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.