Why Religion Can Lead to Racism

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

In the United States, religious people are more racist than average. That fact has been known for decades, and it’s rather surprising given that mainstream religions are unanimous in preaching racial tolerance. Just why this should be is not well understood.
Does religion really cause racism? Are racists drawn to religion? Three recent studies have shed a little light on these questions, with fascinating results.
Can you make someone more racist simply by subtly reminding them about religion? That’s what Wade Rowatt and his colleagues set out to discover. They gave a group of college students a task that had religious cues embedded within it. The idea was to prime their subconscious with religious thoughts.
Then they asked the students about their racial attitudes. Although the primed students didn’t come straight out and admit to greater racism, their covert racism did increase. The researchers also found that students, when religiously primed, were more likely to agree that they dislike blacks.
So religious thoughts seem to trigger racist thoughts. One obvious explanation for this is that religion tends to increase benevolence toward co-religionists, but can increase hostility toward outsiders.
But in the United States, most whites and blacks are Protestant Christians—not only the same religion, but the same sect! It’s true that worship and religious styles are often segregated, but it seems far-fetched to say that the religious differences came first.
There might be more to this study than first meets the eye, however. Rowatt’s group of students were rather unusual. They were all undergraduates at a Southern Christian university, Baylor University in Texas. There is a powerful tradition of segregation in this region. Perhaps the religious prompts were triggering feelings of social conservatism?
That would fit with the results of a recent analysis of studies reaching back over several decades and looking at the correlation between different aspects of religion and racism (all of which were done mostly or entirely in the United States). This analysis, by Deborah Hall at Duke University and her colleagues, found no correlation between racism and the liberal, “questioning” form of religion. The aspect of religion that was linked strongly to racism was so-called “extrinsic” religiosity—a measure of whether the individual’s religious attitudes are driven by a desire for social conformity and social status.
An even more fascinating finding was that the strength of this correlation is declining. As racist attitudes gradually become socially unacceptable, so the link between “extrinsic” religiosity and racism is ebbing away.
The researchers also found a tight link between fundamentalist religion and racism. This isn’t too surprising, but what was interesting was that there were close parallels between fundamentalism, racism, and right-wing authoritarianism. Fundamentalists also tend to be “right-wing authoritarians”—they value obedience to authority, hostility to outsiders, and conventionalism. When you take this into account, it turns out that right-wing authoritarianism pretty much explains the link between fundamentalism and racism.
The worldview promoted by religious fundamentalism has many facets that look a lot like the precursors of right-wing authoritarianism. Fundamentalists tend to believe that knowledge consists of simple truths that are either right or wrong (good or evil, with us or against us), which are unchanging and which are handed down by a powerful authority and not to be questioned. All of these could lead to right-wing authoritarianism.
Laura Barnes at Oklahoma State University and her graduate student John Hathcoat set out to test this model by analyzing the beliefs of undergraduate students. They used a statistical technique, bootstrapping, to test whether the model was plausible.
They found that three key beliefs about how the world works seemed to mediate the relationship between fundamentalism and authoritarianism: certain knowledge (the idea that there are fixed, absolute truths), simple knowledge (the idea that the world is simple and straightforward, not complex), and omniscient authority (the idea that authority should be obeyed).

This analysis doesn’t prove the causal link, but it does show that it’s plausible. What’s more, they tested a model that worked in the opposite direction and found it didn’t fit the data nearly so well. In other words, fundamentalist beliefs really do seem to lead down a pathway toward right-wing authoritarianism (and so on to racism).

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12 Responses

  1. Mark M says:

    How does this explain the hatred of atheists?

    Observing huminity would drive one to the opposite conclusion. Here is a quick test, which group is more likely to send medical personnel and supplies to a disaster area, a Bible believing church group or your local atheist group (largely made up of college professors)? Historically the Church has shown leadership in improving the quality of life in impoverished areas of the world.

    On the other hand, noted atheists Hitler, Pot, Stalin, Mao all killed millions and showed much more predjudice (racial and otherwise) than is on display in any “fundamentalist” church today.

    You don’t want God to exist so you look for “reasons” to not believe. Knowing that we are responsible to a Creator God is very inconvenient, but inconvenience does not make it less true. This is the authentic invonvenient truth.

  2. Sam says:

    Listen, Mark, I agree with you for the most part, but Hitler did claim to be a Christian. He thought everyone should be a blonde, blue-eyed German Christian. His attitudes obviously were not those of a Christian, but it is what he claimed. Also, do not forget that those with faith have committed atrocities as well, such as the Crusades. Once again, improper attitudes and mindsets, but those people claimed they did what they did for God. I myself am a Christian, but we cannot be overly biased in our criticisms. Just wanted to clarify.

  3. Madcap says:

    What about blacks who are religious, does it work that way as well, or are only white people racists?

  4. Madcap says:

    Sam, Hitler HATED Christianity.
    “You see, it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion.Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?”
    Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich,p. 115
    For more see my post here:

  5. Tom Rees says:

    Madcap – what these studies suggest is that religion leads to racism among whites in the USA because it increase social conservatism. Because American whites are traditionally racist, religion increases that. For cultures that are traditionally other things, religion will increase whatever ‘fundamental social truths’ they hold dear.

  6. TVS says:

    Hitler’s religious beliefs and fanaticism:


    “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” – Mein Kampf

  7. navya says:

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  8. lori says:

    Fascinating that an article about religion and racism turns into an argument about Hitler…

  9. itsnobody says:

    What a joke. I’m non-white living in the US and in reality the US is one of the least racist places, at least in public.

    The most racist countries are atheist and non-religious countries like Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, New Zealand, and any other atheist country.

  10. Aries says:

    Its sad millions of people live their entire lives confined to a man made book, which claims to have the answers to everything…

  11. Jeff says:

    Not surprising at all that an article about (insert here) ON THE INTERNET turned into an argument about Hitler. Goodwin’s Law, it never fails.

  12. Jeff says:

    An interesting article though, certainly religion does not lead inherently to racism, especially not Christianity, but a certain type of religious thought, one which is more concerned with dogma than understanding, with a club mentality and judging of the other, a type of religious thought, in short, popular among “fundamentalists” can easily lead to racism, and various other forms of discrimination. If we are willing to blindly accept what we are told is true because that’s what our ancestors believed, then we are going to accept that old prejudices are right because they are old.

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