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Pew: US, France, and Korea Are Most Divided—Especially over Religion

Survey of almost 19,000 adults in 17 nations examines societal conflict between different religions, political parties, races and ethnicities, and urban and rural communities.
Pew: US, France, and Korea Are Most Divided—Especially over Religion
Image: Illustration by Christianity Today / Source Images: Saul Martinez / Stringer / Brandon Bell / Mohamed Rasik / Getty Images

“Conflict” is a troublesome word to describe a society. But increasingly across advanced global economies—and particularly the United States—their societies believe it is the correct label.

If there is any good news, religious conflict lags behind.

The Pew Research Center surveyed almost 19,000 people in 17 North American, European, and Asia-Pacific nations this past spring about their perception of conflict across four categories: between political parties, between different races and ethnicities, between different religions, and between urban and rural communities.

The US ranked top or high in each.

A global median of 50 percent see political conflict, 48 percent see racial conflict, 36 percent see religious conflict, and 23 percent see urban-rural conflict.

But in the US, 9 in 10 viewed political conflict as “serious” or “very serious.”

Asian nations varied considerably. South Korea matched the US at 90 percent seeing serious political polarization, with Taiwan third at 69 percent. Singapore was lowest overall at 33 percent, while Japan was 39 percent.

France (65%), Italy (64%), Spain (58%), and Germany (56%) followed Taiwan.

In terms of race, the US ranked first again, with 71 percent seeing serious conflict. France was second at 64 percent, and South Korea and Italy third at 57 percent. Singapore again ranked lowest, at 25 percent.

South Korea had the highest perception of religious conflict, at 61 percent. France followed at 56 percent, and the US at 49 percent. Germany and Belgium registered 46 percent each. Taiwan was lowest, at 12 percent.

Nearly 1 in 4 French (23%) saw religious conflict as “very serious.”

Age plays a role in perception. Pew noted that adults under 30 are significantly more likely than those ages 65 and older to see strong religious divisions in Greece (60% vs. 24%), Belgium (62% vs. 38%), Japan (42% vs. 22%), Italy (49% vs. 30%), the US (58% vs. 42%), Spain (24% vs. 10%), and Taiwan (17% vs. 7%).

Conversely, Canadians under 30 are significantly more likely than Canadians ages 65 and older to say there is no strong religious conflict (78% vs. 65%). [Editor’s note: See full chart at bottom.]

Religious diversity, however, is not a consistent indicator of conflict.

Pew estimates France to be 58 percent Christian and 8 percent Muslim. South Korea is 30 percent Christian and 22 percent Buddhist. Yet the US is 76 percent Christian and 1 percent Muslim.

The three lowest perceptions of religious conflict are also across the spectrum. Taiwan (12%) is 44 percent folk religious, 21 percent Buddhist, 15 percent other, and 6 percent Christian. Singapore (21%) is 32 percent Buddhist, 18 percent Christian, 16 percent Muslim, 9 percent other, and 7 percent Hindu. Yet Spain (19%) is 75 percent Christian and 3 percent Muslim.

Pew also tracked the perception of religious conflict between the religious and nonreligious, and in every nation the percentage of “unaffiliated” is substantial. The overall difference in perception was negligible, however, except in certain subcategories.

Half of conservatives in the US perceived conflict between the religious and nonreligious, compared to only 39 percent between religious groups. The political right in Germany, Canada, and Italy had similar perceptions. In Sweden, the only statistically significant difference was found on the political left, among which 26 percent perceive interreligious conflict but only 12 percent perceive secular conflict.

Politics exacerbates perceptions across the board.

In the US, Democrats and those leaning Democrat have a 24 percent difference in their perception of racial conflict, compared to corresponding Republicans. The racial divide is less severe, with Blacks perceiving conflict at 82 percent, Hispanics at 70 percent, and whites at 69 percent.

Democratic affiliation also creates a difference in perception of religious conflict (+17%) and urban-rural conflict (+10%). Tellingly, there is no difference between political parties in perception of political conflict (90% each). And more than half (54%) of Americans viewed this conflict as “very strong.”

France has similar political polarization. Its largest gap is in the perception of racial conflict, where 22 percentage points separate the right-of-center Republicans (76%) and the ruling En March (54%).

Socialists, however, are the outliers in politics and religion. They trail the Republicans (67%) by 20 percentage points in their perception of religious conflict. But they are ahead of En March (57%) by 14 percentage points in their perception of political conflict.

In Singapore, however, where the People’s Action Party has 89 percent political representation, differences in perception are shaped instead by ethnicity and religion. Indians recognize political (49% vs. 28%), ethnic (46% vs. 18%), and religious (35% vs. 14%) conflict more readily than their fellow Chinese citizens.

Singapore’s Muslims, meanwhile, recognize ethnic (40% vs. 23% vs. 14%) and religious (36% vs. 20% vs. 11%) conflict more readily than the city-state’s Buddhists and Christians.

Pew tested two factors that may contribute to the overall sense of conflict. A global median of 61 percent believe COVID-19 made their societies more politically divided. And a global median of 39 percent believe most people disagree on basic facts. Highest are France (61%), the US (59%), and Italy and Spain (55% each).

Measuring all four conflict areas on a 4-point scale, the US scored a 2.85. South Korea scored 2.83, and France 2.72. Singapore was lowest at 2.13.

Yet despite the recognition of widespread conflict, there may be additional good news—depending on perspective. Around the world, increasing numbers express support for diversity.

A global median of 76 percent believe having people of many ethnic groups, religions, and races makes their society a better place to live. The sentiment is strongest in Singapore (92%), New Zealand (88%), Canada (86%), the US (85%), the United Kingdom (85%), and Australia (85%).

Only Greece (51%) and Japan (50%) believe it makes their society worse. South Korea ranks third (36%).

But the negative sentiment is changing. In the 11 nations where this question was also asked in 2017, 9 nations have seen increases in support. Greece climbed 24 percentage points in the past four years, Japan 15 percentage points, and South Korea 6 percentage points.

Pew noted three indicators of disproportionate support: identification with the political left; the belief that the economy is doing well; and youth.

Of the latter, the generation gap is clear. Those ages 18-29 in Italy (84%) express support for diversity 33 percentage points greater than those 65 and older (51%). In France, the age difference is 30 points (83% vs 53%), while in Japan it is 28 points (60% vs 32%).

Those who view diversity negatively tend to associate with the populist right. Supporters of the Sweden Democrats are 41 percentage points higher for “unfavorable” (89%) than the rest of society (48%). Supporters of the Alternative for Germany are 32 percentage points higher (76% vs 44%), as are members of Italy’s Lega (73% vs 41%).

“Alongside growing openness to diversity, there is a recognition that societies may not be living up to their ideals,” stated Pew researchers. “[But] overall, fewer people see strong religious conflict.”

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