that Protestants and Catholics today are more similar religiously than they are different. And while the Reformation led to more than a century of devastating wars and persecution in Europe, both Protestants and Catholics across the continent now overwhelmingly express willingness to accept each other as neighbors and even as family members.

 

Among both Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe and the U.S., more people see their religions as similar than different

Although Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers in the 16th century held that eternal salvation is attained solely through faith (a belief known in Latin as sola fide), the surveys show that many Protestants today say instead that eternal salvation is attained through a combination of faith and good works – which is the traditional Catholic position. Indeed, in most of the Western European countries surveyed, Protestants who believe that salvation depends on both faith and works outnumber those who say salvation comes through faith alone.

These are among the key findings of two separate Pew Research Center surveys – one in Western Europe and one in the United States – conducted in recent months. In Western Europe, the Center conducted telephone surveys from April 11 to Aug. 2, 2017, among 24,599 people across 15 countries. In the U.S., the survey was conducted online from May 30 to Aug. 9, 2017, among 5,198 panelists on Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (although all of the questions analyzed in the survey were asked of only half the sample).

There are common threads between the two surveys – both included questions to gauge how Protestants and Catholics view each other, and both asked respondents about their views on salvation. However, the results of the two surveys are presented separately because they were conducted using different modes (the European surveys were administered by interviewers via telephone, and the U.S. survey was self-administered online) and because they included some different questions.

Among the key findings in “U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies 500 Years Later” are:

  • About half of U.S. Protestants (52%) say both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven, a historically Catholic position. The other half (46%) say that faith alone is needed to attain salvation.
  • U.S. Protestants also are split on another issue that played a key role in the Reformation: 46% say the Bible provides all the religious guidance Christians need, a traditionally Protestant belief known as sola scriptura. But 52% say Christians should look for guidance from church teachings and traditions as well as from the Bible, the position held by the Catholic Church.
  • Just 30% of all U.S. Protestants affirm both sola fide and sola scriptura.
  • However, belief in sola fide and sola scriptura is much more prevalent among white evangelical Protestants than among white mainline Protestants or black Protestants in the United States. Among self-identified white evangelicals, 44% express both convictions, and this figure rises to 59% among white evangelicals who say they attend church at least once a week.
  • In a series of multiple-choice questions, most U.S. adults (65%) correctly identify the Reformation as the term commonly used to refer to the historical period in which Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church. And a similar share (67%) correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Reformation. Far fewer (23%) know that only Protestants traditionally teach that salvation comes through faith alone; 45% erroneously say both Protestantism and Catholicism traditionally hold that position, while 19% say neither religious tradition espouses sola fide, and one-in-ten U.S. adults (11%) say only Catholicism traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone.
  • Views on sola fide are tied to levels of knowledge about it. Among U.S. Protestants, knowing that only Protestantism traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone is closely linked with believing that salvation comes through faith alone. Among Protestants who know that only Protestantism traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone, about three-quarters (77%) embrace the concept of sola fide. But among the much larger share of Protestants who are not aware that sola fide is solely a Protestant teaching, far fewer (35%) believe that faith is all that is needed to get into heaven.

Some of the key findings presented in “Five Centuries After Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe Has Faded” include:

  • In nearly all of the European countries surveyed, majorities or pluralities of both Catholics and Protestants adhere to the traditionally Catholic view that both faith and good works are necessary to attain salvation. In fact, in every country except Norway (where 51% of Protestants say salvation comes through faith alone), belief in sola fide is a minority view even among Protestants.
  • Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe generally report low levels of religious observance: Medians of just 8% of Protestants and 14% of Catholics say they attend religious services weekly or more. But Europeans who say religion is important in their lives are especially likely to hold their respective church’s traditional position regarding the means of salvation. For example, 31% of Protestants in Sweden who say religion is “very” or “somewhat” important in their lives believe in sola fide, compared with 10% of other Swedish Protestants.
  • The impact of secularization is apparent, but so are pockets of religiosity. For instance, the Netherlands has a relatively high level of disaffiliation, with about half of Dutch adults (48%) describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” religiously. Yet Dutch Protestants also stand out for some of Europe’s highest reported levels of church attendance, with 43% saying they go to church at least once a week.
  • In every European country surveyed, roughly nine-in-ten or more Protestants and Catholics say they are willing to accept members of the other tradition as neighbors. And large majorities of both groups say they would be willing to accept members of the other group into their families. For example, 98% of German Protestants say they would accept Catholics as members of their family, and a similar share of German Catholics (97%) say the same about Protestants.

U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies 500 Years Later

Only about half say faith alone is enough to get into heaven, Bible provides all guidance Christians need.

St. Olaf Kirke, commonly referred to as The Rock Church, is a small Lutheran church located outside of Cranfills Gap, Texas. (Behr Richardson Photography via Getty Images)

Five hundred years after the start of the Protestant Reformation, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that U.S. Protestants are not united about – and in some cases, are not even aware of – some of the controversies that were central to the historical schism between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Indeed, half a millennium after fundamental disagreements over the means of salvation and the authority of the Bible (among other topics) sparked a series of bloody wars between Protestants and Catholics in Europe, most American Protestants now say the two Christian traditions are more similar than different, religiously, and many U.S. Protestants espouse traditionally Catholic beliefs on some issues.

For example, nearly half of U.S. Protestants today (46%) say faith alone is needed to attain salvation (a belief held by Protestant reformers in the 16th century, known in Latin as sola fide). But about half (52%) say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven, a historically Catholic belief.

U.S. Protestants also are split on another issue that played a key role in the Reformation: 46% say the Bible is the sole source of religious authority for Christians – a traditionally Protestant belief known as sola scriptura. Meanwhile, 52% say Christians should look both to the Bible and to the church’s official teachings and tradition for guidance, the position held by the Catholic Church during the time of the Reformation and today.

When these two questions are combined, the survey shows that just three-in-ten U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura. One third of Protestants (35%) affirm one but not the other, and 36% do not believe in either sola fide or sola scriptura.

While Protestants are divided on how salvation is attained and whether the Bible is the sole source to which Christians should look for religious guidance, U.S. Catholics mostly align with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Fully eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven. And three-quarters say that in addition to the Bible, Christians need guidance from church teachings and tradition. Overall, two-thirds of Catholics take the traditional positions of the church on both of these issues.

U.S. Protestants split on sola fide, sola scriptura; in issues connected to Reformation, U.S. Catholics mostly echo traditional church views

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is being commemorated in 2017 largely because Oct. 31, 1517, is the date on which Martin Luther legendarily nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Some scholars now doubt that Luther actually nailed his long list of theological propositions to the church door, and the notion that the Reformation began on a particular day – or even in a single year – is an obvious oversimplification. Many historians argue that the Reformation is best understood as a series of events with roots that precede Luther and which continued into the 17th century, long after his death in 1546.

Furthermore, the issues at the heart of the Reformation were not merely doctrinal. Disputes also arose over religious practices, ecclesiastical structures, the sale of indulgences, the expensive construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and more. Political and other factors also played an important role. But sola fide and sola scriptura, the convictions that faith alone leads to salvation in heaven and that the Bible is the sole source of legitimate authority for Christian believers, became the rallying cry for many Protestant reformers. As Yale University Professor Carlos M.N. Eire has written: “The two principles alone do not explain the whole of Luther’s theology, but it is impossible to understand Luther and the whole Protestant Reformation without them.”1

The survey finds that belief in sola fide and sola scriptura is much more prevalent among white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. than among white mainline Protestants or black Protestants. Indeed, fully two-thirds of white evangelicals say they believe faith alone is the key to eternal salvation, and nearly six-in-ten say the Bible is the only source to which Christians should look for religious guidance. Even among white evangelicals, however, just 44% express both convictions; 37% believe one but not the other, while 19% of self-identified white evangelicals do not embrace either sola fide or sola scriptura.

These are among the main findings of a new survey, conducted May 30 to Aug. 9, 2017, among participants in Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel. In addition to exploring American beliefs about sola fide and sola scriptura, the survey also included several questions about knowledge of the Reformation and about perceptions of whether Protestantism and Catholicism today are more alike or different.

Most Protestants in the survey (70%) correctly identified “the Reformation” as the term commonly used to refer to the historical period in which Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church. And a similar share (71%) picked Martin Luther when asked to identify the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation. Still, significant minorities of Protestants answered these multiple-choice questions incorrectly. Nearly one-in-five, for instance, named “the Great Crusade” as the term for the period in which Protestants and Catholics split, while 3% chose “the Great Schism” and another 3% said they thought “the French Revolution” was the name of that historical period.

And when asked which religious group traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone (only Protestants, only Catholics, both or neither), just one-quarter of U.S. Protestants correctly answered “only Protestants” (27%). A plurality of Protestants (44%) say both Protestantism and Catholicism teach sola fide, while 19% say neither tradition teaches this and 8% say only Catholicism holds that salvation comes through faith alone.

Few American Protestants know sola fide is Protestant belief

The new survey also shows that majorities of both Protestants and Catholics in America say the two traditions are, religiously, “more similar than they are different.” About two-thirds of Catholics (65%) take this position, as do 57% of Protestants (including 67% of white mainline Protestants). Respondents were asked an additional question about how similar certain religions are to their own faith. Roughly half of both Protestants and Catholics say that the other tradition is at least somewhat similar to their own, while fewer say the same about other religions such as Judaism, Mormonism and Islam.

Pew Research Center also asked Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe about their opinions on issues related to the Protestant Reformation, including some of the same questions that were asked in the United States. The results of the Western Europe survey can be found here.

Reformation beliefs: Protestants mostly reject belief in purgatory, but divided over sola fide and sola scriptura

U.S. Protestants divided over whether faith alone or faith plus good works are needed for eternal life

One issue that split Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation was disagreement over whether Christians attain salvation in heaven through faith in God alone, or through a combination of faith and good works. Generally speaking, Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers in the 16th century espoused the belief that salvation is attained only through faith in Jesus and his atoning sacrifice on the cross (sola fide), while Catholicism taught that salvation comes through a combination of faith plus good works (e.g., living a virtuous life and seeking forgiveness for sins).2

Today, most Christians in the U.S. (62%) say that both faith in God and good deeds are necessary to get into heaven. Fully eight-in-ten Catholics (81%) hold this view, but so do majorities of white mainline Protestants (60%), black Protestants (66%) and other minority Protestants (66%).

White evangelicals are the only Protestant subgroup analyzed in the survey in which most take the opposite position. Two-thirds of white evangelicals (67%) say salvation comes through faith alone, while 33% say that both faith and good works are needed for salvation.3

Half of U.S. Protestants, three-quarters of U.S. Catholics say Christians need guidance from Bible and church teachings

The survey finds a similar pattern in response to a question about sola scriptura, the idea (held by Protestant reformers) that the Bible is the sole source of religious authority for Christians. Catholicism, by contrast, holds that Christians should look both to the Bible and to church teachings and traditions for guidance.4

Most U.S. Christians (60%) do not accept the idea that the Bible can be the sole source of religious guidance for Christians, saying instead that in addition to scripture, Christians also need religious guidance from church teachings and traditions. The view that both the Bible and church traditions are necessary for guidance is expressed by most Catholics (75%), black Protestants (67%) and white mainline Protestants (61%).

The balance of opinion among white evangelical Protestants leans in the other direction: 58% say the Bible does indeed provide all the religious guidance Christians need, while 41% say guidance from the Bible must be supplemented by church teachings and traditions.5

Taken together, just three-in-ten U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura. Belief in both teachings is most common among white evangelical Protestants, among whom 44% affirm that salvation comes through faith alone and that the Bible is the sole authority to which Christians should look for religious guidance.

Two-thirds of Catholics reject both sola fide and sola scriptura, saying instead that salvation depends on faith and good works and that Christians need religious guidance from both the Bible and church traditions and teachings.

Three-in-ten U.S. Protestants believe in both sola fide and sola scriptura

Another theological sticking point between Protestants and Catholics centered on purgatory, the Catholic teaching (rejected by many Protestant reformers) that after death, the souls of some people undergo a period of “purgation,” or cleansing, of their sins before entering heaven.6

Three-in-ten U.S. Protestants say they believe in purgatory

In the U.S. today, seven-in-ten Catholics say they believe in purgatory. Black Protestants are closely divided on this question. By contrast, most white evangelical Protestants (72%) and white mainline Protestants (66%) say they do not believe in purgatory.7

The survey finds that among white evangelical Protestants, higher levels of religious observance and educational attainment are linked with greater acceptance of the teachings of Protestant Reformation leaders. For example, eight-in-ten white evangelicals who say they attend church on a weekly basis say salvation comes through faith alone, compared with 54% among evangelicals who attend church less regularly. And whereas 72% of white evangelical college graduates say the Bible provides all the religious guidance Christians need, just 53% of evangelicals with less education say this.8

Among Catholics, these patterns are not always clear. Catholic college graduates, however, are somewhat more likely than Catholics with less education to espouse the traditionally Catholic position that salvation comes through a combination of faith and good works.

Among U.S. white evangelicals, regular church attendance and higher levels of educational attainment linked with belief in sola fide, sola scriptura

In their own words: What determines whether a person gains eternal life?

While some Christian respondents in the survey were asked a multiple-choice question about what is needed to get to heaven – and given “faith in God is the only thing” and “both good deeds and faith in God” as response options – others were asked to answer the question in their own words. This approach elicited a variety of responses, providing a different way of looking at Christians’ views on this topic.

On the forced-choice question, U.S. Christians lean toward “both good deeds and faith in God” as key to getting into heaven (62%). But when presented with the open-ended question, Christians are more evenly divided: 46% gave responses that fit into the broad category of actions, while a similar share (43%) mentioned beliefs as the key to eternal life. (Respondents had the option to give multiple responses, but most did not.)

Generally being a good person and asking forgiveness for sins were among the most common actions mentioned as key to getting into heaven; other Christians in this category said that following the “golden rule” or God’s will is how one gains eternal life. When it comes to beliefs, Christians most commonly cited “belief in Jesus Christ” or “belief in God” as crucial to salvation.

White evangelical Protestants were more likely than any other religious group to say beliefs determine whether a person gains eternal life. Fully two-thirds of white evangelicals said belief in Jesus or having a personal relationship with Jesus is the key to gaining eternal life. According to one white evangelical Protestant respondent, “whether or not they have accepted Jesus as their personal savior” determines whether one will gain eternal life in heaven.

Catholics, meanwhile, were especially likely to suggest that good actions are what lead to eternal life (60%). Three-in-ten Catholics, for example, said being a good person will lead to eternal life (32%), and 14% mentioned treating others nicely or as you would like to be treated. In the words of one Catholic respondent, “treating people with respect and how you would want to be treated and praying to the Lord for forgiveness for your sins” determines who will go to heaven.

Two-thirds of white evangelicals say belief in Jesus is key to gaining eternal life

Knowledge about the Reformation: Most know about Martin Luther and recognize the term ‘Protestant,’ fewer know sola fide is a Protestant belief

Most U.S. Protestants know the Reformation was when Protestants broke away from Catholic Church

To gauge Americans’ knowledge about the Reformation, the survey asked a series of multiple-choice questions, each with one historically accurate response. When asked to identify “the term commonly used to refer to the historical period in which Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church,” two-thirds of the general public (65%) correctly chose the Reformation. About one-in-five (18%) chose “the Great Crusade,” while 6% said “the Great Schism” and 5% said “the French Revolution.”

Similar shares of U.S. Christians (66%) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (63%) answered this question correctly, with self-identified atheists (85%) doing especially well.

But within Christianity, there were some major differences. Protestants (70%) – especially white evangelical Protestants (75%) and white mainline Protestants (73%) – were more likely than Catholics (57%) to identify the Reformation correctly.9

Roughly eight-in-ten college-educated adults (83%) and adults over the age of 65 (78%) correctly said the Reformation is the term for the historical period when Protestants broke away from Catholicism. By comparison, 57% of adults without a college degree and 56% of adults under 30 correctly answered this question.

Most U.S. Protestants, U.S. Catholics know Martin Luther inspired the Reformation

Respondents were also asked: “What was the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation?” Fully two-thirds of the general public (67%) correctly chose Martin Luther. Fewer said John Wesley (16%) or Thomas Aquinas (10%), while 6% said they were unsure who inspired the Protestant Reformation.

Majorities of adults across all major Christian and unaffiliated subgroups correctly identified Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation.10

Fully eight-in-ten college graduates correctly chose Martin Luther, compared with roughly six-in-ten adults (62%) who have less than a college education.

Few American Protestants, Catholics know that only Protestants traditionally teach sola fide

Far fewer U.S. adults identified the religious group that traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone. (Respondents were given a list of four options: only Protestants, only Catholics, both or neither).

About a quarter of the general public (23%) correctly answered that only Protestants traditionally teach that salvation comes through faith alone. A plurality of U.S. adults (45%) said both Protestants and Catholics believe in sola fide, and one-in-ten said only Catholics hold this belief (11%). About one-in-five said neither Protestants nor Catholics believe this (19%).

Four-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (42%) answered this question correctly, but fewer white mainline Protestants (14%), black Protestants (14%) and Catholics (17%) did so.11 In fact, about half of Catholics incorrectly said that Catholicism traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone (including 13% who said only Catholicism teaches this, and 41% who said both Catholicism and Protestantism do). Atheists and agnostics were more likely than members of several Christian subgroups to correctly answer the question.

College graduates did somewhat better on this question than those without a college degree, but still, just a third of college-educated adults correctly said that only Protestants teach sola fide.

Analysis of the data shows that for Protestants, knowing that only Protestantism traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone is closely linked with believing that salvation comes through faith alone. Among Protestants who know that only Protestantism traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone, about three-quarters (77%) embrace the concept of sola fide. But among the much larger share of Protestants who are not aware that sola fide is solely a Protestant teaching, far fewer (35%) believe that faith is all that is needed to get into heaven.

Most U.S. Christians say they are familiar with the term ‘Protestant’

The survey asked respondents whether they are familiar with the term “Protestant,” and seven-in-ten U.S. adults said they are (72%). Three-quarters of Protestants (76%) say they are aware of the term, while slightly smaller shares of religiously unaffiliated adults (69%) and Catholics say the same (67%).12

Among Protestants, roughly eight-in-ten white mainline (81%) and white evangelical Protestants (80%) say they are familiar with this term, while two-thirds of black Protestants say the same.13 And among religious “nones,” atheists and agnostics are more likely than those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” to be familiar with the term “Protestant.”

Nine-in-ten college graduates say they know the word “Protestant,” compared with 64% of those who have not received a college degree.

Age also is related to familiarity with the term “Protestant.” Adults ages 65 and older are much more likely than younger adults to say they are familiar with the word.

Many Americans see Protestants as Christians who are not Catholic

Respondents who said they are familiar with the term “Protestant” were asked to describe, in their own words, what the term means. The most common responses defined Protestant as Christians who are not Catholics or who don’t follow the pope (32%). For example, one respondent said Protestant means, “to belong to a religion that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in ‘protest,’ or to object.” Another said Protestant referred to “those who protested against the perceived abuses by the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Today, non-Catholic Christian denominations.”

One-in-ten respondents said Protestantism is a type of Christianity or someone who holds Christian beliefs. Others used the word “reform” or “Reformation” to define Protestant (4%), and still others referenced Martin Luther, said Protestantism is a type of religion or set of beliefs, or offered examples of some Protestant denominations (3% each).

Most in U.S. say Catholics and Protestants today are religiously more similar than different

Nearly six-in-ten U.S. Protestants, two-thirds of U.S. Catholics say Catholics and Protestants today are more similar than different

Six-in-ten U.S. adults (61%), including 57% of Protestants and 65% of Catholics, say that when they think about Catholics and Protestants today, they consider the two groups more similar than different, religiously. On the other hand, about a third of U.S. adults (36%), including 41% of Protestants and 32% of Catholics, say Catholics and Protestants today are more different than they are similar.

Those who view Protestants and Catholics as similar see common beliefs in God, Jesus

Depending on their response to this question, respondents received a follow-up question asking them to describe, in their own words, the most important way in which the two traditions are similar or different.

Among U.S. adults who said Protestantism and Catholicism are more similar than different, 55% cited shared beliefs as the key similarity. This includes 20% who said the two traditions believe in or worship the same God, and 18% who said both groups believe in Jesus Christ, or believe that he is the Son of God.

One-in-ten said Protestants and Catholics share common practices, such as being active in the community and helping others (3%). And 14% gave a variety of other, positive ways in which the two groups are similar, such as that “they both teach good morals and ethics” or that they are similar “in their mutual tolerance for the other’s approach to faith and justification.”

Pope, saints among key differences seen between Protestants and Catholics

Americans who said Protestants and Catholics are more different than similar, religiously, were asked to describe the most important difference between the two groups. Within this category, the most common type of response was that beliefs are the most important distinction between Catholics and Protestants. This includes 9% who said the most important difference between the two groups is how they view Mary and the saints and 7% who said the key distinction is that Catholics follow the pope. According to one respondent, “Catholics pay heed and much respect to the pope, whereas Protestants are not directly influenced by his statements and ideas.”

Some respondents also cited certain practices – such as prayer and confession – as ways in which Protestants and Catholics differ (11%). And still others noted the differences on a variety of social and political issues (5%). Additional responses highlighted perceptions of rules and strictness across the two faiths. One respondent wrote, “Catholics tend to be a more open-minded denomination,” while another said, “Protestants are more open to letting you live your [life].”

In addition to asking respondents whether Catholics and Protestants, in general, are mostly similar to or different from each other, the survey also asked respondents whether they view each of a series of religions as similar to or different from their own religion. On this latter question, Protestants and Catholics are split about whether the other Christian tradition is similar to their own faith. Half of Protestants (50%) say they think the Catholic religion is “very similar” or “somewhat similar” to their own religion, while the other half (49%) say Catholicism is “very different” or “somewhat different” from their own faith. Among Catholics, 54% say they think the Protestant religion is very similar or somewhat similar to their own religion, while 42% say Protestantism is very or somewhat different from their own faith.

Although Catholics and Protestants are divided as to how much the other faith resembles their own, members of each group are far more likely to say the other is similar to their own faith than they are to say any other religion is similar to their own. For example, while half of Protestants say Catholicism is similar to their own religion, just 32% say the same about Judaism, 19% say this about Mormonism, and about one-in-ten say this about Islam (12%), Buddhism (9%) or Hinduism (8%). Among Catholics, 41% say Judaism is similar to their own religion, while fewer say this about Mormonism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.

Half of U.S. Protestants say Catholicism is similar to their religion; half of Catholics say the same about Protestantism

Five Centuries After Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe Has Faded

Pope Benedict XVI embraces with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, left, in London’s Westminster Abbey during an evening prayer service in September 2010. (Richard Pohle/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

As Protestants prepare to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that the prevailing view among Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe is that they are more similar religiously than they are different. And across a continent that once saw long and bloody religious wars, both Protestants and Catholics now overwhelmingly express willingness to accept each other as neighbors – and even as family members.

Among Catholics, Protestants in Western Europe, more see their religions as similar than different

The survey also shows that one of the major theological controversies of the Protestant Reformation no longer starkly divides rank-and-file Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe. Today, majorities or pluralities of both groups say that faith and good works are necessary to get into heaven – the traditional Catholic position. Fewer people say that faith alone (in Latin, sola fide) leads to salvation, the position that Martin Luther made a central rallying cry of 16th-century Protestant reformers.

Yet differences remain between the two Christian traditions. Geographically, Protestants are still concentrated in the north and Catholics in the south of Europe. In many countries, sizable minorities among both Catholics and Protestants (roughly four-in-ten or more Catholics in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy and France and comparable shares of Protestants in Switzerland and the UK) say the two groups are more different religiously than they are similar. And Protestants and Catholics who consider religion to be important in their lives are more likely to take their respective church’s traditional position on salvation compared with those who say religion is less important.

These are among the main findings of a new Pew Research Center survey of 24,599 adults across 15 countries in Western Europe, conducted from April to August 2017 through telephone interviews on both cellphones and landlines. The study, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation, is part of a larger effort by Pew Research Center to understand religious change and its impact on societies around the world. The Center previously has conducted religion-focused surveys across sub-Saharan Africa; the Middle East-North Africa region and many other countries with large Muslim populationsLatin America and the CaribbeanIsraelCentral and Eastern Europe; and the United States.

The new surveys are nationally representative, with samples of approximately 1,500 or more respondents in each country, allowing researchers to analyze the opinions of Catholics in 11 countries and of Protestants in eight countries.

Pew Research Center also asked Catholics and Protestants in the U.S. about their opinions on issues related to the Protestant Reformation, including on several questions that were asked in Western Europe as well. The results of the U.S. survey can be found here.

In Western Europe, few countries have an even mix of Protestants and Catholics

Most Western European countries lean heavily Protestant or heavily Catholic

Roughly five centuries after the rupture between Protestantism and Catholicism, Western Europe still mostly consists of countries whose populations are either predominantly Catholic or predominantly Protestant.

Catholics form the biggest group in nine of the countries surveyed, largely to the south. Protestants are the largest religious group in five countries, all in the north.

Germany – where Luther lived and wrote the list of 95 theological propositions whose publication in 1517 is the event many Protestants commemorate as the beginning of the Reformation – is 42% Catholic, 28% Protestant and 24% religiously unaffiliated. But even Germany is more religiously homogeneous on a regional level, with more Protestants in the north, Catholics in the south and people without a religious affiliation in the east. (See this sidebar for more on the Reformation.)

Most Western European countries lean heavily Protestant or heavily Catholic

Many Europeans identify with particular streams of Protestant Christianity rather than with Protestantism as a whole. For example, in Nordic countries, most Protestants identify as Lutheran, while in the UK, most identify as Anglican (or Church of England). Anglicans sometimes describe their church as following a distinctive path that is neither Roman Catholic (since Henry VIII renounced the authority of the pope in 1534) nor wholly Protestant (since the Church of England still views itself as part of the universal or “catholic” church). Nevertheless, for the purposes of this analysis, Anglicans are included in the broadly defined Protestant category, along with the other churches that broke with Rome starting in the 16th century.

The Netherlands is the only country surveyed where a plurality of the adult population (48%) is religiously unaffiliated (identifying as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular”). But secularization trends are evident throughout the region. People with no religious affiliation make up substantial shares of the population in several countries, including roughly four-in-ten adults in Norway (43%), Sweden (41%) and Belgium (37%).

Similar levels of religious observance among Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe

In addition, Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe generally show low levels of religious observance.

Relatively small percentages of both groups say that they pray daily (medians of 12% of Catholics and 14% of Protestants) and that religion is very important in their lives (13% of Catholics and 12% of Protestants). Attendance at church also is fairly low among both groups, although Catholics are somewhat more likely than Protestants to say they attend church at least once a week.

Dutch Protestants stand out for their relatively high levels of religious observance: About half (51%) say religion is very important in their lives, and a majority (58%) report praying daily. In addition, 43% say they attend church weekly – higher than any Catholic population in Western Europe, and more than four times as high as Protestants in any other country in the region.

Among both Protestants and Catholics, people tend to say both faith and good works are necessary to get into heaven

Catholics more likely than Protestants to view both good deeds and faith as necessary to get into heaven

Since the Protestant Reformation, sola fideor salvation by “faith alone,” has been a distinguishing feature of Protestant theology. Historically, Protestants have emphasized that people are saved not by their own good works or by penance, but by faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, through which God chose to forgive the sins of all humans. In Luther’s words: “It is faith alone which worthily and sufficiently justifies and saves the person.”14 This was a major departure from the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the need for Christians to make amends for their sins through confession and penance.

Today, however, Western European Catholic and Protestant laity are no longer starkly divided by this theological issue: More Catholics and Protestants say both faith and good works are necessary to get into heaven than say faith alone leads to salvation. And considerable shares of both groups do not take a clear position on this issue, perhaps reflecting a lack of familiarity with the theological intricacies.

Religious Catholics and Protestants more likely to identify with their own church’s salvation teaching

To be sure, Catholics in Western Europe (median of 59%) are more likely than Protestants (median of 47%) to take the traditionally Catholic position that both good deeds and faith in God are necessary for salvation. But even Protestants in every country surveyed except Norway are more likely to say that both elements are necessary for salvation than to take the traditionally Protestant sola fide position. For example, nearly three times as many German Protestants say faith and good works are necessary to get into heaven (61%) as say faith alone is the way to heaven (21%).

In fact, in countries that have substantial shares of both Catholic and Protestant populations, only in the Netherlands are Catholics (66%) more likely than Protestants (47%) to say salvation comes from faith and good works. In Germany, Switzerland and the UK, Protestants are just as likely as Catholics – if not more likely – to espouse this traditional Catholic belief.

Among both Catholics and Protestants, those who say religion is “very” or “somewhat” important in their lives are more likely than those who say religion is less important to take their own tradition’s position on salvation.

Religious reformations and religious wars in Europe

If one date must be picked as the starting point of the Protestant Reformation, the conventional choice would be Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and university professor in Wittenberg, Germany, publicly posted a lengthy list of academic arguments against Catholic Church practices. That is the event widely being marked in this year’s 500th anniversary commemorations of the Reformation, which eventually split Western Christianity and led to more than a century of religious warfare across Europe.15

Rather than describing a single Reformation that suddenly divided the Western church into two very different parts, however, many historians now speak of multiple reformations and emphasize the continuities as well as the differences between medieval Catholicism and Protestantism.16 Increasingly, scholars trace the seeds of dissent to church reformers from previous centuries. Prior to Luther (who was born in 1483 and died in 1546), reformers in the Middle Ages included Peter Waldo in northern Italy (circa 1140-1205), John Wycliffe in England (circa 1330-1384) and Jan Hus in what is now the Czech Republic (circa 1370-1415).

Still, Luther and the year 1517 play a pivotal role in the historical narrative. Initially, Luther railed mostly against one Catholic Church practice – the sale of indulgences – which he viewed as a form of corruption.17 Shortly thereafter, he also questioned the integrity of the papacy and the priesthood, arguing that ordinary Christians could have a more direct, unmediated relationship with God. He soon was arguing that popes and grand councils were fallible, and only the Bible was infallible. Pope Leo X excommunicated him, but Luther’s arguments spread throughout Europe and found many echoes and variants. Other reformers active during his lifetime included Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich (1484-1531) and John Calvin in Geneva (1509-1564), whose strands of the Reformation came to be known as Reformed Christianity.

While various reformers and Protestant churches vehemently disagreed on theological issues, several doctrines were adopted by most Protestants, with slight variations. Among the most consequential were “scripture alone” (in Latin, sola scriptura), which held that the Bible, not the accumulated teachings of popes and church councils, was the ultimate source of authority for Christians; “faith alone” (sola fide), which held that salvation cannot be earned through good deeds – much less purchased through indulgences – but rather is freely granted by God to those who have faith in Jesus Christ; and “grace alone” (sola gratia), the idea that salvation comes directly from God to each person, without any intermediaries such as priests, and hence the role of clergy is simply to be ministers in service to others.

In response to Protestantism’s spread, reform efforts within the Catholic Church gained ground, including the founding of the Jesuit order. Many changes followed the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which condemned Protestant teachings as heresies but also sought to clarify Catholic teachings and led to codified versions of the Mass and Catholic breviary (prayer book) that lasted for centuries.

In an era when religion was interwoven with all aspects of life, including politics, the Reformation also set off religious violence across Europe, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648. The Treaty of Westphalia finally ended that devastating war and granted minority rights for Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists in many parts of Europe. Still, religiously based wars continued until the early 18th century, and Catholic-Protestant tensions have extended into the modern era in places like Northern Ireland.

Even among more religious Catholics and Protestants, high levels of acceptance of one another

Vast majority of Protestants, Catholics willing to accept each other into family

Despite the long history of Catholic-Protestant conflict in the aftermath of the Reformation, Western Europe’s Catholics and Protestants are now very accepting of each other. In every country surveyed, roughly nine-in-ten or more Catholics and Protestants say they are willing to accept members of the other tradition as neighbors. And large majorities of both groups say they would be willing to accept members of the other religious group even as family members.

In two countries, Ireland and Italy, Catholics who say religion is at least somewhat important in their lives are considerably less likely than those who consider religion less important to say they would be willing to accept Protestants as family members or as neighbors. Still, majorities among both groups say they are willing to accept Protestants into their families. In Ireland, for example, 76% of Catholics for whom religion is very or somewhat important say they would be willing to accept Protestants as family members, compared with 93% of Irish Catholics who say religion is less important in their lives.

Among Protestants, those who are highly religious and less religious are about equally likely to say they would be willing to accept Catholics as neighbors or as family members.

College-educated Catholics are especially willing to accept Protestants as family members and neighbors, though majorities among those with less education also say this.

College-educated Catholics, Protestants more likely than others to know a member of the other faith

With some exceptions, most Protestants and Catholics personally know people of the other tradition

In most countries, majorities of Catholics and Protestants say they personally know a member of the other faith, but Protestants living in Nordic countries are less likely to have personal connections with Catholics. For example, just 31% of Finnish Protestants say they know a Catholic, as do roughly half of those living in Denmark (49%) and Sweden (49%). Among Catholics, people in Belgium (39%) and Spain (35%) are the least likely to say they personally know a Protestant.

Among both Catholics and Protestants, college-educated adults are more likely than those with less education to say they personally know a member of the other tradition. This is true in all Nordic countries. For example, in Norway, a majority (72%) of Protestants with a college education personally know a Catholic, compared with roughly half (51%) of those who have less education. A similar pattern is seen among Catholics in several countries, including Belgium (53% among college-educated adults vs. 34% among those with less education) and Spain (46% vs. 32%).

More people see Catholics and Protestants as religiously similar

Substantial minorities, especially in predominantly Catholic countries, see religious differences between Catholics and Protestants

Majorities or pluralities of adults (including Catholics, Protestants and people with no religious affiliation) in all 15 countries surveyed across Western Europe say Catholics and Protestants today are “religiously more similar than they are different.”

Still, sizable minorities in several countries see Catholics and Protestants as “religiously more different than they are similar.” Nearly four-in-ten adults take this position in Ireland (39%), Italy (39%) and the United Kingdom (37%).

Generally, people in predominantly Catholic countries are more likely than those elsewhere to say the two groups are religiously different today. In most predominantly Catholic countries surveyed, roughly one-third or more adults take this position. Elsewhere, smaller shares see differences between the two groups, including 18% in Norway and 19% in Sweden. People in predominantly Protestant countries also are somewhat more likely than those in Catholic countries to not take a position on the issue. Among both Catholics and Protestants across the region, the prevailing view is that the two traditions of Western Christianity are more similar than different.

People who say they are personally acquainted with a member of the other Christian tradition are especially likely to see religious similarities between Catholics and Protestants. On the other hand, across the region, those who consider religion important in their lives are more likely than those to whom religion is not important to say the two groups are more different than similar religiously. In Ireland, for example, 43% of those who say religion is very or somewhat important in their lives see the two groups as different, compared with 35% of those who say religion has a less important place in their lives.

Notes

  1. Eire, Carlos M.N. 2016. “Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650.” Pages 173-174
  2. Many Protestant leaders and theologians have engaged since the 1960s in ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican on various issues, including beliefs about salvation. In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church issued a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” with broad agreement on the role of faith in justification, which in both Protestant and Catholic soteriology (theology of salvation) is the moment at which a person is made just (cleansed of sin, declared righteous) by the grace of God. Pope John Paul II called the joint declaration a “milestone on the not always easy road towards the restoration of full unity among Christians.” In subsequent years, some other Protestant groups (the World Methodist Council, in 2006; and the World Communion of Reformed Churches, in 2017) formally adopted the joint declaration. However, some other Protestant churches have rejected the declaration. For example, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, has declared that “very significant differences” remain between its view of salvation and the Catholic view. And some critics, including both Catholics and Protestants, contend that the declaration’s wording papered over important theological divisions and was not a real breakthrough.
  3. In this report, black Protestants and other minority Protestants are generally reported on separately from white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants because they often exhibit distinctive patterns of responses. Among all evangelical Protestants, including both whites and racial and ethnic minorities, 57% say that faith alone is what gets people into heaven, while 43% say that both faith and good deeds are necessary for eternal salvation. Among all mainline Protestants, including both whites and nonwhites, 30% say faith alone is needed for salvation, while 65% say that both faith and good works are necessary to get to heaven.
  4. A middle view, of sorts, is associated with the Episcopal Church and its worldwide body, the Anglican Communion. Anglicans emphasize three sources of religious authority: scripture, tradition and reason. Anglican clergy often evoke the image of a three-legged stool that needs each of its legs to remain upright. The Anglican Communion’s founding body, the Church of England, separated in the 1530s from Roman Catholicism, but its emergence as a distinct entity was not part of the Protestant Reformation. For purposes of analysis, though, members of the Episcopal Church are included in this report in the broadly defined Protestant category.
  5. Among all evangelical Protestants, including both whites and racial and ethnic minorities, 52% say the Bible provides all the religious guidance Christians need and 47% say Christians need religious guidance from both the Bible and church teachings and traditions. Among all mainline Protestants, including both whites and nonwhites, 38% say the Bible alone provides all the guidance Christians need, while 60% say Christians need guidance from both scripture and church teachings.
  6. MacCulloch, Diarmaid. 2003. “The Reformation: A History.”
  7. Among all evangelical Protestants, including both whites and racial and ethnic minorities, 28% say they believe in purgatory while 68% do not. Among all mainline Protestants, including both whites and nonwhites, 35% believe in purgatory and 61% do not.
  8. The survey included too few interviews with respondents from other Protestant traditions for this kind of analysis. One exception is that the survey included enough interviews with white mainline Protestants to subdivide them by educational attainment. White mainline Protestants who completed college are less likely than those with fewer years of schooling to believe in purgatory (20% vs. 37%), less likely to say the Bible provides all the religious guidance Christians need (28% vs. 41%), and about as likely to say that faith alone leads to eternal salvation (33% vs. 38%).
  9. Among all evangelical Protestants, including both whites and racial and ethnic minorities, 70% correctly answered that the Reformation is the term commonly used to refer to the historical period in which Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church. Among all mainline Protestants, including both whites and nonwhites, 72% correctly answered that the Reformation is the term commonly used to refer to the historical period in which Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church.
  10. Among all evangelical Protestants, including both whites and racial and ethnic minorities, 71% correctly named Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation. Among all mainline Protestants, including both whites and nonwhites, 71% correctly named Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation.
  11. Among all evangelical Protestants, including both whites and racial and ethnic minorities, 35% correctly answered that Protestants are the religious group that traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone. Among all mainline Protestants, including both whites and nonwhites, 14% correctly answered that Protestants are the religious group that traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone.
  12. It is possible for respondents to be categorized as Protestants in the survey even if they say they do not recognize the term. The questionnaire asks, “What is your present religion, if any?” One of the response options reads “Protestant (for example, Baptist, Methodist, nondenominational, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, Reformed, Church of Christ, etc.).” Respondents who choose this option because they recognize their denomination in the list of examples are categorized as Protestants even if they are unfamiliar with the term. Another response option is “something else,” and those choosing this option are asked to specify their religion. By way of specifying, some respondents describe themselves as “Christian” or name a specific Protestant denomination (e.g., Seventh-day Adventist); these, too, are categorized as Protestants in the analysis.
  13. Among all evangelical Protestants, including both whites and racial and ethnic minorities, 75% say they are familiar with the term “Protestant,” while 25% say they are not familiar with the term. Among all mainline Protestants, including both whites and nonwhites, 77% say they are familiar with the term “Protestant,” while 21% say they are not familiar with the term.
  14. Eire, Carlos M.N. 2016. “Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650.”
  15. The term “Protestant” did not emerge until 1529, as a result of the Diet of Speyer. At this meeting, Lutheranism was outlawed within the Holy Roman Empire (including modern Germany), but a significant number of cities and regional princes protested this action. This is the protest referred to by the term “Protestant.” Examples of today’s many Protestant denominations include: Anglican/Episcopal, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian. (See McGrath, Alister E. 1997. “Christian Theology: An Introduction.”)
  16. Eire, Carlos M.N. 2016. “Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650.”
  17. Luther’s 95 Theses focused on indulgences, something many in the Catholic Church had wanted to reform. Indulgences were payments made to the church by sinners both to avoid time in purgatory and to demonstrate thankfulness to God and the church after they had been forgiven. Over time, however, the public began to view indulgences as a means of buying forgiveness. Luther argued that financial payments did not help people escape purgatory, and that forgiveness was based solely on a direct relationship between God and sinner. (See McGrath, Alister E. 1997. “Christian Theology: An Introduction”; and Marshall, Peter. 2009. “The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction.”)

Originally published by Pew Research Center with permission.

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