US study analyses ‘the religion-racism paradox’

July 16, 2010

NEW YORK

A recent study analyzing a half century of research and data on race and religion in the United States has concluded that religious belief does not inoculate believers from racial prejudice — a finding its authors call “the religion-racism paradox.”

The study is entitled, “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism,” One of conclusion of the study is that religious racism “partly reflects intergroup dynamics,” the study. News about the study is carried by Miller-McCune.com, an online magazine that carries news about academic research.

Such racism, “arises because religions are social groups,” said Wendy Wood, a social psychologist who teaches at the University of Southern California and one of the authors of the study, which was first released in February.

“They are social groups with a moral belief in the correctness of their belief system,” Wood told ENI about the findings published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review. “They tend to favor in-group members, who hold similar beliefs, over out-group members (nonbelievers). And because in-group members tend to be same race, the in-group bias gets tied up with racism.”

The research is drawn from analyzing nearly 50 years of studies of religion and racial attitudes since the approval of U.S. federal civil rights legislation dating from the mid-1960s. It focused on white church-goers in the United States.

Wood told ENI that while “the relationship between racism and prejudice was smaller in more recent samples,” it remained “statistically significant”. She noted that one of the studies cited found that only about one in 10 U.S. churches “had even a moderate amount of racial diversity.”

Asked if she was surprised by the findings, Wood said it was in the sense that “most religions preach acceptance of others and humanitarianism.” Yet she also noted that religion cannot be separated from the racism of wider society. “People who are religious tend to be socially conforming and to respect tradition. Because racial differences are a traditional institution in our society, people who are socially conforming and respect tradition also tend to accept these differences,” she said.

The study also found that it is not possible to say “that racial tolerance arises from humanitarian values,” since religious humanitarianism is “largely expressed to in-group members.” The research also indicated that religious agnostics were far more racially tolerant than those calling themselves religious.

Wood said, “It’s easy to misunderstand the findings as ‘religion bashing.’ But that is not our intent. As (social) scientists, we are trying to understand the benefits of religion as well as any drawbacks to religions as they are currently practiced.”

The study was co-authored by Deborah Hall of Arizona State University and David Matz of Augsburg College, a Lutheran institution in Minneapolis.

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