Why Are Religious People More Racist?

A recent analysis of religious attitudes by researchers at Duke, USC, and Augsburg College reaches the conclusion that religious people tend to be more racist -- and the more religious you are, the more racist you tend to be. It may come as no surprise that some Christians may not practice what they preach, but what is noteworthy about the study is that it draws a causal link between the structure of religious organizations and racism.

The authors note that religion promotes conformity and respect for tradition. Moreover, it tends to be practiced within race, promoting "in-group identity." Racist attitudes may emerge when "different others" appear to be in competition for resources.

The competing-for-resources analysis is a favorite of evolutionary psychologists, who will invent a Darwinian backstory for all the inane things we do, whether or not they have anything to do with survival. But even if it is true that group membership makes you more likely to denigrate "the other," leaving the analysis at that ignores the role religious ideology plays in promoting prejudice; there are many racially homogenous groups that don't promote racism in the same way. John Shook at the Center for Public Inquiry notes that those who are "spiritual" but do not hew to one religion in particular are not prone to racist beliefs. He suggests why:

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.

As a practical matter, you can't ask every Christian, Muslim, or Jew who believes their faith is the "right" one to abandon this belief, but the antidote to racism in religious communities -- not to mention homophobia -- seems to be a sort of doubt, an acknowledgment that those who do not practice your religion are, like you, pursuing happiness and fulfillment in good faith, and not necessarily going to hell for it. But the ability to put yourself in another's shoes -- "imagination" as philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls it -- is not just a palliative for racial and religious conflict: It's the fundamental agreement in a pluralistic society, which is why the rise of religious fundamentalism in the U.S. is so troubling on many fronts.

-- Gabriel Arana

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