Religious Tolerance Q&A, Part I

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

On March 25, 2003, Gallup's Global Practice Leader for Faith Communities, Dr. Albert L. Winseman, presented Gallup's inaugural Religious Tolerance Index Web summit. The following are some of the questions that summit participants asked and Dr. Winseman's replies.

Q: Why, with the emphasis of this scale being religious integration, is this called "the Religious Tolerance Index?"

A: "Tolerance" best describes the broad range of what we are measuring in this Index. Those at the low end of the scale are isolated -- they see other religious faiths as suspect, and want nothing to do with them. Those in the middle range fall into the tolerant category, and this group, at 46%, represented the plurality of respondents to our survey. Tolerant individuals have a "live-and-let-live" attitude toward other religious faiths, and while they generally feel they respect people of other faiths, they are not particularly likely to go out of their way to learn something from them. At the high end of the range are those who are integrated. Integrated individuals feel respect for those of other religious faiths and feel those faiths make a positive contribution to society. They also feel respected by people of other faiths and try to learn something from them.

Q: How do you know that respondents weren't just looking at differences within their own religious traditions (e.g., Protestants and Catholics within the Christian faith) and not really considering different religious traditions (e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam)?

A: While that may have happened in some cases, through design and analysis we tried to eliminate confusion as much as possible. In wording the questions, we've found that using the phrase "religious faith" works much better than the word "religion" to help people distinguish between differing religious traditions (such as Christianity and Islam) and differences within religious traditions (such as Catholicism and Protestantism). We also started with 25 questions, narrowed it to 10, and then analyzed results from those 10 questions to look for inconsistencies, correlations, possible confusion, and linkage to outcomes. Using that analysis, we determined the five best questions for the Index. So throughout this process, we've used the highest methodological standards in order to ensure that we're actually measuring what we intended to measure.

Q: How are you able to distinguish between people's perceptions of their own behavior and their actual behavior? Can people perceive themselves as integrated when their actual behavior suggests otherwise?

A: That can be true, of course. But we try to build safeguards into the scale to account for that tendency and protect against it. Each of the five questions that make up the Index builds upon the one before it. The first two questions -- "I always treat people of other religious faiths with respect" and "I would I would not object to a person of a different religious faith moving next door" -- are about having basic respect for others. The questions then get progressively more difficult to "strongly agree" with, moving from respect to understanding: "Most religious faiths make a positive contribution to society," "People of other religions always treat me with respect," and "In the past year I have learned something from someone of another religious faith." While there is always a margin of error, we believe this Index gives us a pretty accurate picture of Americans' attitudes toward different religious faiths.

If you would like to view the Religious Tolerance Index Web Summit in its entirety, please click under "Online Events."

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