How Do Christians, Atheists Compare on Muslim Tolerance?

In the wake of another terrorist attack on the West coming from Daesh/IS, pundits and politicians on the right are ramping up calls for greater surveillance of Muslim communities, eliminating Muslim immigration, and restricting the religious expressions of Muslims in the United States.

Incendiary rhetoric has been particularly common among Republican presidential candidates. Ted Cruz stated, “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” Not to be outdone, Donald Trump echoed this statement, reiterated his support for a ban on Muslim immigration and refugees, and called for the torture of suspected terrorists.

The response of these self-professed Christians to the latest attack is remarkably different from that of Democratic presidential candidate and secular Jew, Bernie Sanders, who condemned Trump in particular for using this tragic event to spark Islamophobia.

Tolerance is a hallmark of Western democracies. A core tenet of democratic societies is the freedom of religious and political expression, and even the most obnoxious and ridiculous views must be tolerated. Bad ideas are best conquered with good ideas rather than with repression.

Yet, the anti-civil liberties orientation of Christian politicians and pundits appears to be shared by several prominent atheists like Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. For them and their followers, as for Trump and Cruz, radical Islam is best countered through jailing imams, preventing incendiary preaching, limiting access to radical Islamic literature and media, and discriminating against potentially radical Muslims. Figures like Harris—and like “evangelical” leaders who strongly support accepting Muslim refugees and respecting their religious freedom—are often not representative of the average person who happens to fall into the same religious category.

So how are religious beliefs and identifications related to tolerance for Muslims in the United States? To answer this, I analyzed data from the 2008-2014 General Social Surveys, a high quality scientific survey. Grouping the data over time enables clear inferences about the level of tolerance found in relatively small groups like atheists (3.1% of the 5425 respondents who were asked these items in this time period).

I use a scale of tolerance of minorities developed by Sam Stouffer in the 1950s, then applied to loathed minority groups like communists, racists, atheists, and now Muslims.

The specific items ask whether (1) Muslim clergy preaching hatred of the US should be allowed to speak, (2) whether anti-American Muslim clergy should be allowed to teach in college, and (3) whether anti-American Muslim books should be allowed in the library. I examine how this scale is related to beliefs about God.

Interestingly, while atheists are often chided for being Islamophobic, they have the highest level of tolerance of civil liberties for radical Muslims of any belief group—with agnostics and people who “believe in a higher power but not a god” close behind. In contrast, people who believe in god without a doubt are the least tolerant of Muslims.

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Identifications with religious groups are powerful predictors of a variety of orientations and outcomes, as I document in my book Changing Faith. American denominational classifications are much more complicated than the simple “evangelical,” “mainline,” “Catholic,” or “none” schemes used by many researchers.

Using my 13-fold classification of religious identifications, Unitarians are found to be, by far, the most tolerant of radical Muslims, followed by Episcopalians, people who reject religious identification, Jews, and those who identify with other religions (Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and others).
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Notably, liberal Protestant groups (mostly Presbyterians and UCC) fall far behind Episcopalians since the 0.3 differential means that there’s a 10% greater likelihood of extending civil rights to Muslims. And, Lutherans are far more tolerant than other “moderate Protestants” (Methodists, Disciples of Christ, etc.). Lumping these four Protestant groups together as “mainline Protestants” belies significant and substantial differences in their tolerance of Muslims.

The least tolerant were respondents who identify as Baptists or with other exclusivist sects (e.g., Churches of Christ, Nazarene, Pentecostals), and American Catholics demonstrate considerable hostility to civil liberties for politicized Muslims, despite the plea for tolerance from Pope Francis.

Scott Atran has noted that what Daesh/IS really wants is to eliminate the grey zone, “the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil—in other words, between the Caliphate and the Infidel.” If the world unites against radical Islam, then it becomes a battle between good and evil, between Muslims and Crusaders.

But if we accept and embrace even radical Islamists as part of our societies, welcoming refugees and respecting their rights, the grey zone expands. Radical Islamists will be like the goofy street preachers carrying crosses on my college campus—they don’t convert anyone, they just look ridiculous. It’s clear that atheists and non-theists relish the grey zone that will defeat Daesh/IS, while many conservative Christians want to give Daesh/IS the prophetic battle they yearn for.