Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 30, 2019

The Negative Spiral of Religious Intolerance

by Jonathan E. Cook and Michael H. Pasek
Illustration of a group of people running with a battering ram

Conflict over religion has been around for millennia and shows no sign of easing. In fact, worldwide, religious-based conflict is on the rise. In the U.S., the most recent FBI data show religion to be the second most targeted social category in hate crimes for the third year in a row. In fact, religious-based hate crimes account for 22% of bias-motivated crimes, the highest proportion ever in the history of FBI tracking. Religious-based hate crimes in the U.S. disproportionately target minority religions, particularly Jews and Muslims, but attacks on Catholics, Protestants, and other Christians are also reported.

In a recent article published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, we sought to understand the psychological consequences of experiencing religious-based prejudice. Specifically, we wanted to understand how people react, emotionally and behaviorally, when they feel attacked because of their religion.

Social psychologists have been interested in religion and its role in fueling intergroup conflict for many years. For example, Gordon Allport, one the 20th century’s most influential social psychologists, studied why some religious people, in seeming contradiction to most faith-based texts, report harboring high levels of racial prejudice.

Yet, few researchers have considered people’s psychological reactions to being targets of religious-based prejudice. This is surprising considering the large body of social psychological research that has investigated effects of prejudice and discrimination directed at other group memberships, such as race, ethnicity, or gender.

One insight from research on race, ethnicity, and gender is that prejudice and discrimination can be psychologically harmful even when people do not experience prejudice directly. Seeing other people treated negatively, or simply knowing about negative stereotypes or social attitudes directed at ingroup members, can be enough to cause anxiety and distraction and lead people to avoid situations where stereotypes or prejudice are likely to be in play.

While religious-based prejudice may lead people to respond similarly to prejudice based on race, ethnicity, or gender, religion differs in important ways from other identities that have been studied. For instance, unlike race or gender, one’s religion may not be obvious to others. Moreover, people have some choice in their religion—or in how religious to be—in a way that may be less true of other groups. These distinctions may affect how people react to religious prejudice.

We studied people’s perceptions of religious prejudice by surveying nearly 1,000 Muslims, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics across the United States. Specifically, we examined the experience of religious threat—the feeling of being targeted, stigmatized, or threatened because of one’s religion. We wanted to find out who experiences religious threat and how they respond.

Religious minorities—specifically, Muslims and Jews—reported feeling more religious threat than did Christians. In fact, over half of our Muslim participants reported that it was “somewhat true” to “very true” that they felt targeted because of their religion. One Muslim participant in our study noted that people think “I must be a terrorist.” Jews reported the second-highest level of religious threat.

We also found that, across religions, people who were especially religious reported higher levels religious threat. In fact, highly religious Protestants in our sample reported levels of threat that were as high as the threat reported by religious minorities. This finding may reflect the feeling often-reported by highly religious Christians in the U.S. that religion itself is under attack.

Our second goal was to identify psychological reactions that might arise from religious threat. Regardless of their religion, people who experienced more religious threat felt a lower sense of belonging in the U.S. in general, or in their workplace or school. Research shows that a sense of belonging is critical for positive mental and physical health and for motivation and success, so this effect of religious prejudice can be quite detrimental to people’s well-being.

Participants who reported more religious threat were also more likely to hide their religion from others at work or school. Although hiding an important aspect of yourself can protect against personal experiences of prejudice or discrimination, it can be stressful and prevent people from forming trusting relationships with others outside their group.

These findings highlight how experiencing religious prejudice may negatively influence individual well-being and interpersonal relationships.

We also found that, in general, people who experienced more religious threat expressed more prejudice toward other groups and more favoritism toward their own groups. This finding is interesting, in part, because it highlights how groups that feel targeted because of their religion can become perpetrators of prejudice themselves. It may be human nature to denigrate groups that we perceive reject us, but doing so can create a spiral of increasing religious prejudice.

These results are correlational and, thus, should be interpreted cautiously. Nevertheless, they highlight how defensive psychological reactions in response to religious intolerance can, perhaps ironically, fan the flames of intolerance. Our results highlight how a negative reciprocal spiral of religious-based prejudice harms everyone, and how events that may not affect people individually can nevertheless affect them psychologically, with effects that can spread and multiply over time.


For Further Reading:
Pasek, M. H., & Cook, J. E. (2019). Religion from the target’s perspective: A portrait of religious threat and its consequences in the United States. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(1), 82-93.

Jonathan E. Cook, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at The Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Cook’s research investigates how important social group memberships can affect people’s motivation and behavior over time and how brief psychological interventions can mitigate the effects of threatening social environments.

Michael H. Pasek, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The New School for Social Research. Dr. Pasek studies intergroup relations, with a dual emphasis on how (1) religious group membership and religious beliefs affect the ability for people from diverse backgrounds to peacefully coexist and how (2) targeted interventions can improve psychological well-being and intergroup relations.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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