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Tami Winfrey Harris
Tami Winfrey Harris

Does Religion Breed Racism?

A study connects religiosity with racial bias. But is religion the problem?

When my husband was young, a white grade school teacher informed him that African Americans were meant to be oppressed as secondary citizens, because they were descendants of Ham, an Old Testament figure whose son, Canaan, was cursed by Noah. To this woman, the inequities among races were not manmade but divine. Her Bible told her so.

Religion as a justification for racism is not uncommon. In fact, a recent analysis led by Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC College and the USC Marshall School of Business, found a positive correlation between religiosity and racial bias.

But is religion really the problem here? Or is it something else?

The meta-analysis, titled Why Don't We Practice What We Preach, was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review. The authors analyzed data from 55 studies on religion and racism in America dating to the Civil Rights era. Combined, the studies include more than 22,000 participants, mostly white and Protestant.

An abstract of the study reports:

"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. Other races might be treated as out-groups because religion is practiced largely within race, because training in a religious in-group identity promotes general ethnocentrism, and because different others appear to be in competition for resources. In addition, religious racism is tied to basic life values of social conformity and respect for tradition. In support, individuals who were religious for reasons of conformity and tradition expressed racism that declined in recent years with the decreased societal acceptance of overt racial discrimination. 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."

The analysis did not focus on how the racism-religion connection plays out in churches and religions predominately populated by people of color, or how non-Judeo-Christian religions affect adherents' racial attitudes. But the authors of the study hypothesized that their analysis would hold across world religions.

Now, the purpose of this post is not to denigrate anyone's beliefs. Religion does not, in fact, cause racism. Just as there are those who would use holy scriptures to justify their own supremacy, there are those who would use science. Progressive, Christian, author Anne Lamott has said, "You can safely say that you've created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do." Truer words were never spoken; and it matters not if your "god" happens to be, say, biology rather than deity.

Whether we are secular humanists or religious fundamentalists, in an effort to seek authoritative confirmation of our biases, we run the same risk of perverting information to suit personal prejudices. It is easier this way, especially when we are confronted with social inequities. If I can blame a group's oppression on the retribution of an angry god or some inherent physical or mental deficiency, then, well, I am let off the hook. I am assured that my privilege is not a problem and that I needn't feel guilty for not advocating for social justice. That is the problem — the very human need to justify our intolerances and inaction.

Those who feel that the practice of religion enhances their lives needn't avoid worship in the sanctuary. Everyone must work to avoid the unquestioned worship of our own beliefs.

About the Author
Tami Winfrey Harris

Tami Winfrey Harris is a writer living in central Indiana. She is a member of the the AfroSpear progressive black bloggers association.

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