Public Expresses Mixed Views of Islam, Mormonism
September 25, 2007
The Muslim and Mormon religions have gained increasing national visibility in recent years. Yet most Americans say they know little or nothing about either religion’s practices, and large majorities say that their own religion is very different from Islam and the Mormon religion.
A new national survey reveals some notable similarities, as well as major differences, in the ways that Americans view these faiths and their followers. Public impressions of both religions are hazy – 58% say they know little or nothing about Islam’s practices, while 51% have little or no awareness of the precepts and practices of Mormonism. The number of people who say they know little or nothing about Islam has changed very little since 2001.
Most Americans believe that their own religion has little in common with either Islam or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fully 70% say that their religion is very different from Islam, while 62% say this about the Mormon religion. The proportion who say that Islam has little or nothing in common with their own religion has increased substantially since 2005 (from 59% to 70%).
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted Aug. 1-18 among 3,002 adults, finds that overall evaluations of Mormons and Muslim Americans are on balance positive: 53% say they have a favorable opinion of Mormons, while an identical percentage views Muslim Americans favorably. As in past surveys, more people have a positive impression of “Muslim Americans” (53%) than of “Muslims” (43%).
Despite these similarities, there also are clear differences in public attitudes about Islam and Mormonism. These are reflected in the single-word descriptions people use in summarizing their impressions of each religion. Twice as many people use negative words as positive words to describe their impressions of the Muslim religion (30% vs. 15%). The most frequently used negative word to describe Islam is “fanatic,” with “radical” and “terror” often mentioned as well. Among the positive terms, “devout” or some variant is the most frequently cited.
The words that people use to describe the Mormon religion are, on balance, more positive. Nearly a quarter (23%) gives a positive word to describe their impression of the Mormon religion while 27% use a negative term. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints banned polygamy almost a century ago, many Americans still associate the church with this practice. The most commonly used negative words to describe Mormonism are “polygamy,” “bigamy” or some other reference to plural marriage. Among positive words used to describe the Mormon religion, “family” – or some variant of the term – is the most frequent response.
Public views of other religious groups have changed little over the past few years. About three-quarters of those polled have a favorable opinion of Jews and Catholics (76% each), while substantially fewer are favorable toward evangelical Christians (60%). Atheists are viewed far more negatively, with just 35% holding a positive view and 53% saying they have an unfavorable opinion.
The survey also finds that, two years after Pope Benedict XVI was installed as spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics, the pontiff is viewed favorably by nearly three-quarters (73%) of those familiar enough to offer an opinion. However, significantly fewer people say they have a favorable opinion of the pontiff than expressed positive opinions of Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, during his more than two decades as pope (86% in 1996).
Moreover, nearly half (46%) of those who have heard at least a little about Pope Benedict XVI say he is doing only a fair or poor job at promoting good relations with other major religions; just 38% say the pope is doing an excellent or good job in this regard. Catholics themselves are divided ideologically over the pope’s performance in fostering ties with other religions: 63% of self-identified conservative Catholics say the pope has done well in promoting good interfaith relations, but just 50% of moderate Catholics and 45% of liberal Catholics agree.
People who have heard at least a little about Pope Benedict are in general agreement about the pope’s own ideological leanings: 56% say he is either very conservative (20%) or conservative (36%); 17% say the pope is a moderate, while just 5% view him as a liberal. And among Catholics, fully 68% say Pope Benedict is a conservative.
Section 1: Opinions about Muslims and Islam
Public attitudes about Muslims and Islam have grown more negative in recent years. About four-in-ten Americans (43%) say they have a favorable opinion of Muslims, while 35% express a negative view. Opinion about Muslims, on balance, was somewhat more positive in 2004 (48% favorable vs. 32% unfavorable). As in previous surveys, Muslim Americans are seen more positively than Muslims (53% vs. 43%); however, unfavorable opinions of Muslim Americans have also edged upward, from 25% in 2005 to 29% currently.
There continue to be substantial age, education, political and religious differences in opinions about both Muslims and Muslim Americans. Young people and college graduates express more favorable views of Muslims than do older people and those with less education. Fully 66% of liberal Democrats have a positive impression of Muslims, the highest proportion in any major demographic or political group. That compares with roughly half of conservative and moderate Democrats (48%) and the same number of independents, 41% of moderate and liberal Republicans, and just 26% of conservative Republicans.
Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants stand out for their negative views of Muslims. While roughly half of white mainline Protestants (51%) and white Catholics (48%) express favorable views of Muslims, only about quarter of white evangelicals (24%) say the same. Similar religious divisions are seen in views of Muslim Americans.
The biggest influence on the public’s impressions of Muslims, particularly among those who express an unfavorable opinion of Muslims, is what people hear and read in the media. About a third of the public (32%) – including nearly half of those who offer a negative opinion of Muslims (48%) – say what they have seen or read in the media has had the biggest influence on their views. Other factors, such as personal experience and education, are less influential, though they are cited far more often by those who have favorable impressions of Muslims than those who express negative views.
Islam and Violence
Public opinion about whether Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence has fluctuated in recent years. In 2005, a plurality (47%) said that Islam does not encourage violence more than other religions; 36% said Islam is more likely than others to encourage violence among its believers. In the current survey, the balance of opinion has shifted: a 45% plurality says Islam is more likely to encourage violence, while 39% disagree. The current measure is similar to public views on this issue in 2003 and 2004.
The belief that Islam encourages violence has increased among groups that express mostly negative views of Muslims, such as conservative Republicans, but also among those groups that have relatively favorable opinions of Muslims, such as college graduates. The proportion of college graduates saying Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence has increased by 17 points (from 28% in 2005 to 45% today). College graduates are now about as likely as those with no college experience (44%) to express this point of view.
Similarly, there have been sharp increases in the percentages of white mainline Protestants and people with no religious affiliation who believe that the Islamic religion is more likely than others to encourage violence (by 19 points and 14 points, respectively).
Muslim Religion Viewed as Different
Fully 70% of non-Muslims say that the Muslim religion is very different from their own religion, compared with just 19% who say Islam and their own religion have a lot in common. Two years ago, 59% viewed Islam as very different from their own religion. And in November 2001, just 52% expressed this view.
Large majorities in every demographic and political group say that their religion is very different from the Muslim religion. However, there are sizable differences in opinions about this: 83% of white evangelical Protestants view Islam as very different, compared with 74% of black Protestants, 69% of white non-Hispanic Catholics and 66% of white mainline Protestants.
Islam in a Word
When asked for the single word that best describes their impression of Islam, far more Americans mention negative words than positive ones (30% vs. 15%); roughly a quarter (23%) characterize the religion with neutral words; about a third (32%) do not offer an opinion.
The single most common word used to describe the Muslim religion is “devout,” or a variant of this word, such as “devotion” or “devoted”; 43 respondents use one of these words to describe their impression of Islam. Nearly as many (40 respondents in all) say that words like “fanatic” or “fanatical” come to mind when thinking about Islam. Other words commonly used to describe impressions of Islam include “different” (35 total responses), “peace” or “peaceful” (34 responses), “confused” or “confusing” (31 responses), “radical” (30 responses), “strict” (26 responses) and “terror” or “terrorism” (25 responses).
More Familiar, More Positive
Nearly half of all non-Muslims (45%) say they know someone who is Muslim, while 41% say that they know a great deal (7%) or some (34%) about the Muslim religion. The proportion of the public expressing at least some familiarity with the Muslim religion has increased modestly from 33% in 2005; in 2002, 34% said they knew a great deal or some about the Muslim religion.
Nearly two-thirds of college graduates (64%) say they know a Muslim, compared with 53% of those with some college experience and just 32% of those with a high school education or less. Similarly, far more college graduates than those with less education say they have at least some knowledge of the Muslim religion and its practices.
There also are substantial age differences in familiarity with Muslims and knowledge of their religion. Roughly half of those ages 18-29 say they know a Muslim, as do 50% of those ages 30-49 and 45% of those in their 50s and early 60s; however, just 29% of those ages 65 and older say they are acquainted with a Muslim. The gap is comparable across age groups in self-reported knowledge of the Muslim religion.
The survey shows that knowing a Muslim is associated with more positive views of the religion. Among those who know a Muslim, for instance, a majority (56%) has a favorable overall impression of Muslims, compared with just 32% of those who are not acquainted with a Muslim.
This pattern extends across several other measures of views of Muslims and Islam. Among those who know a Muslim, most (59%) say that a Muslim candidate’s religion would make no difference in deciding how to vote in a presidential election. But among those who do not know a Muslim, a majority (52%) says they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim presidential candidate.
People who say they know a Muslim are divided over whether the Muslim religion encourages violence; 50% say it does not, while 42% say it does. By 48%-29%, those who do not know a Muslim say that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence.
Section 2: Views of Mormons and Mormonism
Overall, a slim majority of the public (53%) expresses a favorable view of Mormons, while 27% view Mormons unfavorably. Among religious groups, solid majorities of white mainline Protestants (62%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (59%) express favorable opinions of Mormons. But among white evangelical Protestants, just 46% have a positive impression of Mormons, while 39% have an unfavorable opinion.
There also are substantial educational differences in opinions about Mormons: 64% of college graduates express favorable opinions of Mormons, as do 56% of those with some college experience. But fewer than half of those with a high school education or less (45%) have a positive impression of Mormons.
About three-in-ten (31%) of those who express favorable opinions of Mormons cite personal experience as the biggest influence on their opinions, but a fairly large proportion of those with negative opinions of Mormons (23%) also point to their personal experiences as being most influential.
A slim majority of the public (52%) says that Mormonism is a Christian religion, while nearly one-in-three (31%) say that Mormonism is not a Christian religion. White evangelicals stand out for their view that the Mormon religion is not Christian: a 45% plurality says that Mormonism is not Christian, while 40% say it is. Among white evangelicals who attend services at least weekly, 52% believe that the Mormon religion is not Christian.
By contrast, large majorities of white mainline Protestants (62%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (59%) say that Mormons are Christians. In addition, those with no formal religious affiliation also say that the Mormon religion is Christian by a wide margin (59%-25%).
Even though a slim majority of the public views Mormonism as a Christian religion, most Americans say it is very different from their own religion. Among non-Mormons who express a religious preference (most of whom are Christians themselves), more than six-in-ten (62%) say that Mormonism and their own religion are very different; just a quarter says that Mormonism and their own religion have a lot in common. The vast majority of white evangelical Protestants (67%) reject the idea that Mormonism and their own religion have a lot in common, as do smaller majorities of white mainline Protestants (56%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (61%).
Mormonism in a Word
When asked to describe their impression of the Mormon religion in a single word, somewhat more offer a negative word than a positive one (27% vs. 23%); 19% give a neutral descriptor. The most common negative word expressed is “polygamy,” including “bigamy” or some other reference to plural marriage (75 total responses), followed by “cult” (57 total mentions).
But while many people associate polygamy with Mormonism, nearly as many think of “family” or “family values” (74 total mentions). Other positive words commonly used to describe Mormonism include “dedicated” (34 mentions), “devout” or “devoted” (32 mentions), “good” (31 mentions), and “faith” or “faithful” (25 total mentions).
Familiarity with Mormonism and Mormons
Overall, the public’s level of self-reported familiarity with Mormonism and Mormons is not much greater than its level of familiarity with Islam and Muslims. Roughly half (49%) say they know a great deal or some about the Mormon religion and its practices, while about as many people (48%) say that they know someone who is Mormon. (By comparison, 41% have at least some knowledge of Islam and 45% say they know a Muslim.)
As might be expected, people in the Western part of the United States have more contact and greater familiarity with Mormons than do people in other parts of the country. Fully 74% of those in the West say they know a Mormon, compared with fewer than half in other regions. In addition, 66% of Westerners say they know a great deal or some about the Mormon religion, also a much higher proportion than among residents of other regions. Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants show somewhat greater familiarity with Mormons and Mormonism, compared with white mainline Protestants, white non-Hispanic Catholics, and the religiously unaffiliated.
Just as knowing a Muslim is associated with positive views of Muslims and Islam, having an acquaintance who is Mormon is linked with more positive opinions of Mormons and Mormonism. The large majority of those who know a Mormon (60%) express a favorable view of Mormons, compared with fewer than half (44%) of those who do not personally know a Mormon. And those who are acquainted with a Mormon are 11 points more likely than others to say that Mormonism and their own religion have a lot in common.
But compared with knowing someone who is Mormon, one’s view of whether or not Mormonism is a Christian religion has a much greater impact on overall opinions of Mormons. Among non-Mormons who see Mormons as Christian, more than two-thirds (68%) express a favorable view of Mormons, twice as many as among those who say Mormonism is not a Christian religion (34%). Equally striking, fully 42% of those who believe the Mormon religion is not Christian say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon for president; among those who believe Mormonism is a Christian religion, just 16% express reluctance about supporting a Mormon.
Section 3: Opinions about Pope Benedict XVI
Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Americans who are familiar with Pope Benedict XVI have a favorable opinion of him. Catholics, not surprisingly, view the pope most favorably (86%). But large majorities of other religious groups, including more than seven-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (72%), mainline Protestants (75%) and black Protestants (70%), also are favorably inclined towards Pope Benedict. Among the religiously unaffiliated, however, just 57% have a favorable opinion of the pope.
As expected, Pope Benedict XVI is now better known among the public than he was two years ago. Currently, 68% offer an opinion of the pope, up from 55% in July 2005. Yet greater visibility has not improved the pope’s image. In 2005, 81% of those able to rate Pope Benedict expressed a favorable opinion of him, compared with 73% currently.
Pope Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, had higher favorability ratings. In 1996, an overwhelming majority (86%) of those who could rate Pope John Paul II expressed a favorable opinion of him. Moreover, about a third of Americans (32%) had a “very favorable” view of Pope John Paul II, compared with just 21% for the current pope, based on those who could rate each.
The gap in very positive views is particularly evident among Catholics. Half of Catholics had a very favorable opinion of Pope John Paul II in 1996; currently, just 32% express strongly positive opinions of Pope Benedict XVI. There is a similar, though less dramatic, difference in opinions of the two popes among white evangelical and white mainline Protestants. More than a quarter of white evangelical Protestants (26%) and white mainline Protestants (28%) had a very favorable opinion of Pope John Paul II, but only 16% and 14%, respectively, view Pope Benedict this way.
Divided Views of Pontiff’s Outreach
A plurality of Americans (46%) who have heard at least a little about Pope Benedict say he is doing only a fair or poor job of promoting good relations with other religions; 38% say the pope is doing an excellent or good job. Though Catholics give the pope higher marks for building interfaith relations (54%), even many among this group (40%) say he is doing only a fair job or a poor job in this regard.
There are substantial political differences in views on this issue, as in overall opinions about Pope Benedict. Conservative Republicans are the only political group in which a plurality believes the pope is doing an excellent or good job in promoting positive relations with other religions. Moderate and liberal Republicans are evenly divided over the pope’s performance in this area, while roughly half of independents (51%) and conservative and moderate Democrats (47%), and 61% of liberal Democrats, say he is doing only a fair or poor job in dealing with other religions.
There is a similar pattern in general views of Pope Benedict. By greater than five-to-one (84%-16%), conservative Republicans have a favorable opinion of the pope; substantial majorities of moderate and liberal Republicans (79%), independents (68%), and conservative and moderate Democrats (79%) also express highly positive views of Pope Benedict. But liberal Democrats have a less favorable view: 59% have a positive impression of the pope, compared with 41% who express an unfavorable opinion.
When asked whether they believe the pope is conservative, moderate or liberal most Americans who have heard of him say that the pope is conservative (56%). Another 17% say he is moderate and only 5% of Americans say he is liberal.
Views of the pope differ markedly by education level. Fully 71% of college graduates say the pope is very conservative (30%) or conservative (41%). Those with no college experience are less sure of the pope’s ideology; fewer than half of Americans (46%) with less than a high school education view the pope as a conservative.
Views of Other Religious Leaders
Evangelist Billy Graham is viewed positively by three-quarters of Americans who say they are familiar with the preacher. Graham is viewed favorably among most religious groups, especially among white evangelicals, 92% of whom have a favorable impression of him. Only among the religiously unaffiliated does a majority (52%) view him unfavorably.
Older Americans have a particularly favorable opinion of Graham. Among those who could rate Graham, 85% of those ages 50 and older – and 89% of those ages 65 and older – have a favorable opinion of him. Among those younger than age 30, 60% have a positive view of Graham. Roughly three-in-ten (29%) Americans under the age of 30 have never heard of Graham.
Although fewer Americans are familiar with Graham today than 20 years ago, views of him have been remarkably stable. In 1987, 72% of the American public who could rate him said they had a favorable view of him.
Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, is not nearly as well-known or as highly regarded as Billy Graham. The vast majority of Americans (64%) do not know enough about Dobson to have an opinion. Among those who do express an opinion of Dobson, 59% view him favorably and 41% view him unfavorably.
About the Survey
Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted under the direction of Schulman, Ronca, & Bucuvalas, Inc. among a nationwide sample of 3,002 adults, 18 years of age or older, from August 1-18, 2007. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2 percentage points. For results based on Form 1 (N=1,541) or Form 2 (N=1,461) only, the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls.
About the Projects
This survey is a joint effort of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Both organizations are sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and are projects of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life delivers timely, impartial information on issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. The Forum is a nonpartisan organization and does not take positions on policy debates. Based in Washington, D.C., the Forum is directed by Luis Lugo.
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press is an independent opinion research group that studies attitudes toward the press, politics and public policy issues. The Center’s purpose is to serve as a forum for ideas on the media and public policy through public opinion research. In this role it serves as an important information resource for political leaders, journalists, scholars, and public interest organizations. All of the Center’s current survey results are made available free of charge.
This report is a collaborative product based on the input and analysis of the following individuals:
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Luis Lugo, Director
Sandra Stencel, Deputy Director
John C. Green, Senior Fellow in Religion and American Politics
Gregory Smith, Research Fellow
Dan Cox, Research Associate
Allison Pond, Research Associate
Tracy Miller, Copy Editor
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
Andrew Kohut, Director
Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research
Carroll Doherty and Michael Dimock, Associate Directors
Carolyn Funk, Richard Wike and Kim Parker, Senior Researchers
April Clark, Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Robert Suls, and Shawn Neidorf, Research Associates
James Albrittain, Executive Assistant