Nearly half of Americans say atheists (40 percent) and Muslims (45.5 percent) contradict their vision of the United States, according to new research on perceptions of nonbelievers and other faith groups.
The study, "Atheists and Other Cultural Outsiders," from a group of University of Minnesota researchers, investigated how people's attitudes have changed over the past decade. Atheists have remained unpopular, and anti-Muslim sentiment has surged, the study reported.
"Americans' disapproval of Muslims has jumped to 45.5 percent from just over 26 percent 10 years ago, the last time the question was asked," Religion News Service reported.
Researchers argued that discomfort with atheists grows out of the widespread belief that religious practice is a natural part of life in America, as well as concern for the moral status of nonbelievers.
Anti-Muslim sentiment stems from other sources, such as fears about the direction America is headed and the rise of religiously motivated terrorism, commentators noted.
"In 10 years, people have a more negative perception of Muslims, Jews, gays, Latinos and blacks. As a new America is taking shape, with all its diversity, there is a reactionary response that wants a mythic America of everyone being exactly the same," said Hussein Rashid, an adjunct professor at Barnard College, to Religion News Service.
Negative views of Muslims may also grow out of misunderstanding, according to another new research project. The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University analyzed U.S. Catholic views on Islam, concluding that many Catholics have very little knowledge about what Muslims believe.
"Nearly half of Catholics can't name any similarities between Catholicism and Islam, or say explicitly that there are no commonalities," the study reported.
Since the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholics have been taught that "the three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all worship the same God. But as the report shows, this teaching is still not fully understood, or accepted, by all believers," America Magazine reported.
Pope Francis has spoken out about people's flawed understanding of Islam, which may encourage Catholics to reach out to their Muslim neighbors moving forward, the article noted.
"The way our religious leaders talk about Islam is often the way people learn about Islam," said Jordan Denari Duffner, the report's author, to America.
In contrast to Islam and atheism, many Americans view Catholicism positively, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center analysis. On a 0 to 100 "feeling thermometer," in which a rating of 100 means the participant feels as warm and positive as possible toward a particular faith group, Catholics receive an average rating of 62, putting them within the cluster of highest scores, joining Jews (63) and evangelical Christians (61.)
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