The outbreak of demonstrations against the anti-Islamic movie in Egypt, Libya and many other societies in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia has generated a mountain of commentary. Many American have argued that (a) it is false to blame United States society (still less the American president) for the actions of one or two Californian hate-spewing fringe extremists; (b) the US culture is exceptionally tolerant by priorititising the principles of the 1st Amendment over restrictions on hate speech (c) other societies, especially Muslim-predominant societies, should become equally tolerant and accept religious pluralism.
But does the type of faith matter? Or is religious tolerance the product of the strength of religiosity, irrespective of whether the society is Muslim or Protestant, Orthodox or Buddhist? In particular, are Muslim societies exceptionally intolerant of people of other faiths, as much Western commentary assumes? And is the U.S. exceptionally tolerant?
In fact, new survey evidence demonstrates a strong link between the strength of religiosity and religious tolerance, irrespective of the predominant type of faith in each society.
The 6th wave of the World Values Survey (conducted in 2010-2012) measured the strength of religiosity by asking respondents to place themselves on a 10-point 'importance of God' scale. The survey also asked people to agree or disagree (on a 4-point scale) with the statement 'The only acceptable religion is my religion'. The results below show the strong link between the strength of religiosity and faith-based tolerance. It is true that Muslim-predominant societies such as Qatar and Morocco turn out to be both highly religious and least tolerant of other faiths. Central Asian 'stans' are also intolerant. But some other highly religious Catholic and Orthodox societies are also moderately intolerant, exemplified by followers of the Apostolic Church in Armenia, Christians in Ghana, and Catholics in Poland and Mexico. By contrast the most secular societies under comparison also prove the most tolerant, such as Lutheran Sweden and Estonia, Catholic Spain, Protestant New Zealand, Buddhist South Korea.
Levels of economic development are also clearly at work behind these patterns, with the more affluent and educated societies usually displaying the most secular and tolerant profile. Education has long been found to strength social tolerance. The United States, by contrast, is very religious and in the middle of the distribution for religious tolerance, not exceptionally high like Sweden and New Zealand. Similar patterns are evident and the results remain robust if we compare alternative indicators, such as of trust in people from another faith.
Thus it seems likely, as demonstrated in detail elsewhere (Norris and Inglehart 2011) that social tolerance is being driven more by societal levels of affluence and poverty, and thus by the strength of religiosity, more than by any particular type of faith.
Source: The World Values Survey 6th wave 2010-2012. N. 42,345 in 29 societies. See www.worldvaluessurvey.org
For further reading, see Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart. 2011. Sacred and Secular. Cambridge University Press 2nd Edition.