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Why “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” Doesn't Work

“Love the sinner” beliefs are associated with dislike of sexual minorities.

Posted Apr 28, 2020

By Dr. Mark Hoffarth, a visiting professor at Wesleyan University. You can learn more about his research on his website.

Religion can be an important source of unity. Many of our most important social bonds are with our religious communities. Religious teachings around the world emphasize love and understanding as cornerstone values of their faith. At the same time, religion can also divide us, and promote hatred and intolerance of those seen as outsiders or condemned by their religion (Burch-Brown & Baker, 2016).

One of the most striking examples of the negative side of religion is in how many religious communities view sexual minorities (e.g., lesbian women, gay men, bisexual men and women). Along with other researchers (e.g., Whitley, 2009), we found that those who more frequently attend religious services tend to have more negative attitudes toward sexual minorities and are less likely to support gay rights laws (Hoffarth, Hodson, & Molnar, 2018).

As the gay rights movement has shifted people’s attitudes toward sexual minorities, this divide has actually grown. From 1973 to 2012, tolerance of homosexuality increased much slower among those who frequently attend religious services (Twenge, Sherman, & Wells, 2016). We followed up on these findings by analyzing how strongly religious attendance is associated with negative attitudes toward sexual minorities in different countries. We compared countries where there is high recognition of gay rights (e.g., bans on discrimination and recognition of same-sex marriages) to countries where there has been little to no progress on gay rights (e.g., homosexuality is still illegal). In many of our analyses, we found that religious attendance is more strongly associated with negative attitudes toward sexual minorities in countries with high gay rights recognition (Hoffarth, Hodson, & Molnar, 2018).

What psychological explanation might make sense of these findings? In earlier research (Hoffarth & Hodson, 2014; see this earlier Psychology Today post) we found that holding “conflicted” attitudes toward sexual minorities was associated with more negative attitudes toward sexual minorities. We believed that people who frequently attend religious services may be conflicted between motivations to be loving and tolerant (especially in countries where gay rights have progressed quickly) while also feeling pressure to oppose homosexuality as sinful. The common religious phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” reflects this internal conflict.

But does this conflicted attitude promote love, or does it promote hate?

In Hoffarth et al. (2018) we found that those who more frequently attended religious services more strongly endorsed the idea of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” and those who endorsed the idea of “love the sinner hate the sin” had more negative attitudes toward sexual minorities and were more opposed to gay rights. That is, whether or not someone endorses “love the sinner, hate the sin” beliefs help explain why those who more frequently attend religious services generally have more negative attitudes toward sexual minorities.

Importantly, we also found that there was variability in whether religious attendance was related to negative attitudes toward sexual minorities. For people who heard the phrase, “I love the sinner, but hate the sin” frequently, religious attendance was strongly linked to negative attitudes toward sexual minorities; for those who rarely or never heard the phrase, there was almost no relation between religious attendance and negative attitudes toward sexual minorities. This further support the idea that “loving the sinner, hating the sin” promotes hate, not love.

What lessons can we learn from this research? Although most of us want to be tolerant and promote fairness, at the same time we want to hold on to our beliefs and what feels most comfortable to us. As a result, it is psychologically easier to justify our prejudices and the inequalities in society rather than to face those problems head-on (see Crandall & Eshleman, 2003; Jost & Banaji, 1994; Jost et al., 2014). What seems to be going on here is that saying one “loves the sinner but hates the sin” enables some people to maintain their negative attitudes without feeling like a prejudiced person. But overcoming prejudice cannot come about simply by using nicer language to cover up the prejudice. Rather than “love the sinner, hate the sin,” maybe we should go back to “love” and start from there.

References

Crandall, C. S., & Eshleman, A. (2003). A justification-suppression model of the expression and experience of prejudice. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 414-446.

Hoffarth, M. R., & Hodson, G. (2014). Is subjective ambivalence toward gays a modern form of bias? Personality and Individual Differences, 69, 75-80.

Hoffarth, M. R., Hodson, G., & Molnar, D. (2018). When and why is religious attendance associated with anti-gay bias and gay rights opposition? A Justification-Suppression Model approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115, 526-563.

Jost, J. T., & Banaji, M. R. (1994). The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 1-27.

Jost, J. T., Hawkins, C. B., Nosek, B. A., Hennes, E. P., Stern, C., Gosling, S. D., & Graham, J. (2014). Belief in a just god (and a just society): A system justification perspective on religious ideology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 34, 56-81.

Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2016). Changes in American adults’ reported same-sex sexual experiences and attitudes, 1973-2014. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 1713-1730.

Whitley, B. E. (2009). Religiosity and attitudes toward lesbians and gay men: A meta-analysis. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19, 21-38.