Field of Science

What's the connection between religion and homophobia?

You don't need me to tell you that religious people are more likely to be homophobic. But what you might not have thought too hard about is why that should be. Is it that religion makes people homophobic, or is it simply that religion attracts people who are conservative and/or authoritarian - people who also tend to be homophobic? Then again, 'religion' is a pretty broad church. Is all religion linked to homophobia, or is it just specific types?

And what about racism? Are religious people more likely to be rascist? And if not, why not? This is an important question because religion acts to strengthen group cohesion, and it also comes with a lot of moral rules. Either of these could explain the link to homophobia. But most religions tend to be at least overtly anti-racist. So if religious people are more racist, this is probably because the 'group cohesion' effect overrides the 'moral censure' effect.

Sometimes it seems like you wait years for big studies to come along tackling these issues, and then two come along at once! Putting both of them together starts to put some really interesting meat on the bones of this very fundamental question (with the caveat that, like most research in religion, these studies were done in the USA/Canada)

First up (and hat tip to The Phrenologists Notebook for this one) is some research done by Wade Rowatt and colleagues from Baylor University in the States. They crunched data fro the 2007 Baylor religion survey, which was a nationwide survey of over 1500 adults in the USA (that's the same survey that they use to say that atheism is not increasing). Unsurprisingly, religious people were more likely to be homophobic - in fact, religion was one of the strongest predictors of attitudes to homosexuals.

It also turned out that more religious people were more likely to be authoritarian, conservative, poorer, and Protestant - all factors that also predicted homophobia. Women were also more likely to be religious, but less likely than men to be homophobic.

But even after taking all this into account, religious people were still more likely to be homophobic. In other words, an authoritarian conservative is even more likely to be homophobic if they are also religious. Women are more likely to be homophobic if they are religious. Among all the possible factors they explored, two stuck out as being much more powerful predictors of homophobia than the rest: conservatism and religiosity.

So it seems that religion really does make people homophobic. Now, the interesting thing is that, although religion was also linked to racism, the link was extremely weak. So it doesn't seem that religion in general is acting to strengthen group identification. The implication of this is that religion really does powerfully add to homophobia because of its moral condemnation.

The next study took a more detailed look at different kinds of religiosity, and how they relate to prejudice towards homosexuals and blacks. The author, Bernard Whitely at Ball State University in Indiana, used a statistical technique known as meta-analysis to pool together the results of a large number (61, in fact) of previous studies. This gives it enormous power to get under the skin of what's really going on.

The results showed a much more nuanced picture than any previous study.

Fundamentalism (the belief that there is one set of religious teachings that clearly contain the essential, inerrant truth) was linked both to greater homophobia and racism. So fundamentalist religion generates group cohesion that's sufficiently powerful to overcome the non-racist message of conventional Christianity.

Christian orthodoxy and intrinsic orientation were linked to more homophobia and less racism. In other words, these people do as they're told! (Intrinsic orientation reflects the extent to which people truly believe their religions’ teachings and try to live their lives according to them.)

On the other hand, extrinsic orientation (which reflects the extent to which people use religion as a means to achieve nonreligious goals) had no effect on homophobia, but was linked to racism. The 'group cohesion' part of religion was strong in these kinds of people.

Finally, Quest orientation - people who score highly on this view religion as a search for answers to questions about the meaning of life. They were less homophobic and and also less racist.

Now, these categories are not mutually exclusive. Most religious people will belong to several to some degree or another. But what seems to be the general conclusion from all this is that the rabble-rousing, church-going aspects of religion are the ones chiefly responsible for both homophobia and racism. And they are counterbalanced to some extent by the quieter, more introspective aspects of religion.

So religion is both Jekyll and Hyde. I guess that's not too surprising, but it's nice to have some hard science to back it up!


ResearchBlogging.orgWade C. Rowatt, Jordan LaBouff, Megan Johnson, Paul Froese, Jo-Ann Tsang (2009). Associations among religiousness, social attitudes, and prejudice in a national random sample of American adults. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1 (1), 14-24 DOI: 10.1037/a0014989

Bernard Whitley (2009). Religiosity and Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men: A Meta-Analysis International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19 (1), 21-38 DOI: 10.1080/10508610802471104


  1. Tim, you should look into Jonathan Haidt's five points of morality: care/harm, fairness, loyalty, respect, purity.

    To summarize, liberals base they morality mainly on the first two, while conservatives do so on all five about equally.

    My guess is that the underlying factor regarding religiosity and homophobia is conservatism. It seems plausible that the purity value leads to homophobia, and the loyalty and respect have to do with religiosity.

    Haidt talk on TED

  2. Oh and, Tom, you should check out Haidt, too. ;P

  3. Thanks Bjern ;) Hmm you may well be right. But if loyalty+respect -> religiosity, and religiosity - > homophobia, then basically this is just another way that conservatism -> homophobia. But the stats seem to indicate that religion adds something above and beyond conservatism.

    Having said that, they didn't actually factor out conservatism/liberalism into Haidt's types. The link between those and religiosity (and all the other associated traits) would be very interesting to see.

  4. read:
    Christopher West:
    Theology of the Body: A Bold, Biblical Response to the Sexual Revolution
    The Theology of the Body is a Biblical message that is intended for all Christians. This teaching, originally presented by John Paul II, draws on over 1000 scripture versus concerning God’s original plan for marriage & sexuality, and how an understanding of this plan gives meaning to our lives. In this talk given at an Evangelical church, Theology of the Body expert Christopher West delivers this life-changing message to an enthusiastic Protestant audience. Catholics and Protestants alike will benefit from this teaching as we strive to live out God’s plan for our lives.

  5. Aren't these studies correlational? You use causative language quite a bit in the post. Perhaps that should be changed.

  6. Yes, you're right of course. Almost every study in religion is correlational - because it's difficult to randomly induce religion and then study the effects of that intervention. So that caveat applies to almost every study, and I have got lazy with making that point.

    The reason for talking in cause and effect terms is simply the theoretical underpinnings. Which direction of causality is more likely?

    Of course, it's very possible (probable, I would say) that causality works in both directions. People who are somewhat homophobic are attracted to religion, and this feeds and strengthens their homophobia. It's an intuitive idea, but fearsomely difficult to demonstrate objectively.

    You would have to argue that individuals who have none of the demographic underpinnings of homophobia (not conservative, etc) but are still homophobic for some reason are then

  7. If we had a time machine, a fascinating thing would be to travel to 1850s America, when many churches openly preached a pro-slavery message, and do the same survey and analysis. If a strong and independent correlation were found between religion and racism at that time -- akin to the correlation between religion and homophobia today -- that would strongly suggest that the correlation was due merely to adherence to idiosyncratic dogma. (Well, perhaps not purely idiosyncratic, since it may well be that the correlation between religiosity and authoritarianism helped drive racist and homophobic doctrines to begin with, before they became self-reinforcing... though now I'm speculating a bit too wildly I suppose...)

    Inversely, if a survey of 1850s America showed that any correlation between racism and religiosity was fully explained by other factors (authoritarianism, conservatism, etc.), that would imply that there was something special about the relationship between religiosity and homophobia above and beyond doctrinal compliance. I'd be very surprised if that were the case, but you never can tell...

    Re: Bjorn, I've heard Haidt's five points before and I think it's an interesting model, but the generalizations are way overboard, and perhaps a bit inaccurate.

    For instance, I would argue that a large fraction of self-identified liberals are also quite heavily influenced by the Purity point. Reality may have a well-known liberal bias, but that does not mean that everyone who is acting liberally is doing so for reality-based reasons -- and in fact, my experience has been that many people are motivated towards environmentalism for purity reasons. This does not undermine the legitimacy of the environmental movement; I am merely observing that the people I come into contact with on a day-to-day basis seem to be more motivated by, for example, whether pristine environment is being "polluted" (there's a purity code word for ya!) rather than the actual effects of said pollution.

    I saw an interview with the Dalai Lama, a major douchebag who happens to support many good causes, where he explicitly invoked purity to justify his admirable pro-environmentalist stance: "Keep the environment pure." That was his phrase.

    The only one of Haidt's points I think is uniquely conservative is Respect, but then again that's almost just another way to say "authoritarian". Haidt's five points are interesting, but I don't think they are hugely illuminating in regards to the difference between conservative and liberal thought.

  8. Interesting points, James. Re: environmentalism. I wouldn't say that is characteristically liberal. Or rather, there are probably two kinds of environmentalism. One is the liberal sort, which is about increasing the power of locals over corporations. That changes the economics of development because the profits of third parties can't so ealiy overide non-profit motives.

    Then there's the 'conservative' side - conservation, essentially. Although this isn't so strong in the US, it is stronger in countries with a longer heritage, like the UK. This kind of environmentalism is, I think, linked to purity.

  9. It would also be interesting to see how religion factors into misogyny! I've been thinking that people use and have used religious backing to justify racism, misogyny, AND homophobia for quite a long time.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS