Taking the ‘X’ Out of Xmas: Xenophobia and the Golden Rule

Your best defense against the “War on Christmas.”

Posted Dec 17, 2015

Journey of the Three Kings, Leopold Kupelwieser (1825)
Source: wikipedia.org

“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

– Mark 12:31

I recently overheard a conversation in which a woman was complaining about the abbreviation “Xmas,” lamenting that it was offensive to Christianity and the true meaning of the holiday. Her friend agreed, noting that it represented further evidence of the “War on Christmas,” ranking right up there along with last month’s solid-red Starbucks coffee cups, stripped of the usual snowflakes, reindeer, and tree ornaments that have adorned them in years past.

In response to the Starbucks controversy, some have already pointed out that snowflakes and reindeer don’t really reflect Christmas as a religious holiday in any direct way, and that Christmas in America, with its carnival-like celebration of mass-consumerism, has become more of a modern-day Saturnalia than a commemoration of the birth of Christ. And a quick check of the Wikipedia page on "Xmas" reveals that the abbreviation dates back to at least the 16th Century, with the “X” actually representing the Greek word for Christ, “Χριστός,” rather than any attempt to secularize the holiday by taking “Christ” of out “Christmas.”

If people really wanted to put Christ back in Christmas this year, a better way to do it might be to follow His second “greatest commandment,” by removing a different “X” that seems to be casting a pall on the holiday season — xenophobia.

In psychology, xenophobia is defined as fear, prejudice, and hatred towards outsiders, foreigners, and immigrants (in this case, the “x” is derived from the word “ξένος,” meaning “stranger” or “foreigner”). From the morally neutral perspective of evolution, it’s thought that xenophobia represents one of many instincts hard-wired into our brains that originally imparted a survival advantage during the early days of human development. In other words, back when we were cavemen, our survival depended on the ability to rapidly distinguish between “us” and “them” with an eye towards mistrust and aggression, since doing so helped to protect our families from physical threats and resource competition coming from foreign tribes. Nowadays, in animals, xenophobic instincts are still played out in the form of “antagonistic chasing, target aggressions, and cooperative attacks.”1 Among humans, xenophobia remains readily evidenced in stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, racism, violence, and warfare.

In a paper entitled “Xenophobia: Understanding the Roots and Consequences of Negative Attitudes Towards Immigrants,” Dr. Oksana Yakusho noted that xenophobia is linked to the perception of a threat on a personal or group level and is often heightened at times of economic and political instability.2 She further observed that while the US has been known throughout its history as a nation of immigrants, it has just as an enduring history of xenophobia as expressed in discriminatory policies, anti-immigration laws, and public sentiments directed against perceived threats of the day. Historically, this has resulted in discrimination against people of Irish, Chinese, German, and Japanese descent, just to name a few. These days, with concerns about terrorism perpetrated by Islamic militants, xenophobia is most obviously directed against people of Muslim faith and has been given recent voice in statements by Republican presidential candidates about restricting immigrants from war-torn Syria into the US.

Xenophobia can be conscious and intentional, but also more subtle and unintended. In a previous blogpost called “When Racism Motivates Violence,” I discussed the issue of implicit bias, defined as a bias in judgment about or behavior towards other people that operates below the level of conscious awareness and without intentional control. Bombarded as we are by anti-Muslim sentiment of late and with evolution working against us, I suspect that very few of us are immune to implicit biases as revealed by the Arab-Muslim Implicit Association Test (go ahead take the test for yourself here).

While instincts like xenophobia and racism are thought to be hard-wired into our brains through evolution, this doesn’t mean that we have to be slaves to those instincts. For one thing, competing instincts have evolved that might favor behavior in an altogether different direction. For example, on the opposite pole of xenophobia and tribalism, altruism involves reaching out to help other people, including strangers. This behavior is thought to have evolved despite an immediate cost to our own potential survival, because for one thing, it encourages reciprocal altruism from the recipient in the long run, acting as a kind of “social insurance.”3 As cavemen, we learned to share food with strangers in order to pool resources, increasing the chances of survival as a group through cooperation.

And yet, xenophobia and altruism aren’t so much moral opposites as two sides of the same evolutionary coin, with the forces that created them all geared towards survival of one’s genes. In an episode of the TED Radio Hour called “Just a Little Nicer,” Robert Wright, author of Nonzero, The Moral Animal and The Evolution of God, explained how altruism and compassion are often imperfect and prone to be steered off-course by our more immediate tendencies for self-protection:

“…we're designed to think we're being good when we're not. We are designed to convince ourselves that our very selective deployment of compassion is thoroughly justified. The good news is that we have compassion. We believe that it should definitely be channeled toward deserving people, but then the bad news is we define deserving people in a self-serving way, at least by nature.

We can overcome this on reflection, but we have a tendency to be kind of unconsciously selfish, tribalistic, whatever, in the way we go about deciding who we're going to give our compassion to. You know, it's in a certain sense kind of the challenge humanity's been moving toward, like, forever. Here we are on the brink of having a global civilization and yet we're not doing a very good job of it, even though as we've been moving toward this point, the knowledge that should help us do it has been accumulating.

… ultimately it gets back to the fact that natural selection is a process that designs things for purposes of serving self-interest. And what is in fact self-serving has changed over time and yet we're stuck with these brains that were designed in an age where what was self-serving was different.”4

This view matches the central premise of Psych Unseen – that our brains sometimes work in ways that don’t always contribute to ideal functioning and instead get us into trouble in our relationships and in our attempts to achieve well-being and co-exist in a peaceful world. As Wright suggests, this mismatch can often be attributed to the slowness of evolutionary change where brain functions that initially favored our survival as cavemen are no longer as adaptive in a rapidly modernizing world. In this way, it’s argued that our instinct for xenophobia is an outdated evolutionary relic that's no longer as relevant in a global society where altruism might offer greater value from perspectives of both survival and morality (in fact, these perspectives are really one in the same from an evolutionary standpoint, with morality evolving as another survival advantage for successful group living).

Fortunately, recent psychology research suggests that there’s a real potential for progress. Animal studies reveal that social play with strangers from an “out-group” is used by lemurs as a way of reducing aggressive xenophobic behavior.1 Human beings, and especially children, seem to act in much the same way. Numerous studies now support the idea that xenophobic prejudices are influenced by social learning, with parental attitudes having a major impact on the xenophobia of children as well as the potential for change in the direction of greater tolerance towards immigrants.5,6 Among teenagers, xenophobic attitudes are highly influenced by peers,7 with exposure to and interaction with out-group peers reducing prejudices against immigrants over time, supporting the so-called “contact hypothesis.”8,9 In other words, if you spend time with people who aren’t from your in-group, get to know them, make friends, and play, it's quite likely that you’ll see your xenophobia recede with time.

In today's world and in a multicultural America, the practical benefits of doing so may be substantial. A forthcoming article in the new journal Behavioral Science and Policy by Stanford psychologist Dr. Sarah Lyons-Padilla and her colleagues garnered attention in the popular press a few weeks ago by suggesting that radicalization of Islamic militants could be halted by “being nicer to Muslims” here in the US.10 This kind of reverse look through the lens of xenophobia used an anonymous survey of nearly 200 Muslims living in the U.S. to explore whether marginalization, defined as a condition in which immigrants don’t identify with either the home or the host culture and are in effect “culturally homeless,” can increase attraction to and support for extremist groups. The underlying hypothesis was that being “torn between cultures” leaves immigrants with shame, hopelessness, and a sense of meaninglessness that is exploited by terrorist recruiters who advertise joining their cause as a way to restore that meaning. The study's findings indicated that while support for a radical interpretation of Islam in the sample was low, feelings of marginalization, discrimination, and loss were common and could interact in a way that was indeed associated with support for radicalization. The authors therefore concluded that interventions attempting to decrease the radicalization of so-called “homegrown terrorists” might best be aimed at decreasing marginalization and facilitating integration as opposed to assimilation. Once again, the translation is simple: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

But wait, you say with your brain locked in survival mode, the world is still a hostile place and a certain amount of xenophobia might be justified, especially with the scourge of terrorism perpetrated by Islamic militants now on American soil. If there are people who, guided by an inherently hostile religion, want to kill us, how can we be expected to transcend xenophobia in favor of altruism?

For one thing, the credible threats of a select few shouldn't be applied indiscriminately to an entire group of outsiders — that's exactly when xenophobia becomes harmful in today’s world. For another, we must be careful when trying to disentangle the effects of religious belief on the tension between xenophobia and altruism. Returning to the TED Radio Hour episode “Just a Little Nicer,” ex-nun and historian of religion Karen Armstrong highlighted how religious fervor can corrupt the universality of the Golden Rule:

“I've become acutely aware that, of the centrality of compassion in all the major world faiths, every single one of them has evolved their own version of what's being called the Golden Rule.

…We are living in a world where religion has been hijacked, where terrorists cite Quranic verses to justify their atrocities, where instead of taking Jesus' words – love your enemies, don't judge others – we have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people, endlessly using scripture as a way of arguing with other people, putting other people down. Throughout the ages, religion has been used to oppress others, and this is because of human ego, human greed. We have a talent, as a species, for messing up wonderful things. So the traditions also insisted – and this is an important point, I think – that you could not and must not confine your compassion to your own group, your own nation, your own coreligionists, your own fellow countrymen. You must have what one of the Chinese sages call jian ai, concern for everybody. Love your enemies. Honor the stranger. We formed you, says the Quran, into tribes and nations so that you may know one another. And this – again, this universal outreach is getting subdued in the strident use of religion, abuse of religion, for nefarious gains. Now, I've lost count of the number of taxi drivers who, when I say to them what I do for a living, inform me that religion has been the cause of all the major World Wars in history. Wrong – the cause of our present woes are political. But make no mistake about it, religion is a kind of fault line. And when a conflict gets ingrained in a region, religion can get sucked in and become part of the problem.

…we're addicted to our pet-hatreds. We don't know quite what we'd do without the people we dislike. We meditate on their bad qualities, and they become almost our alter egos, everything that we are not. We define ourselves in this way.”11

Another recent study given wide attention in the popular press doesn’t let religion off quite as easily.12 Contrary to popular belief, the study found that religiousness is negatively associated with altruism among children between the ages of 5 and 12 across six different countries. Using a psychological task called the Dictator Game that measures sharing, the authors found that both Christian and Muslim children were less likely than nonreligious children to share, with increasing religious devotion associated with decreasing altruism. Looking also at a measure of retribution, Christian children were more likely than either Muslim or nonreligious children to think that punishment for moral offenses was deserved. This provocative study therefore suggests that religiousness may act as a barrier to learning altruism and that Christianity enjoys no moral superiority in this regard.

It would seem then that if there is a “War on Christmas,” it lies in the absence of “Love thy neighbor…,” “Do unto others…,” and “Turn the other cheek…” from sentiments of the holiday season. Evangelical Christians sometimes like to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Would Christ, who expelled the money exchangers from the temple in Jerusalem, really be upset that there are no reindeer on Starbuck’s cups this year? Or is it more likely he’d take issue with calls to block immigrants from Syria coming into the US?

It's said that on the very first Christmas, Three Wise Men traversed afar, coming from Persia (now Iran), Babylonia (now Iraq), and India to celebrate the birth of Christ. In order to revive the true meaning of Christmas, shouldn’t we — in the spirit of altruism — welcome them today?

If you missed last year's Psych Unseen holiday blogpost, please give "I'm Hallucinating a White Christmas" a read.

Dr. Joe Pierre and Psych Unseen can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/psychunseen. To check out some of my fiction, click here to read the short story "Thermidor," published in Westwind earlier this year.


1.  Antonnaci D, Norscia I, Palagi E. Stranger to familiar: Wild strepshires manage xenophobia by playing. PLoS ONE 2010; 5(10): e13218.

2. Yakushko O. Xenophobia: Understanding the roots and consequences of negative attitudes towards immigrants. The Counseling Psychologist 2009; 37:36-66.

3. Kurzban R, Burton-Chellew MN, West SA. The evolution of altruism in humans. Annual Review of Psychology 2015: 66:575-99.

4. http://www.npr.org/2014/12/19/371686652/are-we-wired-to-be-compassionate

5. Gniewosz B, Noack P. Parental influences on adolescents’ negative attitudes towards immigrants. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 2015; 44:1787-1802.

6. Miklikowska M. Like parent, like child? Development of prejudice and tolerance towards immigrants. British Journal of Psychology 2015 (in press).

7. van Zalk MHW, Kerr M, van Zalk N, Stattin H. Xenophobia and tolerance towards immigrants in adolescence: Cross-influence processes within friendships. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2013; 41:627-639.

8. van Zalk MHW, Kerr M. Developmental trajectories of prejudice and tolerance toward immigrants from early to late adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 2014; 43:1658-171.

9. Titzmann PF, Brenick A, Silbereisen RK. Friendships fighting prejudice: A longitudinal perspective on adolescents’ cross-group friendships with immigrants.  Journal of Youth and Adolescence 2015; 44:1318-1331.

10. Lyons-Padilla S, Gelfand MJ, Mirahmadi H, Farooq M, van Egmond M. The struggle to belong: Immigrant marginalization and risk for homegrown radicalization. Behavioral Science and Policy 2015 (in press).

11. http://www.npr.org/2014/12/19/371688189/how-can-we-make-the-world-more-c...

12. Decety J, Cowell JM, Lee K, Mahasneh R, Malcolm-Smith S, Selcuk B, Zhou X. The negative association between religiousness and children’s altruism across the world. Current Biology 2015 (in press).