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America is not No. 1 in religious diversity

August 7, 2009
Forgive President Obama his recent misstatement that America has one of the world’s largest populations of Muslims.

He was only reflecting a larger lack of knowledge of world religion that has allowed some in the fields of religion, academics and the media to promote the ethnocentric idea that the United States is the most religiously diverse nation in the world.

The problem is, like many other claims of American triumphalism from the left or the right, it is just not true.

Research consistently shows more than three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Compare that to the total of 5.5 percent of respondents among the more than 35,000 American adults who told the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey they affiliated with other religions. An even larger project, the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey of more than 54,000 respondents, found a combined 3.9 percent said they were Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or members of another non-Christian world religion.

Now look at a nation like Korea where Christians are 41 percent of the populace, Confucianists 15 percent, Buddhists 11 percent and 31=2 0percent identify with ethnic or new religious movements. Or India, where along with the Hindu majority, 14 percent of the populace is Muslim, 4.6 percent Christian and 2 percent Sikh. Indonesia, which does have the world’s largest Muslim population, also is 12 percent Christian and 2 percent Hindu, with some 7 percent following other beliefs.

Nations like Nigeria, with almost equal numbers of Muslims and Christians, and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Lebanon are where significant numbers of the world’s two largest faiths live within the same borders. Lebanon even has a larger percentage of Buddhists than the percentage of Muslims in the United States, according to some research.

The U.S. president can tell a French television station that “if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” However, America actually ranks near 40th on this scale.

So how did this idea of America being No. 1 in religious diversity take hold long before Obama’s misstep.

There are several factors, from a desire to promote interfaith activity to overly optimistic projections of growth among non-Christian religious populations. In the void of American ignorance of international religion, popular books such as Diana Eck’s A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation are taken literally. Advocacy groups such as The Interfaith Alliance promote the idea the United States is “the most religiously diverse nation in the world.”

Yet there is even little evidence the United States is moving quickly in the direction of greater diversity. The American Religious Identification Survey found only a six-tenths of a percent increase in the number of non-Christians in the United States from 1990 to 2008. An aggregate of Gallup Polls on religion in 2008 estimated 7 percent identified with religions other than Christianity, a 1 percent drop from 1997.

One can understand the impulse to inflate the figures to heighten awareness and sensitivity to non-Christian religions in the United States. But how often can you try to fool the public before the enterprise backfires, as it did in the president’s case.

And one wonders whether perpetuating the myth of America being No. 1 in religious diversity does not obscure the real need for better understanding of international religion. We can learn lessons in religious pluralism from the experiences of more diverse democracies such as India. And we can make more informed public policy decisions on relations with nations from Iraq to Turkey to Indonesia as we understand the particular social, economic, cultural and political influences shaping religious expression in those countries. A more informed populace with a less idealized attitude toward any one religion also can be more effective in combating human rights abuses throughout the world. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists are among both the victims and perpetrators of religious intolerance. The interests of world peace and social justice require a clear-eyed look at religious persecution from all sources.

The information is out there. The Association of Religion Data Archives offers extensive findings on topics from demographics to measures of religious freedom for regions and individual nations. The site includes a feature that allows visitors to compare nations.

We just have to seek out the data. And show a little more humility about America’s place in the world.

Explore International Religion Using the ARDA’s National Profiles

— David Briggs

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