Jul 19, 2014

How many people of different faiths do you know?

July 17, 2014
Michael Lipka

Given the wide variety of faith groups in the United States, it would seem natural that most Americans know someone of a religion different from their own. With that in mind, we recently asked members of the Pew Research Center’s new American Trends Panel whether they personally know members of other religious groups.

We found that a big majority of Americans (87%) say they know someone who is Catholic – perhaps not surprising, given that as of 2012, 22% of U.S. adults were Catholic.  Somewhat fewer Americans (70%) say they know an evangelical Christian, even though nearly a third of U.S. adults (32%) describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.

The percentage of Americans who know members of smaller religious groups varies widely, with little apparent relation to the actual size of the group. For example, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus each comprise about 1% or less of the U.S. population, but many more Americans say they know a Muslim (38%) than a Buddhist (23%) or a Hindu (22%).

Atheists, Jews and Mormons each make up roughly 2% of the U.S. population, but a majority of Americans say they know someone who is Jewish (61%) or atheist (59%), while significantly fewer know a Mormon (44%).

One possible explanation may be that the geographic distribution of a group matters as much as its size. A higher percentage of the population in the West – where Mormons and Buddhists are heavily concentrated – know a Mormon (68%) or a Buddhist (36%). Fully 70% of people in the Northeast know someone who is Jewish; not coincidentally, 43% of U.S. Jews live in the Northeast.

All together, the average American personally knows members of at least four of the eight religious groups included in the survey. In general, whites tend to know people in more groups (four) than do blacks (three). And there is a gap between people with a college degree – who know, on average, members of five different religious groups – and those with only a high school diploma or less education, who know someone in an average of three groups. There is virtually no difference, however, between Republicans and Democrats on this measure (four groups each).

We asked the same panel to rate each religious group on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 to 100, with a higher number indicating a warmer, more positive feeling toward that group. While it’s the first time we’ve asked such a question in that way, others – including professors David Campbell and Robert Putnam in their book “American Grace” – have conducted similar studies (with broadly similar results).

In our panel’s answers, we noticed a pattern that holds across all religious groups: Americans who know a member of a group tend to rate that group more positively. For example, among those who know an atheist, the average rating of atheists is 50; among those who don’t know an atheist, it’s 29. And among those who know a Buddhist, the average rating of Buddhists is 70. The comparable rating by those who don’t know a Buddhist is 48.

Overall, Americans express the warmest feelings toward Jews (average rating of 63), Catholics (62) and evangelical Christians (61). They are coolest toward atheists (41) and Muslims (40). Buddhists (53), Hindus (50) and Mormons (48) are in the middle.