Religious tolerance

We are led to believe that religion makes people better. That following the moral instructions laid out in this holy book or that one will provide us all with the information necessary to live decent, ethical lives. We are even told – most of the time through blind assertion – that the existence of any kind of human morality requires a deity. That without religious instruction, the world would quickly descend into amoral anarchy full of murder and sex acts so bizarre, Rick Santorum would need 5 or 6 additional surnames just to describe them all.

We also know that racism is fundamentally wrong. Prejudice based on something as arbitrary and biologically meaningless as socially-constructed ethnic groups is part of a dark chapter of the human experience that we are all working feverishly to finish and close forever.  Thanks to great strides we have made as a society, we can be confident that anyone can recognize the simple moral truth of the need to treat each other as equals, regardless of their heritage.

As a result, we might have a tough time explaining this:

A meta-analytic review of past research evaluated the link between religiosity and racism in the United States since the Civil Rights Act. Religious racism partly reflects intergroup dynamics. That is, a strong religious in-group identity was associated with derogation of racial out-groups.


The authors failed to find that racial tolerance arises from humanitarian values, consistent with the idea that religious humanitarianism is largely expressed to in-group members. Only religious agnostics were racially tolerant.

If both of the above maxims were true, we would expect to see a positive association between religious expression and racial tolerance. After all, we do have some anecdotal evidence to support that conclusion – some of the great champions of the fight against racism, from William Wilberforce to Al Sharpton, have campaigned in explicitly religious terms. Doesn’t it make sense that a shared sense of being created equally under the loving watchful eye of YahwAlladdha would lead us to being more tolerant?

To test whether or not the evidence supports this conclusion, the authors performed a meta-analysis – basically a study of studies – to see what the literature said.

They found 55 studies that met their inclusion criteria and analyzed measures of racism against measures of religious expression. What they found will likely not shock you: religious adherence is positively correlated with racial intolerance and strong out-group derogation. Conversely, agnostic (or “questing”, to use the language of the study) ideology was (weakly) correlated with racial tolerance.

Now if you’re anything like me, you’re incredibly good-looking and a skilled yet sensitive lover. You’re also highly skeptical of such a cut-and-dry finding. After all, religion is associated with so many other factors, you’d have to control for a long list of potential explanatory variables. One of the major drawbacks of meta-analyses, particularly those that use observational data rather than randomized controlled trial data, is that controlling for confounders is quite difficult. Not every author includes the same variables in their analysis, making these kinds of tests difficult to perform.

There are two findings that I found particularly fascinating in this study that I want to share with you.

1. The relationship between racism and religiosity changes over time

One way to “control” for the influence of extraneous factors is to see how the relationship changes over time. The role that racism plays in our society has changed significantly since 1964 (the beginning of the observation period of the study). If religiosity was an explanatory factor for racism – that is, if being religious made you racist – we would see a “dose-response” relationship that remains relatively fixed over time. If it’s just “old time religion” that fuels the correlation seen above, then the effect would diminish over time as other factors that fuel racism change.

What we see is the latter case – as time passes and racism becomes more socially unacceptable generally, the association between religion and prejudice diminishes. Now while they plot a linear trend, there is no reason to conclude that religious people will become more racially tolerant than non-religious people. Extending the line that way goes beyond the descriptive ability of the test. What it does tell us though is that there are other factors that better explain racist ideologies than religious affiliation.

2. Authoritarianism is a better explanatory factor than religion

So we know from our explorations of System Justification Theory that conservatism and racial antipathy are linked, and we know that religion and conservatism are linked, so could it be that the “wrong” kind of religion is what is fueling racism? The authors tried to investigate this phenomenon by controlling their analysis for authoritarianism. What they found may not surprise you, but it definitely surprised me:

The effect not only disappears, but actually reverses. Essentially, this finding suggests that moderate religion actually makes you less racist. Now it is important to remember that this is not based on the full 55 studies – only 8 of the eligible studies included the authoritarianism variable and we are not given any more information than what’s in the table.

The other thing that is important to remember is that this study is predominantly measuring the existence of racism in religious white Americans (simply as a product of participants in the studies under meta-analysis), which introduces a whole host of other variables that cannot be controlled for. It is also regrettable that direct comparison between believers and non-believers was not possible. Overall, I am not exactly blown away by this study, and I feel that the authors went too far in stating their conclusions.

So, as much as I would like to be able to say “religion is bad because it makes people racist”, there does not seem to be sufficient evidence to make that call. What it does seem to suggest is that any association we see between racism and religion is likely caused by third factors. This is a mixed blessing, so to speak. It is unfortunate that our atheist utopia will not necessarily be free of prejudice, but it also means that we do not necessarily have to convert people away from their religious beliefs to increase tolerance.

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  1. Dunc says

    It is unfortunate that our atheist utopia will not necessarily be free of prejudice

    Yeah, but it’s not like you needed this study to tell you that, is it?

    I’ve long thought that authoritarianism is a far bigger problem than religiosity. Authoritarians are pretty much always a problem, whether religious or not. Whilst I’d agree that religiosity bring its own suite of problems, as long as it’s not linked to authoritarianism, those problems are fairly limited in scope. The matter gets particularly confused in places where authoritarianism and religiosity are closely linked, but it’s important to remember that this linkage is not universal.

    I find that I have more in common with anti-authoritarians of a religious persuasion than I do with authoritarians of an atheistic persuasion. I still think they’re wrong about the religious bit, but I’m generally happy to let it slide as long as they’re not heavying up on anybody else with it.

  2. machintelligence says

    From a personal perspective (I was an adult for almost all of the time period in question}, this study seems to be stating the obvious. The liberal white churches (and black churches, of course) were leading the charge against racism and taking considerable heat for doing so. They are presently in the forefront of ending prejudice against women and gays. I suppose that this is the Sociologist’s dilemma: if you confirm my beliefs, you are stating the obvious, if you debunk them, you are wrong.

    Shuffling Feet was an eye-opener, by the way.

  3. danielrudolph says

    The questions formed in my head after the first few sentences were answered by the end of the article. I like that.

    I’d note that very few of even the most conservative churches will actively teach racist views anymore. You won’t hear that black skin was the curse of Cain or that Ham married a gorilla pretty much anywhere. It’s something of an unintended side-effect of the in-group/out-group mentality conservative churches push combined with the fact most of these churches are not racially diverse.

  4. quantheory says

    I’m a little bit wary of a meta-analysis in this case (partly because I can’t see the article; were the studies reviewed located in the same or different parts of the US, and did some of them explicitly seek out religious, conservative, or moderate subjects?).

    However, I have to say that if the results are correct, they don’t entirely surprise me. Religious groups have their own language. There are dialects of Christianese that are particularly recognizable, but also moral dialects for other religions, New Age beliefs, and agnostic/apatheist “I’m not going to say what I think but tolerance is important” types. And skeptics too of course. I would imagine that some moral dialects are more conducive to expressing racism than others, and so would tend to correlate with actual expressions of racism.

    Similarly, I imagine that a moral dialect that’s all about peace, love, understanding, tolerance, and positivity could make racism more difficult to express. Unfortunately that’s not a dialect that’s easy for skeptics to adopt because of our strong emphasis on critique. I don’t think we generally want a world where everyone gets along as long as there are things that genuinely should be opposed.

  5. thaismcrc says

    “Now if you’re anything like me, you’re incredibly good-looking and a skilled yet sensitive lover.” This made me laugh way too much.

  6. says

    Essentially, this finding suggests that moderate religion actually makes you less racist.

    Compared to what? (Sorry, but I’m having trouble interpreting the table). Compared to fundamentalism? (That doesn’t surprise me). Compared to unbelief?

    But my personal experience with moderate religion makes me unsurprised that it is relatively non-racist, for reasons already suggested. Mind you, my experience in fundamentalism was also free of (overt) racism — but then, this was post-Civil Rights era, and one international border north of the Mason-Dixon.

  7. says

    So holding authoritarianism constant, an increase in religiosity corresponds to a decrease in racism. The two variables are negatively correlated (which, I hasten to add, is not causation, my lazy writing notwithstanding).

    Racism tends to be inflamed by circumstances where groups are perceived to be in direct competition for resources. I’ll bet that fundamentalist Christians living in Moose Jaw don’t really have much of an opinion about Mexican immigration to the United States. They may have a few things to say about the neighbouring First Nations though.

  8. thaismcrc says

    I don’t know the meaning of the word. (Literally; English is not my first language 😉 )

  9. says

    Now if you’re anything like me, you’re incredibly good-looking and a skilled yet sensitive lover.

    Before I assert anything along these lines, more research is needed…

  10. Stevarious says

    Now if you’re anything like me, you’re incredibly good-looking and a skilled yet sensitive lover.

    Well, what’d’ya know, we DO have more in common than I suspected!

  11. karmakin says

    I pretty much agree with all of that. I suspect a large part of it has to do with the role that levels and types of theism in and of itself has to do with the way that our minds think about things.

    Not all Christians are what I would consider to be monotheistic. In fact, I’d probably say it’s about a 50/50 split or so. Most Christians I’d peg as being more pantheistic than anything else. And I do think this is a very meaningful difference, and I do think this is why the results come out the way they do.

    On the positive side, the idea that we’re all connected in one way or another would for sure be a positive one in terms of empathy. I do think this is what a lot of people want to believe regardless of their religion. The question is how to get that concept to authoritarian, monotheistic religious groups. I do think the big problem is that even liberal/progressive churches which by and large don’t act like they are under the thumb of a monotheistic deity still TALK like they are, which gives cultural reinforcement to the authoritarians.

    In terms of religion I’m definitely in favor of “mend not end”.

  12. doodlespook says

    Excellent post – it lines up with my experience in religion (before I saw what cannot be unseen and became an atheist). The churches of my youth were decidedly not racist; reaching out to PoC and entering into fellowship with churches like the local AME church. I couldn’t say if that ‘official’ stance translated into less bigotry in individuals, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    Also, thanks for the links to the Systems Justification Theory posts! I’m only through the first two, but I can’t wait to finish them. I love your blog!

  13. jamessweet says

    One thing that I think complicates correlations with irreligiosity is that there it is difficult-to-impossible to clearly separate what I might call “principled nontheists” from “just-don’t-give-a-shit nontheists”. Some evidence to back up my contention that this is a non-trivial effect comes from Darren Sherkat’s recent research showing that while church attendance correlates with an improvement on a number of measures of health, the effect actually reverses for people with a high level of education. (i.e. high school dropouts who attend church frequently are healthier than those who don’t, but PhDs who attend church frequently are slightly less healthy than those who don’t) There’s all kinds of potential explanations for this, but one possibility is that people who are both uneducated and don’t attend church have a higher probability of just not giving a shit.

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