Field of Science

Why do the religious have a problem with outsiders

There's plenty of evidence that, at least in the Christian west, religious people are more likely than average to be hostile towards others who they perceive as being outside their group. Strangely, this isn't just hostility to people from other religions, but also encompasses hostility towards co-religionists who are sufficiently difference (racism, for example).

Partly this is simply because people with so-called "Right-wing Authoritarian" attitudes  also tend to be religious. But does religion have some additional effect? And is it just a western thing, or do other religions do this to?

To find out, a team from Singapore and the USA, including Wade Rowatt from Baylor University, conducted a study in 72 Christians and 69 Buddhists (all from Singapore). The experiment was simple: they first asked their subjects about their attitudes, then two weeks later they repeated the exercise after first subliminally priming them with religious words.

Before priming, the Christians were significantly more authoritarian than the Buddhists.

Priming, and after adjustment for authoritarian and spiritual attitudes, had little effect on religious and ethnic prejudice. Unfortunately, they don't tell us whether priming had any effect without this adjustment, but reading between the lines it I suspect the Christians had a stronger response.

Priming did, however, significantly increase prejudice towards homosexuals among both Christians and Buddhists.

That's important because there's nothing in Buddhist scriptures that condemns homosexuality. And that suggests that what is happening here is not a direct result of religious teachings, but rather a result of the cultural role of religion.

Interestingly, some earlier research found that priming Buddhists with 'The Golden Rule' had no effect on their prejudice towards homosexuals, while priming Christians with the same rule made them significantly more homophobic.

Now, this was a different sample (most of the Buddhists were western converts), which probably explains the different results - homosexual acts are illegal in Singapore.

But it does reinforce that the attitudes of the religious probably depend less on what is actually written in holy books, and more on exaggerations of 'traditional cultural values'.

ResearchBlogging.orgRamsay, J., Pang, J., Johnson Shen, M., & Rowatt, W. (2013). Rethinking Value Violation: Priming Religion Increases Prejudice in Singaporean Christians and Buddhists International Journal for the Psychology of Religion DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2012.761525

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


  1. Tom, you said,
    "That's important because there's nothing in Buddhist scriptures that condemns homosexuality."

    I think you are wrong. May I ask where you got that?

    Anti-homosexual attitudes are ubiquitous. So I could not help but be skeptical. Why would any religion, growing into any sizable group, with scriptures redacted, edited, compiled over time not contain this obvious human bigotry which is much bigger than just a religious attitude?

    In Buddhist Asia, I ran into anti-homosexual attitudes frequently.

    So your claim made me wonder about Buddhist scriptures. I found this article which illustrates that homosexuality is clearly implied and condemned in Buddhist scriptures (the Vinaya -- one of the three baskets).

    It is important for Westerners to realize that Buddhism in the West has largely be sterilized of such thing as homosexual-disgust, superstition and magic. But Buddhism on the ground in Asia still contains much of that -- and always has.

    No escaping it, bigotry is much deeper than religion. But you illustrate, for some, religion priming can certainly strengthen it!

    Thanx for the article.

  2. Christianity has been used as an excuse for the mistreatment of outsiders for far too long. There seems to be this idea that it is impossible to disagree with people on ideological grounds while still showing compassion toward them.

    In the parable of the good Samaritan, I am convinced that Jesus chose a person despised by the Jews to illustrate his point.

    Paul illustrated it well in his teachings on Charity.

    My views on sodomy are the same as my views on fornication. I don't spend my time worrying about the actions of non-christians. It is far more important for me to live my life in a way that demonstrates the application of Jesus' teachings in my life.

    Many Christians feel they are persecuted because of their beliefs when in fact they are persecuted because of their treatment of others.

  3. Agree with Sabio - Buddhism has some strong words about certain types of same sex activity in the Pali scriptures and these are being increasingly used today to condemn modern homosexuality. Western Buddhism is the only form that is actively tolerant of gays. Traditional Buddhism sees it as a bad karmic fruition.

  4. @Sabio Thanks for posting that link. I've bookmarked it and going to read up on the matter later on today.

  5. There's plenty in Buddhism condemning homosexuality. Just ask the Dalai Lama!

    From a 2004 interview between Vancouver Sun blogger Douglas Todd (DT) and the Dalai Lama (DL):

    DT: I have two questions. The most controversial one. I do not know what you think about homosexuality, it is big issue in Canada and with the Bishop, you are meeting Bishop Michael Ingham, he approves of blessing same sex relationships, homosexual relationships, and I do not know what you think about that?

    DL: I have two letters, one letter is as a religious believer, I think that we should follow according to one's holy teachings. For a Buddhist, the same sex, that is sexual misconduct.

    DT: For Buddhists?

    DL: Yes. And also marriage, even in the heterosexual cult of marriage, they use the mouth and the anus, this is sexual misconduct in Buddhism.

    DT: In Buddhism?

    DL: Yes, even as a heterosexual context. Even if one uses one’s own hand this is sexual misconduct.,
    So if you are a genuine believer, then you must avoid this. If you are a non-believer, then two persons male or female, they get maximum joy through this technique, they do not create violence, (laughs). One thing I would like to express, sometimes due to that kind of behaviour there is discrimination in jobs, or within the family this creates some problem purely based on that sexual reason, - if people discriminate based on sexual orientation, that is extreme and it is wrong. Whether same sex marriage is OK or not is dependent upon each country’s law.

  6. According to the authors:

    "... while the Bible condemns homosexual relations as a "detestable act", Buddhist texts do not even mention homosexuality, instead preaching absinence irrespective of sexual orientation (Vilaythong, Lindner & Nosek, 2010 "Do Unto Others": Effects of Priming the Golden Rule on Buddhists’ and Christians’ Attitudes Toward Gay People. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(3), 494-506. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01524.x )

  7. I question the interpretation. _Do_ the religious typically view gays as members of the outgroup? If one accepts the work of Jon Haidt, gays would seem to primarily violate the purity/sanctity dimension of morality, not the ingroup/loyalty dimension. Perhaps there is some additional animosity towards "the gay community," but that is probably secondary.

    This is one thing that kind of annoys me. My observation is that secular liberals kinda understand ingroup/loyalty (and tend not to much understand purity), so they tend to overuse the former as an explanation.

    I am reminded of an interesting comment on a defunct blog:

    "Liberals no doubt have a certain distaste for members of the “group” of murderers and members of the “group” of extortionists. These are obviously not cases of an in-group being hostile to an out-group. For that to make sense, the group in question must also have some sort of common life, that is, be a sort of rival community. This is certainly the way liberals see homosexuals, as members of a minority group, the “gay community”. It’s generally not the way conservatives have historically tended to see them. Social conservatives have been more likely to regard homosexuals as deviant individuals, members of the shared community who are violating its norms. Homosexual activism has changed this perception somewhat, making it clear that the norms being violated are not the homosexuals’ own, but the real import of this is to identify homosexuals as members of the group “liberals”. Social conservatives do have some hostility to the liberal out-group, not because they fit into the category “hierarchical inferiors” but because they fit into the category “enemy/threat”. The homosexual is still disliked qua homosexual primarily as a deviant individual."

  8. Yes, hat's a fair point. It is a little different with homosexuals, since (unlike murderers) they tend to create distinct subcultures.

    But this study also looked at religious and ethnic prejudice, and found no effect. So you could argue that priming religion stokes up disgust attitudes without affecting out-group prejudice. I don't really believe that to be the case, despite the results of this study!

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. @Sabio

    Thanks for the interesting link, although it largely supports the the rationale that my colleagues and I adopted in the paper. The article asserts that homosexuality is not directly referenced in Buddhist scripture

    As homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned in any of the Buddha's discourses (more than 20 volumes in the Pali Text Society's English translation)

    and also suggests that Buddism's teachings advise evaluating the morality of homosexual acts in the same way as heterosexual acts, which would suggest there's nothing intrinsically "wrong" with homosexuality.

    You are of course right: anti-homosexual attitudes ARE ubiquitous, and out here in Asia there is just as much (if not more) overt prejudice towards gays than there is in the West. However, what we're arguing in this paper is that religious value violation doesn't necessarily drive this effect.

    Additionally, I hope readers of this blog realize that we're not working with a sterilized, Westernized version of Buddhism here. This research was conducted in a majority Buddhist/Taoist country in Asia. Anti-homosexual prejudice is frequently encountered here, but we believe this may have far more to do with general conservatism than religious values per se.


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