The holiday season is a good time to reflect on the question of why, if so many religions are founded on tolerance, highly religious people can act in an intolerant fashion. Finding the cause of this has preoccupied researchers, driven to repeated findings that suggest believers are actually more prejudiced than the non-religious. The leading explanation constructs a picture of the believer as someone possessing a distinctive cocktail of traits that inclines them to judge others harshly: people who are more religious also tend to be less open, averse to ambiguity and complexity, and motivated by values like authoritarianism. But a new article in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology questions this explanation, asking whether the intolerance of the religious needs such complicated answers, or whether they’re really just behaving as we all do: shunning the different.
The researchers Mark Brandt and Daryl Van Tongeren began by noting that evidence about believers’ prejudice centres on their attitudes to certain social groups, some of whom (e.g. those in homosexual relationships) appear quite dissimilar to the believer. To explore this, the pair first conducted a survey and discovered that fundamentalist Christians saw themselves as very different to some groups (the top four being atheists, gay men and lesbians, liberals and feminists) but similar to others (Catholics, tea party members, conservatives, and Christians). Next, they analysed a dataset of 5225 participants and found that fundamentalists only showed greater intolerance than non-religious people to the groups they see as dissimilar. When it came to the groups that the fundamentalists see as similar to themselves (e.g. the Catholics et al), it was actually non-religious people who showed greater intolerance.
This finding was replicated in a separate sample, which also showed that just as the more religious expressed an unwillingness to spend time with groups different from them, so did the irreligious. It’s almost banal: whether we’re religious or not, we dislike those who we see as different, an observation founded in social psychologist Henri Tajfel’s classic research on intergroup discrimination. But that’s the point: do we need a unique account of the religious believer as a special snowflake to explain something that makes sense in terms of fundamental psychological mechanisms?
Maybe not special, but special-ish. The prejudice held by non-believers only went so far: for example, unlike fundamentalists, they never rated people from dissimilar groups as being significantly “less human” than them, and on the other intolerance measures the religious came out higher in two of three studies. Why the difference? By probing fundamentalist people’s beliefs with additional items, the researchers found a hardcore who took a more ideological approach to belief, which they saw as essential to their moral centre (they gave high ratings to questionnaire items like “When thinking about your opinions and beliefs about religion, to what extent would you describe them as central to how you see yourself”). These individuals expressed prejudice towards groups they saw as different from them at a level of intensity simply not seen in most other people, whether highly religious or not. So there is an exceptional intensity of intolerance in some of the highly religious, likely with a distinct psychological foundation, but most other cases of intolerance among the religious are unexceptional – their prejudice is just an example of the wider human tendency to be wary of people who seem different.
For many social scientists, the religious figure is, like the conservative, an exotic figure to understand and categorise. And doubtless faith and religious practice do shape mind, heart and behaviour. But this research suggests we shouldn’t be so quick to attribute the worst excesses of a religious person to their religiosity, but recognise that to some extent those tendencies bubble up unchecked in all of us. With that in mind, do your best to enjoy your coming together this month.
Brandt, M., & Van Tongeren, D. (2015). People Both High and Low on Religious Fundamentalism Are Prejudiced Toward Dissimilar Groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000076
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