Posted on July 8, 2010

Does Religious Belief Make You More Racist?

Sarah Estes Graham, Psychology Today, July 6, 2010

{snip} But new research suggests that religious belief can also make you more racist. A recent meta-analysis (considered the gold standard for evidence in the research world) synthesized numerous studies from the Civil Rights Era to the present, considering intrinsic, extrinsic, and quest/agnostic religiosity, and found positive correlations between religiosity and racism in all but the agnostic group.

Intrinsic, extrinsic, and agnostic, terms popularized by Harvard Psychologist Gordon Allport in the 1950’s and 60’s, are still widely used by social scientists conducting studies on religious belief and practice. Broadly defined, they correlate with fundamentalist and evangelical Christians (extrinsics), liberal Christians (intrinsics) and seekers or agnostics. Extrinsics prize social belonging and conformity to the status quo, and tend more toward right-wing authoritarianism. {snip} This is the group that provides the most fuel for red-state/blue-state, theist/atheist debates.

Intrinsics value the internal seeking relationship and tend toward more progressive social ideals. {snip} Agnostics are a bit further down the openness line, religious to the extent that they are open to existential questions but undecided to the point of affiliational lack.

The study found that both extrinsic and intrinsic believers showed more racial prejudice than those who were not religious. Extrinsics showed more racism in both explicit and implicit measures. Intrinsics stated that they were less racist on explicit self-report, but were equally biased on implicit measures (reaction-time tasks bypassing self-report, {snip}). Only the agnostics were less racist on both counts.

There are a number of caveats to be considered before you drop your church membership or go trolling for prejudice on the nearest Christian message board. As we all know, correlation does not equal causation. When considering the effects of priming studies, one must be aware that certain primes can activate or trigger entire clusters of values. {snip} The meta-analyzers themselves noted that when they controlled for authoritarianism, the correlation between racism and religiosity disappeared.

To get to the bottom of this causality question, an experiment was conducted at Baylor University (a Southern Christian University). This was the first study specifically designed to gauge the effects of religious primes on racial attitudes. The researchers subliminally primed different groups of participants with neutral and Christian primes, and found that the group receiving the religious primes showed a small but significant increase in prejudicial attitudes toward African Americans. It should be noted that the groups tested were predominantly white, Christian Americans. {snip}