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Nick Ut, Associated Press
The Dalai Lama speaks at the Chua Dieu Ngu Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Westminster, Calif., on June 18, 2016.

Americans have a more positive impression of most major faith groups today than they did three years ago, displaying warmer feelings even toward atheists and Muslims, whose public persona suffers from divisive political debates and negative news, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Pew's updated "feeling thermometer" shows increases in the rating of seven religions on a scale from 0 to 100. Muslims now have a mean rating of 48, up eight degrees from three years ago. Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists also saw their ratings increase by more than five degrees.

"Evangelical Christians were the one exception in that their rating hasn't changed, but they're still at a pretty warm 61 degrees," said Jessica Martinez, a senior researcher at Pew. This was the first year Pew asked about mainline Protestants.

Shifts in the ratings of the seven other religions were broad-based, meaning it wasn't just people with Muslim friends or Jewish coworkers who caused the temperature increases, Pew reported.

"Warmer feelings are expressed by people in all major religious groups analyzed, as well as by both Democrats and Republicans, men and women, and younger and older adults," researchers noted. The survey analyzed responses from more than 4,000 U.S. adults and was conducted from Jan. 9 to 23 this year.

These results were striking because many Americans spent much of 2016 engaged with presidential election news, some of which was unflattering to faith groups, Martinez said, noting that recent media coverage of religion was part of what inspired Pew to repeat its 2014 thermometer study.

"In a contentious election year, we saw a lot of divisions by partisan politics. It emphasized the divisions in American society," she said. "It's possible that (these results) are sort of a reaction to that. People may be tired of negativity."

Digging into the data

Survey respondents were asked to rate religious groups on a scale from 0 to 100. Ratings of 33 degrees and below on the "feeling thermometer" were considered cool or cold; ratings between 34 and 66 were neutral; and ratings above 67 degrees were viewed as warm.

Researchers calculated the mean rating for each religious group for overall comparisons, and also analyzed responses by religious group, gender, political party, age and education level, producing a few interesting conclusions, Martinez noted.

"Differences by age stood out for me," she said.

Young adults, or Americans ages 18 to 29, have at least neutral feelings for all faith groups. They feel coolest about Mormons, who have the lowest mean rating — 54 degrees — among respondents in this age group.

"By contrast, older Americans (ages 65 and older) rate some religious groups, such as mainline Protestants (75) and Jews (74), very warmly, and others, such as Muslims and atheists (44 degrees each), much more coolly," Pew reported.

In general, faithful Americans think most highly of their own religious group, and Christians generally feel warmly to other Christian groups.

"There are only two (faith) groups analyzed who give another group a mean rating of 33 or lower, and the chilly feelings are mutual: Atheists rate evangelical Christians at a cold 29 degrees, while white evangelical Protestants place atheists at 33," Pew reported.

Liberal and conservative Americans all warmed toward religions from 2014 to 2017, although there are still distinct differences between the groups.

Among Democrats and adults who lean Democrat, evangelical Christians received a mean rating of 53 degrees. However, evangelicals' mean rating among Republicans and adults who lean Republican (71 degrees) was nearly 20 degrees warmer.

The opposite is true for Muslims, who are rated much more warmly by liberals (56 degrees) than conservatives (39 degrees.)

Throughout the report, researchers focus on the general trend toward warming, although it is interesting to note that the relative rankings of religious groups has not changed since 2014, Martinez said. Jews and Catholics are still viewed most warmly, while Atheists and Muslim bring up the rear.

What drives temperature changes

As Martinez noted, warmer feelings may stem from a general trend toward being more positive. Americans could also be living in more religiously diverse communities or learning more about other faiths through news coverage.

The survey offers few concrete clues about the source of the reported shifts. "We didn't ask contextual questions to try and tease out why these things might have changed," Martinez said.

Researchers did ask respondents about the religious practices of their friends and colleagues. They observed that religious groups receive warmer ratings from those who know a practitioner.

For example, Muslims received an average rating of 48 degrees among all Americans, but that figure rose to 56 degrees when Pew analyzed the responses of only those who know a Muslim.

Informal interactions often lead to increased understanding between religious groups, said Jeannine Hill Fletcher, a theology professor at Fordham University who has studied grassroots interfaith groups.

"As we live together, work together and attend the same schools, we increasingly get to know one another as people — as neighbors, as moms or dads in the same playgroup or sports team, as PTA members or as co-councilors on our city council," she said. These encounters help people recognize the complexity of different religions, instead of focusing on their most positive or negative aspects.

Nearly half of Americans today (45 percent) know someone who is Muslim, compared to 38 percent three years ago, Pew reported.

However, this increase isn't the whole story behind the warmer feelings, Martinez said.

"I do want to point out that we saw warmer ratings toward Muslims among both those who know somebody and those who don't know somebody who is Muslim. The warming is across the board," she said.

Although Pew's survey doesn't predict whether this warming trend toward faith groups will continue, it can happen if people are engaged in their community and make connections with their neighbors, Fletcher said.

"We all have the opportunity to increase our literacy if we find ourselves in multi-religious communities," she said. "As we work together in our jobs, our schools and our neighborhoods, we are gaining insight into the living dimension of diverse religions."