by Loren Seibold
For a June Pew Research Center study researchers asked what appears at first to be a fairly uncomplicated question: rate on a scale of warmest to coolest your feelings about a named religious group. Jews, Catholics, and Evangelical Christians elicited the warmest feelings; Mormons, athiests and Muslims the coolest.
• Not surprising is that we tend to be most warm toward the group we personally identify with, and Christians were most strongly represented in the survey group. The odd outlier here is the warmth felt toward Jews, who were a relatively small proportion of the panel surveyed (only 100 individuals out of a group of 3217). Does this reflect the links between Judaism and Christianity, particularly Evangelical Christians whose theology posits a central rôle for Israel in end time events? Or the outsize place of Jews in public life? Yet for their part, Jews felt quite negative toward Evangelicals—more negative than they do toward Muslims!
• While Mormons believe in Christ, and Islam is a fellow Abrahamic religion, these ended up near the bottom of the list. I am surprised by the antipathy toward Mormons, given that we have seen so many Mormons successful in American life, including a presidential candidate who was popular with Catholics and Evangelicals. Note that Islam, even though historically related to Christianity, rated lower than rather alien eastern religions like Hinduism—and even lower than atheism.
• The survey showed that American atheists feel more positive about Jews, Hindus and Buddhists than about any of the Christian faiths. The eastern religions have strong strains of non-theism, though it isn't clear if that's what makes them more palatable to atheists, or whether it's because they tend to be less doctrinaire and evangelistic than the Abrahamic religions.
• The feelings of people with Republican leanings were more polarized toward Christianity and against atheists and Muslims than those leaning Democratic. Democrats' answers clustered to the center, suggesting less strong feelings about religion generally. There's also an age divide: older Americans felt warmer toward Jews, Evangelicals and Catholics, while younger Americans gave higher ratings to atheists and Muslims than did their elders.
• The study showed that simply knowing someone of a particular religious group results in warmer feelings about that group—proving that ignorance about those who differ from us may be the reason for our prejudices about them.
Note that the survey asks for respondents' feelings, not what one thinks about a group's doctrine, actions, or reputation. Though one would suppose that feelings and thoughts would closely reflect one another, I wonder whether the results would look different if they'd asked people to react to the named religion in a different way.