Does religious belief make you more racist?

Does religious belief make you more racist?

Posted Jul 06, 2010

Many people go to church in the hopes of bettering themselves at some level. Numerous studies showing benefits like increased happiness, health and longevity for the faithful have surfaced in recent years. But new research suggests that religious belief can also make you more racist. A recent meta-analysis (considered the gold standard for evidence in the research world) synthesized numerous studies from the Civil Rights Era to the present, considering intrinsic, extrinsic, and quest/agnostic religiosity, and found positive correlations between religiosity and racism in all but the agnostic group.

Intrinsic, extrinsic, and agnostic, terms popularized by Harvard Psychologist Gordon Allport in the 1950’s and 60’s, are still widely used by social scientists conducting studies on religious belief and practice. Broadly defined, they correlate with fundamentalist and evangelical Christians (extrinsics), liberal Christians (intrinsics) and seekers or agnostics. Extrinsics prize social belonging and conformity to the status quo, and tend more toward right-wing authoritarianism. (Fundamentalists believe in inerrant and literal belief in the Bible and clock in at about 13% of the population; Evangelicals believe in inerrant but not literal belief, leaving room for interpretation, and are closer to 30% of the population). This is the group that provides the most fuel for red-state/blue-state, theist/atheist debates.

Intrinsics value the internal seeking relationship and tend toward more progressive social ideals. Liberal Christians generally believe that the meaning and interpretation of the Bible can change with the evolving values of the time, as opposed to fundamentalists who take a much more static view. Agnostics are a bit further down the openness line, religious to the extent that they are open to existential questions but undecided to the point of affiliational lack.  

The study found that both extrinsic and intrinsic believers showed more racial prejudice than those who were not religious. Extrinsics showed more racism in both explicit and implicit measures. Intrinsics stated that they were less racist on explicit self-report,  but were equally biased on implicit measures (reaction-time tasks bypassing self-report, such as the ones you can try here). Only the agnostics were less racist on both counts.

There are a number of caveats to be considered before you drop your church membership or go trolling for prejudice on the nearest Christian message board. As we all know, correlation does not equal causation. When considering the effects of priming studies, one must be aware that certain primes can activate or trigger entire clusters of values. This means that it may not be religiosity per se, but some third factor related to religiosity explaining the link to racism. In response to the meta-analysis Ravi Iyer suggested that group morality might be the third factor (i.e. maybe boy scouts and baseball teams would have a similar findings). The meta-analyzers themselves noted that when they controlled for authoritarianism, the correlation between racism and religiosity disappeared.

To get to the bottom of this causality question, an experiment was conducted at Baylor University (a Southern Christian University). This was the first study specifically designed to gauge the effects of religious primes on racial attitudes. The researchers subliminally primed different groups of participants with neutral and Christian primes, and found that the group receiving the religious primes showed a small but significant increase in prejudicial attitudes toward African Americans. It should be noted that the groups tested were predominantly white, Christian Americans. While the researchers postulated that similar effects might be found across cultures, more work remains to be done. And this does not broach, of course, the historical role that the black church has played in surviving and fighting racism.

The prejudice finding is one in a long line of paradoxical outcomes surmising the net gains and losses of religion in society. Religiosity has been shown to make people more generous, happy, healthy and connected; but religion has also been linked to increased prejudice, and openness towards aggression or terrorism. The good news is that even the extrinsically motivated fundamentalists displayed less racism across time. As the status quo changes, and racism becomes less socially acceptable, people accordingly display less prejudice, religious or not. But the dark side to all this cohesion and group connectivity may be that it bonds us to those perceived as in-group members, while making us more wary and hostile toward outsiders seen as challenging our core values.