Love Thy Neighbor? Not If He's Different

New research reveals that people connected to organized religion are more likely to harbor racial prejudice.
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Universal brotherhood and tolerance toward others remains common fare at Sunday church sermons everywhere, but does the message have any impact? Apparently not. In a new study drawing on nearly a half century of data, a team of researchers report that religious adherents in the United States — especially fundamentalist Christians — are more inclined than agnostics to harbor racist attitudes toward blacks and other minorities.

This "religion-racism paradox," as University of Southern California social psychologist Wendy Wood explains it, is deeply embedded in organized religion which, by its very nature, encourages people to accept one fundamental belief system as superior to all others. The required value judgment creates a kind of us-versus-them conflict, in which members of a religious group develop ethnocentric attitudes toward anyone perceived as different. The study, "Why Don't We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism," appeared in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.

"Religion creates a very strong sense of a moral right and wrong within the group," says Wood. "When you do that, members of the group will be more likely to derogate anyone who is not part of it." And because religion in America is practiced largely along segregated lines (just 12 percent of U.S. congregations report even a moderate level of diversity, one study shows) that derogation, and the sense of superiority that drives such diminishment of others, can extend beyond religious differences to race, class and ethnicity.

Compounding the effect, the study's authors explain, are similarities in the moral makeup of people drawn to religion and of people who exhibit racist attitudes and behavior. Previous studies have shown that religious adherents are more likely than agnostics and atheists to rate conservative "life values" as the most important principles underlying their belief systems.

Those specific values — social conformity and respect for tradition — also most closely correlate with racism. In short, people are attracted to organized religion for the same reason some people are inclined toward racist thinking: a belief in the sanctity of established divisions in society.

"There are so many, many positive aspects and benefits to religiosity," says study co-author Deborah Hall of Arizona State University. "But there are gaps in the literature when it comes to religion's dark side. We were hoping to fill some of those gaps."

Hall, Wood and co-author David Matz of Augsburg College analyzed data from 55 studies on religion and racism in America dating to the early civil rights era. Combined, the studies include more than 22,000 participants, mostly white and Protestant. The researchers looked not only at things like religious affiliation, church attendance and other participation but also at the motives behind their involvement to avoid clumping all religious adherents into a single category. Racial prejudice was measured principally as self-reported attitudes and behaviors, such as preferred levels of social distance toward blacks and other minority groups.

For more this topic, see our story on unintended racism in schools on Miller-McCune.com.

As expected, the authors found a positive correlation between religious affiliation and racism. The link was strongest among people who viewed religion mostly as a mechanism for fulfilling material and social needs such as community status, family security or group acceptance. Religious fundamentalism — the unwavering certainty in basic religious truths — correlated even more strongly with racist attitudes.

The link among people who expressed purely spiritual pursuits as the motivating influence of religion was less clear.

While researchers found no correlation between this so-called "intrinsic religiosity" and racist attitudes, there was no evidence that their behaviors reflected a commitment to racial tolerance. Acts of humanitarianism, such as tolerance, appeared to be directed only toward members of their own group. Only agnosticism, defined as an active, questioning orientation, correlated positively with all measures of racial tolerance. (Not surprisingly, the authors note in support of their argument, social conformity and respect for tradition — the life values closely linked to religious adherence and racism — don't statistically link with agnosticism but do with fundamentalism).

It's worth noting, Woods adds, that one of the studies that revealed the strongest religion-racism link looked at attitudes of seminary students, a population of highly educated and devout people.

"It's not just the poor and the uneducated," she says.

While the study focused on Christians in the United States, the authors believe the conclusions can be generalized to other cultures and religious faiths, perhaps helping untangle the complex web of faith, fear and distrust that provokes hatred within religious extremist groups around the globe.

Indeed, previous studies, including one which sampled from 71 countries, have shown that Muslims, Jews, Catholics and other Christian groups are religiously motivated by the same underlying conservative life values — and engage in the same in-group derogation of outsiders — as do the predominately white Protestants observed in the study review. Religious racism, Hall says, transcends cultural boundaries. In some cases the urge is suppressed by social norms; in others it flares into violence.

Both Hall and Wood acknowledge some unease at promoting their study. Religion bashing is a contact sport these days and they fear the findings will be used to score easy points for the opposition, painting churchgoers as unabashed bigots. Not all religious people are racially intolerant, yet detractors undoubtedly will insist it's so. And it should be noted that the relationship between religiosity and racism has declined steadily in the past half century, perhaps reflecting new anti-discrimination laws in the United States and changing societal standards.

Wood hopes her study will stimulate public discussion on group dynamics and the politics of exclusion, especially the harmful effects social institutions can have on people who are not members. "I see this as more of an opportunity than a condemnation," she says. "And organized religion itself may be perfectly situated to address these kinds of issues."

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