Percent who say homosexuality should be accepted by society. (Courtesy Pew Research Center)

A majority of Americans are accepting of homosexuality in society, but the levels of tolerance are far greater in many other countries in Europe and Latin America, a new Pew poll has found.

The Pew Research Center survey conducted in 39 countries found stark geographical differences when people were asked whether homosexuals should be accepted in society.

The broadest acceptance was found in countries where religion is not central to life, such as Canada (80 percent), France (77 percent) and Australia (79 percent). Yet the poll also found high levels of tolerance toward gay people in some heavily Catholic countries, including Spain (86 percent), Italy (74 percent), Argentina (74 percent) and the Philippines (73 percent). In the United States, 60 percent of the public said gay people should be accepted in society.

In contrast, there was widespread rejection of homosexuality in predominantly Muslim countries, as well as in Africa, Russia and parts of Asia. In most of the Middle East, including Egypt and Jordan, more than nine in 10 people said homosexuality should be rejected. That was also the case in most of Africa, including Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria.

Asia and the Pacific region was mixed, with a majority in Japan, the Philippines and Australia supporting acceptance of gay people. But there were strong levels of disapproval in South Korea (59 percent), China (57 percent), Malaysia (86 percent), Indonesia (93 percent) and Pakistan (87 percent).

Israel in particular illustrated the role religion plays in attitudes toward gay people. Six in 10 secular Jews in Israel told Pew that homosexuality should be accepted, more than twice the 26 percent of religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews who urged acceptance. Just 2 percent of Israeli Muslims agreed.

As in the United States, age was a factor. The Pew study said those younger than 30 are more accepting of homosexuals in society than people who are 30 to 49. Both groups are more likely to express tolerance of gays than people 50 or older.

The Pew poll generally found little difference in attitudes held by men and women in any given country. But in countries where there is a difference, women are more accepting of homosexuality than men are, Pew said.

In most countries, attitudes about sexuality have changed little since 2007, the last time Pew conducted a poll on attitudes towards gays. But in the United States, Canada and South Korea, acceptance has grown by more than 10 percentage points in the past six years. And in a few countries, including France, Russia and Turkey, acceptance has slipped.

The Pew survey, conducted in March and April, is the largest of its kind.

A smaller study, conducted in 2011 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, found support for homosexual behavior growing in 27 of 31 countries. The highest level of acceptance was in northern Europe, while disapproval remained strong in Russia and several other Eastern European countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

Gary Gates, a demographer with the Williams Institute, a think tank focusing on gay issues at the University of California at Los Angeles, said attitudes toward gay people are often divorced from legal equality in the form of same-sex marriage, civil partnerships and gay adoptions.

For example, he said, support for homosexuality is high in Germany and Britain, though neither country has approved same-sex marriage. Conversely, in South Africa, where discrimination based on sexual orientation is unconstitutional, six in 10 people say homosexuality should not be accepted by society.

Gates said culture and religion play a role in the difference in attitudes the Pew study underscored.

“There are cultures where religion is a very, very important factor, as a regular part of daily life,” he said. “In those countries, it’s harder to distinguish what’s religious and what’s culture. But in other countries, like Italy or Spain, the culture has always had a live-and-let-live dimension to it. Even with a very strong religious presence, you see that kind of attitude coming out.”

The poll on international attitudes is the first of three involving attitudes of and about gay people that Pew intends to make public in the next two weeks.