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The Relationship Between Religion and Bigotry

Phil Zuckerman writes at Psychology Today about many studies that show a direct correlation between religious belief and racism and other forms of bigotry. That certainly shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, of course, but we should be careful what we conclude from it.

In his latest analysis of 40 years of aggregate data from the General Social Survey (see his book Changing Faith, 2014), sociologist Darren Sherkat reveals that strongly religious Americans are far more likely to support laws against interracial marriage than secular Americans; indeed 45 percent of Baptists and 38 percent of sectarian Protestants (conservative Evangelicals) support laws against interracial marriage, but only 11 percent of secular people do. And while 26 percent of Baptists and 21 percent of conservative Evangelicals state that they would not vote for an African American for president, only 9.5 percent of secular/non-religious people state as much.

Sherkat’s analysis is no outlier. He’s found what many others have found: that the more religious a person is, the more likely he are she is going to be racist, and the less religious he or she is, the less likely.

Consider perhaps the most definitive study on this question ever published. In a landmark analysis titled “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach: A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism,” Duke University professor Deborah Hall and associates carefully analyzed 55 separate studies in order to reveal the relationship between religion, irreligion, and racism. And the most pertinent finding was that strongly religious Americans tend to be the most racist, moderately religious Americans tend to be less racist, and yet the group of Americans found to be the least racist of all are secular Americans, particularly those espousing an agnostic orientation.

As psychologists Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka have noted, in their comprehensive The Psychology of Religion, and basing their assessment upon decades of research, “as a broad generalization, the more religious an individual is, the more prejudiced that person is.”

But here’s the important caveat:

Of course, this whole matter of religiosity-secularity-racism is only a correlation. We certainly cannot conclude that religion causes racism, or that secularism somehow makes racism magically disappear. We know that there are many secular people who are racist to varying degrees, and there are many religious people who don’t internalize racism, and resist and fight against it with all their hearts. Racism within the secular community needs to be acknowledged, confronted, and diluted. And humanistic, anti-racism within religious communities needs to be lauded, echoed, and supported.

But the correlation still stands. When it comes to racism, it is more likely to be found among the religious, and less likely among the secular. Whether this has to do with our differing belief systems and worldviews, or sociological factors such educational attainment, socio-economic status, and rural/urban demography, or a host of other possibilities, needs to be better understood.

Yes, it certainly does, and there are ways to design experiments that would help us understand it more fully (I’d be particularly interested in breaking down the religious categories; I’m betting that the correlation is much stronger in conservative denominations than in liberal ones). I suspect that it isn’t that religion causes bigotry so much as it is that there are other factors — strong in-group identification, the prioritizing of tradition, fear of the other and of new experiences, etc — that help explain both the tendency to be religious and the tendency to be bigoted. And Zuckerman is absolutely right that these are only generalizations; there are lots and lots of religious people who strongly oppose all forms of bigotry and work hard to fight against them. I’m happy to count many of them as friends.

Comments

  1. colnago80 says

    I’m sure that the blogs resident physics professor and math department chairman would proclaim his no true Scotsman shtick relative to those conservative religionists.

  2. D. C. Sessions says

    I suspect that Altemeyer might have something to add to this inquiry.

    The question isn’t so much a sociological one as a social psychology one. And, yes, the latter is sometimes a subfield of the latter, but not always. Social psychology is also a subfield of psychology. The methods tend to be different depending on which direction one approaches social psychology.

  3. raven says

    indeed 45 percent of Baptists and 38 percent of sectarian Protestants (conservative Evangelicals) support laws against interracial marriage,

    The Southern Baptists and other Oogedy Boogedies are way behind the times.

    Interracial Marriage In The U.S. Climbs To New High, Study …
    www. huffingtonpost.c om/…/interracial-marriage-in-us_n_1281229.html

    Feb 16, 2012 – The study finds that 8.4 percent of all current U.S. marriages are interracial, up from 3.2 percent in 1980. While Hispanics and Asians remained …

    One in 12 US marriages are cross racial and this is going up rapidly. The interracial marriage horse left the barn a long time ago.

    No surprise. I know a lot of Southern Baptists still think slavery was a good idea and that ended 149 years ago.

  4. Michael Heath says

    Ed asserts:

    . . . there are lots and lots of religious people who strongly oppose all forms of bigotry and work hard to fight against them.

    I would be shocked to find this is true amongst conservative Christian churches. Their own dogma demands members discriminate against women and gays who are either congregants or members, along with abusing gay children who are congregants. So unless these, “lots and lots of religious people”, are working to reform their churches, they’re not really “working hard” in the fight against bigotry. They are perpetuating it, enabling it and yes, practicing bigotry themselves.

    Re D.C. Sessions reference to Bob Altemeyer:

    Certainly he’s a great referential point, but he’s a pioneer with mostly unconvincing empirical findings; primarily because his studies weren’t representative of the entire populations we consider. So I highly recommend reading Chris Mooney’s Republican Brain. That book presents findings from the scientists who followed Altemeyer and had sufficient research funds to provide compelling evidence and explanations. Though they do stand on the shoulders of Altemeyer. And it’s not just psychologists and sociologists contributing in this area, but neuroscientists as well.

    As for heddle, I’ve repeatedly challenged him to stop his denialism on this topic by confronting the evidence that falsifies his assertions. That being the scientific findings that reveal and explain the relationship between bigotry and the practice of his religion here in the U.S.. This was his response; a stereotypical avoidance and denialist one at that:

    No Michael I won’t read those books. I have no interest in politics and find, as not a few of my colleagues in the hard sciences do—anything in the social sciences to be too tedious and too, well, soft. In what little time I have away from the classroom or lab–well it is too precious to spend on ready psychology.

    I responded to that but no word back from heddle yet. Note how he avoids the fact that much of this work is also done by neuroscientists while denying the fact that psychological research can and does make empirical findings – though those findings are inconvenient for how heddle practices his religion and describes here in this forum.

  5. Michael Heath says

    I think the current pope is a good litmus test for my argument that it may be heroic for some that reside within bigoted institutions to not merely leave, but instead to stay and effectively work to reform these institutions.

    I’m currently leaning towards this pope being a perpetuator of bigotry within the Catholic Church; contra the favorable press he’s enjoying. He seems to be practicing the H.W. Bush approach, rhetoric that’s “kinder and gentler” while defending the very policies that enables the church to continue its discrimination against women and gays and the abuse of children.

  6. Chiroptera says

    Another reason for the correlation is that racism is a pretty irrational belief. There is no real data nor cogent reasoning that can justify it in the 21st century (and probably never was). So I would assume that racism would be more common among practitioners of faith-based beliefs and people who are prone to appeals to emotion and fear and hatred.

    ‘Course I haven’t done a careful statistical analysis, but my superficial viewing of the news is that this kind of thinking is more common among Tea Party conservatives and conservative evangelical groups than among leftists and secularists. (My superficial observations may be leading me to an incorrect conclusion, though).

  7. whheydt says

    Re: raven @ #3…

    A bit pedantic, but slavery in the US was ended 151 years ago, rather than 149 years. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on 1 Jan. 1863.

  8. says

    whheydt “A bit pedantic, but slavery in the US was ended 151 years ago, rather than 149 years. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on 1 Jan. 1863.”
    If memory serves, it only applied to the states that had already left over the issue. There was some controversy over the subject of slavery at the time, I hear. Loud controversy.

  9. colnago80 says

    Re whheydt @ #7

    The Emancipation Proclamation only ended slavery in states that were part of the Confederacy. Slavery was only ended everywhere in the US by the 13th Amendment.

  10. Chiroptera says

    whheydt, #7:

    Raven is technically correct. As Modus points out, the Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the Confederate territory as they were liberated by the Union forces. Slaves in all the states and territories (included the loyal “border” states) had to wait until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified.

    On the other hand, you do have a technical point that a lot of people did gain their freedom with the Emancipation Proclamation (although I think some Union forces were freeing slaves in captured territory before the Proclamation made it official policy).

  11. John Pieret says

    I suspect that it isn’t that religion causes bigotry so much as it is that there are other factors — strong in-group identification

    I think that is the major driver of the correlation. Conservative religion is all about signalling one’s membership in the tribe and it has to be expensive in order to show your fitness within the group. Think of it as the peacock’s tail of society. The peacock proves its fitness to peahens by having a tail that makes it less fit to survive but he survives nonetheless. Conservative religion enforces beliefs that make it harder for adherents to survive outside the in-group … young-Earth creationism is an example … but that shows you are committed to the group. But when the group does not include some category, either intentionally or by self-selection, such as openly gay people, people who have married interracially, or just people who look different, it is easy to assume that those people are “others” who should be shunned, if need be, with the help of the government. Liberal religion is more like a club than a tribe. It cares less about belonging to the group than it does getting together to enjoy the company of others.

    Of course, religion is hardly the only “in-group” that does this but it is probably the broadest in America today.

  12. Alverant says

    Monotheistic religions also support bigotry by giving divine credibility to “us” vs “them” aka “Chosen” vs “gentile” aka “saved” vs “heretic”. When you got godly justification for your hate, you want to stick close to that justification.

  13. D. C. Sessions says

    A bit pedantic, but slavery in the US was ended 151 years ago, rather than 149 years.

    Or you could argue that it was only ended a bit less than 60 years ago, when Roosevelt directed the Justice Department to crack down on the Southern practice of rounding up blacks, trying them on charges such as “vagrancy,” charging them with costs for the Court and all sorts of else, and then sentencing them to hard labor to someone who bought them their labor to work off the charges — where “hard labor” pay was minimal and had lodging, food, clothing, and guard wages deducted. In other words, at best years for a misdemeanor and very often until death.

    A good indicator of the nature of this business is that the “arrests” of this kind conveniently tracked the demand for field labor, miners, steel work, etc.

    Roosevelt decided that it was going to be very difficult to wage a propaganda war as “the land of the free” against the Soviet Union when we still had de facto slavery.

    By the way: all of that “black crime” is still used as “proof” that African-Americans are criminally inclined.

  14. Doubting Thomas says

    I suspect that it isn’t that one causes the other but that both are caused by the same thing. That is the inability to think critically and skeptically.

  15. anubisprime says

    Michael Heath @ 5

    I’m currently leaning towards this pope being a perpetuator of bigotry within the Catholic Church; contra the favorable press he’s enjoying.

    From day one in fact.

    The sickly cloying stench of RCC gilding the fading lily was evident the moment Benny baby sneaked off with cassock held high and hairy legs a pumping!
    They had a serious damage control issue and they knew it.

    So a manufactured ‘caring pope image’ by the college of cardinals and the actual movers and shakers behind Catholic public relations, the moneymen and investors demanded a PR pope…seems they got one.

    His doctrine has apparent soft edges, a glittery facet that the media fall over each other promoting, but look closely and it becomes apparent that underneath that papal rhetoric, that sounds conciliatory but in fact is anything but, the rigid Catholic dogmatic skeleton beneath the words holds exactly the same shape.

    Meet the new boss…same as the old boss…in fact a compendium dogmatic clone of all 265 of them.

    There will be no renaissance of Catholic dogma, the traditional magisterium will stagger on, and actually regress to dark age practice, it is the only place left for them to go!

    And while it does then bigotry, in all its forms, will always have a natural home because the Vatican will be the cheer leaders incarnate and source provocateur.

  16. krambc says

    @ John Pieret #12

    Of course, religion is hardly the only “in-group” that does this but it is probably the broadest in America today.

    Seems to me the broadest in-group in the US is Americanism.
    @Michael Heath # 5 / anubisprime #16
    Try this substitution exercise: replace the word ‘catholic’ with ‘American’ and ‘pope’ with ‘president’ ; Benny for Bush, Obama for Frank; tell me how much difference is there?
    Apart from the nuclear weapons, I mean.

  17. Electric Shaman says

    @krambc #19

    Seems to me the broadest in-group in the US is Americanism.
    @Michael Heath # 5 / anubisprime #16
    Try this substitution exercise: replace the word ‘catholic’ with ‘American’ and ‘pope’ with ‘president’ ; Benny for Bush, Obama for Frank; tell me how much difference is there?
    Apart from the nuclear weapons, I mean.

    That is one extremely piss poor attempt at trolling. Heath even mentions the fact that practices of this pope are comparable to practices employed by the US government in the very comment you cite. Try harder.

  18. Ichthyic says

    Certainly he’s a great referential point, but he’s a pioneer with mostly unconvincing empirical findings;

    you should know what you’re talking about when you speak. In addition to nearly 40 years of datasets of his own, there are literally hundreds of other studies by other sociologists over the last 30 years that support his results.

    authoritarianism has the highest correlation value of any single variable ever studied in contexts of social behavior.

    this isn’t sticking up for Altemeyer, this is just what you can find going through the sociology and social psychology lit for yourself.

  19. krambc says

    Hands a tissue to Electric Shaman; here ya go – your fomenting at the mouth has left your mirror covered in spittle.

  20. Alverant says

    The ironic thing is that conservatives talk about wanting a small government while being more authoritarian. They want to be protected by the law but not bound to it while expect everyone else to be bound by the law but not protected by it (unless they’re protected too). That’s why they’re showing such resistance to the equal rights laws. Not only would the be bound by the law but other people will be protected from their actions.

  21. Electric Shaman says

    @23

    Sigh. Yet another example of why so many people support and adhere to the “Don’t Feed the Trolls” philosophy of internet behaviour.

  22. Ichthyic says

    There will be no renaissance of Catholic dogma, the traditional magisterium will stagger on, and actually regress to dark age practice, it is the only place left for them to go!

    meanwhile, in reality, the CC has been buying up hospitals and noprofits left and right.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/04/26/why-catholic-hospitals-should-scare-you/

    the CC was never about religion, really, it was more like a giant organized crime syndicate.

    the problem is, because they use religion as a mask, there will always be “true believers” driving it, and authoritarians to engage in the proper tribalism as cover.

  23. Pseudonym says

    I have to wonder to what extent this is about America. Racism in (say) Europe is a very different phenomenon, where even the most secular-minded liberal thinkers don’t have anything nice to say about the Romani.

  24. says

    In 1998 South Carolina, where I live now, had a referendum to remove the (nonfunctional since Loving v. Virginia) portion of the SC Constitution that forbade interracial marriages. Something like 20 percent of the voters opposed removing the ban, even though it was purely symbolic at that point. Maybe they thought Loving would get overturned, I don’t know.

    Heck, SC wasn’t even the last one to remove language like that; Alabama waited until 2000.

  25. anubisprime says

    Ichthyic @ 26 from link provided…

    Catholic hospitals often put policies into place that privilege the Church’s dogma over patients’ freedom of conscience and choice

    And they have absolutely no compunction about enforcing their dark age mysticism come what may…

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2012/11/14/woman-dies-after-catholic-hospital-denies-abortion/

    And because they sense they are on the back foot, what with the abuse scandals, falling bums on pews, banking scams, they will turn the dogmatic screw on their victims, calculating that the victims, as always, makes the finest first line of defence for delusional institutions to cower behind.

    The dark ages was in many ways their ideal scenario of politics, finance, power and complete influence over the world as it was known, they want to return to that halcyon era, they want to be in charge again, what better way then to terrify their congregations and motivate them to lobby and battle for the position of the church in society, it is what they do, and they are historically the best of the best in manipulation and it used to work for so long and so well.

    That Franny wants exorcists and demon warriors, in his club, kind of gives the game away as to intentions, and betrays the fervent wish to return the church to dark age atmospherics and concerns.

    This is not the actions of a modern day church leader of the RCC, it is an echo of what the church was initially founded upon, deep dark and ignorant superstition which can be manipulated to insure a steady flow of income into church coffers…as Ichthyic says in #26 “the CC was never about religion, really, it was more like a giant organized crime syndicate”…amen brother!

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/pope-francis-makes-exorcisms-official-catholic-practice-as-demonfighting-priests-recognised-under-canon-law-9580727.html

    Giuseppe Ferrari, from GRIS, a Catholic research group that organised the conference, said there was an ever growing need for priests to be trained to perform exorcisms because of the increasing number of lay people tempted to dabble in black magic, paganism and the occult.
    “We live in a disenchanted society, a secularised world that thought it was being emancipated, but where religion is being thrown out, the window is being opened to superstition and irrationality,” said Mr Ferrari.

    The irony is a study in parody, and although none do it better, it is also a desperate gamble.

    They are flying in the face of modern science, something which they rarely do so vehemently preferring to lash their fatuous spin on it rather then denying it, so it seems it is paradise or bust for the hordes and the chips are down, they are dimly aware and realise that this must be the last throw of the dice and their whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle of a delusion is based on the outcome so the sooner they can reel back the reality of modern living to what they feel most comfortable with the better.

    In that atmosphere of hysterical fear and ignorance it becomes so very easy to encourage and suggest hatred and bias against individuals or groups that become handy targets and no one is as easily manipulated as the Catholic legions, bigotry is the curtain that hides the acidic toxic fire of an institution in trouble and the machinations of buying time, diversion and witch hunts, so it is smoke and mirrors all the way down, again a traditional and much loved Catholic pursuit extending back centuries, it is a handy tool when used right, it hides a multitude of sins!

  26. laurentweppe says

    I have to wonder to what extent this is about America. Racism in (say) Europe is a very different phenomenon, where even the most secular-minded liberal thinkers don’t have anything nice to say about the Romani.

    Not only that, but for the past decade or so, we’ve seen in Europe fascist parties proclaiming that they are the Real True Paragons of Secularism™.

    Of course, such claims are laughable given that they are still the local christian fundies best pals and that the brand of secularism the european far-right promotes is nothing more than old-school white supremacism veiled in another jargon.

    I suppose that it all boils down to cognitive shortcuts: in societies where religious piety and morality are linked together in the collective imagination, bigots of all stripes will play the Holier Than Thou routine, while in societies where secularism is seen as a condicio sine qua non for public-spiritedness, the same bigots simply drop the pretense of religious devotion and replace it with fake displays of commitment to secularism.

    Of course, this would mean that the “No-True-Scotsman” advocate are not that far from truth when they claim that “no true Christian/Muslim/Jew/Whatever can be such a bigot“: I for one, wouldn’t be surprised at all if it turned out that a large part of the fundie crowds (not only among the notoriously corrupt leaders, but also among the rank & file) perceive religion merely as a convenient lie they use to hide their own selfishness.

  27. Lawrence Congdon says

    Christians CHOOSE which Biblical ‘laws’ and admonitions they want to abide by.

    Both as sects and as individuals, they pick and choose what teaching they abide by. As we all know, the couple admonitions against male homosexual activity are given huge platforms, but the admonition against getting tattoos not to much. And while most don’t worry, some Christian sects refuse to eat pork and shellfish.

    Bigoted Christians who point to the Bible for their inspiration – God’s destruction of the Tower of Babel, God’s support of the interloping Israelis at war against their foes – or ‘know in their hearts’ that bigotry is God’s desire, have made an active personal decision. Whether they admit it or not.

  28. Anri says

    This is, indeed, only a correlation. In fact, it might not show any actual difference in racist beliefs at all – it might only show that a visible acceptance of racist beliefs is better tolerated among deeply religious communities than strongly secular once.

    Not that that’s a bad thing, of course – just the opposite.

  29. abb3w says

    @0, Ed Brayton

    (I’d be particularly interested in breaking down the religious categories; I’m betting that the correlation is much stronger in conservative denominations than in liberal ones)

    The GSS data is available for even amateurs to play with. With a first pass approximation, it looks like yes, with one caveat: a lot of the nondenominational megachurches look pretty racist.

    Others have mentioned the work of Altemeyer, but I’d add the I think the discussion so far neglects what he developed from the work of Sidanius. Oversimplifying, RWA is strongly correlated to religiosity and to bigotry rooted in fear, but SDO is uncorrelated to religiosity yet strongly correlated to prejudice rooted in contempt. The high-SDO appears to be be the root of a lot of the internal political turmoil in the atheist movement of the last few years.

    A study which measured both across varying types of religions including among the various types of the unaffiliated would be very interesting to me.

  30. abb3w says

    @34, Bronze Dog

    A term that comes to mind is “integrative complexity.”

    Sounds related to “tolerance of ambiguity” and (inversely) “need for epistemic closure”. However, those seem to have self-report based metrics of less subjective character than the integrative complexity one.

  31. freehand says

    Michael Heath: I responded to that but no word back from heddle yet. Note how he avoids the fact that much of this work is also done by neuroscientists while denying the fact that psychological research can and does make empirical findings – though those findings are inconvenient for how heddle practices his religion and describes here in this forum.
    .
    My wife and I have said – not entirely in jest – that scientists who do physics and other hard sciences do so because they find psychology too difficult.
    .
    As real phenomena, individual and mass human behavior are, of course, a fit subject for scientific study.

  32. says

    My wife and I have said – not entirely in jest – that scientists who do physics and other hard sciences do so because they find psychology too difficult.

    This is true. Studying physics is fun, and having fun is generally not something one describes as difficult. Psychology, like oh, I don’t know, astrology– that would be profoundly difficult to study.

  33. hexidecima says

    believing in a religion makes one automatically a bigot. You have to believe that you are better than everyone else because you are “right”. You may not act on this all of the time, but there is no doubt you are a bigot, perhaps a well disguised one because of societal pressures.

  34. says

    believing in a religion makes one automatically a bigot.

    Is that a conclusion of the science of Psychology? (Having not studied it, I don’t know.)

  35. Anri says

    heddle @ 37:

    This is true. Studying physics is fun, and having fun is generally not something one describes as difficult. Psychology, like oh, I don’t know, astrology– that would be profoundly difficult to study.

    Studying astrology is quite easy, actually. You just look at the claims made by astrology, see if they match up to the real world, and ignore the special pleading put forth by the adherents…

    …oh, wait, I just figured out why some people might find that profoundly difficult. Never mind.

  36. says

    Anri #40,

    You just look at the claims made by astrology, see if they match up to the real world, and ignore the special pleading put forth by the adherents…

    You have used the word studying as if it means testing. It doesn’t. Studying astrology, such as how to make astrological charts or whatever they do, would (for me) be very difficult. I agree that testing astrological claims, at least if they are specific, is easy.

  37. says

    …So unless these, “lots and lots of religious people”, are working to reform their churches, they’re not really “working hard” in the fight against bigotry…

    Another factor to consider here is that many of these wingnut Christian sects explicitly preach against the very idea of ANY kind of “good works” (their choice of words, usually said with a bit of a sneer) to improve anything in this sinful material world. These folks go way out of their way to assure us that, no, you don’t have to lift a finger to do any kind of good works for anyone, and in fact, God doesn’t care about that at all, no amount of good works will get you any closer to Heaven, all that matters when you stand before him is that you called him by the right name when you repented and begged for salvation.

  38. Anri says

    Heddle @ 41:

    You have used the word studying as if it means testing. It doesn’t. Studying astrology, such as how to make astrological charts or whatever they do, would (for me) be very difficult. I agree that testing astrological claims, at least if they are specific, is easy.

    Actually, I have used the word studying to mean investigating something in an attempt to learn about it. Which, to me, would seem to me to be both
    1) important to do while testing a thing, and,
    2) the hoped-for result of testing a thing.

  39. says

    Anri #43,

    I get what you are saying, but I think you are wrong, at least as it applies to majoring in a science. Not completely wrong, but for the most part. In our curriculum, much like any physics curriculum, we offer three semesters of introductory physics, two semesters of classical mechanics, two semesters of E&M, two semesters of QM, thermo, stat mech, astronomy, astrophysics, special relativity, mathematical physics, optics, techniques of experimental physics, etc.

    In all those courses our students would attest to the fact that they study physics but don’t test it. (They of course study about other people testing what they are learning.) These courses are all theoretical. When I took those courses every single one of them was fun, not difficult. If I had to take 3 hours (let alone 50 hours) of astrology it would be exceedingly difficult.

    Other courses, i.e., labs and circuits –there you have a point. But the overwhelming majority of a physics student’s curriculum is theory–where they study but do not test.

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