Americans are becoming more tolerant of many religious groups, survey finds

A Pew Research Center survey has found that Americans, on average, experience warmer feelings towards various religious groups, including Muslims and Atheists, than they did even a few years ago.

Mark Lennihan/AP
Trinity Church is shown, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in New York.

According to a Pew Research study released Wednesday, Americans have been warming up to other religious groups across the United States, even compared to a relatively recent study released by the nonpartisan research center.

The survey found that positive feelings had increased for almost all of the various religious groups studied in this year's survey, compared to the study from three years ago.

The randomly-selected telephone survey asked 4,248 adults asked to rate each group on a "feeling thermometer," where 0 degrees reflected the coldest, most negative possible rating and 100 degrees reflected the warmest, most positive rating. The coolest overall ratings were fairly neutral on the scale – 48 and 50 toward Muslims and atheists, respectively – but were a significant step up from a 2014 survey that rated the groups at a chillier 40 and 41 degrees.

"It's interesting to find that after a very contentious election year, when there was a lot of negativity and a lot of divides emphasized, there were more positive feelings expressed towards all these religious groups, and really across the board," Jessica Hamar Martínez, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, told The New York Times.

According to the new survey, Americans still have the warmest feelings for Jews and Catholics, at 67 and 66 degrees, up from 62 and 63 degrees in 2014. Mainline Protestants came in third, at 65 percent.

The only religious group to not experience an overall boost in temperature was Evangelical Christians, who remained steady at 61 degrees compared to 2014. While the survey did not ask those surveyed for the reasons for their rankings, Kate Shellnutt of Christianity Today speculated that it may have something to do with a lack of exposure to evangelicals today compared with three years ago.

"The proportion of Americans who say they know an evangelical dropped by 9 percentage points from 2014 to 2017, down to 61 percent today.... Meanwhile, knowing an evangelical increases their rating by 12 degrees on Pew’s feeling thermometer," Ms. Shellnutt wrote.

According to Pew, there does seem to be a relationship between favorable feeling for a religious group and knowing someone from that denomination. For people who knew a Muslim, for example, the average thermometer rating for Muslims overall was 56 degrees. But for people who did not know a Muslim, that average was 42 degrees. And 45 percent of people who took the 2017 survey said they know a Muslim, compared with only 38 percent who knew a Muslim in 2014.

But despite the positive survey results for most religious groups, some have questioned how accurate or relevant the survey actually is, particularly in light of a spike in reports of hate crimes and harassment against Muslims and Jewish people surrounding the recent election.

"To me, this makes it seem like all's well in America, and I think that's not accurately depicting the reality," Jen'nan Ghazal Read, an associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University, told The New York Times.

The Pew Research study notes that while the general trend of warm feelings is going up, those feelings can vary widely depending on factors like the religious beliefs, age, and political views of the person being surveyed. For example, Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party express somewhat warm feelings (56 degrees) toward Muslims, while Republicans and those who lean toward the Republican Party have a much chillier view (39 degrees). However, both temperatures are higher than they were in 2014 (up from 47 for Democrats and 33 for Republicans, respectively).

Education also played a part in the survey results. Americans with college degrees tended to rate all groups more favorably compared to Americans with no college education, except for Evangelical Christians. Along racial and ethnic lines, there were not many significant differences between groups, though black Americans tended to view Muslims more warmly than either white or Hispanic Americans.

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