Study Links Religious Groups and Racial Bias

February 10, 2010 Carl Marziali

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus warned religious listeners against what today would be called “ingroup prejudice”: the tendency to think less of outsiders, especially those of another race.

The Samaritan, a member of a group despised by Israelites of that time, proves himself more charitable to an injured traveler than two members of the Jewish clergy.

Devout listeners startled by the Samaritan’s charity would have had to confront a difficult message: Piety and prejudice keep close company.

It appears not much has changed.

A meta-analysis of 55 independent studies carried out in the United States with more than 20,000 mostly Christian participants has found that members of religious congregations tend to harbor prejudiced views of other races.

In general, the more devout the community, the greater the racism, according to the authors of the analysis, led by Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC College and the USC Marshall School of Business. The study appears in the February issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review.

“Religious groups distinguish between believers and non-believers and moral people and immoral ones,” Wood said. “So perhaps it’s no surprise that the strongly religious people in our research, who were mostly white Christians, discriminated against others who were different from them — blacks and minorities.”

Most of the studies reviewed by Wood’s team focused on Christians because Christianity is the most common religion in the United States.

Her analysis found significantly less racism among people without strong religious beliefs.

Wood speculated that racist tendencies would not be limited to one religion: “All religions offer a moral group identity, and so across world religions — including Buddhism, Hinduism, Muslim, Judaism and Christianity — the religious ingroup is valued over outgroups.”

Wood and her co-authors — Deborah Hall from Duke University and David Matz from Augsburg College — analyzed data from all available studies on religion and racism since 1964, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. A quarter of the studies in the analysis were conducted after 2000 and just over half after 1990.

Despite the involvement of religious individuals in the civil rights movement, and in later struggles for racial equality, the authors found a strong correlation between religious belief and racism, as measured through commonly used survey tools that rate respondents’ attitudes toward religion and racial minorities.

Studies of highly devout groups showed the greatest correlation between religion and racism.

“The effect is strongest in the seminary,” Wood said. Of the 55 studies, 14 dealt with highly religious populations such as frequent church attendees and seminarians.

The results may ring false to practicing Christians in mixed-race congregations. But those are only a minority, according to Wood.

“There aren’t many churches that practice with a mixed-race congregation,” she said.

Wood emphasized the value of religion.

“Religion has clear benefits for the individual who is practicing that religion,” she said.

However, “religion has a downside, like any group membership, particularly a group membership that is associated with morality.”

She attributed the association between religion and racism to the combination of ingroup identity and morality, which encourages distinctions between people. The appeal of tradition and social convention also played a role.

“People who were religious because of their respect for tradition and social convention were especially likely to be racist,” Wood said, though adding that the strength of the correlation declined somewhat as racism became less socially acceptable.

“The effect stays significant even in recent years. For people who are religious for conservative reasons [respect for tradition, social conventionalism], they have become less racist in recent years as racism has become less socially acceptable. But even they are still significantly racist, just that the effect has reduced in magnitude,” Wood explained.

Wood and her co-authors also found little difference in racist attitudes between religious fundamentalists and more moderate Christians. The second group tended to pay lip service to racial equality but harbored the same prejudices.

“What we found with that group of people was really no different from everyone else,” Wood said.

Wood’s analysis echoes what Martin Luther King Jr. wrote more than 40 years ago in his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” in which he reserved some of his sharpest criticism for religious leaders who, with few exceptions, embraced integration in principle but resisted it in practice.

Do the findings mean that being religious makes one a racist? Not necessarily.

The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable himself was a member of a religious group that held other religions in contempt.

Yet he stopped for an outsider who needed help.

An abstract of Wood’s review, titled “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism,” is available at

The study of religion and racism is not new. In a 2001 study, included in Wood’s review, the authors cite some major studies in the field:

The causes of religious racism are complex. For example, while noting that “decades of research have demonstrated an empirical relationship between religion and prejudice,” the authors of the 2001 study blame right-wing authoritarianism rather than religious belief for instances of racial prejudice among Christian fundamentalists.

Wood’s review places her among those scholars who find evidence of racial prejudice in a wide range of religious groups, from the highly devout and evangelical to the more moderate and less vocal.