NASHVILLE — Americans often meet religious difference with fear or suspicion, criticizing the moral concerns and political interests of people who don't share their beliefs, according to a new survey on American values from Baylor University.
Around half of evangelicals say that Muslims or atheists want to limit their freedom, and 44.1 percent say that Muslims pose a personal safety threat. Two-thirds of religious "nones," or adults who don't affiliate with a particular faith group, and half of Jews say that conservative Christians want to restrict the freedom of others, the survey reported.
In a religiously diverse society, a certain amount of tension between faith groups is inevitable, said Jerry Park, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor, during a presentation Thursday at the Religion News Association's annual conference in Nashville. Religious communities compete with one another for potential new members and cultural influence.
But Park added that contemporary concerns about faith seem to be driven more by politics than personal faith, as political leaders compel their memberships to view certain believers — or nonbelievers — as threats to the party's cause.
"The surprise was that when we (analyzed the data) by political affiliation, numbers spiked even more," he said.
For example, 6 in 10 "strong Republicans" say Muslims (59.5 percent) or atheists (61.9 percent) have inferior moral values, compared to 44 percent and 50.4 percent, respectively, of evangelicals, the survey reported.
"You would think that very religious people would fear atheism, but it was political identity predicting that," said Paul Froese, director of the Baylor Religion Surveys program.
The new data is drawn from the fifth wave of Baylor's ongoing research on American values, and the latest survey was designed by Baylor and administered by Gallup. Responses from 1,501 U.S. adults were collected in February and March 2017. The margin of error is 3 percent.
The resulting report, titled "American Values, Mental Health and Using Technology in the Age of Trump," provides a snapshot of religious life in early 2017, highlighting which faith groups struggle with public image problems and how scientific advancements influence personal faith.
Overall, more than 1 in 5 U.S. adults view the moral values of Muslims, atheists or conservative Christians as inferior to their own, and more than 1 in 3 say that Muslims or conservative Christians want to limit personal freedoms, the survey reported. Researchers also asked about views toward Jews, finding that this religious community enjoys wide support.
"While Jews are publicly derided by anti-Semitic groups, most Americans do not feel threatened in any way by Jewish people," researchers noted. Only around 8 percent of U.S. adults say that Jews want to limit their freedom or that Jewish values are inferior to their own.
Religion-related fears are directed at specific types of believers rather than faith in general, Park noted. And minority groups aren't necessarily seen as more problematic than better known religious communities. For example, more Americans are critical of conservative Christians than they are of Jews.
As Park noted, researchers expected there to be tension between faith groups.
"Part of group identity is formed by distrusting other groups," he said.
It was interesting, then, to discover conflict within faith groups, Park added. Ongoing disagreements over how best to interact with political leaders and how to protect religious freedom has led to divisions within the evangelical community in particular.
For example, the division among evangelicals over support for President Donald Trump has been widely reported and analyzed since his candidacy.
"The evangelical world is deeply split over the right way to approach politics," The Atlantic reported last month. "Are Christians better off trying to influence an imperfect president? Or should they disengage from a process that will never produce a leader who perfectly represents their worldview?"
Nearly 1 in 4 evangelicals (23.7 percent) say they fear that conservative Christians are trying to limit personal freedoms, the survey reported.
Technology vs. faith
During their conference presentation, Baylor researchers highlighted a variety of other findings, describing how beliefs about heaven and hell influence mental well-being and how technology use affects people's relationship to God.
The survey found that expecting to go to heaven reduces depression and anxiety, said Lindsay Wilkinson, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor.
Overall, around half of U.S. adults (48.1 percent) are "certain or very certain" that they'll get into heaven, the survey reported.
How Americans view atheists, Muslims, Jews and conservative Christians | Mary Archbold
Researchers included questions about technological advancements in this year's survey because scientific research is often seen as a distraction or deterrent from faith, Froese said.
"We wanted to know what people thought about that view, and, overwhelmingly, people disagree with it," he said. Only 11 percent of U.S. adults agree that science and technology will make religion obsolete.
However, few Americans feel that technology is drawing them closer to God, with 69 percent disagreeing with the idea that technology can improve relationships with God, the survey showed.
Again, though, respondents weren't critical of technology — they just didn't connect spirituality to online activity, Froese said.
"People who disagreed with the statement about (technology and) their relationship with God weren't necessarily saying it makes (their relationship) worse," he said. "Most were saying technology doesn't affect them."