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Religious Similarities and Differences in America

by  David A. Lehrer

October 6, 2009 | 8:42 pm

The Pew Center, the source of so much insightful qualitative data on the state of America, recently released a poll that confirms what many have seen happening around us—-Jews have become an integral part of the fabric of American society and are perceived as such by our neighbors.

In a poll that probes “Religious Similarities and Differences” the investigators found that, not too surprisingly, Protestants and Catholics each see each other’s faith as most like theirs. More than four in ten (44%) non-Protestants say that the Protestant religion and their own faith are similar. Non-Catholics see Catholicism as similar to their own faith at 43%.

A more surprising datum is that more than one third of non-Jews say Judaism is “somewhat or very similar” to their own faith (35%). A number not out of the range of the 44% and 43% of Catholics and Protestants viewing each other as “somewhat or very similar”.

Judaism is viewed as “somewhat or very different” by 47% of non-Jews. The “somewhat or very different” category for non-Protestants viewing Protestantism is 38%, for non-Catholics viewing Catholicism is 50%—-again within the range of how Jews are viewed.

Considering two thousand years of rocky relations between Judaism and Christianity, that over a third of American non-Jews see Judaism as “very similar or somewhat similar” to their faith and that the range of acceptance is within a few percentage points of how the two major Christian faiths view each other (43%) is remarkable.

As a benchmark, non-Mormons view that faith as being “very similar or somewhat similar” at 21%, non Muslims view similarities in Islam at 16%, non Buddhists see similarities in Buddhism at 15% and non Hindus assess Hindus as similar at 12%.

The study has implications beyond demographers and inter-faith mavens. Analysis of the data reveals that perceptions of religious groups being similar to one’s own are linked with more favorable views of these groups. Among those who say Judaism is “similar” to their faith, 79% view the religion favorably; among those who see Judaism as different, 62% view it favorably—-a not insignificant drop off. Interestingly, the favorability rating of Judaism by non-Jews is higher for Jews (79%) than it is for non-Catholics viewing Catholicism (76%).

I am certain that these revelations are not the result of serendipity. Rather, they are the fruits of decades of inter-faith dialogue, of seminary education reform and, most importantly, of the Second Vatican Council and its alteration of the Catholic liturgy and the church’s outreach to non-Catholic faiths (e.g. John XXIII and John Paul II).

Coincidentally, I attended the funeral today of my late father’s oldest friend who passed away at the age of 101 ½. As I listened to his life’s journey from Eastern Europe to the United States, from the early twentieth century to the twenty first, from a world in which pogroms and fear of being beaten or harassed for being a “Christ killer” was common place to a world in which there are virtually no limits on a Jew’s aspirations and where we are viewed as being very much like our neighbors—-I couldn’t help but think how fortunate we are and how amazingly the world has changed in one lifetime. 

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