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Religiosity and religious Intolerance

- March 13, 2009

There are some signs that religious Americans have become more tolerant of those who hold different religious views. But by no means has religious intolerance faded away.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by James Gibson, based on a national survey he conducted in 2007. (For an extended overview of the results, click here.) In brief, based on survey respondents’ answers to a series of questions, Gibson created an index of “religious traditionalism,” some defining characteristics of which are frequent attendance at religious services and belief in God and the devil. The respondents were also asked about their willingness to deny one or more political rights (e.g., to give speeches, hold demonstrations, and run for public office) to atheists. The basic result:


This relationship holds up, Gibson reports, even when other pertinent factors are taken into account.

This isn’t a novel or surprising finding, but that doesn’t mean that we should overlook it and move on to other, more “interesting” issues. Gibson speculates that the link between religious traditionalism and political intolerance may “become more serious for American politics in the future,” not less so. The core of this argument is that, in contrast to the long-standing disengagement of religious traditionalists from the political process, those who are highly religious are increasingly being mobilized politically. “To the extent that those with weaker commitments to democratic institutions and processes acquire influence in the political process,” he argues, “key democratic values such as political tolerance may be threatened. …Future research should therefore focus on methods by which all citizens — religionists included — can be persuaded to value tolerance more highly.”

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