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September 20, 2012

Religious groups highly trusted, but greater public skepticism over their impact on society

In a week when business leaders in the UK met with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster to discuss ways to resurrect the reputation of the corporate sector, GlobeScan’s most recent global polling shows that while religious groups generally enjoy higher levels of trust that they will operate in the best interests of society than other institutions, in many countries there is greater skepticism about the impact they can have through their actions.

While only scientists and NGO score higher on trust levels, religious groups are viewed globally as less effective than other institutions, ranking below the media, UN, corporations, and governments.

More than half (55%) of Britons trust religious groups, even if just 39 percent expect them to be able to make a difference to society. Indeed, reflecting traditions of tolerance and liberal approaches to religion, all the Anglo-Saxon countries polled exhibit strong levels of trust in religious institutions coupled with reduced evaluations of religion’s social impact. European countries are often seen as the most post-religious countries in the world—in France just 19 percent profess any trust in religious groups to act in the best interests of society, although 30 percent still believe such groups can have an impact in solving social challenges.

In countries with recent histories of oppressing or trying to eradicate the influence of religion, such as Russia, China, and Turkey, there is a smaller gap between trust and perceived potential impact—although trust is the higher of the two in these countries. These are places where religious groups have stood apart from the government for many years, maximizing their appeal. With recent liberalization, the tangible impact of these formerly suppressed institutions has grown.

In Latin America, Africa, and the Islamic world, there are higher proportions who trust religious groups and expect them to make a social difference. The most trusting country in the survey is Nigeria, where fully 87% of respondents profess that religious institutions work in the best interests of society, and 83% expect them to be effective actors in addressing social challenges.

While it is questionable how far high trust levels translate into political influence, these figures show that churches remain a force to be reckoned with throughout the world, not least in some of its fastest growing and most populous nations. While business leaders hoping to harness this may have mixed success, the goal for religious organizations must be to retain their respected position and translate this trust into more effective social impact.

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