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Survey: Public 'warm' to Jews, Catholics and 'cool' to Muslims and atheists

How Americans feel about religious groups

Published: Wednesday, July 16 2014 8:30 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, July 21 2014 1:22 p.m. MDT

The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., is a popular Episcopal cathedral.

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WASHINGTON — Americans of almost all stripes feel warmly toward Jews, Catholics and evangelicals, a new survey showed, while Muslims and atheists get a more chilly reception.

Those are the results from a first-ever Pew Research Center survey, "How Americans Feel About Religious Groups," released Wednesday. Atop the "warm" feelings list are Jews at 63 percent, Catholics at 62 percent, and 61 percent for evangelical Christians.

Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons are in the middle of the scale, ranging from 48 percent "warm" for Mormons to 53 percent for Buddhists. "Fully 41 (percent) of the public rates Muslims in the coldest part of the thermometer (33 or below), and 40 (percent) rate atheists in the coldest part," the study stated.

"Part of the reason we ask these questions now is they were particularly well suited to online surveys, conducted primarily online from our newly formed American Trends Panel," said Greg Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Center. Respondents "used a slider onscreen to indicate their relative warmth or coldness" to a particular faith, he added.

There were contrasts amid the overall bonhomie. Only half as many Jews, 34 percent, felt warmly toward evangelical Christians as did evangelicals, at 69 percent, expressing warm feelings toward Jews. Atheists give Buddhists (70 percent), Hindus (60 percent) and Jews (61 percent) warm ratings, but were rather chilly toward evangelicals, giving them a 28 percent "warm" score, perhaps reciprocating the 25 percent "warm" rating evangelicals gave atheists.

Personal connections

If someone in a given religious category personally knew an individual from another faith, they were more likely to have warm feelings toward the religion as a whole, Smith said.

"If we look at evangelicals, 57 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they know someone who is Jewish," he said. "By contrast, 89 percent of Jews say they know someone who is Catholic; 69 percent of Jews know an atheist. Fewer Jews know an evangelical, with only 50 percent saying they do."

Familiarity doesn't always breed respect, however. Even though 70 percent of respondents said they knew a Buddhist, for example, only 53 percent rated Buddhists warmly, with similar discrepancies in "knowing" versus "warm" ratings from Hindus, Mormons, atheists and Muslims.

It's also an open question, Smith said, as to how respondents understood the "knowing" part of the survey. "It's hard to know what people have in mind," he said, noting the survey "leaves it to respondents to interpret for themselves."

At the same time, it should come as little surprise that members of various religious groups each viewed their own group more favorably than outsiders viewed those groups.

"Catholics as a group, for example, receive an average thermometer rating of 80 from Americans who describe themselves as Catholic, compared with 58 from non-Catholics," Pew reported. "Similarly, evangelical Christians receive an average rating of 79 from people who describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, compared with an average rating of 52 from non-evangelicals."

Mirrors earlier surveys

The numbers and attitudes found by the Pew survey weren't overly surprising to David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who also directs the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy there.

Campbell said the numbers mirror those he and Robert D. Putnam, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, found when researching their 2010 book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.

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