There is plenty of evidence documenting how negative perceptions of minority religions lead to discrimination, persecution and even, in many places of the world, violent conflict responsible for the suffering of millions.

But that is only one part of the story.

It is also critical to keep in mind that as religious understanding increases, so also can there be dramatic increases in tolerance, respect and the creation of civil societies enriched by, as opposed to being torn asunder by, diverse faiths and cultural experiences.

Take heart. Your work in promoting excellence in accurate reporting on minority religions can have a profound impact in the lives of all of us.

Here is some of the evidence to back that up:

Public attitudes matter

In their comprehensive study of global religious persecution, sociologists Brian Grim of the Pew Research Center and Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University found nations where societal attitudes toward other religions are mostly tolerant are nearly three times less likely to report high levels of violent religious persecution.

Low levels of persecution are even more likely in nations were social attitudes are open to conversion to other religions and established or existing religions refrain from trying to shut out other religions.

A striking feature of the research is that countries with the greatest openness toward all religions include nations that are “rich and poor, northern and southern, allies and adversaries, Muslim-majority and Christian-majority, and so on,” Grim and Finke state in their book, “The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century.”

While nations throughout the world attempt to legislate religious assimilation in areas from dress to evangelism, Grim and Finke note: Our work implies that multiculturalism does not lead to violence, but the attempt to prevent multiculturalism does.

Familiarity breeds respect

Even if you do not start out loving them, getting to know your neighbor goes a long way to limiting prejudice, research has found.

A University of Munster study indicated that having personal contact with Muslims was strongly related to reversing stereotypes in Germany. In the former West Germany, 71 percent of respondents who had a lot of contact with Muslims held positive attitudes toward Muslims, while just 17% who had no contact reported favorable attitudes. The responses from the former East Germany were similar, with 64% of respondents with frequent contact holding positive attitudes toward Muslims, and 22% who had no contact holding favorable attitudes.

In the 2002-2003 Religion and Diversity Survey, large numbers of respondents said they would object to their child marrying a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, and were far more welcoming of Christians becoming a stronger presence in the US than members of many other minority faiths.

Yet when people met across faith lines, the experiences were mostly positive, according to the US survey. About two-thirds of respondents said their contacts with Muslims were mostly pleasant; 6% said they were mostly unpleasant. Three-quarters said their contacts with Buddhists were mostly pleasant, with 3% saying they were mostly unpleasant.

Change happens

In the US, a nation with a long history of virulent anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, Jews and Catholics today, along with mainline Protestants, a tradition that long held sway in American culture, are held in the highest regard by the American public.

In their new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam of Harvard University and David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame also share data from their Faith Matters Surveys that show getting to know members of less popular groups such as evangelical Christians, atheists, Muslims and Buddhists as individuals leads to greater acceptance of people of diverse beliefs.

One might think people just want to be with others like themselves, but Campbell said: Our evidence suggests that it does go the other way, that the more people build relationships with people of different beliefs, the more accepting they are of other faiths.

For example, the authors found that people who gained an evangelical friend showed much warmer attitudes toward evangelicals.

The increased civility did not stop there. Putnam and Campbell also found convincing evidence of a spillover effect, that as people build more religious bridges they become warmer toward people of many different religions, not just those religions represented within their social network.

People want religious freedom

More than nine out of 10 respondents to a Pew Global Attitude Project’s 34-nation survey said it was important to live in a country where I can freely practice my religion.

Less than 2% indicated it was not important. The importance of religious freedom was high across the globe, ranging from 84% in Eastern Europe to 98% in Africa.

Civil societies that respect religious diversity not only have the greatest potential for peace, but they are associated with several other social goods, including better health outcomes, higher incomes and better educational opportunities.

The stories you tell about minority religions make a difference.

Republished with permission of the Association of Religious Data Archives