Does religion turn people into haters?

Connor Wood

Open mind

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, left a smoking crater in lower Manhattan, it’s been common knowledge that religion divides people. After all, the hijackers who steered jetliners into some of the world’s best-known buildings were hardline Islamists, motivated by a grim theological doctrine of holy war against the West. When taken against the backdrop of history, with its endless Crusades and holy wars, these horrific attacks cast religion as the root cause of human violence and strife. But is this hard-and-fast conclusion really true? A just-published paper suggests that, on the contrary, some religious people are actually less prejudiced against outsiders.

To be blunt: the surge of interest in religion among researchers, academics, and intellectuals after September 11th was, in many ways, partly – if tacitly – motivated by the hope that, in learning everything we could about religion, we could discover how to make it go away. Or, failing that, we could defang it, strip it of its odd power over people’s hearts, minds, and trigger fingers. We wanted, in other words, the religious equivalent of an aged and doddering Doberman pincer – a beast that once inspired terror but now is purely decorative, whose only possible use might be to help cuddle the children to sleep at night.

But in the eleven years since then, researchers have slowly come to the realization that religion is almost certainly not going anywhere – despite some trends toward increased secularism in Westernized countries, religious adherence is strong and stable across most of the world. So what are we to do? Does the persistent hold of religion on the world’s populace mean that we’re doomed to a future of petty strife and terrorist dramatics?

A group of scientists based in several countries were skeptical of this assumption. Inspired partly by a 2009 Gallup poll showing that religiously active Americans were less prejudiced against Muslims than their non-religious or non-observant peers, Agnieszka Golec de Zavala of the University of Lisbon and several international colleagues decided to test the effect of different styles of religiousness on prejudice against members of other groups – an important precursor to religious violence.

Specifically, de Zavala and the other members of the team tested the difference between intrinsic religiosity and other forms of religious belief. Intrinsic religious commitment is characterized by internal, self-directed belief and practice; people who are intrinsically religious are often described as taking their religious beliefs seriously as ends in themselves. Intrinsic religiosity is often compared with extrinsic religiousness, or religious behavior that’s ultimately directed toward non-religious ends – such as going to church on Sundays because you want to meet people or fit into the community. Finally, a third type of religiousness, “quest” religiosity, is exactly what it sounds like: spiritual seeking, often untethered from any formal religious tradition.

The researchers hypothesized that people who were intrinsically religious would be less prejudiced against outsiders than their extrinsic or questing counterparts. Since existential threats have long been known to increase most people’s prejudice against those with different backgrounds or beliefs, de Zavala and colleagues specifically tested believers’ levels of prejudice after they were primed to think of death.

In their first study, the researchers primed one-half of a sample of 158 American students to write about their own deaths, while the other half described a visit to the dentist instead. All the participants also filled out questionnaires that tested their levels of intrinsic, extrinsic, and quest religiosity. Finally, they were asked how comfortable they were with violent versus nonviolent means of confronting terrorists. Because most participants were expected to think of terrorists as both foreigners and members of other faiths, this last measurement stood in for the participants’ prejudice against religious others.

After crunching the data, the scientists found their hypotheses confirmed: students who had been primed to think about their deaths were much more likely to support violent means of stopping terrorism than those who wrote about a dentist visit – unless they were high in intrinsic religiosity. Among the intrinsically religious students, death priming actually decreased support for violent counterterrorism measures.

The third study (don’t worry – we’ll return to the second one in just a moment) used a similarly sized sample of Polish students, priming half of them to think about intrinsically religious concepts using a word-matching task. Like the American students, the participants were also primed to think either of their own deaths or of a dentist visit. Again, participants who were primed to think of death were much more likely to support violence against terrorists, unless they were also primed to think about concepts related to intrinsic religiosity. As expected, intrinsic religiosity inspired the students to be more supportive of nonviolent, diplomatic counterterrorism methods when primed with thoughts of death.

Returning to the second study: it deserves special mention because it was conducted in Iran and tested participants’ sentiments toward Christians, not terrorists. As in the other two studies, stimulating participants’ thoughts of death inspired them to be more hostile toward outsiders unless the participants scored high on intrinsic religiosity. For the Muslim believers who rated themselves most inwardly devoted to their religion, increased death salience actually reduced hostility toward Christians.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, the higher the Iranian participants rated themselves on general religious commitment, the more tolerant they described themselves as in relation to Christians. This result was independent of the other factors in the study, such as death salience and intrinsic versus other forms of religiousness. This means that, for this group of Iranian students anyway, sheer commitment to Islamic values actually inspired adherents to be less suspicious of and hostile toward Christian outsiders.

In a paper published this year in the European Journal of Social Psychology, de Zavala and colleagues explained their results in terms of the underlying religious values of compassion, kindness, and prosocial behavior in both Christianity and Islam. When people are confronted with the reality of death, research has long suggested that they often respond by identifying strongly with the most important values of their culture or community. This explains why many people, including those who are highly extrinsic in their religious beliefs, become more hostile toward outsiders when prompted to think of death: the values of the groups they identify with are tribal in scope and defensive in character. Existential threats enhance those values and encourage distrust of and hostility toward outsiders.

But, de Zavala and the other authors claim, beneath the tribal functioning of many religious groups are the actual tenets of Christian and Islamic beliefs, which often (although not always) encourage compassion and kindness toward outsiders. Thus, the believers who are most committed to living out the fundamental values of their religious faiths wind up becoming more universalistic and compassionate when threatened with thoughts of death – because those are the values that, ultimately, are at the core of their religious programs.

Unfortunately, not every religious believer is intrinsic in his or her motivations. This means that for every earnest, intrinsically motivated Christian, Muslim, or other follower of a world religion, there are several who are likely to be less aware of their religions’ compassionate ethical mandates. This imbalanced dynamic ensures that religion’s role in human affairs will continue to be as complicated and problematic as it always has been. The only difference is that now we might remove some of the blame from “religion” and put it where it belongs: on the laps of religious people who don’t understand, or willfully ignore, the ethical teachings of the traditions they so earnestly espouse.

  • Per Smith

    And here comes the much needed dose of skepticism. I’d like to hear more about how they test for intrinsic/extrinsic religiosity and how confident they are that confounding variables aren’t running amuck with this. I would assume that people who participate often in religious communities would show up as intrinsic on paper because it seems like what they are testing for is actually an ingrained knowledge of the tradition’s ethical system. Does that come from merely holding strong convictions or from repeated exposure to a community of people who share not only those ideas but put them to use actively? The conclusions, at least how they are presented, seem to suggest the former. In fact the very dichotomy suggests it as well. I don’t buy it. Studies have shown repeatedly that actual participation is the most salient variable and when it is actually tested for (was it?) this almost always becomes evident. I think a lot of studies are structured, unfortunately, in order to prove that either religious conviction/piety or non-religious conviction are positively correlated all the good stuff in life.

    • connorwood

      Intrinsic, extrinsic, and quest orientation in study 1 were measured using the New Indices of Religious Orientation, which is based on the original Intrinsic/Extrinsic/Quest scale developed by Batson and Ventis in the early 1980s. Email me for references. In study 2, only intrinsic questions were translated into Farsi, so rather than measuring all three dimensions of religious orientation the researchers placed subjects along a single continuum of high-intrinsic/low-intrinsic religiosity. In study 3, word-selection tests were used to prime and test subjects’ intrinsic orientation. The only measure that would perhaps be correlated with religious participation was “religious commitment,” a self-reported measure of participants’ levels of subjective commitment to their religion as they defined it.

      It’s true that many studies find the major factor in religious beliefs’ effects on behavior and outcomes to be in practice, but to insist that cognitive, affective, or internally directed commitment variables have no influence seems absurd to me. Studies have also shown that intrinsic. extrinsic, and quest-style religiosity do have reliably distinctive correlations with different types of behavior and psychological profiles, although not all researchers are convinced of the across-the-board usefulness of the concepts. Despite the debate, the I/E/Q construct is the single most widely used measure for religious commitment and behavior in the social sciences; if it were completely invalid I think it would have been washed out of the literature by now. Because the results of I/E/Q studies are fairly consistent (with exceptions, to be sure), there’s not a lot of argument about whether the construct actually accesses something about subjects’ religious lives. The debate about I/E/Q is usually more about WHAT, specifically, the different dimensions might be measuring. But that question is not logically prior to the question of whether a certain style of religious commitment may or may not be correlated with reduced outgroup prejudice.

      It may be of interest that the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction was originally put forward by Gordon Allport as a way to explain data that showed that, although religiosity in general in America was correlated with higher levels of outgroup prejudice, SOME religious believers were much LESS prejudiced against foreigners, etc., than the average American. Allport postulated that people who took religion seriously, as an inwardly driven attempt to exemplify religious virtues and goals, would be less antagonistic to foreigners, different races, and other outgroups. In his original analysis, using the first intrinsic/extrinsic scale, that is what he in fact found: extrinsically religious believers were notably prejudiced against outsiders and minorities, while those who tested high on intrinsic religiosity were less prejudiced than average.

      Whatever you think this scale is measuring, then, it does seem to reliably separate out a certain set of religious believers from others, and one of the loci of distinction is prejudice against outsiders. The fact that this result happens to make “religious piety” look good to some people is a non-factor. Religion is a complex phenomenon, and practice and ritual are not its only dimensions. Practice, commitment, and cognitive variables or epistemic commitments feed into each other and shape the contours of believers’ lives. That some combinations of these variables appear to reliably reduce the worldview-defense reflex of believers faced with existential threat is a fascinating, and welcome, piece of news.

    • connorwood

      Hi again Per, I realized I may have made it sound as if I didn’t value the skepticism – I definitely do, and the incessant, perennial debates about the meaning and usefulness of the intrinsic, extrinsic, and quest scales in the psychology of religion are a testament to the fact that people’s religious lives can be incredibly hard to quantify. You might be interested to know that several studies have found that Quest motivation was more strongly correlated with lack of outgroup prejudice than Intrinsic. One of the major criticisms of the Intrinsic motivation as a construct is the assertion that it basically measures generalized religious commitment to an institutional framework, and can thus often be a proxy for mere conservative orthodoxy. I think there is some meat on the bones of this criticism.

      Another good criticism of all three of the scales mentioned in this article is that the two researchers who are most responsible for developing them, Gordon Allport (intrinsic/extrinsic) and Daniel Batson (quest) were absolutely motivated by their personal notions of what mature religiosity ought to be. For Allport, mature religiousness was defined by a deep living into a tradition, taking its mandates seriously, and allowing it to permeate one’s life. For Batson, mature religiosity was all about doubting, tentativeness, and suspicion of institutionalized frameworks. The scales therefore have embedded values inherent in them.

      In the face of these criticisms, the reason I don’t simply throw away the intrinsic/extrinsic/quest typology is that 1:) the results they produce are (generally) consistent enough to suggest they actually do access something about people’s religious commitments to be useful (even if what they access may not be the “religious maturity” their developers had in mind); and 2:) their results are also, in my opinion, amenable to repeatable theoretical analysis, explanation, and prediction. For example, both Quest and Intrinsic orientations have been correlated in different studies with lack of racial or outgroup prejudice. Intuitively, this makes sense, since one of the most common findings in the social science of religion is that outgroup prejudice has a curvilinear relationship to religiousness – the most nonreligious and the most highly religiously committed are the least prejudiced against outsiders, while the midlevel religious believers (the “once or twice a month” churchgoers, for example) are more likely to be prejudiced against other ethnic groups, homosexuals, etc., than the general population. Since Quest is in many ways a measure of one’s distance from and trepidation about institutional religion, and Intrinsic motivation is a measure of one’s depth of commitment, it meshes well with theory gained from other sources that both Quest and Intrinsic motivations would often be correlated with lack of outgroup prejudice. This kind of conceptual consistency is the reason I do not think these constructs are useless, and why I think the article I reported on here is likely actually telling us something worthwhile.

  • burkanuck

    “When taken against the backdrop of history, with its endless Crusades and holy wars, these horrific attacks cast religion as the root cause of human violence and strife. But is this hard-and-fast conclusion really true?”

    The 20th century saw more bloodshed that virtually the entirety of human history. WWI, WWII (Hitler), Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, all justified by the offenders through Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest. All religion hating atheists (no, Hitler was not a Christian). Does that mean the “hard, fast rule” should be that atheism is “the root cause of human violence and strife”? Of course not! The one and ONLY common denominator in man’s propensity to perform atrocities against their fellow human beings is…MAN! Its not “religion” OR a lack of it. It is man’s unique ability to rationalize in his own mind that what he is doing is for the “betterment” of all and is therefore fully justifiable.

    • kluizenaar

      Hitler was not an atheist (remember, not being a Christian does not automatically make one an atheist, and no one has ever shown any statement from Hitler about being an atheist).

      • connorwood

        In fact, Hitler was formally a member of the Catholic Church until the day he died. The Vatican never excommunicated him, and he never formally renounced membership.

    • Astrobot

      Seriously? You know WHY the 20th century saw more bloodshed than the rest of human history? Because we invented weapons that made us really really efficient at it! WWI was exceedingly bloody because we’d just developed weapons good enough to cause a lot of damage, but not good enough to be discriminating in where that damage was done. Modern wars have much fewer casualties.
      And of course “bad” people will always find justification for their actions, whether it be religion or nationalism, but when religion in general serves to make people more prejudiced against outsiders I think we can fairly say it contributes to causing wars.

  • Proteios1

    I think the common denominator of mms cruelty to man is the devil,and his onions. But good point on the growing role of theism in modern mass murder.

    • connorwood

      Darn those devil-onions!

  • R Shea

    This article refers to questionable studies whose methodology is pre-determined in order to “prove” a desired conclusion. For example, doing a survey in Iran about attitudes toward Christians? Non-religious people are more likely to be “haters” than the religiously observant? Really? The killing of Palestinians by Orthodox Jews or the massacre of Muslims by Lebanese Christians aide and abetted by the State of Israel? The murder of Muslim innocents by US drone attacks don’t count? The Spanish Inquisition? History and contemporary events make these studies not only flawed and self-serving but laughable. The fact that this article appears under the banner of “Science” is equally laughable. What’s next? Using such “science” to prove that Jesus rode dinosaurs?

    • connorwood

      If you’ll notice, I don’t state anywhere in the article that “non-religious people are more likely to be “haters” than the religiously observant. The entirety of what the study asserts is that certain types of religious people are less prejudiced against outsiders than most religious people, and even possibly some non-religious people. The fact remains that, in general, being religious is often positively correlated with outgroup prejudice. This is one of the most common findings in the social science of religion. Because religion in general does seem to be associated with prejudice, I find the claim that certain types of religion reverse that unfortunate trend to be pleasantly surprising and worth communicating.

      • Astrobot

        “The fact remains that, in general, being religious is often positively correlated with outgroup prejudice. This is one of the most common findings in the social science of religion.”

        This tidbit really should have been stated at the beginning of the article, for those not so familiar with the social science of religion. Because as the article reads, it sounds as if you’re trying to refute the entire notion that religion makes people more prejudiced against outsiders.

  • Kim Hunt

    How was this presented in the experiment: “Because most participants were expected to think of terrorists as both foreigners and members of other faiths”
    The word EXPECTED is cause for skeptcism.
    People living in Iran(or anywhere), Muslim or Christian, would be expected to assume terrorists are Muslim and Arab (in our current circumstances) since MOST TERRORISTS fit that profile, even in Iran and other Muslim countries.
    I cannot think of a single instance of a plane full of blonde hair-blue eye Norwegian Christians blowing up sumthin.

    • connorwood

      Anders Breivik, the terrorist perpetrator of the Noway massacres last year, describes himself as “100% Christian” and is Norwegian. You may want to do a little more searching for good arguments to back up your entirely valid points.

      • Ian

        I thought he’d described himself as a ‘cultural Christian’ – which I took as code for an uncommitted allegiance.

        • connorwood

          He does describe himself as a cultural Christian, but while I am not sure what that means for his personal beliefs (some things he’s said make it seem as if he is actually a Christian believer, others less so), the point is that he is certainly not Muslim. And neither was Timothy McVeigh, for that matter.

    • connorwood

      Update: These guys aren’t Muslims, either.

  • Mike

    Sad but so. Religion (not a philosophy) by its very nature in America divides.

  • Ron

    My experience has been that all religions are exclusive and teach disdain and/or contempt for those that do not belong to their cult, because virtually all religions are cults by definition. However religion is no less exclusive than patriotism/nationalism which also teaches the same disdain and contempt. Both are the toxins that produce wars.

  • kluizenaar

    How to assess internal/external motivation is indeed a problem. Were I to do a study, instead I’d do a simple theological assessment. People like Pat Robertson have given Christians a bad reputation with their “God’s gonna getcha” theology. But then there’s people like Rick Warren, “God is love.” Does this theological orientation make a difference re: attitude toward outsiders? Also, some people believe that only those from their faith go to heaven, get reincarnated up rather than down the social ladder, etc; others believe that people from other faiths go to heaven too. Does this make a difference in attitude toward outsiders?

  • salimbag

    This is like saying “does science turn people into racists?” because there are some eugenecists out there. So let’s hope science goes away, OK? Aren’t you atheist/scientist types ashamed to write things are so prejudicial, uninformed, and unsophisticated in looking at such a diverse phenomena as religion? Reading this take on religion is about as enlightening as watching Fox news talk about Obama. (written by an ashamed atheist)

    • connorwood

      If you’ll actually read the article and the many other articles I’ve written for this site, you’ll note that my position regarding religion is unequivocally sympathetic, even as it maintains a healthy skepticism about the role religion plays in public life. I am not ashamed at all of what I write, nor have I ever argued that religion ought to go away. Even a cursory reading of my final paragraph would attest to that.

    • idea1013

      Did you actually read the article or just glance at the title and form an opinion? The studies reference show the differences in reaction per type of religious belief. While there are certainly more in depth studies than those presented, the outcome is nearly the same on all of them: how a person holds and practices their beliefs is a major determinant of how they view outgroups. As an atheist and a student of psychology, I see these studies as being sound and well-structured, though larger sample groups would increase the applicability of the data. Your opinion that the studies are prejudicial and uniformed makes me question your knowledge of how research works…. or is your opinion based solely on the arguably inflammatory article title?

  • Margaret Placentra Johnston

    Another way to slice and dice religious believers is by spiritual stage. Extrinsic religiosity is similar, though not synonymous with what I have called the Faithful stage. Faith for these people is not so much the result of a deep personal journey, but more something they have latched onto because of cultural exposure or in some cases, a sudden conversion “born again” type of experience. Thus their religious beliefs themselves are more superficial in a way, but their commitment to their “group” is deeper than for other religious types. When a Faithful level person feels their group is being threatened in any way, they reinforced the fences to keep offending viewpoints from polluting their worldview. Taken to the extreme, as it often is by members of the religious right, this type of religion does in fact turn people into haters (of anyone who would weaken the solidarity of their group.)

    On the other hand, intrinsic religiosity is more similar to what I have called the Mystic Stage. Faith here is more typically the result of a deep personal journey, involving some questioning steps and not just something the person joined because their family background supported it or as the result of a born-again experience. Because faith at this level is more personal, and more mature, it is not dependent upon the sense of belonging to a certain group. Lacking the “group orientation” of the Faithful level, the Mystic level is not threatened by those with different beliefs. In fact, the Mystic will tend to interpret religious concepts more metaphorically so the differences between his religion and others are not as stark, and are certainly not threatening. These are the people who you may hear referring to their own religion as “my tradition,” a term which respects the validity of other “traditions.” This concept can be contrasted against the more insular Faithful level whose members tend to see “my religion” as a sort of epiphany–the only “correct” choice.

    Religion of the mature variety, religion at the Mystic level is not at all likely to turn people into haters, but rather leads them up the spiritual development stairway toward a universal love.

    • idea1013

      Excellent points Margaret. I think religious maturity, as you put it, is an often ignored part of these studies. Certainly in my years of studying psychology and religious effects, it is not a topic I have seen addressed to any extent.

  • Amanda

    Thank you for writing about this study. As an observant Christian, I am often discouraged and exhausted by research and comments blaming religion as the source of all evil. It was interesting (and I will admit, a little vindicating) to read about research that suggests otherwise. I am no scientist, but I would postulate that religious extremism is more often the source of hate and discontent (not religion in and of itself), religious extremism being a distortion by imperfect human beings of the underlying thread of peaceful and compassionate teachings that unite most world religions. The common denominator appears to be man. Religion has caused a lot of evil in the world, but it has also created a lot of good, and as an imperfect believer I choose to perpetuate the latter.

  • hilary

    Where religion is an ego-bolstering ( be it personal or corporate) ideology and not an aid to full flowering of humanity as growth into the fullness of the stature of Christ (regardless of your belief system) it becomes yet another standover tactic. When religious belief fuels spirituality, hence compassion for those with whom we travel in this life, then it finds its proper place. This latter is of course the hard part. It’s much easier to join a mob and be destructive to others (at any level) than it is to do the work required to go beyond our ego and learn to live with others.

  • ParietesConlabantur

    I have observed that, irrespective of religiosity or its affirmative negation, it is the totalitarian mindset which bears most heavily on the tendency to socially behave most forcefully toward the social realization of the universally communal inevitable truth of ourselves, as defined by such a mindset. Minds so totally set as to be cleansed of all doubt of personal error in the least, on the matter of such a truth, consequently believe, by force of personal necessity, that the world toward which they strive is, by force of an impersonal necessity imaginatively affirming the personal, most inevitable, … most inevitable, as if somehow a thing can be less inevitable. Paradoxically, thus, they seek to most forcefully render the inevitable as inevitable as possible.

  • v harris

    This entire article is as unintelligible. What does “science” have to do with such a nonsensicle sentence as the following? “To be blunt: the surge of interest in religion among researchers, academics, and intellectuals after September 11th was, in many ways, partly – if tacitly – motivated by the hope that, in learning everything we could about religion, we could discover how to make it go away. ” Such a string of qualifications leaves me breathless!

  • jerry lynch

    There is no difference in beliefs between the Islamic Fundamentalist or the Christian Fundamentalist: both hold what they think is how God thinks, what they do is God’s ways, and their anger and pain vented is God’s justice. The doctrines of each are just decorative legitimacy.
    Great piece, thank you.

  • hilary

    It’s been common knowledge that religion divides people since forever – read history – not just since 9/11. This insularity in US thinking feeds US action in the world which exemplifies the ‘see it my way or pay for it’ attitude, not just in religion.