A previous article on this site that referenced a study stating that there was a correlation between intelligence and religiosity has garnered a huge response, with 100 comments at the time of writing. Studies like this are very difficult to refute. The raw data is taken, analysed, and a conclusion reached. The conclusion is simply a correlation, and it’s important to note, for the benefit of those not familiar with the statistical analysis of data, that correlation and causation are not the same thing (just because I’m writing this on my laptop, and I’m not being attacked by wild dogs, does not mean that my laptop is some sort of wild dog repellent).

So it was with great interest I came across a recent study, called “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism”, that examined racism and religiosity in America. This was a meta-study, which in fact took in data from 55 separate studies, which in turn collected information from 20,000+ mostly white, mostly Christian Americans. Carl Marziali summarised the study on the USC (University of Southern California) website. To quote:

“So perhaps it’s no surprise that the strongly religious people in our research, who were mostly white Christians, discriminated against others who were different from them — blacks and minorities”

The full study can be found here (warning, requires subscription).

What’s interesting about this study is that the author has gone some way to show causation between racism and religiosity. The general concept underlying this theory stems from what appears to be two fundamental issues with religion.

The first is that religion tends to be practiced within closed social, geographically limited, racially similar groups. This is a discussion I’ve had many times with many religious friends, that were they born in a mostly Muslim country, rather than a mostly Christian country, they would be Muslim rather than Christian. Replaced country with family, or social group, and the effect is still present and clear. If you have a personality that is predisposed to believe in the intangible and unprovable, you will believe in the most prevalent ideology in your social group.

The second concept revolves around morality. The various world religions attempt to achieve ownership of morality. Each proclaims to be more morally robust than the rest. When this self-important, arrogant and “holier than thou” attitude is combined with the sort of social exclusion seen in religious social groups it is natural to see those who are not part of your closed group as immoral. And therefore inferior.

The study concludes that this correlation is strongest amongst those who are the most devout followers of religion, although a strong correlation still exists even with so-called “moderates”. The study does make reference to the fact that these moderates are more likely to want to appear to not be racist, but this was just “lip service”, and did not represent their true views.

An interesting point that is explored addresses the various degrees of correlation between religiosity and racism when compared to the respondent’s reasons for being religious. Understandably, those who are religious out of some mis-guided attempt to fit in with a particular social group became less racist as it became more socially unacceptable. Note that it is the opinion of others that is important to these people, rather than any internal or external moral compass or the desire to do what is “right”.

Note: I’d like to point out that the potential causation has to be taken at face value. The results of the study do not confirm nor deny this causation. Additionally, the suggested causes are more closely associated with the social situations religious people tend to find themselves in, especially when growing up, as opposed to religion itself. I’ve not seen a similar study that uses respondents from social groups that are closed for reasons other than religion in order to perform a fair comparison. One could certainly argue that if there was no religion, these closed (and closed minded) social groups would not exist in the first place, which would in turn break down certain barriers in society.