By Patricia Lee Sharpe
I always sit up and pay attention when another Pew survey is announced, and the report that was covered in my morning NYT on June 24 had to do with religion in the U.S.
A major survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith. A majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, for instance, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. This openness to a range of religious viewpoints is in line with the great diversity of religious affiliation, belief and practice that exists in the United States, as documented in a survey of more than 35,000 Americans that comprehensively examines the country’s religious landscape
Religion is a hot political topic these days. The wall of separation between church and state is under assault, and the administration has declared war on radical Islam. So I was very eager to read this article which declared that a “survey of religion in U.S. finds a broad tolerance for other faiths.”
The tabulations that followed included nine categories: Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Unaffiliated. But where were the Muslims? Was it possible that the Pew people had neglected to include Muslims?
Or was it that data involving Muslims was simply ignored by the reporter, whose name showed her to be of high caste Bengali Hindu descent. Was this a snub that went back to the ancestral culture in Indian West Bengal?
OK. Reporters are human. But where was the editor? Surely an editor would have noticed that Muslims were absent from the story submitted by the reporter. Except, it seems, the editor didn’t, unless the Pew people had been very very negligent.
So, naturally, I went on line. I found, to my great relief, that the Pew people had not failed to include Muslims in this very important tabulation (though the consolidated data comes from different studies).
Above all (and this is of major political importance) it seems that Muslims in America aren’t statistically all that different from any other Americans in the essence of their theology or the resulting political implications.
Thus, under the category “Many Paths to God,” it appears that 56% of American Muslims agree that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” Mormans rank only 39% on this item and Jehovah’s Witnesses lag at 16%. Nobody who can tolerate other roads to god is likely to throw bombs, so we should certainly be reassured that a solid majority of Muslims are very tolerant indeed. (And most of the rest aren’t fanatical or suicidal, just as most evangelicals wouldn't bomb an abortion clinic.)
Even more interesting as a perspective on American Islam was the category which involved “Conception of God.” This choice had to do with whether one believes that god is “a person” one can have a “relationship” with or that god is “an impersonal force.” Some 42% of Muslims saw God as an impersonal force. That’s more than the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians—and nearly as many as the Jews, who stand at 50% in this category. Now I ask you, if someone thinks of God as an impersonal force, is that person likely to support or go on a violent jihad? I think not.
The third category category reported in the NYT had to do with the comparative value of “ensuring peace" through “diplomacy or military strength." Some 84% of Muslims prefer diplomacy. Catholics come in at 64%, Protestants at 55% and Mormons at a mere 49%. What does that say about the supposedly violent inclinations of Muslims as a whole? Totally demolished.
It’s often said in political commentary today that violent Islam is espoused by those who feel their values are threatened by America’s popular culture or by those who are dissatisfied with their lives or opportunities. The Pew poll shows that American Muslims are no more worried than other Americans about whether “Hollywood threatens my values” and they are equally satisfied with their lives. So American Muslims aren’t disproportionately alienated either.
Perhaps we are over the worst human rights abuses which followed the destruction of the World Trade towers, but simplistically negative ideas about Muslims and Islam are still all too prevalent. This Pew study should go a long way toward inoculating non-Muslim Americans against such prejudice.