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Survey finds a nation divided by faith, politics: Muslims, atheists, conservative Christians bear brunt of fears, distrust

Technology does not scare us. Nor especially does the fear of Hell or worries about getting into heaven.

But the fears and suspect motives we place on belief systems different than our own very much concerns Americans, according to the latest wave of the Baylor Religion Survey.

For centuries, Catholics and Jewish people bore the brunt of a nation’s religious prejudices.

Today, Muslims, atheists and conservative Christians are the most feared, according to the fifth wave of the study, drawing 1,501 respondents to a mail survey conducted earlier this year.

For example, more than a third of Americans said Muslims want to limit their freedoms and 26 percent said Muslims pose a threat to the physical safety of the nation.

Three in 10 respondents said the values of atheists are inferior to their own, and a little more than a quarter said atheists want to limit personal freedoms.

More than a third of respondents also said conservative Christians represented a threat to freedom.

In many cases, the religious divisions reflected the nation’s divided political arena.

Sixty-one percent of strong Democrats said conservative Christians wanted to limit their personal freedoms; 55 percent of strong Republicans expressed the same fear about atheists.

The sharp divisions were but one of many significant findings in the wide-ranging study. Among other topics, the survey revealed:

The importance of a sense of purpose: Americans who say they have discovered a satisfying purpose in life are among the most likely to say they are very happy. They also report fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to heaven: Nearly half of Americans are very or quite certain they are going to heaven. That percentage rose to 70 percent when respondents who answered “don’t know” or said they didn’t believe in heaven were excluded. Americans who have that certainty overwhelmingly report they are very or pretty happy.

So, we don’t think too much about Hell: Thirty-six percent of Americans, including more than half of believers willing to speculate about their own future, say they have little or no fear about going to Hell. But even those who fear Hell the most “are not the most depressed,” study director Paul Froese said. “The most depressed are those who feel that life has no purpose. This suggests that a meaningful world, even one guided by a judgmental God, is better than one having no meaning at all.”

Technology that inspires: About 45 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of evangelicals, access the Internet at least monthly for spiritual and religious content. Just 4 percent say the Internet has a negative effect on their spiritual lives, and a third say it has a mostly positive or very positive effect. In a related finding, just 11 percent of respondents overall, but a third of those with no religious affiliation, said science and technology will make religion obsolete.

Whose nation is this, anyway? More than seven in 10 evangelicals, and more than six in 10 mainline Protestants and Catholics, said America has always been and is now a Christian nation or that America was a Christian nation in the past but is not now.

In general, the findings may revive the question of whether the presidential election would have ended differently if Hillary Clinton had more actively engaged religious communities, contrasting her lifelong faith with Donald Trump’s sudden but passionate appeals to faith groups during the campaign.

Some research has indicated Americans are more likely to vote for a religious candidate. The Baylor survey found that Trump voters were more likely to say they were very religious, and believe in a God who is actively engaged in the world and cares for them as individuals.

Clinton voters were more likely to believe in a “distant God,” a deity who is not engaged in the world. By being overly sensitive to her secular base, and distancing herself from religious language and religious gatherings, Clinton may have left enough votes on the table for a narrow Trump victory, some observers have said.

But even those Americans who are strongly discouraged over the state of the nation today may find hope in the long view, Froese suggested.

The Baylor sociology professor, influenced by the renowned French sociologist Emile Durkheim, said there is a strong argument that “society will always readjust itself to civility. It will have its bumps and turns. Humanity is built to be social. It’s also meant to have civility.”

Image by Paradise Nazarene, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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