Even though religions preach love of humanity, decades of psychological research have linked religiousness with prejudice. In recent times, certain types of prejudice, particularly racism, have become socially unacceptable and are nowadays condemned by religious leaders. However, religious prejudice against homosexuals and against atheists is still tolerated and even encouraged by mainstream religious groups. Atheists in particular appear to be one of the most vilified minority groups in America today. Some researchers have argued that how dogmatically people hold their beliefs is more important to religious prejudice than the actual content of their beliefs. However, a recent study suggests that when it comes to prejudice against gays and atheists, the content of the belief – specifically belief in God – is as important, perhaps even more important, than how dogmatically a person holds those beliefs.
Different kinds of religiosity and prejudice
The relationship between religiosity and various kinds of prejudice has been noted for a long time. For example, studies from the 1950s found that church-goers were more likely to hold racist views than people who never attend church. Religiosity is a complex concept and so researchers have attempted to understand which particular features of religiousness are particularly relevant to prejudice. Gordon Allport, for example, proposed that people can have either intrinsic or extrinsic motives for religious behavior. Extrinsic motives are ones where religion is seen as a means to another end (e.g. attending church for social reasons) whereas people with intrinsic motives see religion as an end in itself, and therefore the central guiding principle in their lives. Allport was of the view that extrinsic religiosity was associated with the negative features of religion, such as prejudice, whilst intrinsic religiosity was a more “mature” approach, associated with the best qualities of religion. Allport even claimed that intrinsically religious people have “no place for rejection, contempt, or condescension” toward others (Hall, Matz, & Wood, 2010). However, while research has shown that extrinsic religiosity is positively associated with racism, intrinsic religiosity is largely uncorrelated with racism, suggesting that intrinsically religious people are little different from people who are not religious with regard to racial prejudice. Additionally, there is evidence that people’s ratings of intrinsic religiosity are affected by socially desirable responding, so that intrinsically religious people may be more concerned with the appearance of being virtuous, rather than the reality.
Fundamentalism strongly predicts prejudice
An alternative approach has been to consider how dogmatically a person holds their religious beliefs. Dogmatism may be considered a sign of cognitive inflexibility, and people who are inflexible in their thinking may be more likely to hold stereotyped views of minority groups that promote prejudice. In support of this, a number of studies have linked religious fundamentalism in people of many different religions – including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, as well as Christians – with increased anti-gay prejudice (Hunsberger, 1995). Holding absolutist beliefs that forbid one to question dogma and that regard the world as divided into good and evil tends to be conducive to prejudice. In contrast, religious people who value willingness to question one’s beliefs, who acknowledge that other beliefs might also contain truth, and who are non-authoritarian, tend to be less prejudiced, although not less so than non-religious people (Hunsberger, 1995).