July 17, 2014

How many people of different faiths do you know?

Personal experiences with religious groups vary in the U.S., according to a new Pew Research Center surveyGiven the wide variety of faith groups in the United States, it would seem natural that most Americans know someone of a religion different from their own. With that in mind, we recently asked members of the Pew Research Center’s new American Trends Panel whether they personally know members of other religious groups.

We found that a big majority of Americans (87%) say they know someone who is Catholic – perhaps not surprising, given that as of 2012, 22% of U.S. adults were Catholic.  Somewhat fewer Americans (70%) say they know an evangelical Christian, even though nearly a third of U.S. adults (32%) describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.

The percentage of Americans who know members of smaller religious groups varies widely, with little apparent relation to the actual size of the group. For example, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus each comprise about 1% or less of the U.S. population, but many more Americans say they know a Muslim (38%) than a Buddhist (23%) or a Hindu (22%).

Atheists, Jews and Mormons each make up roughly 2% of the U.S. population, but a majority of Americans say they know someone who is Jewish (61%) or atheist (59%), while significantly fewer know a Mormon (44%).

One possible explanation may be that the geographic distribution of a group matters as much as its size. A higher percentage of the population in the West – where Mormons and Buddhists are heavily concentrated – know a Mormon (68%) or a Buddhist (36%). Fully 70% of people in the Northeast know someone who is Jewish; not coincidentally, 43% of U.S. Jews live in the Northeast.

All together, the average American personally knows members of at least four of the eight religious groups included in the survey. In general, whites tend to know people in more groups (four) than do blacks (three). And there is a gap between people with a college degree – who know, on average, members of five different religious groups – and those with only a high school diploma or less education, who know someone in an average of three groups. There is virtually no difference, however, between Republicans and Democrats on this measure (four groups each).

We asked the same panel to rate each religious group on a “feeling thermometer” from 0 to 100, with a higher number indicating a warmer, more positive feeling toward that group. While it’s the first time we’ve asked such a question in that way, others – including professors David Campbell and Robert Putnam in their book “American Grace” – have conducted similar studies (with broadly similar results).

In our panel’s answers, we noticed a pattern that holds across all religious groups: Americans who know a member of a group tend to rate that group more positively. For example, among those who know an atheist, the average rating of atheists is 50; among those who don’t know an atheist, it’s 29. And among those who know a Buddhist, the average rating of Buddhists is 70. The comparable rating by those who don’t know a Buddhist is 48.

Overall, Americans express the warmest feelings toward Jews (average rating of 63), Catholics (62) and evangelical Christians (61). They are coolest toward atheists (41) and Muslims (40). Buddhists (53), Hindus (50) and Mormons (48) are in the middle.

Topics: Religion and Society, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Catholics and Catholicism, Mormons and Mormonism, Jews and Judaism, Religiously Unaffiliated, Buddhists and Buddhism, Hindus and Hinduism

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. sahbby saleem2 years ago

    This is intended to be a very short resume of ISLAM, based only a few ayat of the Glourious ISLAM .To begin with let us consider this ayah:

    “So set thy face (purpose, heart) steadily and truly to the din. Instincts Allah has bestowed upon mankind are in harmony with the nature He has created it. There is no altering of Allah’s creation. By Allah, that is the right religion (din), but most people know not.” (30: 30‑31)
    Allah the Exalted has chosen ISLAM as the right way of life for all people and all times (also refer to ayah 5:3, on page 29) Islam is in accord with the creation of mankind, and its instinct and intuition. It is harmonious with the universal mandate of creation, which is total submission to the Will of Allah the Exalted. I love ISLAM

  2. Dee Cee3 years ago

    Can’t help but think there’s a deeper finding about race relations in here. What does this say about contact with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who are often non-Caucasians.

  3. CAT323 years ago

    My favorite “what I love about So Cal” stories involves an (architectural) project team I was once a member of. Boss was Hindu, me – Jewish, and the other 3 members were an Orthodox Muslim, a Baptist and a Buddhist. We had the BEST “holiday” parties in December!!! Also, I’m now addicted to mango lassi — yummm!

  4. Chris3 years ago

    I have noticed Pew increasingly leaving the Mainline Protestants out of their research and polling which makes no sense at all. They are still one of the largest and probably the most influential religious group in America. I can understand their identity as a “group” is a perhaps less tight and cohesive as other churches or movements, but leaving them out basically excludes one fifth of the country as well as a massive chunk of the Christian “mainstream” and “progressives.”

  5. Monty Mola3 years ago

    I am reminded that your research has determined that Jews do not recognize Muslims; Evangelicals do not recognize Catholics; and Baptists do not recognize each other in the liquor store.

    1. John S3 years ago

      Sunshine on a cloudy day. Thank you.

  6. Joe C3 years ago

    I wonder how the question is asked? “Do you know a hindu (atheist, buddhist, etc)?” Would survey participants be asked to think only of their inner circle, or could they say “Yes” because they now a celebrity whom is atheist, hindu, etc.

    Can so many people have an atheist or jew in their inner circle when their representation is so slight in the total population?

    1. Bruce Drake3 years ago

      Here’s the topline questionnaire: pewrsr.ch/1sBNHd5

  7. fm3 years ago

    No pagans?

  8. Marsha Garrett3 years ago

    Leaving out the entire main line makes no sense at all. Pew, please get it together.

  9. Bruce C. Birch3 years ago

    Where in the world are Mainline Protestants in this research?!! In the aggregate this is the largest group of Protestants in America. Do you think there are only evangelical Protestants? Do you think people know what is evangelical any better than what is mainline? What a ridiculously flawed piece of research! I thought you all were better than that. As the former Dean of a United Methodist seminary (still the second largest Protestant denomination in America and left out of this research) I find this objectionable and shoddy in the extreme!

  10. Darcia Routh3 years ago

    About 1/2 of your polled protestants describe themselves as mainline. I am sure the evangelical 1/2 would also be able to distinguish themselves from the other 1/2. I know my Roman Catholic friends know the difference. So most of those polled would likely be able to rate mainline protestants. All that to say, I think your study is flawed and should include perceptions of all major religious groups in the US. You’ve left out about 18% of the US population/

  11. jeffrey Mason3 years ago

    Hello there no religious group of the 2000 or so that I have monitored have developed a philosophy of ‘Morality’ which is basic to all human activities.

  12. Julian Hook3 years ago

    “For example, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus each comprise about 1% or less of the U.S. population, but many more Americans say they know a Muslim (38%) than a Buddhist (23%) or a Hindu (22%).”

    That is a very unsatisfying sentence. Saying that those three groups “each comprise about 1% or less” does not imply that the three groups are approximately equal in size. In fact, a quick web search shows that there are about twice as many Muslims in the US (0.8%) as either Buddhists or Hindus (each around 0.4%). If that is correct, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that about twice as many people know a Muslim, and the statistics given offer no support whatsoever for the contention that these statistics are advanced to support, namely that “the percentage of Americans who know members of smaller religious groups varies widely, with little apparent relation to the actual size of the group.”

    When making distinctions among small populations, you need to include finer distinctions in the percentages; “1% or less” doesn’t cut it.

  13. John F Yeaman3 years ago

    While you rate Evangelical Protestants, no mention of mainline Christians; I suspect some are perceived as cold while others as warm and friendly. Interesting to see them in your next study.

  14. Marlowe C. Embree, Ph.D.3 years ago

    I’d love to see the histogram for the entire sample. For instance, what percentage of respondents knew six groups or more?

  15. David Waas3 years ago

    Were there any questions regarding “mainline” protestant churches? Methodist, Presbyterian, etc? seems like a major oversight.

    1. Michael Lipka3 years ago

      David, Bryan and David:

      Mainline Protestants – as well as Muslims, Buddhists and members of many other religious groups – were among the Americans we surveyed. But we did not ask Americans about “mainline Protestants” because we had doubts about how many people would understand and be familiar with the term.

      One possibility would have been to explain what “mainline Protestants” means within the survey question, but this is also difficult, since denominational names like “Lutheran” or “Presbyterian” are associated with some evangelical Protestant denominations as well as mainline denominations.

      In a similar survey discussed in their book “American Grace,” Robert Putnam and David Campbell did ask Americans for their feelings about mainline Protestants and found that mainline Protestants (along with Jews and Catholics) all “rise to the top, receiving similarly positive assessments” from other groups. Putnam and Campbell also point out that “‘mainline Protestantism’ is a blurry social category.” The questions they asked “did prompt respondents with examples of denominations within mainline Protestantism,” but they also note that “for many Americans it is simply not a salient category.”

      We hope this clarifies the reasoning behind the survey. Thanks for reading and for your feedback.

      Michael Lipka

      1. Jane Schmoetzer3 years ago

        “Mainline Protestant” is no more blurry, and no less salient, than “Evangelical Protestant” as a descriptor. Not including the former in this survey is simply an error which overlooks a major segment of the U.S. population.

      2. Brian B3 years ago

        “Mainline” Protestant is an antiquated and inaccurate term since that demographic isn’t actually mainline. The terms Progressive Protestant or Oldline Protestant would be more relevant and descriptive.

      3. CAT323 years ago

        It’s funny that I didn’t even notice the “absence” of the “Mainline” (or whatever) Protestant category in your survey. You don’t say so outright, but doesn’t the larger Protestant group catch “everyone else”? Basically, meaning “generic Christian”? As a non-Christian, I might know a friend is Catholic or (maybe) evangelical. But beyond that, “Christian” and “Protestant” become basically synonymous. (Again to an outside like me, that is!) I’d never before hear the term “Mainline” or any of those others. Just as, I don’t know whether my Muslim friends are Shia, Sunni, Wahabbi, etc. And, I’m sure, many Americans only know enough about Judaism to (maybe) id someone as “Jewish, but not the black hat wearing kind.” In all: Fascinating study. I’d also be curious to see a further breakdown of the Christian groups in America. It seems to me like many are Christian by “default.” But, I don’t know if that’s actually true or just seems that way to an outsider like me. Keep up the good work, looking forward to reading more on this fascinating topic!

  16. Bryan Jones3 years ago

    Where are the mainline Protestants?

    1. Michael Lipka3 years ago


      I responded to a similar question above. Thanks for your feedback.

      Michael Lipka

  17. bluqe3 years ago

    I have found over the many years that people of all faiths seem to me to be over zealous about their particular faith. I can remember in Sunday School questioning the teacher on why we funded missionary work in other countries. It seemed to me that that was really none of our business, and I continue to this day to believe it to be the wrong way to go and certainly the wrong way to make friends of these people. Who the hell are we to tell others how to worship. Personally, I would not give house room to a Muslim, but I do believe he has every right to worship as he pleases. To me they and there religion is barbaric. their treatment of woman and none Muslim people is out of some horror book. That’s it for me, all religions have done some very horrific deeds in the name of their religions. Makes me wonder, still.

  18. David Starbuck Gregory3 years ago

    Where is the Protestant mainline?

    1. W S Webb3 years ago

      Protestant mainline is the focus group.

    2. Michael Lipka3 years ago


      I responded to a similar question above. Thanks for your feedback.

      Michael Lipka