Field of Science

Why religion can lead to racism

Religious people are more racist than average [edit: this is in the USA. It probably also applies to Europe, but not necessarily to the rest of the world]. That fact has been known for decades, and it's rather surprising given that mainstream religions are unanimous in preaching racial tolerance. Just why this should be is not well understood.

Does religion really cause racism, or is it that are racists drawn to religion? Three recent studies have shed a little light on that question, with fascinating results.

Do subconscious religious prompts increase racism?

Can you make someone more racist simply by subtly reminding them about religion? That's what Wade Rowatt and colleagues set out to discover. They gave a group of college students a task that had religious cues embedded within it. The idea was to prime their subconscious with religious thoughts.

Then they asked them about their racial attitudes. Although the primed students didn't come straight out and admit to greater racism, their covert racism did increase. Rowatt and colleagues also found that students, when religiously primed, were more likely to agree that they dislike African-Americans.

So religious thoughts seem to trigger racist thoughts. One obvious explanation for this is that religion tends to increase benevolence towards co-religionists, but can increase hostility towards outsiders.

But in the USA, most Whites and African-Americans are Protestant Christians - not only the same religion, but the same sect! It's true that worship and religious styles are often segregated, but it seems far-fetched to say that the religious differences came first.

There might be more to this study than first meets the eye, however. Rowatt's group of students were rather unusual. They were all undergraduates at a southern, Christian university (Baylor College, Texas). There is a powerful tradition of segregation in this region. Perhaps the religious prompts were triggering feelings of social conservatism?

Religious conformity is linked to racist attitudes

That would fit with the results of a recent analysis of studies reaching back over several decades and looking at the correlation between different aspects of religion and racism (all of which were done mostly or entirely in the USA). This analysis, by Deborah Hall at Duke University and colleagues, found no correlation between racism and the liberal, 'questioning' form of religion.

The aspect of religion that was linked strongly to racism was so-called 'extrinsic' religiosity - a measure of whether the individual's religious attitudes are driven by a desire for social conformity and social status.

An even more fascinating finding was that the strength of this correlation is declining. As racist attitudes gradually become socially unacceptable, so the link between 'extrinsic' religiosity and racism is ebbing away.

They also found a tight link between fundamentalist religion and racism. This isn't too surprising, but what was interesting was that there were close parallels between fundamentalism, racism, and right-wing authoritarianism.

Fundamentalists also tend to be 'right-wing authoritarians' - they value obedience to authority, hostility to outsiders, and conventionalism. When you take this into account, it turns out that right-wing authoritarianism pretty much explains the link between fundamentalism and racism.

Does religious fundamentalism increase right-wing authoritarianism?

The world view promoted by religious fundamentalism has many facets that look a lot like the precursors of right wing authoritarianism. Fundamentalists tend to believe that knowledge consists of simple truths which are either right or wrong (good or evil, with us or against us), which are unchanging, and which are handed down by a powerful authority and not to be questioned. All of these could lead to right-wing authoritarianism.

Laura Barnes, at Oklahoma State University, and her grad student John Hathcoat set out to test this model analysing the beliefs of undergraduate students. They used a statistical technique, bootstrapping, to test whether the model was plausible.

They found that three key beliefs about how the world works seemed to mediate the relationship between fundamentalism and authoritarianism: certain knowledge (the idea that there are fixed, absolute truths), simple knowledge (the idea that the world is simple and straightforward, not complex), and omniscient authority (the idea that authority should be obeyed).

This analysis doesn't prove the causal link, but it does show that it's plausible. What's more, they tested a model that worked in the opposite direction, and found it didn't fit the data nearly so well.

In other words, fundamentalist beliefs really do seem to lead down a pathway towards right-wing authoritarianism (and so on to racism).

ResearchBlogging.orgMegan K. Johnson, Wade C. Rowatt, & Jordan LaBouff (2010). Priming Christian Religious Concepts Increases Racial Prejudice Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1 (2), 119-126 : 10.1177/1948550609357246

Hall, D., Matz, D., & Wood, W. (2009). Why Don't We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14 (1), 126-139 DOI: 10.1177/1088868309352179

Hathcoat, J., & Barnes, L. (2010). Explaining the Relationship Among Fundamentalism and Authoritarianism: An Epistemic Connection International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 20 (2), 73-84 DOI: 10.1080/10508611003607884

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. This is exactly correct, religions (of certain types) serve as a means of generating a social power hierarchy. The Abrahamic religions are all like this, with God at the top, His prophets next, followed by the self-proclaimed religious leaders, followed by the followers. At the bottom are non-believers.

    The function of the social power hierarchy is to determine who one must obey (everyone above you), who must obey you (everyone below you), and who you can exploit and kill at your whim (everyone sufficiently below you that they count as “non-human”.

    This is how xenophobia develops naturally (as I describe in my blog post). Xenophobia can also be learned, that is one of the things that religions do, they teach the followers to hate the non-followers. The first comment is a pretty good example of that.

    This is the property of all top-down power hierarchies. The people at the top have the most power, those at the bottom have the least. In such power hierarchies those at the top have to be treated as though they are correct, even when they are wrong. Such power hierarchies are impossible to do science in because science is built from the bottom-up and not from the top-down. Religious conservatives can't imagine any other kind of power structure, so they impute such a power structure to science, calling evolutionary biology “Darwinism”, as if Darwin is followed because he was a prophet, rather than because he was correct.

  2. Does religious liberalism increase left-wing authoritarianism?

  3. i don't know tom, the correlation is robust in the USA. but what about black americans, who are more fundamentalist than white americans? and were fundamentalist protestants more racist in the american south pre-1850? john c calhoun was a unitarian, and many of the planters were famously religious liberals. but their economic interests were paramount here. also, my personal experience with muslims is that fundamentalists are the least racist.

  4. This is a quite minor point, but worth mentioning. You stated that "But in the USA, most Whites and African-Americans are Protestant Christians - not only the same religion, but the same sect!"

    Protestant isn't a sect in and of itself, but rather a broad label to define any sect that is not Catholic. This would include some sects which are not Catholic in name only to other sects which actively reject all things Catholic. Plus there is a great amount of disagreement between Protestant sects.

    In fact, because Blacks and Whites often belong to different sects it leads to some sects perceived as being more "Black" or "White" than other sects.

    This doesn't change the underlying research, but worth noting.

  5. It would be interesting to rethink these results in the light of the idea that that no one actually believes in any god. I predict that the analysis would be greatly simplified.

  6. Razib: I think the main take-home is the major contributor to the link between religion and racism is social conservatism. Islam has always stressed cultural unity among the faithful, so I would not be surprised to see islamic fundamentalists with low overt racism. For them, low racism is socially conservative. You just have to look at the history of slavery. Europeans enslaved blacks (but not other races) even though they converted. Muslims enslaved people of any race (so long as they were not Muslim).

    Of course, passionately religious people can also be radical, even revolutionary. But they are unlikely to be 'fundamentalists' - at least as defined by academics! (an unquestioning, unwavering certainty in basic religious truths ... rooted in the values of conformity and tradition - according to Hall et al).

    Incidentally, intrinsic religiosity is linked to less overt racism, but has no effect on covert racism. That's because they aspire to conform to the ideals of their religion (so the theory goes). It could be that the islamic fundamentalists you have met score high on intrinsic religiosity (knowledge of theology, for example).

  7. MarkinIL: that's actually a very good point. I wonder whether the universalism of the Catholic Church helps to keep racist attitudes in check, relative to other varieties of Christianity.

  8. This is not the message of most religion. African Americans do have a unique style of worship. Maybe it will eventually catch on like the blues and rap did! Now that would be awesome. I was raised and educated in the Catholic church and I always believed blacks were more attractive and had less hangups than my own race. I still do. David Mc

  9. The link to the Johnson paper given in the references is broken.

  10. yashwata
    how about this angle:
    No one actually believes in religion... we follow religion with our minds, but we follow God with our spirit; faith is not religion; religion leads to racism (and a lot of other nasty practices) but faith leads to love...

  11. @Daysman,

    That's a word salad. It means precisely nothing when God is a concept bound within religion. Faith must be defined in respect to something, you cannot have faith, but rather for the word to make sense you must have faith in something. From the context of your post, that faith is in the postulate that the world works as theologically defined.

  12. Could these results have anything to do with fact that the world's biggest religions are based in Judaism, which is inherently and shamelessly racist?

    C'mon... "God's chosen people"? If God has a favorite, then he must have lessor favorites and a least favorite, right? Perhaps races that He deems fit for slavery or genocide by more highly favored races?

    The interesting thing here is that one of the Abrahamic faiths has turned it around on the Hebrews, while welcoming all other races, so long as they convert. Still racist, still spawned by nomadic delusions of grandeur, but an interesting mutation.

  13. For more information on the relationship between fundamentalism and authoritarianism, you may want to read Robert Altmeyer's book The Authoritarians( Also check out Cracks in the Wall Parts I (, II(, and III ( over at Orcinus.

  14. Interesting article. To be fair though, I think we should also study the affects that certain scientific ideas have on racial bias. Evolution and Darwinism could most definitely have a similar result. After all Darwin's famous work was entitled "The Origin of Species
    by Means of Natural Selection,
    The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". To be completely fair I think we can see how any idea, religious or scientific in nature can strongly skew one's racial perspective. Not that I am a religious fanatic by any stretch, but the scientific world does seem to view the world of faith with the same kind of unfair stereotyping as are being discussed pertaining to race in this article. The scientific would should be unbiased in its pursuit of truth and understanding. Let us also consider how scientific theory might influence our moral judgments! What about an article (to be fair) called, "Why Scientific theories can lead to racism". Just a thought.

  15. As the world judges your body, so God judges your spirit.

    When you stand before Him you will have lost all race/color/heritage.


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