Religion: uniter or divider?
- Published on 10 January 2011
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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Thanksgiving dinner hosts fear two conversation topics more than any other: politics and religion. Why? Because dinner will most likely go from a peaceful get-together to an all-out war, with every family member taking sides. Politics and religion divide people, sometimes bitterly. Or, at least, so the story goes. Actually, new research conducted by David Campbell (University of Notre Dame) indicates that religion not only divides, but also unites – it's both a uniter and a divider.
Campbell surveyed the United States in search of finding how religion affects American society. He found that the U.S. has three religious characteristics that shouldn't belong together: devotion, diversity, and tolerance. One would expect that if people are very devout religiously and if they're surrounded by peoples of rival faiths, then this situation would breed intolerance. In fact, according to Campbell's research, nothing could be further from the truth.
Campbell found that, in general, Americans feel comfortable with others of different faiths. When asked “Do you believe someone who is not of your faith can go to heaven?”, Americans replied “yes” in a landslide: 83% of evangelicals, 93% of Catholics, and 98% of Mormons responded in the positive. When they were asked explicitly if a non-Christian could go to heaven, the numbers dipped, but inclusivists were still a majority: 54% of evangelicals replied “yes.” Campbell believes that the reason for this is that most Americans know someone who is a good person but who is of a different religion. When forced to choose between this good person going to heaven and religious exclusivism, most decide in favor of their friend or family member. When it comes to religion and salvation, it seems that America really is tolerant.
Given this data, it's not surprising that the majority of Americans believe that there is truth in religions other than their own. The reason for this, oddly enough, may be because of religious social networks. When someone befriends someone else of a different religion, that person becomes more tolerant of that other person's religion. This is no surprise. What is surprising, though, is that befriending a religious person also makes one tolerant of other religious groups as well! Befriend an evangelical, for example, and you're likely to find yourself becoming increasingly tolerant of Catholics and even non-believers.
Furthermore, Campbell notes, somewhere between 33%-40% of Americans follow a religion other than the one they grew up in. This increases tolerance for the same reason: Americans are intimately related (i.e. birth family) with people of different religious beliefs. Again, the key to how religion in America can lead to religious tolerance is the fact that American culture boasts, as Campbell puts it, an "interlocking set of social networks.”
Some may object that this simply shows that America is not so devout after all. In fact, America is quite devout – and not just compared to secularized Europe. Campbell measured devotion in part by asking people how often they attend weekly religious services. America ranked below Jordan and Indonesia, but surpassed Italy, Germany, and even Iran (though only by a tiny margin).
Of course, Campbell does not deny that religion divides Americans; his interest, though, is why. The answer he discovered was that other great divide in America: politics. Those who label themselves as having no religion (called “nones”) skyrocketed from 5%-7% of the population for most of American history to 17% in 2010. The nones' surge occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Campbell argues that this increase in nones is a direct result of politics intermingling with religion. Before the 1980s, one could be religious and a political liberal. In fact, during most of the 1960s, attending religious services correlated negatively with being Republican. The correlation between being Republican and being religious in America reached a high during the 1980s, dipped down bit during the early 1990s, and then nearly tripled to its all-time high in 2010.
According to Campbell, the consequence of this new correlation of Republicanism and religiosity is that, when one is asked about religion, one will equate religion with a conservative political view, and if one is not politically conservative, one will identify oneself as a none. Those who consider themselves both religious and moderate or liberal are waning. So religion still divides, but, if Campbell is correct, at least part of its divisiveness actually comes from the divisiveness of politics.
It would be unfair to blame politics for all of Thanksgiving's quarrels, but perhaps religion is not as divisive as is commonly thought. Perhaps religion's ability, at least in America, to build tolerance has been overshadowed by the rise of the religious right. At the very least, people should open themslves to the possibility that religion may not be as divisive as they think. Anything less would not be very tolerant.
For more, see a transcript of David Campbell explaining his latest research.