Dr Wendy Wood, Deborah Hall and David Matz conducted a meta-analysis of 55 independent studies conducted from 1964 to 2008 that looked at the relationship between religion and prejudice in the United States (Personality and Social Psychology Review 14(1): 126-139, original article obtained from Dr. Wood.). The meta-analysis had a total of 22,075 participants who were mostly white Christians. The major conclusions from this study are:

1. The more devote religious communities had significantly higher levels of racism and prejudice. (“… greater religious identification, greater extrinsic religiosity, and greater religious fundamentalism were all positively related to racism”) The effect has decreased over time as racism has become less acceptable but it is still exists.

2. There is less racism and prejudice as the strength of ones religious beliefs decrease. (“Agnosticism, as reflected in an open-minded questioning of religious doctrine, emerged as the one disposition in our review that was consistently related to racial tolerance.”)

First let me say that meta-analysis, while a powerful tool, is difficult to conduct since the included studies invariably contain a mixed bag as to their overall quality (controls used, questions asked, analysis performed, etc.). Even so, such studies can reveal interesting trends. While this analysis points to increased prejudice against minorities among strongly religious people, I am wondering if this has more to do with the “us” vs. “them” mentality than the color of ones skin or their nationality. What if these studies asked questions about other denominations or religions? Would the same trend hold? The paper states:

“Why should a strong religious identity promote racial prejudice? If religious group identity organizes social perceptions in the same way as political, national, and other social identities, then religious people are likely to respond to others based on whether they are in-group or out-group members. Especially given religious doctrine that sharply differentiates believers and nonbelievers, people who strongly identify with a religion are likely to derogate out-group members…

Simply identifying with a religious group seemed to establish intergroup dynamics of favoring the in-group and derogating racial out-groups. Furthermore, the specific values of social conformity and respect for tradition that motivated devotion to religious practice also motivated the acceptance of established racial divisions in society. Although religious people might be expected to express humanitarian acceptance of others, their humanitarianism is expressed primarily toward in-group members. Thus, we found little evidence that religiosity motivated racial tolerance…”

“A related reason why religious in-groups may be prejudiced toward dissimilar others is that the divine in religious worship is often imbued with in-group attributes. That is, religious figures are constructed in believers’ own image…the moral superiority that religious groups afford to themselves and their beliefs may contribute to intergroup prejudice. This sense of moral rightness is promoted by teachings of in-group loyalty that strengthen a sense of a moral community. As a consequence, the religious may derogate out-group members as morally inferior.”

One of the dangers of religion, is that your particular group (religion, denomination or local congregation) is ALWAYS special and better than another; otherwise, why pick that particular group? For conservatives, their church is usually more doctrinally pure with a preacher who clearly expounds the scripture. For people interested more in entertainment and programs, their church has a better worship program or better Sunday Schools or better small groups. For those interested in social issues, their church does it better. This invariably leads to an “us” vs. “them” attitude but for conservatives – those who are concerned about doctrinal purity and adherence to scriptural standards – it becomes more than simply “us” vs. “them”. The problem now is that “them” are clearly violating the commands of god (their interpretation of scripture) and are therefore, in some sense, enemies of god. Nothing less than the honor of god is at stake.

For these people, in a very real sense, Homer Simpson is correct: “Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we’re just making him madder and madder.” The “them” are pissing god off every time they meet and hence “us” must stand against “them”. In this scenario, the prejudice has more to do with a person’s doctrine or in-group than the color of their skin.

If someone takes their religion seriously, there has to be conflict and prejudice against anyone who doesn’t believe as they do and sometimes the strongest hate is directed at those within the same faith group. For example, the Inquisition didn’t really care about non-Catholics as they were already condemned. They were concerned with those who were baptized Catholic or converted to Catholicism and were “heretics”. They were the ones that needed to be purified. At least on the rhetorical level, things aren’t much different now for any religious group who takes seriously their doctrine.

For many Christians, their god is a god of love. He isn’t. On a human level, no one would say a person was loving if they made the following offer: “Love me or die”. Yet that is the “love” of the Christian god – Love me or spend eternity in hell. This either or mentality, coupled with a desire to please god by obeying his commands, has no choice but to lead to prejudice (hatred?) against those who don’t see eye-to-eye.

This type of attitude inhibits progress, divides people, starts wars, breaks up families and segments humanity into categories that are easy to despise, hate and fear. The myth that morality comes from god and religion has to be destroyed. Religion is an obstruction to peace and tolerance and love, not a facilitator. It’s time to grow-up, stop hiding behind a god and start looking at everyone as fellow human beings with similar hopes, desires and dreams – not as enemies. Not as objects of prejudice. Our future depends on it.

There is a reason why there is the old adage of never discussing politics and religion in polite company. They are both very similar in nature. Both have a strong “us” vs. “them” mentality – a mentality that must be maintained by any group wanting to control individual lives. The “us” are always correct, insightful, progressive, and enlightened individuals. The “them” are ignorant Neanderthals holding back progress, refusing to see what is so clearly obvious, and bent on destroying society as it should be. While the “us” vs. “them” mentality is usually limited to rhetoric, occasionally it spills out into actual hatred and violence.

Religion and politics both have their conservatives and liberals and both can be equally nasty in the “us” vs. “them” war that they carry on. In addition, the lines are usually not neatly drawn. What is considered as conservative by one group could be looked at with distain by an even more conservative group who sees the others position or belief as a compromise of true core values. (Ditto for the liberal side as well.) The partisan politics in Washington, some of the vitriolic rhetoric coming from some in Tea Party movement, and, of course, the nasty infighting among various religious groups are all examples.

Recently an article published by a Michael Lind in Salon called Mythical Politics starting me thinking about this age old conflict once again. (I highly recommend reading the full article.)

“Put the myths of the ancient constitution and the early church together, and you have a view of history as decline from an original state of perfection, in politics and also in religion. Innovation is equated with tyranny in politics and heresy in religion. Virtue consists of defending what is left of the old, more perfect system and, if possible, restoring the original government or church. Progress is redefined as regress — movement away from the wicked present toward the pure and uncorrupted past.”

I vividly remember the retoric of the Calvinistic group I was associated with on the “golden” past of the church. In this “golden” age, children were always well behaved and serious, marriages were stronger, believers took their religion seriously, and worship was pure. Of course, believing in such mythology shows a remarkable ignorance of history. The church was never without problems. Preachers in all ages were upset with the lack of spirituality from their congregations. The seemly lack of purpose and seriousness in young adults was often decried and the idyllic marriages of the past were limited to old TV shows. Yet, returning to the “old paths” is a common them in many religious groups. Pointing out the obvious – that such a time and place never existed – usually falls on deaf ears. As Michael Lind says:

“As in other cases of mythological politics, like messianic Marxism, this kind of thinking is resistant to argument. If you disagree, then that simply proves that you are part of the conspiracy. Inconvenient facts can be explained away by the true believers.”

Politics and religion often has very little use for facts. You believe the leaders, follow them passionately and try not to analyze the belief system. Charisma helps as does having an unchanging authoritative book that has the answer to all things. It also helps to have simple answers for the complexity of life and a black and white belief system. For instance Billy Graham was once quoted as saying:

“I do believe we have the responsibility to obey the law. No matter what the law may be—it may be an unjust law—I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it.” (The Price of War)

Such a belief may make your life simpler but what do you do with legalized slavery, discrimination, warfare and genocide? Obey the law or fight against it? Seek to change it or submit to it?

Whether it comes to religion or politics, realize that there was no “golden” age. Don’t blindly follow some charismatic self-appointed leader. Think. Check the facts. Follow the evidence.

In relation to politics Michael Lind says: “The American Revolution was a beginning, not an end. The real equivalents today of the American revolutionaries are those who view the republic, not as an 18th-century utopia to be restored with archaeological exactitude, but as a work in progress to which every generation of Americans can contribute.”

The same can be said of religion. While religion may have served a purpose in the past, there never was a religious utopian world. It’s time to shed the worship of and belief in a non-existent, mythological god and come to grips with the fact that we are all in this together. There is no “us” vs. “them”, only “we”. It is up to all of us to work together for a better future. No god will help us. No god will intervene.