Loving your neighbors (When you’re religious)

By all appearances, being religious isn’t always about being especially kind. Religious people can be really gosh-darn mean, and so religiousness is commonly associated with prejudicial attitudes as much or more than with attitudes of welcome and acceptance. But are people more likely to be prejudiced by being religious? This (very important!) question is troublesome for researchers nowadays; the available data isn’t entirely clear or consistent. But recent research by psychiatrist and behavioral scientist Megan Johnson Shen of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, along with Megan C. Haggard, Daniel C. Strassburger, and Wade C. Rowatt of Baylor University, offers invaluable insight into the confusing relationship between religiosity and prejudice.

Shen and colleagues noticed that existing research shows correlations between specific indices of religiosity and, confusingly, both prejudice and tolerance towards outgroups (“outgroups” are defined by the “ingroup”, however fairly or not.) The kinds of outgroups most frequently featured in these studies were “ethnic/racial” and “value-violating” (those who deviate from or oppose the moral norms of the ingroup.) And here’s the really curious thing: while being religious was related to both prejudiced and tolerant attitudes towards the ethnic/racial outgroups of African Americans, Arabs, and Hispanics, being religious was related unambiguously only to prejudiced attitudes towards value-violating outgroups of gay men, lesbians, and atheists. Given these findings, it appears that the way in which members of a religious ingroup tend to view members of their outgroups varies with the particular outgroup in question. Shen and colleagues designed their study with two critical objectives:

First, rather than examining only indirectly how much religious people love their neighbors by using the negative measure of “religious non-liking” (prejudice towards outgroup members) as all the previous studies had done, they decided to directly examine the opposite, positive measure: “allophilia” (“like or love” of outgroups). This was an important improvement. For one thing, positive and negative measures on the same variable are not always inversely related, meaning that a low degree of prejudice might not reliably imply a high degree of allophilia. For another, positive measures of attitudes are more predictive of actual behavior than are negative measures. So the researchers decided to test the allophilia of their religious participants directly.

The second objective was to determine whether measures of “cognitive rigidity” (inflexible thinking) significantly mediated — that is to say, explained or accounted for — whatever statistical relationship would be shown between religiosity and allophilia. They predicted that cognitively rigid religious ideology would significantly mediate the relationship and that, when it was controlled for, religiosity and allophilia would be positively related. Once the really inflexibly minded religious participants were statistically eliminated from the equation, two intriguing results appeared:

(1) There was no association between religiosity and allophilia regarding “value-violating outgroups” (in this study, gay men, lesbians, and atheists).

Religiosity, as mentioned before, had been associated with prejudice towards these value-violating outgroups. But none of those studies controlled for the variable of cognitive rigidity among their religious participants. This one did. The implication here is that, not counting those who maintain uncompromising and intransigent religious ideologies, religious folk are not necessarily more likely than the non-religious to be prejudiced towards gays, lesbians, and atheists. This does not mean the study indicates that religious people in general think especially well of these outgroups (there was no association, rather than a positive one). The lack of a correlation between religiousness and allophilia towards neighbors with these characteristics both helps and hurts their hypothesis that being religious tends to encourage those who are not cognitively rigid to actually like members of these outgroups.

(2) There was a significant, positive association between religiosity and allophilia regarding “ethnic/racial outgroups” (in this study, African Americans, Arabs, and Hispanics).

This result also contrasts with previous studies. Several found a negative association between religiosity and prejudice towards these ethnic/racial outgroups, while others found no association. Again, none of those studies was designed to control for the potential effect that cognitively rigid religious participants might have in the overall statistical outcome. When the researchers in this study did so, they found a significantly positive association between religiousness and allophilia regarding people with these characteristics. Interestingly, however, they found that when cognitive rigidity was uncontrolled, the association with allophilia was significantly negative (meaning that religiosity was associated with prejudice towards ethnic/racial groups). The implication of this finding is that the internalization of religious ideals relates to increased liking of racial/ethnic outgroups.

Both findings imply that cognitively rigid religiousness functions oppositely and can act as a “suppressor” variable that keeps a positive or not-so-negative association from appearing in a sample of religious people. In other words, those religious people who score high on measures of prejudice towards outgroups are not fairly representative of the whole religious population. Shen and colleagues claims this is the surest and most noteworthy finding in their study.

Of course, as with any research, there are limitations to interpreting the outcomes. A few are particularly important to mention in this case. To begin with, this study shows correlations, not causes. Any claims about people being inclined by being religious towards allophilia or prejudice are inferential. Also, because this sample was gathered online, people without access to the internet were automatically excluded from involvement in the analysis, limiting the representativeness of the sample. Lastly, because this study tested attitudes rather than behavior expressing allophilia, it doesn’t assess how these religious participants really do treat members of their outgroups. It’s reasonable to expect that their attitudes are predictive of their actual behavior, but the extent to which that’s true is not demonstrated in this study.

Still, these results contest the notion that the religious population in the United States is generally more prejudiced than the non-religious population, while also suggesting that being religious might help you love your neighbors. Well, at least some of those neighbors, and only if your religious ideology doesn’t rigidify your cognitive style. The religious participants in this study (249 adult male and female Americans gathered online; all heterosexual; almost all white; and of different religious affiliations) showed positive attitudes towards neighbors of minority ethnic and racial heritages. But that same allophilia could not be found in their attitudes towards their gay, lesbian, and atheist neighbors. Not surprisingly, allophilia was not found with regard to any of these outgroups among those with inflexible religious ideologies.

So it seems that being religious can be productive, unproductive, or even counterproductive of one’s loving his or her outgroup neighbors. How exactly one internalizes religious ideology is shown in this study to be the crucial variable mediating that relationship. As far as religious persons may be concerned, Shen and colleagues suggest trying to create ways of doing two things at once: increasing the internalization of religious values that promote allophilia and decreasing cognitive rigidity, which typically precludes it and promotes prejudice instead. Being religious can both stretch and stiffen one’s mind. And as anyone knows from experience, being of a mind to love neighbors who look, behave, or believe differently requires flexibility.

For more, see “Testing the Love Thy Neighbor Hypothesis: Religions’ Association With Positive Attitudes Toward Ethnic/Racial and Value-Violating Outgroups,” in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

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