Religious Fundamentalism means Authoritarianism and Prejudice

June 11, 2011

A previous blog described how religious people are more dogmatic and conservative.  Researchers have long been investigating other relationships between strong religious conviction and psychological traits.  For example, are rigidly religious people more likely to be people who are prejudiced, authoritarian, or militaristic? 

A powerful tool for social scientists is the “meta-analysis” which aggregates the results of other studies.  A single published study may be produced from examining hundreds of people or more, which is a large sampling, but a meta-analysis of dozens of such studies looking for the same thing obtains results about many, many thousands of people. 

A new meta-analysis has just been published, looking for correlations between religious conviction and unfortunate traits such as authoritarianism and ethnocentrism:

McCleary, D. F., Quillivan, C. C., Foster, L. N., & Williams, R. L. . Meta-Analysis of Correlational Relationships Between Perspectives of Truth in Religion and Major Psychological Constructs. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality  (May 23, 2011).

This meta-study especially looked at “fundamentalism” and “quest” varieties of religious belief — people who think that their religion supplies infallible truths on the one hand, and people who take religion to be more about a spiritual quest for growth on the other. (These are primary kinds of believers, and there are others besides, but this study only focused on these two categories.)

Top among this article’s conclusions were results like these: 

Fundamentalism correlated positively with authoritarianism, ethnocentrism, militarism, and prejudice, whereas quest correlated (mainly negatively) with only two of those constructs (authoritarianism and prejudice). Fundamentalism and quest correlated with the latter variables in opposite directions.

Those positive correlations means that fundamentalists are noticeably more authoritarian — defined like this, “Authoritarian individuals submit to authorities, aggress against those inclined to challenge authorities, and embrace societal standards perceived as established by authorities.”  This study’s authors emphasize this strong correlation: “By far the strongest and most consistent psychological variable linked to the two truth orientations was authoritarianism.”  By contrast, “questing” believers are noticeably less likely to be authoritarian or prejudiced.

Another strong correlation is between fundamentalism and ethnocentrism:  

With regard to the kindred concepts of ethnocentrism and prejudice, fundamentalism was associated with an in-group/out-group mentality and with prejudice toward groups whose ethnicity, values, or sexual orientations tended to deviate from fundamentalist norms. On the other hand, religious quest tended to be either negatively related or unrelated to measures of prejudice and discrimination. Fundamentalism has also been moderately and positively related to the advocacy of military power in forging change in other societies.

Specifically, with regard to the correlation between fundamentalism and prejudice, this study was able to identify the greatest kinds of prejudices:

Overall, we classified 12 of 27 effect sizes between fundamentalism and various measures of prejudice as large, with an overall average weighted effect size of .45. Although these studies included assessment of prejudice toward communists, women, and Blacks, the principal target of fundamentalists’ prejudice was homosexuals and/or homosexuality.

Well, are there any big surprises from a comprehensive study like this?  It’s only natural that eroding uncivil authoritarianism and ethnic and sexual prejudice is going to require diminishing religious fundamentalism. 

But the reality behind these confirmed stereotypes is even more serious.  Pause for a moment and consider why fundamentalism permits a “perfect storm” of damage against core civic virtues and principles of democracy.  By combining intellectual rigidity, preference for stern authority, prejudice against others, and a willingness to use military power, fundamentalism is connected to a willingness to impose just one narrow way of life on everyone else, by force if necessary.  That’s not just psychologically unhealthy — it is political pestilence.  These are not democratic values.  Fundamentalism is indeed the high road to tyranny and fascism.  Eroding fundamentalism is necessary to preserving the democratic way of life.