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Prejudice in Religions (2018)

Michael Moore

Gordon Allport (1897-1967) was one of the most influential personality psychologists of the 20th century. He defined ethnic prejudice as "an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization" (1954, p. 9). In The Nature of Prejudice, Allport devoted an entire chapter to the connection between prejudice and religion, noting that "the creeds of the great religions are universalistic, all stressing brotherhood"[1] (1954, p. 444). Nevertheless, he suggested that there was a contradiction between these creeds and the multiplicity of studies showing a positive correlation between religiosity and prejudice. To unravel this apparent paradox, Allport described two types of religiosity: "Belonging to a church because it is a safe, powerful, superior in-group" versus belonging to one "because [of] its basic creed of brotherhood" (1954, pp. 452-453). He called these institutionalized versus interiorized religious outlooks (1954, p. 453), and hinted that the latter might include a genuine love for one's neighbors. But Allport also observed that "What is particularly striking is the ease with which spiritually minded people seem to slip from piety into prejudice" (1954, p. 448).

Some fifty years later, Ian Hansen and Ara Norenzayan traversed the same path. They also distinguished between religious devotion (the tendency to have faith in the supernatural or divine) and religious exclusivity (the coalitional tendency to privilege one's religion as the only true way). First, they reported: "Religious exclusivity is consistently and strongly related to intolerance." Then, like Allport, they added: "Religious exclusivity, however, appears difficult to disentangle from devotion to the divine no matter what religion one believes in" (2006, p. 187).[2]. Brian Laythe, Deborah G. Finkel, Robert G. Bringle, and Lee A. Kirkpatrick concur. They found that authoritarianism lies behind the positive association between fundamentalism and prejudice: "It is the militant attitudes held by authoritarians that consistently predict racist attitudes when other variables are controlled" (2002, p. 633). Laythe and colleagues add that "the aspect of religion responsible for 'making' prejudice appears to be right-wing authoritarianism, whereas the aspect that 'unmakes' prejudice is related to Christian orthodoxy" (2002, p. 633). (See Bob Altemeyer's and Bruce Hunsberger's 1992 study for similar findings.)

Of the various activities pursued and encouraged, not just by individual members of a religion, but also by its establishment, proselytizing is one of special interest. That's because it is inherently prejudicial: Why would you want the followers of another faith to convert to yours unless you thought that your faith represented the truth, all the truth, and nothing but the truth? Wouldn't this make their other faith wrong and/or inferior? There is abundant evidence for religious exclusivity in both Christianity and Islam.[3]


1. General

  • Paul on false teachers: "If any man preaches any other Gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:9).
  • The Apostle John on heretics: "If any man come to you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into the house or welcome him" (2 John 10).
  • The Vatican's official Catechism teaches the following: "The inspired books teach the truth. 'Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.' (No. 107)"; "God is the author of Sacred Scripture because he inspired its human authors; he acts in them and by means of them. He thus gives assurance that their writings teach without error his saving truth (No. 136)" (Catechism, 1995).
  • The historian Paul Johnson reminded us that the "oath of allegiance of all Roman Catholic bishops includes the promise: 'with all my power I will persecute and make war upon heretics.'" (1976, p. 514).

2. Catholicism

  • To prove the errors of Protestants, lay Catholic apologist Marian Horvat quotes the Scriptures (e.g., Luke 10:16, Matthew 16:19), some apostles (e.g., Paul and John), and several Popes (e.g., Pius IX, Pius XII, Leo XIII). Then she adds her own opinion: "Only Catholics can be true Christians. No one who dissents from the Roman Catholic Church can be a Christian. The terms are synonymous. Every time I hear the term Christian used for Protestants, I cringe. Its usage clearly nourishes a trend toward a dangerous religious indifferentism, which denies the duty of man to worship God by believing and practicing the one true Catholic Religion" (Horvat, 2007).
  • Against Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholic Answers writes: "What these beliefs of the Witnesses amount to is the ancient heresy of Arianism, which is nothing new.... These are but a few examples of how the WTS [Watchtower Bible and Tract Society] distorts Catholic beliefs and presents 'scholarship' in support of its views. These examples provide a 'representative slice' of the thinking and modus operandi of the WTS, and they should serve as a warning signal for those unsuspecting people who open their doors to JWs and welcome their message. When dealing with WTS publications, be forewarned that the material exhibited there is distorted in such a way so as to present what appears to be a rather compelling case for WTS theology. But all that glitters is not gold" (Catholic Answers, 2004).
  • According to the Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc, "Mohammedanism was a heresy, not a new religion: That is the essential point to grasp before going any further. It was not a pagan contrast with the Church; it was a perversion of Christian doctrine. Its vitality and endurance soon gave it the appearance of a new religion, but those who were contemporary with its rise saw it for what it was—not a denial but an adaptation and a misuse of the Christian thing.... The chief heresiarch, Mohammed, was not, like most heresiarchs, a man of Catholic birth and doctrine. He sprang from pagans. But that which he taught was in the main Catholic doctrine, albeit oversimplified" (Belloc, 1950/2003).

3. Protestantism

  • In 1543 Martin Luther wrote an essay titled "Concerning the Jews and their Lies," where he called Jews disgusting vermin, compared them to pigs, asses, and animal excrement, and likened them to the Devil (Singer, 2009, p. 404).
  • In his book on contemporary anti-Catholicism in the United States, Philip Jenkins is not nearly as appalled by the widespread bigotry against Catholics as he is by its apparent permissibility. He refers to anti-Catholic attitudes as "the last acceptable prejudice" in his subtitle and "the thinking man's anti-Semitism" elsewhere (2003, p. 4).
  • Father Alec Reid, an Irish priest, commented on Protestant-Catholic relations in Northern Ireland: "You don't want to hear the truth. The reality is that the nationalist community in Northern Ireland were treated almost like animals by the unionist community. They were not treated like human beings. They were treated like the Nazis treated the Jews" (BBC, 2005).
  • Calvinist preacher John MacArthur writes of Catholics: "With that many Catholics around the globe, it's likely you know some of them as relatives, friends, neighbors, or coworkers. Find out what they don't know—the origin and error of Catholic doctrine—so you can help the Catholics you know out of the darkness and into the light" (MacArthur, 2016).


1. General

  • "He it is Who sent His Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth, that He may make it prevail over every other religion, even though the idolaters may dislike it" (Koran 9:33).
  • "And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful" (Koran 9:5).
  • "I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them" (Koran 8:12).

2. Sunni against Shia

  • Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th-century Sunni theologian, issued this fatwa against the Alawites: "These people ... are more heretical than the Jews and the Christians, even so than many polytheists. Their harm to Muhammad's umma (community) is more severe than that of the infidel fighters, such as the Turks (i.e., the Mongols) and the Crusaders..." (Rajan, 2015, p. 159).
  • In a paper on discrimination against Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Samia Constantin reports: "The Sunni and Shia conflict is embedded in Saudi Arabia's social and religious norms. The Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom analyzed multiple textbooks from the Saudi Ministry of Education used in Islamic studies for elementary and secondary students. The report concludes that the textbooks 'promote an ideology of hatred toward people, including Muslims, who do not subscribe to the Wahhabi sect of Islam,' the foundation of the state's political and social ideology" (Constantin, 2016).
  • In its online magazine Dabiq, the Sunni Islamist group ISIS called for Shi'ite Muslims to be "killed wherever they are to be found, until no Shiite walks on the face of earth" (Luck, 2016).

3. Shia against Sunni

  • Muhammed Ali quotes a hadith from The Book Al-Kāfī (The Sufficient Book): "We measure people with a measuring tape: Whoever is a Shi'a like ourselves, whether among the descendants of 'Ali or otherwise, we forge a bond of friendship with him (as a Muslim and one who will achieve salvation), and whoever is opposed to our creed, we dissociate from him (as a misguided person and one who will not achieve salvation)" (Ali, 2004).
  • Shia's 6th Imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq (also known as Abu Abdallah), has been quoted by Shia narrators as saying: "The Nasibi (Sunni) is worse than the Jew. It was said: And how is that so, O son of the Apostle of Allah? He said: The Jew denied the subtle of Prophethood, which is a special subtle, while the Nasibi denied the subtle of al-Imamah, which is a general (subtle)" (Islam Awareness, n.d.).
  • According to the Discovering Islam website, "When Qaem (Imam Mahdi) appears, he will start slaughtering Sunnis and their Sunni Scholars before slaughtering the infidels (kaffar)." (Discovering Islam, 2017)[4]

The above lists do not exhaust the prejudice, discrimination, and violence practiced by the faithful against those who differ from them (see Moore, 2013). Other instances can be found in the Sunni war against the Yazidi, the treatment of the Kurds in Syria and Turkey, sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the persecution of Muslims (especially the Rohingya) by Buddhists in Myanmar, and increasingly violent instances of Islamic anti-Semitism around the world. Nor do I touch upon other religious prejudices in this paper, such as those directed toward the disabled (Moore, 2015), gays and lesbians (Herek & Capitanio, 1999; Laythe, Finkel, Bringle, & Kirkpatrick, 2002), or women (Kramer & Moore, 2002).


Allport (1954, pp. 444-449) suggested two major factors underlying the widely supported connection between religion and prejudice:

  1. There are inherent "realistic conflicts" between some religions. As the above sources clearly illustrate, if your religion represents the only Truth, and if it orders you to spread your faith, you are bound to be prejudiced against those who do not share your convictions.[5]
  2. Religion often contains realms of life far beyond faith: culture in general, as well as ethnicity, nationality, social status, and political stance in particular. These realms of life are inseparably connected with religion. Bias and bigotry against members of a religion different from one's own may well be directed at these additional characteristics.

Both of Allport's suggested factors have received ample evidential support. The "realistic conflict" hypothesis has been confirmed by, among other things, research demonstrating that "general religiousness is not associated with universal acceptance of others. Rather, general religiousness appears to be linked with selective self-reported intolerance toward persons perceived to behave in a manner inconsistent with some traditional religious teachings" (Rowatt, LaBouff, Johnson, Froese, & Tsang, 2009, p. 14). And Allport's second suggestion is corroborated in a recent review of the relevant literature, which concludes that "religion may sometimes be a vehicle through which social hierarchies are enforced" (Burch-Brown & Baker, 2016, p. 800).

A third factor, tangential to both of Allport's suggestions, is the universally observed "us versus them" phenomenon (Kramer-Moore, 2003). Though in primeval tribal cultures the correct differentiation between friend and foe was a matter of survival, its continued appearance in modern societies is most often associated with apartheid, discrimination, nationalism, and racism. Religions, both in their ideology and practice, are prime examples of clearly designating who counts as "us" and who counts as "them." Daniela Kramer-Moore (2003) provides a list of several rival hypotheses for the ultimate source of this propensity, including such fundamental binary oppositions as edible/inedible, Eros/Thanatos, and self/nonself.

It is worth noting that an "us versus them" mentality corresponds to social identity theory. In their work on attitudes toward Christians and Muslims, Wade C. Rowatt, Lewis M. Franklin, and Marla Cotton report that "identification with a social group often produces noticeable in-group/out-group biases (e.g., more favorable evaluations of one's in-group relative to an out-group[,] and less favorable evaluations of an out-group relative to an in-group" (2005, p. 29). (See also Johnson, Rowatt, & LaBouff, 2012).

This essay has revealed purported differences between two types of religiosity, then gone on to identify several competing theories that connect religiosity and prejudice. But the inevitable conclusion has already been arrived at from a meta-analysis of 55 studies that found significant correlations between levels of religious participation and identification, and levels of overt and covert racial prejudice (Hall, Matz, & Wood, 2010).


[1] Allport must not have read either the Bible or the Koran very carefully.

[2] See also the chapter by C. Daniel Batson and Christopher T. Buris, who similarly contrast the preaching of love and acceptance of others by all major religions with religion in fact functioning "as a mighty fortress of ingroup superiority..., ethnocentrism, oppression, and even destruction of those that are different" (1994, p. 149). Like Allport, Batson and Buris are also guilty of ignoring the widespread doctrinal justification of inter- and intrareligious violence (see Moore, 2017).

[3] Even though regarding oneself as a member of the "Chosen People" is a sure sign of exclusiveness, I won't discuss Jewish intolerance of other religions here because of Judaism's antiproselytizing stance.

[4] Both this and the preceding quote come from Sunni sources, demonstrating what they take to be Shia enmity towards them.

[5] See, for example, the Reverend Ian Paisley's insults of the Pope in Feargal Cochrane's work (1997, p. 257).


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Copyright ©2018 Michael Moore. The electronic version is copyright ©2018 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Michael Moore. All rights reserved.