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Teens and Religious Tolerance: Part I

by Albert L. Winseman

First in a series of articles on religious tolerance among U.S. teens

In the spring of 2003, Gallup introduced its Religious Tolerance Index, a five-item scale that measures people's attitudes toward those who adhere to different religious traditions than themselves. The Index, which is calculated by compiling respondents' ratings on five survey items relating to religious faith, has been administered twice to adults, most recently in the fall of 2003 (see "New Religious Tolerance Data Paint Hopeful Picture" in Related Items). Now, for the first time, Gallup has included the items of the Religious Tolerance Index in its semiannual Gallup Youth Survey. 

The five items, rated on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 1 being "strongly disagree" and 5 being "strongly agree"), are:

  • I always treat people of other religious faiths with respect.
  • Most religious faiths make a positive contribution to society.
  • I would not object to a person of a different religious faith moving next door.
  • People of other religious faiths always treat me with respect.
  • In the past year, I have learned something from someone of another religious faith.

An analysis of the Gallup Youth Survey data* reveals that 24% of America's teens are "isolated" in their attitudes toward others of different faiths, 50% are "tolerant," and 27% are "integrated."

Behind the Numbers

Isolated. Teens who fall into the isolated category are less likely than those who are tolerant and integrated to be members of a particular faith group -- but if they are members, they tend to believe that their religion is right or true and all other religions are wrong or false. They don't know much about other religious faiths -- nor do they want to. They tend to lack respect for members of other religious faiths and in turn tend not to feel respected by members of other faiths.

Tolerant. A high percentage of tolerant teens are members of faith communities. The tolerant have a "live-and-let-live" attitude toward people of other faiths, and generally feel that they treat others of different religious faiths with respect. However, those in the tolerant category are not particularly likely to go out of their way to learn more about other religious traditions -- nor are they likely to say that they have learned something from someone of a religious faith different from their own.

Integrated. The majority of teens who are religiously integrated are not only members of faith communities, but they are also engaged in those communities. They go beyond a "live-and-let-live" attitude and actively seek to know more about and from others of different religious traditions. They believe that most other religious faiths make a positive contribution to society, and not only do they feel they respect others of different traditions, they feel respected by them as well.

Teens More Isolated, Less Integrated than Adults

Gallup has twice measured religious tolerance levels among adults. The adult surveys are conducted via telephone rather than Web panel, so comparing the numbers directly is inappropriate. Research into survey methodology is revealing that the "social desirability" factor is less prevalent in Web surveys -- people are more likely to answer the way they "think they should" in a phone interview than in the more depersonalized online context.

Still, the substantial differences do suggest adults show a higher level of religious integration and a lower level of isolation than teens. This makes intuitive sense: Child psychologists note that teens tend to see issues more in "black and white" terms than do adults; teens' views of the world are less nuanced. Teens also are less likely than adults to have had experiences with people of different religious backgrounds, simply because they have not lived as long. The likelihood is that as they grow and develop, teens will become more integrated in their views of other religious faiths.

Next week's article will take a closer look at teen responses to the individual Tolerance Index items.

*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 439 respondents, aged 13 to 17, Aug. 8-19, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.



As Global Practice Leader for Faith Communities, Dr. Winseman leads Gallup's research and consulting services that assist faith communities in helping their members become more engaged. He is a co-author of the new book, Living Your Strengths, written to help members discover and use their talents and strengths in their congregations. Before joining Gallup, he was a pastor in the United Methodist Church for 15 years.

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