Science on Religion

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God and prejudice

Angry guyMost religions urge their adherents to higher ideals. Love your neighbor. Help the helpless. Forgive. Yet religious people have a reputation for being downright bigoted and prejudiced. Something has to give. In an attempt to determine through empirical research methods the relationship between prejudice and religiosity, Megan Johnson Shen (Mount Sinai School of Medicine) and colleagues conducted research that found that flexibility of religious belief decreases prejudice, while strength in belief in God increases it.

The researchers worry that all too often scientists treat “religion” as one giant uniform, homogenous thing, rather than the very complex entity that it is. So, instead of simply trying to find correlations between something vague and ill-defined like “religiosity,” they opted to have at least two variables. First, they want to measure strength in the belief in a higher power, which for the sake of shorthand they call “God.” And second, the way in which a person holds that belief—that is, literally or symbolically.

The Post-Critical Beliefs Scale (PCBS) separates belief in God from one’s religious flexibility (or rigidity). As such it has two dimensions: (1) exclusion versus inclusion of the transcendent (the God component), and (2) literal versus symbolic interpretation (the flexibility of beliefs component). With this distinction in mind, the researchers made three hypotheses. First, the flexibility of beliefs component would predict tolerance of racial and “value-violating” (specifically in this study, gay men and atheists) minorities. Second, the God component would predict prejudice against the value-violating group. Third and finally, both dimensions would fully mediate the relationship between religiosity and prejudice (that is, there are no other variables involved).

In order to test their hypotheses, the researchers conducted two studies. In the first study, they had 279 Americans complete an online survey. This survey included the PCBS, and it measured prejudice by asking how comfortable one is with social proximity to Arabs, African Americans, gay men, and atheists on a scale from one to three.

The hypothesis concerning the correlation of flexibility of beliefs with prejudice found partial support. Flexibility of beliefs predicted prejudice towards Arabs, gay men, and atheists but not African Americans. As for the second hypothesis, the one connecting God with prejudice against value-violating groups (in this case, gay men and atheists) the hypothesis was fully supported (however, strength of belief in God also correlated with prejudice against Arabs—the researchers think that one explanation for this may be that people confused “Arab” with “Muslim” and thus turn a racial category into a value-violating one).

Testing the third hypothesis required a second study. In this second study, 290 Americans completed a survey similar to the first study, only this one measured religiosity in three additional ways: intrinsic religious orientation (that is, is one religious for the sake of religion itself or is religious merely a means to another end, such as social status?), religious behavior (specifically, attendance, reading of sacred texts, and prayer and/or meditation), and a single additional item that asked, “To what extent do you consider yourself a religious person?” (on a scale from one to seven).

The results from this study partially supported the hypothesis that no other variables other than strength of belief in God and flexibility of beliefs are at play in determining the relationship between religiosity and prejudice. These two variables alone did manage to mediate the prejudice against Arabs, African Americans, and gay men, but not atheists. The researchers wonder if the fact that atheists are generally disliked may account for this gap.

In the end, to put it bluntly, strong belief in God not only correlates but predicts prejudice against value-violating groups (at least gay men and atheists). For the religious, this can’t but be disappointing. The call to love one’s enemies appears to have gone unheeded.

For more see, “Disentangling the belief in God and cognitive rigidity/flexibility components of religiosity to predict racial and value-violating prejudice: A Post-Critical Belief Scale analysis” in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.  

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