Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Religion, Secularism, and Xenophobia

Two new surveys ask: Who will welcome the stranger?

Two new surveys were recently published, both showing the same thing: Religious people were more likely to be suspicious and unwelcoming of people who are different, while secular people were more likely to be open and accepting of those who are of a different race, ethnicity, religion, or country.

Put another way: In the surveys, tribalism and ethnocentrism were strongly correlated with being religious, while exhibiting a more universalistic, cosmopolitan embracing of all of humanity was strongly correlated with being secular.

Let’s start with the first survey, a 2018 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study looking at how Americans feel about the significant demographic changes that are taking place in the United States. In this study, Americans were asked how they feel about census predictions indicating that by the year 2043, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and other peoples of color will constitute a combined majority of the population, with whites being in the minority. More than half of white Evangelicals (52%) said that this demographic shift would be a negative development, 39% of mainline Protestants similarly see it in a negative light, along with 32% of Catholics. But the “religious group” least likely to see such a change negatively were actually those without any religion at all; only 23% of non-religious/secular Americans said that they viewed the predicated changing racial and ethnic demographics as a bad thing.

The second new survey comes from Europe. In this 2018 Pew study, it was found that religious Europeans are considerably more ethnocentric, more nationalistic, more anti-immigrant, and more suspicious of Jews and Muslims than secular Europeans. For example, while 54% of church-attending Christians strongly agree with the statement that “our culture is superior to others,” and 48 percent of non-practicing Christians share such a view, only 25 percent of secular people do. And while around 30 percent of both church-attending Christians and non-practicing Christians say that they are not willing to accept Muslims into their families, only 11 percent of secular people express such a sentiment. And in most European nations, Christians are significantly more likely to want the number of immigrants reduced when compared to their secular peers.

These two studies are not outliers. Social psychological studies, over many decades, have found the same thing: The more religious people are, the more likely they are to manifest an “us vs. them” orientation. As leading Canadian social-psychologist Bob Altemeyer has observed, most relevant studies illustrate that “the more one goes to church, the more likely one will be prejudiced against a variety of others.” Or as American psychologist of religion Ralph Wood similarly echoes, based on his assessment of existing research, “as a broad generalization, the more religious an individual is, the more prejudiced that person is.” Indeed, as a massive meta-analysis conducted in 2009 by Duke University professor Deborah Hall—who analyzed 55 separate studies teasing out at the relationship between religion and racism—found, strongly religious Americans exhibit the highest levels of racism, while atheist and agnostics exhibit the lowest levels.

Some quick caveats are necessary here, before continuing.

First off, none of this research should be taken to mean that all religious people are ethnocentric/racist and all secular people are not. That isn’t how such surveys work. Rather, they simply illustrate percentages, averages, tendencies, and predilections. There are many religious people who are not ethnocentric, racist, prejudice, or xenophobic, and there are plenty of secular people who are. It’s just that when looking at national samples, the likelihood of such sentiments increases among religiously-active populations and decreases among secular populations.

Secondly, it should be stressed that there are also many positive outcomes associated with being religiously involved. For example, frequent church attenders are more likely to be charitable with their time and money than non-church attenders; they are more likely to report subjective feelings of happiness and well-being; and they are even more likely to live longer than the religious unaffiliated. There is no doubt that being religious comes with a host of positive benefits, from communal engagement and increased levels of social capital to lower levels of depression.

But when it comes to being welcoming to refugees in need of safe haven, or being open to a neighbor who is of a different race or religion, or seeing the intrinsic oneness of all of humanity, studies show that religiosity may have a tendency to stifle such humanistic orientations, rather than bolster them.

Why is religiosity so consistently correlated with ethnocentrism, nationalism, and xenophobia? And why are secular people less prone to such prejudicial orientations?

It's unclear, but it could be that religion taps in to our naturally evolved predisposition for in-group favoritism and out-group antipathy. The religious symbols and rituals that bind believers to one another, the cosmologies that construct “saved” vs. “damned” dichotomies, the rigorous patrolling of who a person can or can’t marry, and the obedience to authority that is so endemic of most religious traditions—all of these tend to make people more tribal, which results in viewing outsiders with suspicion, if not contempt.

Thus, in these days of growing nationalism and xenophobia, the humanistic and universalistic values more closely linked to secular culture are truly needed. After all, we are all humans and we want the same things: life, liberty, and freedom from fear and oppression.

More from Psychology Today

More from Phil Zuckerman Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today