Huh: Pew poll shows Americans feeling warmer to nearly all religious groups -- especially atheists

Sorry for going ultra-hippie with the front-page thumbnail but I wasn’t sure how else to illustrate this fascinating, and counterintuitive, new survey from Pew. The conventional wisdom for at least the past year has been that America is as divided now as it’s been in decades, with all corners retreating into tribalism and varying stripes of noxious identity politics. That’s not an environment in which you’d expect to find people feeling “warmer” towards faiths not their own than they have before, but follow the link and check out Pew’s data. In just three years, overall public sentiment has improved for virtually every major religious group — Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims, (most) Protestants, and yes, even we benighted atheists, who’ve seen the single highest “temperature” increase (nine points) of any group. The only exception is evangelical Christians, who are rated just as warmly today as they were in 2014. Even more striking, that trend holds in both major parties. Among both Democrats and Republicans, “warmth” towards evangelical Christians is the same as it was three years ago and for every other group tested it’s up. Out: “The age of Trump is an age of bitter cultural Balkanization.” In: “The age of Trump is the age of COEXIST.”

So what gives? One theory noted by Pew is that people’s opinions of members of other identity groups tend to improve as they have more personal contact with them. It may be that as more religious minorities move from cities to the suburbs, more Americans who were previously cool to those faiths are warming up (a little) thanks to personal contact. In all likelihood, though, the main driver of the overall public shift is population replacement. Notice how the “temperature” spread in this graph shrinks consistently as you move from right, the oldest Americans, to left, the youngest. Young adults view every religion tested “warmly,” and view most of them warmly to almost the same degree. They’re notably less skeptical of minority faiths than their elders are, so as the olds die off and more kids move into the 18-29 group, the numbers for Mormons, Muslims, atheists, etc, rise.

Among the youngest Americans, atheists are viewed just as warmly as evangelical Christians are, an amazing result. Among the oldest, more than 20 points separates those two groups. Young Americans are also far more likely to view Muslims favorably than any other age group. Maybe most interesting, two of the top three “warmest” groups for young adults are Buddhists and Hindus, faiths that tend not to receive much media attention in the United States but which are generally respected as peaceful. (Note that both groups are above 50 on the “temperature” scale in all other age groups too.) Between the greater tolerance for minority religions among young adults and the fact that larger than average shares of Buddhists and Hindus in America are young, it may be that the 18-29 group is especially warm to those faiths because it contains more members of them and therefore also more people who know members. The same goes for atheists, who comprise a larger share of young Americans than they do any other age group.

Two other trends there are worth noting. Although Jews remain the group seen most warmly by the entire public, with an overall score of 67, “warmth” towards them has declined steadily from one age group to the next. The only other group of whom that’s true is mainline Protestants. The most jarring note, though, is the consistently lukewarm numbers for Mormons, even among the otherwise conspicuously tolerant youngest Americans. I don’t know how to explain that. Maybe it’s a political thing, with Mormons closely identified with the GOP and young adults trending liberal — but in that case you’d expect evangelical Christians to poll poorly as well and yet they still do respectably among the 18-29 crowd. Presumably there’s still a stigma around polygamy affecting Mormons’ ratings even though they abandoned that practice ages ago — and even though you’d expect the youngest adults, who are more accepting of non-traditional relationships than their elders, not to object as strongly to that. Very odd.

One more graph for you, just to show you who dislikes whom. If you’re planning to write for a right-wing audience, which is destined to contain lots and lots of white evangelicals, being an atheist … maybe isn’t the best thing to be:

Shout-out to all the Jewish Americans out there helping to drag the atheists’ numbers up from the dregs thanks to pretty much every other religious group.

One more note on America’s young adults. According to one study, the more religious diversity a society has, the less religious that society is apt to be. There may be evidence of that in Pew’s numbers too: While it’s true that young Americans see minority religions more favorably than their elders, they also see the country’s traditionally dominant faiths less favorably. Three years from now, it may be that mainline Protestants, Jews, etc, actually see their numbers among the general public decline purely because of the effect of population replacement. It may also be that, while they’re generally well disposed to all faiths, young adults’ passion for any one of those faiths is lower on balance than it is in other generations. (The higher percentage of atheists and agnostics among the young also suggests weaker commitment to faith.) “Warmth” towards religion, in other words, can be defined in very different ways. And the young may have less of that “warmth” than their predecessors. An important development for the future of religion in America.