Religion makes you prejudiced. God doesn’t.


Connor Wood

Religion makes people prejudiced, right? I mean, think about all the religious wars throughout history, or the centuries of colonial racism in the name of religion. Well, yes. But the truth is – as always – a lot more complicated. Sure, researchers have found that religious adherence predicts prejudice, especially against gays and lesbians. But another body of literature has shown that some kinds of religious belief can make people more open to outsiders and minorities. So what gives – does religion make us prejudiced and parochial, or not? The answer, according to a pair of researchers from the University of Illinois, is…yes. While religion narrows our horizons, God may expand them.

We’re not talking about a living Abrahamic God, though – instead, we’re talking about the semantic concept of God. Psychologists Jesse Lee Preston and Ryan S. Ritter of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana knew that a flurry of recent studies had shown that some religious concepts seemed to inspire people to be generous to strangers and outsiders, while others seemed to make people more insular and prejudiced. Suspecting that the difference might be between the concepts of God and religiousness, the researchers hypothesized that God concepts would activate people’s concerns for being seen as moral and caring universally for others. People primed to think about “God” would, therefore, show care and concern for strangers outside the tribal or cultural boundaries.

Religiousness, on the other hand, was probably something closer to tribal or group identity, and so the researchers expected that people primed to think about ‘religion” would likely show more concern for their own in-group than for outsiders. Voilà: the difference between religious prejudice and cultural openness.

In the first two studies of a recently published paper, Preston and Ritter asked undergraduate students to read a short story about a pair of new families moving into their neighborhood. One of the families planned to join the local church, while the other didn’t. Both families needed help moving in, but the students were told that they only had time to help one family. Students were then asked who the local pastor would prefer they help, as well as who they though God would want them to help.

By a wide margin (70%, to be precise), students expected that the pastors would want them to help the family that planned to join the church. And by an equally wide margin (also 70%!) respondents indicated that God would want them to help the strange family that wasn’t planning on coming to church.

When asked to explain either God’s or the pastor’s reasoning, many students said that the pastor would want neighbors to help the future churchgoing family for the sake of strengthening the community. Conversely, respondents cited universal ethics and religious conversion as the reason why God would want them to help the outsiders. That is, God was more closely associated with religious evangelization and converting outsiders than the pastor – but also with universalistic moral standards and helping people regardless of their background or group belonging.

The next study was even more interesting. Pedestrians around the university campus were stopped and asked either their religious affiliation or whether they believed in God. (Some pedestrians also were asked neutral questions, such as how often they exercised.) Next, respondents were told they could split 99 cents however they liked between two different charities: the American Red Cross and Mexican Red Cross.

Preston and Ritter advanced a fairly fine-grained hypothesis with this study, predicting that for everyone but Catholics, being asked about religious affiliation would predict more sharing with the American Red Cross, because respondents would perceive the American organization as representing an in-group. However, Catholics would respond differently; since Mexico is a heavily Catholic nation, Catholics of any nationality would think of Mexico as being part of the religious in-group. Therefore, Catholics who were primed to think of their own religious affiliation would offer more money to the Mexican Red Cross.

And, of course, the researchers made the opposite predictions for the God question: respondents who were asked to indicate whether they believed in God would offer more money to the Red Cross that represented the out-group (the American Red Cross for Catholics, and the Mexican arm for everyone else).

These hypotheses might seem a bit far-fetched, but both were resoundingly supported by the results. Pedestrians who were asked to think about God gave significantly more money to whichever Red Cross group was associated with the out-group. Meanwhile, those who were in the control or religion conditions gave most of their money to the in-group organization. Interestingly, religious beliefs didn’t affect the outcomes one way or another – it was only the priming to think about either God or religion that had an effect.

In the final study, respondents were asked to play a pair of computer games. The first game required them to press a button in response to visual cues. But every so often, either the words “God” or “Religion” were flashed so quickly on the screen that they were invisible to subjects’ conscious minds. (This technique, called “unconscious priming,” is a mainstay of psychological research, although some observers have questioned its usefulness.) Then subjects took part in a resource-sharing game, with real money, in which they were required to either cooperate or not with their “partners,” who were playing from a different room. (The partners were actually computers.) The subjects were shown photographs that they were told were of their partners; some photographs were of Caucasian Americans, while others were of South Asian (Indian) people.

As expected, subjects who had been primed with the word “religion” cooperated significantly more often with “partners” who looked like they were of the same race or religion. So, for instance, a white, Christian participant who’d been shown the word “religion” was much more likely to cooperate with the white “partners” than with the South Asian ones.

On the other hand, participants who had been primed with the word “God” were more likely to cooperate with partners who looked like members of an out-group. In other words, your average white, Christian participant who was primed with the word “God”  was more likely to cooperate with an imaginary partner who didn’t look white or American. Muslims and Indian participants who’d been primed with “God,” meanwhile, cooperated more often with the Caucasian “partners” – that is, outsiders.

You might be skeptical of the fact that all these studies were carried out using predominately undergraduate college students in the Midwest. And you’d be right; as other research has shown, this particular population (American university undergraduates) is probably the least-representative group of human beings on Earth. So it’s not clear that we can extrapolate the results to be meaningful for all peoples, everywhere, across time.

But these studies do suggest that – surprise! – things are a lot more complicated than it might seem when it comes to religion and God, at least in the United States. When a famous atheist or Hollywood celebrity bashes religion as the root of all prejudice, strife, and war, they’re telling part of the story – but not the whole story. If these results are to be believed, English-speaking Americans associate the concept of “religion” with in-group favoritism and defending tribal boundaries – but they associate “God” with breaking through boundaries and caring for the outsider.

These findings make it harder than ever to draw simplistic conclusions about the role of religion in the public sphere, politics, or private life. They also raise the question of how we’re primed to think about other, related concepts – how would people respond, for example, to words like “spiritual,” “angel,” “Heaven,” or “prayer?” Layers of semantic meaning, it seems, go deeper than our conscious minds. And words related to God or religion are some of the semantically richest and most evocative concepts there are – for both good and ill.

  • unkleE

    As usual, I appreciate the opportunity to read your summaries of research. This post was especially interesting.

    Do you know of anyone testing the validity of these “priming” studies in more rigorous ways? I wonder whether being primed by a word would really lead to the same behaviour as would be seen in day-to-day life, though I can see the attraction of the method.

  • connorwood

    Hi unkleE, if you follow the link I embedded in the section where I mention that some people have reservations about the validity of priming, you’ll find a pretty useful NYTimes article on the subject. The short answer is that no one really questions whether priming works in the lab – the question is how well it works in real life.

  • Fallulah

    This doesn’t make much sense to me….the people who think God would want them to be more inclusive to outsiders have obviously never READ the bible. The God character is incredibly tribalistic and made specific laws promoting divisions. The Jesus character on the other hand, although not perfect, DID promote ideas of inclusiveness.

  • Sabio Lantz

    I am one of those atheists who chastizes other atheists when they overgeneralize about religion.

    This article was examining an interesting issue of two different possible priming issue.

    However, as you said, its generalizability is highly questionable, and some of the methodology was questionable — thus I’d want to examine the method more.

    And in light of those issues, your last two dramatic paragraphs seem way out of place. You were doing well until you got zealous.

    “If these results are to be believed, English-speaking Americans associate the concept of “religion” with in-group favoritism and defending tribal boundaries – but they associate “God” with breaking through boundaries and caring for the outsider.”

    But you just previously pointed out the generalizability issue given the sampling and yet you generalize.

    The you get even more dramatic:

    These findings make it harder than ever to draw simplistic conclusions about the role of religion in the public sphere, politics, or private life.

    Really, I don’t see that at all. But you run with it.

    All that said, looking at the priming value of the many things contained under the umbrella of “religion” is important.

  • Nemo

    Jesus fully identified with the God of the Old Testament, proudly calling him “Father” and emphasizing his words as perfect. Either Jesus was ignorant of the nature of the Old Testament or willingly rationalized it away (which, now that I think about it, is pretty realistic when you look at apologists), or he was right there with Yahweh commanding uppity kids be put to death. Or, maybe the Bible is the work of men.

  • Jay

    Very interesting thoughts. Yes, it would be good to see how these studies worked within other demographics. Two of the three studies looked at “pedestrians” around the campus, so not specifically college students, but when you’re dealing with just that area you’re going to run into a population that is really not the most representative of the national population.

    It would be interesting to see if the underlying impact of “religion” vs. “God” had the same impact on different socio-economic populations (poor), different college populations (Would a population going to school predominantly for ministry such as seminarians have the same in-group/out-group reaction to “religion” vs. “God”?), and different generations (would older generations with potentially more positive outlooks towards religion behave differently). If anything, I think this study shows how words can subtly impact human behavior.

  • connorwood

    Those are great questions, Jay! It would be really interesting to know how these primes affected people of different generations, especially. I suspect you could be right that older Americans might have different associations with those two words.

  • Ilan

    Or maybe you are failing to appreciate the importance of dispensations in God’s plan and the distinction between the Law and Grace – a central theme in the New Testament.

  • gimpi1

    I find this fascinating. The idea that the idea of “religion” encourages us to think about our own, while the idea of “God” encourages us to think outside of our box and reach out to outsiders is really intriguing.

    Since “thinking out of the box” is crucial to creativity, has anyone studied how the concept of “religion” versus the concept of “God” affects creativity?

  • Sabio Lantz

    Magical and superstitious thinking seems to boost creativity.

    So yeah, a big part of what is packaged in the term “religion” may be useful for some sorts of creativity.

    See: Subbotsky, 2010; Lancaster University, UK,2nd%20rev.pdf

  • gimpi1

    Interesting! Thanks, Sabio.

  • Collin237

    I think it’s significant that the study was done in the USA. Here, most people connect, perhaps only on an unconscious level, God more with the Pledge and the Declaration of Independence than with the Bible. Also, I think it’s pretty well agreed upon that the Bible is, in fact, the work of men.

    So strictly speaking, the God being discussed here is Abrahamic in name only. The Bible is not so much being rationalized away, but being countermanded by higher principles.

    And these principles are as far removed from Grace (which implies that almost everything is okay) as they are from Law (which implies that almost nothing is okay).

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