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THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN
CHURCH MEMBERSHIP AND PREJUDICE

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Quotations:

"Some people say the only cure for prejudice is more religion; some say the only cure is to abolish religion." G.W. Allport, 1954.

"If we accept the logic of the Declaration [of Independence] , reverence for God is not just a matter of religious faith, it is the foundation of justice and citizenship in our republic." Alan Keyes, Republican presidential candidate, 1995

"Faith is a euphemism for prejudice and religion is a euphemism for superstition." Paul Keller, American rationalist

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Applying the Golden Rule:

One of the most important doctrines within all major world religions is the Ethic of Reciprocity -- the belief that we should treat others as we would like to be treated. This appears in the Bible as the Golden Rule:

bullet"...thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Leviticus 19:18
bullet"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." Matthew 7:12

Unfortunately, many people do not extend the Ethic:

bulletto those of other religions; 
bulletto those of other faith groups within their religion; 
bulletto any other people.

The opposite of the Golden Rule is prejudice: arbitrarily classifying an entire group of individuals on the basis of gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, language, age, ability status, etc. as sub-human -- people who are not worthy to receive full human rights. 

In recent centuries, such prejudice has been supported by some denominations and fought by others. Past and present ethical/religious battles include: the abolition of slavery, accepting women for ordination, allowing inter-racial marriage, ending racial segregation, and, most recently, working towards equal rights for gays and lesbians, including the right to marry.

Sociologists and psychologists have been studying the relationship between faith and prejudice for half a century.

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Studies of prejudice during the 1940's:

The first studies of prejudice among church members were rather simplistic. The researchers divided the test subjects into two groups: those who were church members and those who were not. 1,2 The results of each study consistently showed that church "members were more prejudiced than nonmembers. The interpretation that easily came to mind was that the church produces prejudice." 3 Subsequent studies showed that this was a naive conclusion. Their data was correct: on average, church goers are more bigoted than non-church goers. However, they were asking the wrong question, and so obscured valuable information.

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Studies of prejudice dur ing the 1950's:

Researchers examined the level of prejudice as a function of the test subject's degree of commitment to their faith. They measured the subjects' involvement with, and loyalty to, their faith by inquiring how often that the individual went to church  4,5,6 They found that:

bulletPeople who never attended church exhibited a low level of prejudice.
bulletThe most highly prejudiced individuals were those who went to church once or twice a month.
bulletThose who went to church 11 or more times a month were the least prejudiced of all. 

Results from a typical study were: 6

Church attendance  0 1 2 3 4 5-7 8-10 >11/mo
Prejudice score  14.7 25.0 26.0 23.8 22.0 19.9 16.3 11.7

These three studies showed that churches did not create prejudice in people. If they did, then one would expect that level of prejudice would continue to grow indefinitely as church attendance increased. The significant decrease in prejudice among highly committed church members indicates that some other factor or factors are at work.

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Studies of prejudice during the 1960's: 

One of the main researchers, G.W. Allport, developed the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic religion:

bulletIntrinsic religious belief:
bulletviews God as loving, supportive, forgiving.
bulletviews each person as unique and special.
bulletinclusive in vision; views all people as their neighbors
bulletviews death positively 
bulletlooks upon religion as a search for truth
bulletnumerically small 
bulletexhibit low levels of prejudice.
bulletExtrinsic religious belief:
bulletviews God as stern, vindictive and punitive.
bulletviews people in terms of social categories: sex, age, status.
bulletexclusionist in vision; views their in-group as their neighbors
bulletviews death negatively
bulletlooks upon religion for its utilitarian value, as a means to other ends.
bullet"make up the bulk of churchgoers"
bullet"manifest high levels of bigotry." 3

Researchers found that most parishioners exhibited an extrinsic religious belief system, and that these principles led to a high level of prejudice and bigotry.

Various investigators such as Strommen, Tisdale Vanecko, Gorsuch and Aleshire "also noted more prejudiced people among fundamentalists," compared to other Evangelicals, and followers of mainline and liberal denominations.

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References:

  1. R.K. Merton, "Facts and factitiousness in ethnic opinionnaires," American Sociological Review, (1940), 5, Pages 13 to 28.
  2. R.N. Sanford & D.J. Levinson, "Ethnocentrism in relation to some religious attitudes and practices," American Psychologist, (1948), 3, Pages 350 & 351.
  3. Bernard Spilka, et al., "The psychology of religion: An empirical approach," Prentice-hall, (1983), Pages 18 & 19; 270 to 274.
  4. H.J. Parry, "Protestants, Catholics and Prejudice," International Journal of Opinion and Attitude Research, (1949), 3, Pages 205 to 213.
  5. R.N. Sanford, "Ethnocentrism in relation to some religious attitudes and practices," essay in T.W. Adorno et al., "The authoritarian personality," Harper, (1950), Pages 208 to 221.
  6. E.L. Struening, "The dimensions, distribution and correlates of authoritarianism in a midwestern university faculty population," Perdue University, (1957). Unpublished doctoral dissertation.
  7. "Religion: Society's oppressor," The Southeast Michigan chapter, Freedom from Religion Foundation, at: http://www.atheistalliance.org/michigan/ 
  8. Additional references which we have not yet been able to check:
    bulletR.L. Gorsuch, "Religion and prejudice: Lessons not learned from the past", International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, (1993), Vol. 3, Pages 29-32.
    bulletBob Alterneyer & Bruce Hunsberger, "Authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, quest and prejudice," International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, (1993), Vol. 2, Pages 113-133.
    bulletH. Chalfant, W. Peek, "Religious affiliation, religiosity and racial prejudice," Review of Religious Research, (1983) Vol. 25, Nbr. 2, Page 155-161
    bulletC. Jacobson, "Religiosity and prejudice: an update and denominational analysis," Review of Religious Research, (1998) Vol. 39, Nbr. 3, Page 264-272

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Copyright 1999 to 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-OCT-29
Latest update: 2006-SEP-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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