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Understanding the caveats and paradoxes of the Pew survey on religious attitudes

Fahad Hasin 18 August 2021

The survey results are somewhat like the daily horoscope: everyone can have varied takeaways based on their prior beliefs. This is an edited version of the original article published in The Wire on July 24, 2021.

Photo by Being.the.traveller from Pexels

If you even moderately follow the Indian news space, chances are that you would have heard of the recent survey by the Pew Research Center. With a sample size of 29,999 and a well-thought-out survey design, it offers valuable insights into the religious attitudes and beliefs of Indians. However, this article is not as much about the specifics of the survey but rather a broader perspective on thinking about caveats and paradoxes in the results.

The Indian people often throw surprising and counterintuitive results, as seen in predictions going off in elections regularly. The Pew survey, therefore, also has interesting outcomes and some paradoxes to grapple with. As popularly reported already, the survey shows that an overwhelming majority of Indians, across all religious communities, believe respecting other religions is an integral part of their own religion and being Indian. Furthermore, most of them have a favourable view of religious diversity, saying that it benefits the countries.

At the same time, the survey shows a striking preference for segregated living along religious lines. For example, there is an overwhelming opposition against the idea of inter-religious and inter-caste marriages. This is common across religious groups and primarily across social and educational divides. Similarly, a significant proportion of the minority across religious groups expressed discomfort with the idea of having a neighbour from another religion. There is a notable regional variation: the South generally comes across as less religious and more inclusive, although it is the opposite with respect to caste-based discrimination.

The survey results are somewhat like the daily horoscope: everyone can have varied takeaways based on their prior beliefs. The ‘nationalists’ will argue that India is the most tolerant country as most seem to believe in religious freedom. At the same time, the cynics would say that the country is doomed, as evident from the attitude towards segregation.

How do we think about the paradoxical results from the survey? Of course, a simple explanation is that people can have paradoxical beliefs without thinking much – the cognitive dissonance is not always apparent. However, I want to underscore some broad points on caveats with surveys, particularly involving questions of culture and beliefs. This is not a critique of the Pew survey by any means – the survey has done a fantastic job – but caveats with surveys in general.

First, there is a general problem with perceived ‘meaning’ in surveys, particularly in the case of normative or abstract concepts. The meaning of these concepts changes with context and culture. Therefore, it is not necessary that respondents’ favourable view on respecting other religions is the same as religious plurality as understood in the ‘liberal’ context. It is entirely possible that the meaning of respecting other religions for many is simply ‘tolerating’ the other while avoiding assimilation. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, this is a segregationist form of toleration and has been the dominant understanding of religious tolerance in many societies before the advent of liberal democracies.

Second, partly related to the previous point, is the idea that people are more likely to have extreme views in the abstract realm. Many are likely to say in the abstract that they believe in ‘equality’ while ignoring that they use different plates and glasses for the house’s help. Similarly, one may have hateful views about another religion in the abstract but can have trade relations with a person from that very religion. This gap between the stated and revealed preferences can lead to seemingly paradoxical outcomes. Besides, respondents may engage in ‘preference falsification’ – a term coined by Turkish political scientist and economist Timur Koran – where people’s private beliefs are different from what they state publicly because it may not be considered the “right thing to say”. (Social desirability bias is another term used to describe this behaviour.)  There is a notable agreement on many normative principles in India, such as equality and diversity due to popular culture, education, etc.

Third, a frivolous point, applicable in limited cases, is that the respondents could simply misunderstand the question. As per the Pew survey, around 8 in 10 Muslim men reported that they wear skull caps as a part of their regular attire. This, based on my personal experience, seems like a big overestimate. Perhaps my lived experience is restricted to a small subset of Muslims, or the sample may have been skewed by skull cap-wearing Muslims by chance. However, I sense that it could likely be a result of people misunderstanding the question of ‘wearing skull caps in general’ with ‘wearing skull caps at any time of the day’: because most Muslims wear skull caps while praying, the number starts to make sense to me. This is purely speculative.

A continuous exercise

Caveats notwithstanding, the survey is indeed an important contribution to systematic and quality information on India’s beliefs and attitudes on important questions. The Pew Research Center deserves our praise and gratitude. It is crucial that this kind of survey not be seen as a one-off thing and be continued by Pew and other organisations. It is only over a period of time we can understand the nuances and trends.

Needless to say, the broad arguments above cannot explain all the paradoxes that the survey results have thrown: there are genuine counterintuitive results to grapple with. For example, those who expressed support for BJP – presumably Hindu Nationalism – reported having a significantly more favourable view of religious diversity. 

Controlling for regional differences, there is more variation within groups as opposed to across groups, despite a strong preference for segregated living. While each group may perceive themselves as fundamentally different people from the others, it appears that it is not the case. This calls for a renewed focus on creating an individual-centric discourse. Across all the religious groups, unemployment, corruption and crime are among the top issues: this should give some confidence to political entrepreneurs for creatively tapping into these latent issues.

While group-based mobilisation has been empowering for particular groups, it has its own costs and does not seem to be a sustainable, viable option. The group-based voting preferences and discourse are not going anywhere soon, but there is hope for discourse with the vocabulary of shared citizenship. The emancipation of the individual encompasses emancipation of, from, and within groups.