Dehumanizing Christians Part 2 – Who Dehumanizes Christians?

In the first part of my series I examined the dehumanization of Christians as a critique of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). This theory stipulates that certain individuals tend to use authoritarianism in a global manner. I showed that those who exhibit authoritarianism against radicals and feminists are different from those who exhibit authoritarianism against conservative Christians. The notion of authoritarianism as a personality trait limited to only certain types of individuals is simply not accurate.

Authoritarianism has been used to explain the actions of religious and political conservatives. In my last post I pointed out Dean’s argument that authoritarianism has led to Republican extremism. I have always struggled with such assertions as I see extremism in both political camps. Previous research in RWA suggests extremism on only one side of the political spectrum. My first stab at looking at Christian dehumanization did not ask the respondents about their religious and political identities. Fortunately, I followed up with two more surveys that allowed me to investigate whether it is only political and religious conservatives tempted to use authority figures to oppress those they define as deviants.

In addition to asking about religion and politics, I also asked the respondents about their sex, race, education, SES and a variety of other social/demographic factors. You know the sort of stuff we sociologists are socialized to ask about. I wanted to include a table where I compared those who scored in the top 25 percent of my Christian dehumanization scale (see my blog entry last week to get some idea on how it was constructed) to scores for the entire sample. But now I must sheepishly apologize for my poor blogging skills. I tried to include a table so that readers could see the breakdown of the results but I could not format it in an acceptable manner. However the information is available in the book and I can report on the general findings from my work here without a table. Regionally, both groups appear to be dispersed in proportion to the rest of society. However, we see that those with RWA tend to be married while Christian dehumanizers are not. Those with RWA tend to do better financially while Christian dehumanizers are poorer than average. Educationally, those with RWA do not score as high while it seems that Christian dehumanizers do as well as everybody else. I see these results painting a picture of those with RWA as those living in somewhat stable married lives. Conventional lives, if you will, to probably match their conventional beliefs. Christian dehumanizers may be just starting out in life and are not wealthy. They are likely to live the life of a single and thus are not as conventional in lifestyle as authoritarians. However, I suspect that some of the income and marital status differences may be due to my use of Amazon Mechanical Turk to collect my sample as I likely collected a lot of unattached, lower SES individuals who may be attracted to Turk to make money.

But these effects are relatively weak compared to the political and religious effects which reinforce my speculation of conventionality (Regression models supported this assertion about the power of political and religious effects). Reinforcing previous assertions about RWA I found that they are more politically conservative, more likely to be Christians, less likely to be atheists or agnostic and more likely to attend religious services than the rest of the sample. These findings comport with just about every other study of RWA that measured political and religious dimensions. But the results on Christian dehumanization were just as powerful that those who dehumanize Christians are more likely to be politically progressive, less likely to be Christian, more likely to be atheist or agnostic and less likely to attend religious services than the rest of the sample. Authoritarians have traditional religious beliefs and support a political ideology that reflects conventionality. Nothing really new here that has not been discussed in other scholarly treatment of RWA. Dehumanizers are the opposite of authoritarians with nontraditional religious beliefs. Not surprising that those with unconventional religious beliefs are more likely to dehumanize those with conventional religious beliefs.

I am certain that someone is eager to point out that I am using a non-probability sample which cannot be generalized to the entire population. That is a fair enough critique. However, research supporting notions of RWA are not based on probability samples either. I have yet to find a study using the RWA scale that was sent to a probability sample. Thus, if one wished to discount these results due to the non-probability makeup of the sample then one also has to discount the results supporting RWA. One could argue that there are many such studies of RWA compared to this single study of Christian dehumanization. A few points address that argument. First, one does not overcome the problems of non-probability samples simply by doing non-probability sampling over and over again. Second, my results concerning those who (higher religious/political conservatism) possess RWA conforms to other research about RWA. Why would we accept those results and throw out the other results? Third, all new research ideas start with a single study. Those who believe this study is an anomaly have the responsibility to do more research empirically showing that my assertions are incorrect. Merely stating that may study is the only one with these results is an insufficient response since this may be the first of many studies to come. Finally, there is research by myself and by Louis Bolce/Gerald De Maio indicating that political progressives and the irreligious are disproportionately likely to have animosity towards conservative Christians. My current research builds on that work by allowing us to see some of the consequences of that animosity.

My results last week indicate that those who dehumanize Christians are not right-wing authoritarians but rather a different population from those authoritarians. But we also saw that such individuals were willing to use authority figures against conservative Christians, just as it is predicted that right-wing authoritarians are willing to do. With this entry we see that those individuals are religious and political progressives. Kind of throws a wrench in the wheels of the arguments that political and religious conservatives react in a way that is uniquely oppressive to out-group members. This reinforces my beliefs that potential bad behavior is not limited to one political ideology or a certain religious tradition. In my final blog entry on this series, I will explore an alternate way of looking at the information gained by those studying RWA which I think better explains those results than this argument of a unique personality trait.

But there is more to RWA than assertions about the misuse of authority figures. For example, proponents of theories about RWA have argued that those with authoritarianism are more vindictive and less able to critically think than other individuals. Fear may drive a lot of these negative outcomes. Those with right-wing authoritarians may be vindictive since they have fear of those they see as deviants and believe that those individuals must be stopped. Thus they are more willing to favor heavy punishment for those deviants. This fear can also interfere with their ability to critically assess social reality. Fear may lead right-wing authoritarians to make illogical assertions as long as those assertions support their presuppositions about social reality. Fear brings with it the idea that one cannot be wrong and one cannot lose the social/culture war that is being fought.

But if fear is the source of these other dysfunctions then are those dysfunctions limited to political and religious conservatives? Political and religious progressives may also see themselves in a social/culture war that they cannot fathom losing. My qualitative work with cultural progressives indicates a great deal of unreasonable fears such individuals have towards conservative Christians. It is possible that in a contextualized fashion we should see similar trends towards vindictiveness and non-critical thinking among those who dehumanize Christians.

In next week’s blog I will look at the propensity of those who dehumanize Christians to take on other negative characteristics linked to RWA. Due to space limitations I will only deal with vindictiveness however in Dehumanizing Christians, I also explored the propensity of those who dehumanize Christians to fail to engage in critical thinking. I will illustrate that the context of that vindictiveness matters but it is indeed the case that those who dehumanize conservative Christians also possess a good deal of vindictiveness. In doing so, I will argue that the desire to punish those who differ from us is not limited in scope or in intensity by political ideology.

Dehumanizing Christians Part 1 – A Critique of Right Wing Authoritarianism

This blog is the first in a 4-part series based on my latest book entitled Dehumanizing Christians: Cultural Competition in a Multicultural World. Despite the title, the book is an analysis of a theory called right-wing authoritarianism (I wanted right-wing authoritarianism in the subtitle but the publisher said no). It is one of the theories used to argue that religious individuals are more prejudiced than non-religious individuals. Examining attitudes towards conservative Christians helps me assess whether this theory is limited to religious and political conservatives. Today I will lay out the theory a bit and my initial test of it. Then in the remaining blog entries, I will look at demographic predictors of Christian dehumanization, test to see if other features of authoritarianism are relevant in the dehumanization of Christians and explore an alternative to right-wing authoritarianism which I contend better explains out-group animosity. For the next three Mondays I will provide another entry to this series.

You may have heard of either right-wing authoritarianism or just plain authoritarianism. Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) is conceptualized as a psychological reaction to the perception of threat. In response to that threat, certain individuals submit to authoritarian control to meet their security needs. There are three dimensions to this reaction: authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression and conventionalism. Authoritarian submission is the degree to which individuals are willing to submit to perceived established and legitimate societal authority. Authoritarian aggression is the degree of aggression directed at groups targeted to be punished by legitimate authorities. Conventionalism is the degree to which social conventions are endorsed by societal authorities. The fear emerging from RWA allows authorities to take away the civil and human rights of unconventional out-group members.

Robert Altemeyer, a psychology professor, outlined a series of dysfunctions linked to his extensive study of RWA, including being more punitive, more likely to make incorrect inferences, more hostile towards feminists, more fearful of a dangerous world, being hypocrites, more likely to inflame intergroup conflict, avoid learning about their personal feelings, being self-righteous, less supportive of liberty and being mean-spirited. It sounds like people with RWA are a curse on our society. Scholars argue that these are the individuals who support oppressive dictatorships. In fact, dictators need such individuals to help them remove the rights of people seen as deviant. Individuals high in RWA are conceptualized as aggressive individuals submitting to tyrannical leaders as long as those leaders support conventional norms and punish society’s deviants.

Research on those with RWA generally asserts that religious and political conservatives have this vice. In fact, Altermeyer claimed that he searched for “left-wing” authoritarians but was unable to find a single one. The acceptance of religious and political conservatism as the foundation of RWA has crossed from academia to public discourse. This was illustrated in the book Conservatives without Conscience by John Dean. Dean drew off the scholarly work in RWA to explain why conservative extremists were taking over the Republican Party. He argues that these extremists exhibit authoritarianism that produces intolerance, obedience and governmental interference in our lives. Looking at RWA is not merely looking at an academic theory discussed by only a few scholars. It is the exploration of an idea that has entered the political discussions of non-academics as well.

Despite the claims of Altemeyer, there is debate as to whether authoritarianism is limited only to political and religious conservatives. There is no shortage of leaders who endorse “progressive” movements that led to the establishment of oppressive authorities (i.e. Stalin, Mao). Is it really possible that only political and religious conservatives are vulnerable to the lure of using authority figures to take away the rights of their enemies? Some critics of RWA contend that we define authoritarianism in such a way to confine it to religious and political conservatives. For example the dimension of conventionalism is one where progressive images (i.e. free-thinkers, feminists) are set up as deviants to be controlled. These “deviants” are the natural out-groups of religious and political conservatives and so we should not be surprised that they, and not progressives, want to restrain them. If we look at the restraining of these particular groups as a measure of authoritarianism then conservatives are set up to be the ones most likely to be authoritarians.

A problem with this argument is that some scholars have attempted to test some of the ideas of RWA with out-groups that may anger progressives. Groups like the KKK have been used to see if possible left-wing authoritarianism may exist, but such efforts have largely failed. But I am not fully convinced. First, I question the wording of questions used to search for left-wing authoritarianism. I do not believe that they are contextualized for how progressives would approach the possibility of using authority figures to punished stigmatized out-groups. Second, I question the “progressive” out-groups that have been used. I mean come on, it is not just liberals who hate the Klan. With a proper contextualized question and the right out-group, can we find evidence that progressives are willing to misuse authorities just as conservatives? Will this evidence indicate that those progressives exhibit many of the dysfunctions noted among those with RWA? Answering these questions became the focus of my book.

My previous work quickly helped me to find an appropriate out-group for progressives. Work on cultural progressive activists and atheists plainly showed that conservative Christians are the group that many political and religious progressives fear and may want to control. In fact, my work on bias in academia clearly showed that conservative Protestants, even more than political conservatives, are more likely to face potential discrimination than individuals from other social groups.
The qualitative nature of the data on cultural progressive activists provided me with a way to contextualize the right questions for my analysis. That data allowed me to see exactly how those who hate conservative Christians express that hatred. Thus, I am in a position to create a questionnaire that accurately represents how anti-Christian animosity can be expressed. Using a rubric of dehumanization I developed from the work of Nick Haslem, I was able to construct an index based on those comments. Given the limited space of the blog, I will not reproduce that index here, but it is readily available in my book.

Of course merely because individuals express anti-Christian animosity does not mean that they want to use authority figures to punish conservative Christians or take away their rights. I needed measures of authoritarianism to see if those who did not like conservative Christians were just as likely to take away the rights of those Christians as those with RWA were to take away the rights of feminists, atheists, GLBT etc. This can quite simply be done asking individuals whether they support the taking away of the rights of individuals under certain scenarios.

This sets up a basic test of whether the notion of authoritarianism is largely limited to religious and political conservatives. I sent the survey out to a diverse, but nonrandom, sample collected through Amazon Mechanical Turk. I wanted to see if those high in RWA are also likely to hate conservative Christians by testing my index against a similar length RWA index. I found that the indexes were negatively correlated (r = -.636). This is important since some RWA theorists argue that authoritarians want to use authorities against all groups – including conservative groups. I had to make sure that the same people who are authoritarians are not the same ones who hated conservative Christians.

In my survey I constructed six scenarios and asked the respondents if the scenario is an example of an abuse of power. Three of the scenarios were the type we would expect those high in traditional RWA would not accept as an abuse of power and three of the scenarios are the type in which we would expect those who do not like conservative Christians would not accept as an abuse of power. For example a scenario that we would traditionally think that a person high in RWA would not see as an abuse of power is:

Imagine that radical Muslims are able to launch a successful terrorist attack in the city of Los Angeles by blowing up several city buses. The death toll of such an attack is approximately 200 individuals. Due to the success of this attack federal government officials gather about 1,000 Muslims and place them in a makeshift camp. The officials in charge contend that they need to do this since these are the most suspicious individuals and as such need closer scrutiny. However after three months many individuals become concerned that the government has abused it power. How serious would you say the abuse of government power is in this situation?

On the other hand, the following scenario is useful to assess whether those who do not like conservative Christians want to take away their rights.

A woman puts up an advertisement for a roommate in her local church. In the advertisement she states that the person who rooms with her has to be a Christian. The local housing authority hears about the request and instructs her to alter the advertisement so that she is open to roommates of any faith. She argues that she wants to live with someone with a similar religious lifestyle so they may be compatible with each other, and there will be less stress in her living situation. The housing authority argues that the advertisement as currently worded illegally discriminates against people who are non-Christians. How serious would you say the abuse of government power is in this situation?

Individuals may quibble whether these are good examples of taking away the rights of other individuals. They may state that there are legitimate reasons for rounding up Muslims or forcing a Christian woman to take in a non-Christian roommate. Indeed there are always reasons given for why we should use authority figures to intrude on others. At times those reasons can justify a loss of rights. The key is not whether these are fair measures but rather how eager individuals are to use authority figures in certain situations and does that eagerness vary according to who is the potential victim in the scenarios.

Not surprisingly I found that those who scored high in RWA are less likely to see the scenarios of traditional targets of authoritarianism of abuses of power. However, they were more likely to see scenarios where conservative Christians are the victims as abuses of power. This contradicts the assertions of several supporters of RWA theory that those higher in RWA are willing to use authoritarianism against all social groups. In my sample those scoring high in RWA are not willing to use authority figures against conservative Christians.

It should not come as a surprise that respondents unwilling to see the scenarios involving Christians as situations of power abuse are those scoring high in my index measuring dehumanizing attitudes towards Christians. They were significantly less likely to support abuse against the traditional victims of authoritarianism, but were less sensitive to possible abuses against conservative Christians. Remember that these individuals are distinct from those high in traditional RWA. Thus I have found individuals who score low in RWA but indicate a willingness to use authority figures against those considered out-group members – simply different out-group members than those high in RWA.

At this point I now have evidence that the traditional way we understand RWA is incorrect. Authoritarianism does not seem to be a malady that only strikes certain types of individuals. Those who do not score high in RWA can still exhibit evidence of authoritarianism. However in my first survey I did not ask about the social and demographic characteristics of my respondents. Thus, I cannot be sure whether those who scored high in Christian dehumanization are politically and religiously different from those scoring high in RWA. Furthermore, I also do not know if those exhibiting authoritarianism also exhibit some of the other elements of RWA such as illogical thinking and vindictiveness. In my next blog, I will begin to look at the social and demographic characteristics of those scoring high in my Christian dehumanization scale.