The Secular Life

Thriving Without Gods or Gurus

Secularism, Religion, and Racism

Who is more likely to be racist, the strongly religious or the strongly secular?

Who is more likely to be racist: strongly religious people or strongly secular people?

Let’s first consider each group’s basic worldview or belief system concerning the nature of people.

According to the strongly religious, we humans are all God’s children. A few thousand years ago, an invisible, magic Being made Adam and then Eve, and we are all the descendants of these two first humans. And thus—despite our various ethnic, racial, or phenotypical differences—we are all one. We are all brothers and sisters, given that we all have the same divine progenitor: God. Such a belief should clearly render racism untenable.

According to the strongly secular, we humans are the descendants of preexisting primates. Many hundreds of thousands of years ago, through the processes of random mutation and natural selection, humans evolved out of earlier primates. Grounded upon extensive scientific evidence, the reality of our evolutionary past illustrates that we are all in fact one species; despite various ethnic, racial, or phenotypical differences, we are all brothers and sisters, sharing the same genetic inheritance and makeup. Such a fact should clearly render racism untenable.

There is thus some nice agreement—between religious and secular—when it comes to the “oneness” of humanity. Although based upon completely different perspectives, both worldviews agree that racial distinctions are ultimately insignificant, or at least should be. Skin color, hair texture, eye shape, nose shape, etc.—such trivialities should not be a basis to separate humanity into distinct or different groups, nor should they determine character, morality, or potential. Racism is thus not only pernicious and unloving, but intrinsically at odds with both orientations.

And yet, despite the potential for human unity and oneness within both the strongly religious and the strongly secular perspectives, social science reveals that the religious worldview actually fails to “click” with many religious people, especially the strongly religious, who are much more likely to be racist than the strongly secular.

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.”

Perhaps this helps explain why secular white people were more likely than religious white people to support the Civil Rights Movement, or why secular Americans today take a more accepting/generous attitude towards immigrants of color than religious Americans, or why secular white South Africans were more likely to be against Apartheid than religious white South Africans, or why secular Israelis today are more likely to support the human rights of Palestinians than religious Israelis.

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. 

Phil Zuckerman Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College and the author of several books.

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