Pew Reports Americans Warming Toward Most Religious Groups

February 21, 2017
Muslim and Jewish man shake hands and smile

Americans’ perception of religious groups has increased nearly across the board over the past two years, according to a Pew Research Center report published Wednesday.

The survey ran from January 9 to January 23 of this year. 4,248 adults were asked to rank a variety of religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from 0 to 100. Although the survey revealed notable differences in perception of religious groups across lines of race, religious identity, and political affiliation, Pew nevertheless reported that the increase in mean ratings was “broad based,” with warmth toward major religious groups increasing across identity groups.

The groups that saw the most gains from 2014 to 2017 were atheists, Muslims, and Hindus. Atheists and Muslims, who were rated at a chilly 41 and 40 percent, respectively, in 2014, rose into the “neutral” zone with new ratings of 50 and 48.

Jews and Catholics, who received the highest ratings in 2014, still topped the scale this year with modest increases in public perception. At 67 degrees, Jews just barely surpassed Catholics (66 degrees) and Mainline Protestants (65 degrees) as the overall most positively-regarded religious group in America.  

The only group that experienced no gains in public perception was evangelical Protestants, whose rating held steady at 61 degrees. Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt suggested that the plateau in evangelicals’ ratings might be due in part to the large numbers of evangelicals included in the survey. “The ratings fall when responses from fellow evangelicals, who made up more than 1 in 4 of respondents, are removed,” Shellnutt said. “Just under a third of non-evangelicals (32 percent) have warm feelings towards the group.”

Evangelicals were not the only ones to give themselves positive ratings. Jews, Catholics, and atheists all gave their own affiliation a rating of over 80 degrees. Between religious groups, atheists and evangelicals gave one another the chilliest ratings—although even these numbers increased from 2014 to 2017.

Jessica Hamar Martínez, a senior researcher at Pew, told The New York Times that she was surprised to see Americans’ perception of religious groups on the rise.

“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,” she said.

Pew’s report suggested that Americans’ increased exposure to practitioners of different religions could help explain the results. The percentage of U.S. adults who said they personally knew a Muslim or an Atheist—the two groups with the biggest increase in public perception—also increased from 2014 to 2017. The number of Americans that personally knew an evangelical, on the other hand, dropped by 9 points.

“Across the board, Americans express warmer feelings toward religious groups when they are personally familiar with someone in the group, consistent with the findings from [our] June 2014 survey,” the report said.

While some undoubtedly see the report as a sign of increasing goodwill towards religious groups in America, Duke University sociologist Jen’nan Ghazal Read—who studies the experience of Muslims in America—warned against putting too much stock in the report.

“To me, this makes it seem like all’s well in America, and I think that’s not accurately depicting the reality,” Read told The New York Times. “What does ‘warm’ mean?”

According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims increased by 67 percent from 2014 to 2015.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Iftar dinner. Photo by U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, Flickr Creative Commons.