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Survey Shows Christians Held in High Esteem, Atheists Low

In a national survey of the public image of different religions, most respondents said they view Christians, Jews and, on balance, Mormons as good influences on U.S. society. But more than 30% viewed Muslims, Buddhists and Scientologists as negative influences.

However, even those religions with a smaller U.S. following fared better than atheists: 60% said that nonbelievers have a negative effect on the nation’s culture, according to findings released this week by pollster George Barna of Glendale.

“While many Americans are not practicing Christians, they retain some identity with the Christian faith and remain protective of it,” said Barna, noting that 85% gave Christians a positive evaluation and only 4% thought they were a bad influence. Although 83% of Americans say they are Christian, Barna’s polls have found that only half are weekly churchgoers.

Christians, he said, “are suspicious of other faith groups because they are unknown but different, and we are generally uncomfortable with those who are not just like us.

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“Diversity may be a rallying cry for the politically correct, but for the average American, the acceptance of diversity in religion, as in politics and race, is not a widely embraced notion,” said Barna, who specializes in opinion polls on religious issues and has written 20 books for the evangelical Christian market.

Nevertheless, the findings of a random telephone survey of 1,007 adults in July appear to mitigate concerns among U.S. Muslims that their faith has a poor public image because of distorted media coverage and the unfair association of Islam with radical or violent activities.

Buddhism--a low-profile faith rarely in the news--was rated virtually the same as Islam. Muslims were seen as a positive influence by 28% and a negative influence by 32%, nearly the same as the 29% positive and 33% negative assessments of Buddhists. (More than one-third of those polled had no opinion of either group.)

Although the survey confirmed Muslims’ relatively negative image, the comparison with Buddhists was somewhat encouraging, said Salam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

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“The public at large apparently has a different impression of Muslims than opinions you find in major media and in Washington political circles,” said Al-Marayati. “Perhaps many know of Muslims at work or in their neighborhoods who alleviate misapprehensions they might otherwise have.”

About half the “born-again Christians"--theologically conservative believers--surveyed said they view Muslims and Buddhists as negative influences in America, whereas only about 15% viewed them positively.

“That’s a pretty significant difference,” said Al-Marayati. “In that case, houses of worship are creating more divisions rather than positive relations out of their faith.”

Other results of the survey, which Barna estimates is accurate within plus or minus 3%:

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* Only 15% believed that Jews had a negative influence and 58% said their influence is good--a finding that one Los Angeles Jewish official called “very heartening.”

* Mormons--adherents of the Utah-based church that was widely attacked by other American Christians in the 19th and early 20th centuries--were seen as a positive force by 43% and a negative one by 27%.

* Scientologists were rated by 39% as negative influences and 21% as positive forces, but nearly four of 10 respondents had no opinion on the 41-year-old religious group.

* Atheists not only received the highest negative rating, 61%, but the lowest positive evaluation, 14%.

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That came as no surprise to organized nonbelievers. “We certainly don’t have a good reputation among believers,” said Kenneth Bonnell of Eagle Rock, co-president of Atheists United. “We would rather that the figures were the other way around.”

Bonnell attributed the negative view of atheists to the “religious texture of the United States” and to conservative Christians who often blame atheists for opposing school prayer even though many Jewish and Christian bodies also advocate strict church-state separation.

David Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles, said he was heartened by the large number who regard Jews as positive influences in U.S. society. At the same time, he said, “it clearly indicates there’s a lot of work yet to be done in terms of acceptance and understanding of nontraditional religions in this country.”

Buddhist leader Henry Shinn of Redlands said that the 33% negative evaluation of Buddhist influence in this country “is because [people] don’t know much about Buddhism.”

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“As students learn more about the basic teachings of Buddhism, we will have better opinions expressed in the future,” said Shinn, who is one of five co-presidents of the American Buddhist Congress, a pan-Buddhist group headquartered in Los Angeles.

Likewise, with 26% saying they did not know if Mormons are a positive or negative influence, the poll “demonstrates there is still a large part of the population that do not know us,” said Keith Atkinson, the California public affairs representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the formal name for the Mormons.

Church spokesman Don Lefevre of Salt Lake City added: “We’re happy that our positive influence was seen as higher than a negative influence, but we are disappointed that the survey was crafted in a way that implied [we] are other than Christian.”

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The worldwide Mormon church body recently launched a public relations effort to discourage nonmembers from identifying it primarily as “the Mormon Church.” The church also announced that “Jesus Christ” will be printed in larger letters in its name on written materials and eventually on its church buildings.

The Church of Scientology, which is headquartered in Hollywood but has a presence in 122 countries, also has struggled with its public image after years of news-making clashes with government agencies and critics who question its claim to be a religion.

Spokeswoman Wendy Beccaccini took the survey results as a challenge.

“It tells us that we need to concentrate on the 40% of the population who don’t yet know about the many benefits and positive effects Scientology creates in society,” she said, noting that the Internal Revenue Service certified Scientology as a religious, tax-exempt body in 1993.

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