A Baylor University study that is the first to scientifically test the effect of religion on racial prejudice has found people primed with Christian concepts led to increased expression of racial prejudice and general negative views toward African-Americans.
The study appeared this week in the premier journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
"What's interesting about this study is that it shows some component of religion does lead to some negative evaluations of people based on race. We just don't know why," said Dr. Wade Rowatt, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor who led the study. "It could be that priming religious words activates cognitive representation of things like right-wing authoritarianism and a Protestant work ethic."
Priming occurs when an earlier stimulus influences a response or behavior to a later stimulus. For instance, when a person is primed with a list of words about furniture that does not include the word "table," a higher percentage of participants would complete a word stem starting with "tab," as in "table," than non-primed people. Another example is people primed with old-age stereotype words walked more slowly down a hall after an experiment than those primed with young-age stereotype words.
Baylor researchers subliminally primed college students with neutral and Christian concepts like "heaven," "faith" and "cross." The participants were asked to categorize words on a computer screen, however before each word appeared, the "prime" word would appear on the computer screen for less than a half second. After being primed, the participants' attitudes toward African-Americans were assessed using both subtle and overt measures. For instance, one experiment presented the participants with an argument for or against a particular social policy that would be beneficial or detrimental to African Americans. The participants then rated the degree to which the argument supported the conclusion, thus reporting their underlying overt feelings toward African-Americans.
To determine if both experimental groups were equivalent with regard to their degree of religiousness or spirituality, measures were administered a few days before the priming experiment. Religiousness and spirituality were also were measured so that these variables could be statistically controlled when analyzing the effect of priming on religion.
Rowatt and his team, led by Baylor graduate student Megan K. Johnson, found when the participants were primed with Christian religious concepts, it increased subtle and overt prejudice toward African-Americans. However, the Baylor researchers also found priming Christian concepts did not cause a shift in reported underlying emotion, such as increases in fear of African-Americans. These priming effects persisted when the researchers controlled for pre-existing levels of religiousness and spirituality.