Religion Motivates Racism: The Supporting Research

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Yes! It’s another research study being featured on ZackFord Blogs! As per usual, I’ll break things down and share some highlights so you get the most out of the research without digging through the whole report yourself.

Today we’re looking at “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism” by Hall, Matz, & Wood, published December 16, 2009 in Personality and Social Psychology Review (hat tip: Joe.My.God.). The goal of this study is to look at how religiosity impacts racism. The results may or may not be surprising, but they’re certainly interesting.

Before we even look at the abstract, I just want to clarify what a meta-analysis is. In this study, the researchers looked at 55 studies conducted between 1964 (when the Civil Rights Act passed) and 2008 and developed measures to synthesize the results of all of those different studies into one cohesive report of conclusions. In other words, the report we’re reading today tells us what we can learn from 40 years of studies on the topic of religious racism.

The Abstract

Here’s the gist:

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.

Basically, religious people see other races as other religions. Because they see their own religion as morally superior, they are more likely to see other races (religions) as morally inferior. Also, the more likely people are to conform and uphold tradition, the more likely they are to be racist. As we know from recent disaster relief efforts in Haiti, religious groups are more concerned with helping (or converting and then helping) members of their own religion, which reflects what the researchers found that humanitarian values do not motivate racial tolerance.

And yeah, did you see that last little part? The only group who was found to be consistently racially tolerant was the group that regularly questioned religion. Huh.

Read on for more detailed excerpts from the study!

Considering Religious Identity

First, consider the ways that simply identifying with a religious group might motivate racism (p. 3, emphases added):

To the extent that religion tends to be practiced within race, people of other races may appear to belong to religious out-groups. Thus, one basis for the religious identity–racism link is that race serves as a proxy for religious affiliation. Another reason for this link is that people who strongly identify with a religion may be ethnocentric in general. Especially when people undergo early socialization into a particular religion, they might develop a strong tendency to differentiate their own faith from others, and social categorization that contrasts an “us” as opposed to “them” might generalize to other social distinctions including race (Altemeyer, 2003). Further supporting race distinctions, people who appear to be different from the self may be judged to hold different values, perhaps values that are in competition for resources such as political representation or even religious converts. Such perceived competition promotes intergroup prejudice (Sherif, 1966). For example, religious fundamentalists discriminated against homosexuals and single mothers to the extent that these groups were judged to threaten their personally important values (Jackson & Esses, 1997).

It seems as though subscribing to religious belief motivates a characterization of “other” as “bad.” This fits with what Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate today about how people’s disgust with homosexuality leads them to condemn it (a worthwhile read itself).

Religious racism also correlates with fundamentalist religious beliefs as well as extrinsic religiosity (religion motivated by social status, security, and acceptance from others) (p.3, emphases added):

Like religion, racism is a set of beliefs that explain societal traditions, especially those associated with social hierarchies involving White dominance in America. Consistent with this reasoning, stronger values of social conformity and traditionalism are associated with greater intergroup prejudice (Schwartz, 1996). Similarly, political conservatives in the United States are more likely than liberals to endorse ethnocentrism and racism (Federico & Sidanius, 2002; Napier & Jost, 2008). Also relevant, the traditional values associated with the Protestant work ethic are central components of ambivalent racism (I. Katz & Hass, 1988) and have been linked with the expression of modern racism (McConahay, 1986) and symbolic racism (Tarman & Sears, 2005).

Studies have also shown that highly religious people “endorse benevolent values of humanitarianism, which reflect selflessness in relations with close others…but not universalism, which involves accepting diversity and expressing concern for the welfare of all people and nature” (p. 4). In other words, humanitarianism itself does not promote racial tolerance because it does not explicitly address out-groups.

Individuals who were intrinsically religious (i.e. “committed to religion as an end in itself”) were more overtly racially tolerant, but were not necessarily less racist (p. 4):

…intrinsically religious people may report racial tolerance largely because of a desire to appear nonracist (Batson & Stocks, 2005) but nevertheless may show racial prejudice when it is indirectly measured.

They talk the talk of tolerance, but they don’t walk the walk of tolerance.

The study also looked at agnosticism, or what they call a quest motivation (a spiritual quest or readiness to face existential questions,  acknowledge religious doubts, and accept change). This definition totally confirms my point of view that some clear distinctions can be made between agnosticism and atheism, though the study found that “quest and racial tolerance in the general population are best understood in terms of a lack of religiosity” (p. 4). The important piece here though is that there were positive associations between quest and racial tolerance.

Some Interesting Findings – Imagery, Cognitive Style, Doubt, and Sex Differences

Here are some of the other interesting ideas from the discussion and conclusion (p. 10, emphasis added):

A related reason why religious in-groups may be prejudiced toward dissimilar others is that the divine in religious worship is often imbued with in-group attributes. That is, religious figures are constructed in believers’ own images. As Xenophanes in the sixth century B.C. noted, “Greek gods were invariably fair skinned and blue-eyed whereas African gods were invariably dark skinned and dark-eyed (joking that cows would surely worship gods that were strikingly cowlike)” (quoted in Epley, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2007, p. 865).

This discussion point reminds me so much of the movie Dogma (the linked clips have spoilers!). How different would Catholicism be with “Buddy Christ” instead of a crucifix? What if Jesus was black? What if God really was a woman? Imagery reflects and impacts believers in profound ways.

Here we see the way dualistic thinking or belief in one truth over other ways of thinking has profoundly negative consequences (p. 10):

Religious fundamentalism is associated with a rigid, dogmatic cognitive style that preferences one truth and way of being over others and thereby promotes in-group favoritism and out-group derogation. In support, the positive correlation between fundamentalism and prejudice disappeared after controlling for authoritarianism. Thus, the religious fundamentalism–racism relation plausibly was because of authoritarian beliefs as well as conformity values.

In other words, if you don’t believe that there is only one true set of answers to life’s questions, you’re less likely to be racist.

Their research found that “quest” more often reflected agnostic doubt about religion than it did a type of religion itself. Since it was the questioning agnostics who were more likely to express racial tolerance, this added to their conclusion that “religiosity is not associated with racial tolerance” (p. 11).

Another interesting metaregression used distinctions between men and women’s motivations for religiosity to confirm the way values and prejudice are related (p. 11, emphases added):

Additional support for our inference that basic life values underlie religious racism comes from supplementary analyses on the sex composition of the samples. Religious racism should vary with sex because women, compared with men, tend to hold stronger benevolent values that promote religiosity and stronger universalist values that promote tolerance toward out-group members (Schwartz & Rubel, 2005). ….

studies with higher percentages of women were more likely to report that religiosity promoted racial tolerance. In summary, analyses on the attributes of the participants in the original studies were consistent with our claim that basic life values underlie the religion–prejudice relation.


In addition to concluding that “the intergroup dynamics established by religious identification along with conventional life values appeared to drive religious racism” (p. 11), the researchers also defend the generalizability of their findings (p. 11, emphases added):

The participants in the studies we reviewed were predominantly White Christians in the United States. To what extent can our conclusions about religiosity and prejudice be generalized to other cultures and religious faiths? Given that divinities are accorded attributes of the religious groups and that all religions teach moral superiority, we anticipate that religious group identification is typically associated with out-group derogation. An additional reason to suspect that our findings hold across world religions comes from evidence that the conservative values that promote both religiosity and racism are stable across cultures and across religious faiths. …

Moreover, we found no relation between the endorsement of religious doctrine specific to the Christian faith and racial prejudice. It thus seems that the motives to be religious also are a motivator of racism, and these motives appear to be broadly applicable as a framework for understanding religious racism.

So, next time you hear someone arguing that religion can be a force for good in the world, ask them, “at what cost?” and use this study to support your argument. If we want to have a real conversation about “Science vs. Religion,” we can just look at the mounting evidence confirming the negative impacts of religion on society. It’s disturbing and alarming, but honestly, it’s not that surprising.

Some related posts:

» Society Is Better Off Without Religion: The Supporting Research (12/7/09)
» We Have To Stop Letting God Be A Crutch For Hate (11/6/09)

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There are 1 Comments to "Religion Motivates Racism: The Supporting Research"

  • Alan E. says:

    I find that a lot of religiously “open-minded” people like to say that their god is a “She.” I have felt that this is the same where mentioned above that “religious figures are constructed in believers’ own images“. Feminist-oriented religious types like to try and say that god could be a she, but they assert just as strongly that they are right with the female model as those with the male model. It is rare that you find the argument that it doesn’t matter because: 1) your god doesn’t procreate, he just created 2)where is the proof that your god is either male or female and 3) it doesn’t matter anyways because there isn’t a god (ok this one is a common argument).

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