American religious tolerance

Hans Rollmann
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In March 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the first part of its "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey," based on detailed and expansive polling of 35,000 American adults about their religious affiliations and beliefs.
Surveyors interviewed people in two languages, English and Spanish, about their institutional religious allegiances, beliefs, attitudes and practices, filling some important gaps in our knowledge of contemporary religious adherence.
Results of the second part of the survey, focusing on specific religious beliefs of U.S. adults, show that Americans still take religion quite seriously. Yet these serious believers also tolerate their religious neighbours. They consider other paths to God as legitimate even though these ideas and practices differ from their own.
Asked to agree or disagree with two statements - that "many religions can lead to eternal life" and that "there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion" - more than two-thirds of Americans answered in the affirmative. More than three-quarters of Roman Catholics extended such tolerance to other faiths, while more than 80 per cent of mainline Protestant congregations and 57 per cent and 53 per cent of self-declared Evangelicals affirmed the two statements. The only religious groups in which a majority did not consider other faiths to be legitimate spiritual paths were Jehovah's Witnesses (16 per cent, 18 per cent) and Mormons (39 per cent, 43 per cent).
Abandoning dogmatism does not mean, however, that God is already dead for Americans. More than nine out of 10 believe in the existence of God, yet they differ significantly in their visions of God. Sixty per cent of our neighbours to the south believe in a personal God (of these, 72 per cent are Protestants and 60 per cent Roman Catholics). Twenty-five per cent of Americans surveyed view God as an "impersonal force" (19 per cent of these are Protestants, 29 per cent Roman Catholics) and seven per cent either have no clear conception of God or perceive whatever is ultimate differently. God as an "impersonal force" is held by 40 per cent to 50 per cent of Americans who espouse the major non-Christian faiths: Jewish (50 per cent), Muslim (42 per cent), Buddhist (45 per cent) and Hindu (53 per cent).

God's word
Foundational religious texts, according to the Pew survey, are still valued as the word of God by 63 per cent of adult Americans, with Protestants leading Roman Catholics by 77 per cent to 62 per cent and with nearly nine out of 10 Evangelicals considering the Bible God's word. Among the large non-Christian faiths, the vast majority of Muslims believe in the Qur'an as the word of God (86 per cent), a view shared by only 18 per cent of Buddhists and 37 per cent of Jews and Hindus as far as their sacred texts are concerned.
As for the significance of religion for personal life, the figures depend on specific religious affiliation. Seventy-nine per cent of Evangelicals and 85 per cent of people in historically African-American churches consider religion to be "very important in their lives." In mainline Protestant churches (52 per cent) and among Catholics (56 per cent) and Orthodox (56 per cent), that perception of meaningfulness drops significantly.
Likewise, only 39 per cent of Americans attend religious services at least once a week, a number that compares favourably with European church attendance.
Yet weekly involvement in worship ranges from 58 per cent among Evangelicals to 34 per cent among mainline Protestants and 42 per cent in Roman Catholic churches. Jehovah's Witnesses lead in weekly attendance with 82 per cent, followed by 75 per cent of Mormons.

Mixing with politics
The Pew Religious Landscape Survey also probed the relationship between religion and politics as well as the correlation of religious ideology with social issues such as abortion and homosexuality. While six in 10 members of Evangelical churches would like to see abortion become illegal, nearly seven in 10 mainline Protestants champion its legality.
Asked whether "homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society," 40 per cent of the population affirmed this statement, with people in Evangelical (64 per cent) and mainline Protestant churches (34 per cent) remaining significantly divided over the issue. Only 30 per cent of Roman Catholics supported the statement.
Readers interested in exploring the Pew Survey further can find it at

Hans Rollmann is a professor of religiousstudies at Memorial University and can be reached by e-mail at

Organizations: Pew Forum on Religion, Jehovah's Witnesses

Geographic location: U.S.

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