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Does Religious Isolation Carry a Price?

by Albert L. Winseman

This article is the second in a series introducing Gallup's new Religious Tolerance Index.

Last week, I introduced the Gallup Religious Tolerance Index, a measure of Americans' attitudes toward those of different religious faiths. In November and December 2002, Gallup conducted a nationwide poll* asking several questions about religious tolerance. Analysis of the data revealed that 17% of Americans are "isolated" in their attitudes toward other religious groups, 46% are "tolerant," and 37% are "integrated" (for definitions of each category see "New Index Tracks Americans' Religious Tolerance" in Related Items).

The Religious Tolerance Index is built upon the following five statements, which respondents are asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning "strongly disagree" and 5 meaning "strongly agree":

  1. I always treat people of other religious faiths with respect.

  2. I would not object to a person of a different religious faith moving next door.

  3. Most religious faiths make a positive contribution to society.

  4. People of other religions always treat me with respect.

  5. In the past year I have learned something from someone of another religious faith.

Link to Outcomes

Gallup research has shown that these religious tolerance items are linked to three positive outcomes: life satisfaction, community service (donating two or more volunteer hours per week), and spiritual commitment (meaning one "strongly agrees" with all nine items that measure spiritual commitment).

Those who are integrated in their attitudes toward those of other religious faiths are more likely than those who are tolerant or isolated to be completely satisfied with their own lives, by more than 10 percentage points. There is not much statistical difference on this outcome between those who are isolated and those who are tolerant, indicating that actively seeking to know more about and from others of different religious traditions may make for a happier life -- more so than merely adopting a "live-and-let-live" attitude.

Those who are integrated also spend more time in community service than those who are isolated or tolerant -- 44% of integrated Americans volunteer two or more hours per week, as opposed to 30% of those who are isolated and 34% of those who are tolerant.

Integrated individuals are also more likely to be fully spiritually committed -- twice as likely, in fact, as those who are isolated (18% vs. 9%). As with the life satisfaction outcome, there is little statistical difference between those who are isolated and tolerant.

Bottom Line

Religious isolation does not lead to happiness. Nor does it foster a desire to serve others or make one a more "spiritual" person. This may seem self-evident, but what is more important to observe is that adopting a "laissez-faire" attitude toward religious tolerance does not do much for happiness, service, or spirituality. It is only when individuals stretch themselves and reach out to others, allowing their lives to become influenced by those who are different from themselves, that they grow and thus become happier, more inclined to serve others, and more spiritually committed.

Next week's article will examine baseline religious tolerance levels by race, gender, and age categories.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adult members of a church, synagogue, or other religious faith community, aged 18 and older, and 500 non-members, conducted in November and December 2002. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2.6%.

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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