Racism is linked to Religious dogmatism

February 16, 2010

Religious people can be racist, and that’s not news.  But are they more likely to be racist than non-religious people?  A new study now confirms this hypothesis.

The February issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review has published a meta-analysis of 55 independent studies conducted in the United States which considers surveys of over 20,000 mostly Christian participants. Religious congregations generally express more prejudiced views towards other races. Furthermore, the more devout the community, the greater the racism. 

We also read this additional fascinating conclusion from the authors’ summary:

"The authors failed to find that racial tolerance arises from humanitarian values, consistent with the idea that religious humanitarianism is largely expressed to in-group members. Only religious agnostics were racially tolerant."

Is this a surprising result? Humanistic values, such as equal dignity and rights for all humanity, are often professed by many Christian denominations. But does this preaching make any difference to their members’ actual prejudices? Apparently not!

This study finds that a denomination’s demand for devout allegiance to its Christian creed overrides any humanistic message. By demanding such devotion to one specific and dogmatic Christianity, a denomination only encourages its members to view outsiders as less worthy.

— Let’s read that conclusion again: "Only religious agnostics were racially tolerant." Why would religious agnostics be more humanistic and less racist?

Religious agnostics would be people who combine a religious/spiritual attitude in living life with a humble admission that they don’t know if their approach is the only right way. Religious agnostics are pluralistic — they have no problem admiring how different people can enjoy different religious paths. And it is precisely this lack of dogmatism which permits humanistic values to shine through. Religious exclusivism defeats humanistic universalism, but religious pluralism enhances humanistic universalism.

The message to humanists? It’s not enough to ask religious people to be more humanistic. Humanists must ask for less dogmatism across the board — if Christians would be more humanistic, they must surrender their conviction that their way is the only way. Humanism does not eliminate reverence, but it asks for a higher perspective — something like "reverence for reverence." Revere your own religious path, but also respect and revere others’ ability to devote themselves to a higher good in their own way. It is precisely that kind of universal respect for all paths which can reduce prejudice.

As for the nonreligious, this "reverence for reverence" is essential to humanism in the first place. We should all be able to create our own way of relating to the wide universe as we learn to understand it. And the humanistic ideal is that everyone can do this together in mutual respect and peace.