November 15, 2010
Is religion toxic or a tonic for our nation's civic life? The question often inspires passion, and vitriol, on both sides. Professional atheists like Christopher Hitchens argue that "religion poisons everything," while advocates for religion, like Glenn Beck, see faith in God as the antidote to all that ails America.
To understand religion's role in America today, we have spent the last five years exhaustively examining the many ways that religion affects American society — from our families to our politics to our communities. We have done so with what we believe to be the most comprehensive survey of religion in America ever done, supplemented by every other source of relevant data we could find. The result is our new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Our objective is not to take sides on religion, but only to report what the data say.
The data provide fodder for both sides. On the one hand, religious Americans are somewhat less tolerant of free speech and dissent. As just one example, in our survey we asked Americans whether someone should be allowed to give a speech defending Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda. While most Americans said yes — we are indeed a tolerant people — religious Americans were slightly less likely to say so. The same pattern is true for many other measures of tolerance: While, in general, Americans are quite tolerant, religious Americans are less tolerant than their secular neighbors. Furthermore, the "tolerance edge" among secular Americans cannot be explained away by some other attribute that they share. Statistically, we have accounted for every imaginable way that religious and secular Americans differ from one another. When we do so, the story stays the same.