New research helps explain why religious belief can be both positively and negatively associated with prejudicial attitudes. The findings have been published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
“My colleagues and I observed that the relationship between religiousness and prejudice is complex,” said study author James A. Shepperd, the R. David Thomas Endowed Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida.
“Some religious people are highly prejudiced. Previous research has indicated that the prejudice corresponds with being dogmatic, obedient, and punitive in one’s religious beliefs. Yet other religious people appear non-prejudiced. We sought to identify aspects of religiousness that are linked to non-prejudice.”
The researchers surveyed 865 adolescents regarding their religiousness, love of humanity, socially desirable responding, feelings towards various social groups, and universalism.
Shepperd and his colleagues found that greater intrinsic religiousness was linked to more positive attitudes toward Black people but more negative attitudes toward gay people.
In other words, participants who agreed more strongly with statements such as “religious beliefs influence all my dealings in life” were more likely to also say they felt more “warm” towards Black individual and more “cold” toward gay individuals.
“Why the difference? Religious people appear to view homosexuality, but not skin color, as a violation of their religious values. They reject people with beliefs contrary to their religious values,” Shepperd explained.
More intrinsically religious participants also tended to show less universalism — meaning they were more likely to favor people with similar beliefs over people with dissimilar beliefs.
The researchers also found that greater intrinsic religiousness was associated with a stronger love for humanity and higher favorability ratings for social groups in general.
“Like other aspects of religion, intrinsic religiousness has a negative component — a tendency to discriminate between people who do versus do not share one’s values. However, intrinsic religiousness also has two positive features: A general love for humanity and a tendency to indiscriminately view all people positively,” Shepperd told PsyPost.
“If you remove these virtuous aspects of religion from the equation, religiousness turns dark; it is no longer linked to lower prejudice toward Black people and is linked to greater prejudice toward gay people.”
The study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“Our sample was adolescents from Florida who were mostly Christian. It remains to be seen whether our findings generalize to adults, to people in other parts of the country/world, and to people who belong to other religions. We have no reason to believe that our findings our unique to our sample, but these effects deserve replication,” Shepperd told PsyPost.
“Our study relied on self-reports. Although the responses were completely anonymous, our sample may not have been completely forthcoming and their reports may not match their behaviors.”
The study, “The Link Between Religiousness and Prejudice: Testing Competing Explanations in an Adolescent Sample“, was authored by James A. Shepperd, Gabrielle Pogge, Nikolette P. Lipsey, Colin Tucker Smith, and Wendi A. Miller.