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.

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