Even though religions preach love of humanity, decades of psychological research have linked religiousness with prejudice. In recent times, certain types of prejudice, particularly racism, have become socially unacceptable and are nowadays condemned by religious leaders. However, religious prejudice against homosexuals and against atheists is still tolerated and even encouraged by mainstream religious groups. Atheists in particular appear to be one of the most vilified minority groups in America today. Some researchers have argued that how dogmatically people hold their beliefs is more important to religious prejudice than the actual content of their beliefs. However, a recent study suggests that when it comes to prejudice against gays and atheists, the content of the belief – specifically belief in God – is as important, perhaps even more important, than how dogmatically a person holds those beliefs.
Different kinds of religiosity and prejudice
The relationship between religiosity and various kinds of prejudice has been noted for a long time. For example, studies from the 1950s found that church-goers were more likely to hold racist views than people who never attend church. Religiosity is a complex concept and so researchers have attempted to understand which particular features of religiousness are particularly relevant to prejudice. Gordon Allport, for example, proposed that people can have either intrinsic or extrinsic motives for religious behaviour. Extrinsic motives are ones where religion is seen as a means to another end (e.g. attending church for social reasons) whereas people with intrinsic motives see religion as an end in itself, and therefore the central guiding principle in their lives. Allport was of the view that extrinsic religiosity was associated with the negative features of religion, such as prejudice, whilst intrinsic religiosity was a more “mature” approach, associated with the best qualities of religion. Allport even claimed that intrinsically religious people have “no place for rejection, contempt, or condescension” toward others (Hall, Matz, & Wood, 2010). However, while research has shown that extrinsic religiosity is positively associated with racism, intrinsic religiosity is largely uncorrelated with racism, suggesting that intrinsically religious people are little different from people who are not religious with regard to racial prejudice. Additionally, there is evidence that people’s ratings of intrinsic religiosity are affected by socially desirable responding, so that intrinsically religious people may be more concerned with the appearance of being virtuous, rather than the reality.
Fundamentalism strongly predicts prejudice
An alternative approach has been to consider how dogmatically a person holds their religious beliefs. Dogmatism may be considered a sign of cognitive inflexibility, and people who are inflexible in their thinking may be more likely to hold stereotyped views of minority groups that promote prejudice. In support of this, a number of studies have linked religious fundamentalism in people of many different religions – including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, as well as Christians – with increased anti-gay prejudice (Hunsberger, 1995). Holding absolutist beliefs that forbid one to question dogma and that regard the world as divided into good and evil tends to be conducive to prejudice. In contrast, religious people who value willingness to question one’s beliefs, who acknowledge that other beliefs might also contain truth, and who are non-authoritarian, tend to be less prejudiced, although not less so than non-religious people (Hunsberger, 1995).
The How and the What of Religious Belief
Findings linking dogmatism to prejudice across a number of religions have led some researchers to conclude that the how of belief – the cognitive rigidity or flexibility of one’s beliefs – is more important to understanding prejudice than the what of belief – the actual content of one’s belief. However, the authors of a recent paper have argued that most studies on the subject have confounded the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ rather than measuring them separately. Specifically, the authors argue that how strongly one believes in God or a higher power (the what component of belief) can contribute to prejudice independently of the rigidity of one’s beliefs (the how component) (Shen, Yelderman, Haggard, & Rowatt, 2013). Belief in God may be relevant to specific prejudice against people who are seen to violate one’s values. Specifically, gay people and atheists are perceived by many religious people as being in violation of religious values.
The authors used a measure called the Post Critical Beliefs Scale (PCBS) to disentangle the respective effects of cognitive rigidity and belief in God on prejudice. The PCBS assesses religious belief based on two broad dimensions: whether one takes a literal or symbolic approach, which is thought to assess rigidity/flexibility of belief; and inclusion/exclusion of transcendence, which assesses belief in the existence of God or a higher power. Prejudice was measured with a measure of comfort with social proximity to the target groups. That is, people who express greater discomfort being around members of particular groups are considered to be more prejudiced against them.
Belief in God and Prejudice against “Value-Violators”
The results of two studies showed that belief in God significantly predicted prejudice against both gays and atheists respectively even when taking into account the level of cognitive rigidity (literal-symbolic belief). Belief in God was actually more strongly related to prejudice against atheists than against gay people. In contrast, cognitive rigidity was associated with greater prejudice against black people, but belief in God was not. Furthermore, the second study by Shen et al. found that intrinsic religiosity, religious behaviour (service attendance, reading sacred texts, and prayer), and general religiosity (self-rating of how religious one is) were also associated quite substantially with prejudice against gays and atheists, but not with prejudice against blacks. This is contrary to Allport’s claim that intrinsically religious people have no place for rejection or contempt of their fellow man. The results of this study indicate that people who believe strongly in God and regard their religion as very important are very uncomfortable around gays and atheists, but especially the latter.
The authors of this study concluded that the two components of religiousness they studied – cognitive rigidity and belief in God – each tend to contribute to specific prejudices. Cognitive rigidity appears to be more strongly related to racial prejudice, whereas belief in God appears to be related more particularly to “value-violating” prejudice, specifically against gays and atheists. It is also worth noting that modern religious leaders tend to condemn racial prejudice, but are more often tolerant of, or even encourage, prejudice against gays and atheists (Whitley, 2009).
Some Limitations of the Study and Future Directions
While I think the findings of Shen et al. are quite interesting, their methodology may have had certain limitations. The sole measure of prejudice used was based on social distance. While this is useful, it would also have been informative to examine how more specific prejudicial and stereotyped beliefs about gays and atheists (e.g. “atheists have no moral values,” “gays corrupt children”) might be related to belief in God and cognitive rigidity respectively. I also have some reservations about the “literal-symbolic” dimension of the PCBS as a measure of cognitive-rigidity. In particular, people who reject religious faith altogether and people with very literal orthodox religious beliefs are both classified as being cognitively rigid because they do not accept a “symbolic” interpretation of religious belief. This seems to treat atheism as an alternative form of dogmatism, which is questionable. Just because one rejects religious faith does not necessarily imply that one is dogmatic in the sense of being unable to consider the possibility that one might be mistaken. (Although for an examination of dogmatism in atheists see this article here.) Use of a content-free measure of dogmatism would provide a clearer understanding of the role of cognitive rigidity.
Finally, this study looked at whether belief in God in general is related to prejudice. This is certainly important to know. However, future studies might examine whether more specific beliefs about what God is like provide more accurate predictions of prejudice than just belief in God generally. For example, belief in a morally judgmental god who rejects people deemed to be “immoral” might be a stronger predictor of prejudice compared to belief in a warm fuzzy deity who accepts everyone.
I would also like to acknowledge that, in line with most statistical trends in psychology, there are exceptions to the general findings presented here. There are religious people who are accepting of gay people and of people who do not share their belief in a higher power, even if they do appear to be in the minority.
 For the statistically-minded, the difference between correlations was significant in both studies.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
"Why do atheists hate America?" Wikimedia Commons
Why are Atheists so Disliked? Epiphenomenon blog
Other posts about the psychology of religion and/or spirituality
Hall, D. L., Matz, D. C., & Wood, W. (2010). Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 126-139. doi: 10.1177/1088868309352179
Hunsberger, B. (1995). Religion and Prejudice: The Role of Religious Fundamentalism, Quest, and Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Journal of Social Issues, 51(2), 113-129. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1995.tb01326.x
Shen, M. J., Yelderman, L. A., Haggard, M. C., & Rowatt, W. C. (2013). Disentangling the belief in God and cognitive rigidity/flexibility components of religiosity to predict racial and value-violating prejudice: A Post-Critical Belief Scale analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 54(3), 389-395. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.10.008
Whitley, B. E. (2009). Religiosity and Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men: A Meta-Analysis. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19(1), 21-38. doi: 10.1080/10508610802471104