Americans More Positive Today About Major Religions, Survey Finds

  • May 23, 2017
  • by David O'Reilly

Americans are feeling more warmly toward nearly all religious groups than they did just a few years ago.

For more than a decade, the Pew Research Center has queried Americans about their religious identification and practices. “Do you believe in God?” its surveys ask. “Do you pray daily? Identify with a denomination? Attend services at least monthly? Believe religion is important?”

Now a new center survey finds that despite the declines in affiliation and observance revealed in those large religious landscape surveys, Americans are feeling more warmly toward nearly all religious groups than they did just a few years ago.

Asked to rate a variety of groups on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from 0 to 100 “degrees,” respondents gave nearly all groups a more positive assessment than they did in a nearly identical June 2014 Pew Research Center survey, with no group in decline.

Jews and Catholics, who were among the groups most positively rated in 2014, earned even “warmer” evaluations in the January 2017 survey. And while Muslims and atheists again received the “coolest” overall ratings, their numbers rose significantly: up from a “chilly” 40 and 41, respectively, three years ago to what the survey report calls “more neutral” ratings of 48 and 50.

Americans more positive about religious groups
This warming of attitudes was broad-based, researchers found, with men and women, Republicans and Democrats, and all age groups trending toward more positive views. Mormons and Hindus moved from what had been neutral ratings to “somewhat warmer” scores of 54 and 58 degrees, and Buddhists rose from 53 to 60.

The only group whose rating did not change during the past three years was evangelical Christians, whose rating stayed at a relatively warm 61.

The survey was conducted between Jan. 9 and Jan. 23 using the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. Created in 2014, the panel is a nationally representative group of randomly selected U.S. adults who participate via monthly, self-administered, online surveys. Data in the report was drawn from 4,248 respondents. 

Gregory Smith, the Pew Research Center’s associate director of religion research, says that the first “religious temperature” survey in 2014 came about because “our team that focuses on religion and public life had always been interested in how people from various religious backgrounds reacted with each other.” But the questions that the religious landscape pollsters queried 35,000 people with in phone interviews never seemed subtle enough to measure respondents’ complex feelings toward religious groups, Smith says.

Creation of the American Trends Panel three years ago helped researchers go deeper, because its participants answer questions online using a sliding scale of zero to 100, “from cold and negative to warm and positive, in a way that lends itself more to a self-administered format than do telephone polls. So we saw this as a new and interesting way to gauge religious groups’ views of one another,” says Smith.

“It’s a useful survey,” John Green, distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron says of the religious temperature poll. “One of the things we try to do with polling is give evidence for the attitudes that people talk about. You often hear people say things like ‘Nobody can stand Catholics’ or ‘Anti-Semitism is on the rise.’ So the extent to which one can systematize and measure those beliefs is very helpful” in showing how accurate those kinds of comments really are.    

The American public’s warmer attitudes toward religious groups might be explained, Green surmises, “by a relative decline in the kind of faith-based conflicts” that can sour some Americans toward institutional religion. While many people “admire religious institutions for the guidance and comfort and support they give, and for the ways they create community” and serve the poor, says Green, “there is another view that sees religion as a source of conflict, or judgment, or too focused on rules and not enough on other values.”

The positive attitude tends to enjoy ascendancy as long as religion is not heavily engaged in controversy, he says. But when religious groups are tainted by scandal, or take sides in politics or contentious public policy issues, “the overall value of religion tends to decline” in public esteem.

Conservative white evangelicals, who in recent decades have loomed large in American politics, kept a low profile in last year’s presidential primaries and general election, says Green. “Religion just kind of faded into the background along with everybody else.”       

Despite the overall warming trend, Pew’s Smith detects some noteworthy patterns within the survey’s four age groups. The older the respondents, says Smith, the greater on average was the range of their likes and dislikes.

For example, the over-65 age group gave its highest ratings to mainline Protestants and Jews, at 75 and 74 respectively, while rating Muslims and atheists at a chilly 44 degrees. The range between their highs and lows was 31 points.

The 50-to-64 age group gave its warmest ratings to Jews, at 69, followed by Catholics and mainline Protestants at 68 and 67, with atheists and Muslims rated lowest, at 45—a spread of 24 points.

Respondents aged 30 to 49 also gave their warmest ratings to Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants, and their “coolest” to Muslims, for a range of 17 degrees, but the 18-to-29 cohort gave responses that veered sharply from those of their elders.

Millennials’ highest rating, a 66, went to Buddhists, with Catholics and Hindus next, at 64, followed closely by Jews. Yet atheists—who received the chilliest ratings from the two oldest cohorts—are rated by millennials with the same fairly warm 59 degrees they gave to evangelical and mainline Protestants. Since Buddhism does not posit the existence of God, it is notable that these young adults assign their warmest rating to a group that embraces atheism—a worldview their parents and grandparents rank lowest.

“Young people are very distinctive in the ways they approach religion,” says Smith. The conspicuously narrow bandwidth of their attitudes—just 12 points—raises a question, he says, of whether religious identity is simply a lesser concern for this cohort than it is for older generations.  

Smith notes that respondents typically gave higher ratings to a faith group when they personally knew members of that group, and that members of a particular religious group tend to feel most warmly toward their co-religionists. White evangelicals gave their brethren a toasty 81 degrees, for example, and Catholics rated fellow Catholics at a near-feverish 83.

As in 2014, the latest religious temperature survey did not query respondents as to why they feel positively or negatively toward the different religious groups, although Smith says it is a line of inquiry that future Pew Research Center surveys might explore.

“It’s definitely fair to say we will continue to track and monitor how religious groups perceive one another,” says Smith, “and it would be worth getting to the bottom of it.”