Religion does not cause racism, but group morality may underlie both.

One of the professors at my university co-authored a recent meta-analysis which found that there is a relatively robust correlation between religiosity and racism.  It’s hard to dispute the methodology of the study, which included 55 studies with over 20,000 people.  Still, I can’t help but cringe at what take home message people might get from reading about this study.  I can see non-religious schadenfreude and religious defensiveness resulting from a simplistic assumption that correlation equals causality.

Religion does not cause racism, or at least that’s my contention.  My hypothesis is that the reason they are correlated is that some people who are naturally group oriented gravitate towards religion.  Other people who are group oriented gravitate towards racism.  There are a large number of things that being group oriented will lead one to gravitate towards….sports teams, the military, marching bands, boy scouts, etc..  Sometimes people who are group oriented will gravitate towards more than one of these groups and so it is not so surprising that we will see a correlation between racism and membership in any of these groups.

I cannot test this hypothesis directly, but I do have some evidence for this.  In their paper, they state that “In our meta-analytic review, the paradox of religious racism was traced to the group-oriented motives that underlie religiosity.”  From a moral foundation theory perspective, we would expect endorsement of the moral principles of Ingroup Loyalty and Authority to correspond to these group-oriented motives.  In our yourmorals.org dataset, we don’t have measures of racism, but we do have measures of a related construct, social dominance orientation, which concerns agreement to items like “Inferior groups should stay in their place.”

In our data, there is indeed a relationship between higher social dominance orientation scores and being Christian (most of the paper’s studies used Christians as their religious group).  However, when I control for moral foundation questionnaire scores on the Ingroup Loyalty and Authority dimensions, there is no difference between Christians and Atheists on social dominance orientation.  It is hard to visualize regression results which ‘control’ for other variables, but perhaps the below 2 graphs illustrate this point.  Basically, one can see that Christians and Atheists have very similar patterns of social dominance orientation at corresponding levels of group level moral concern.  The lines more or less overlap.

If there were a main effect of religious group, we would see the blue line consistently above the green line, indicating that at similar levels of group based moral concern, religious people are still higher on social dominance orientation.

Another way to look at the effect of religion is by self reported religious attendance.  Again, if we look at the simple relationship, there is a significant positive (Beta=.098) relationship between religious attendance and social dominance orientation.  However, if we control for moral foundation questionnaire scores, the relationship actually becomes negative (Beta=-.040, p=.005), indicating that at similar levels of group level moral concern, religious attendance is actually negatively related to social dominance orientation.

How real are these effects?  Will they replicate?  Our sample is not necessarily representative of the whole world and social dominance is perhaps a poor proxy for actual racism…but at least in this data set, there does seem to be support for the idea that group level morality explains all of the effects of religion on group level dominance, such that we might find similar effects between any cohesive group and racist attitudes, purely as a function of a desire for group cohesion.  All moral concerns are double edged swords and can be virtues (patriotic donations of blood after 9/11) or vices when hypermoralized (e.g. racism toward Middle Easterners after 9/11).  From this perspective, the fact that group cohesion and the hypermoralization of group cohesion co-occur is perhaps to be expected.

- Ravi Iyer

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