Regional cultural differences appear to play an important role in moderating the link between religiosity and sexist/anti-gay attitudes, according to new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The study provides evidence that cultures that foster an exclusionary, threatening climate tend to weaken the relationship between religion and prejudice by constraining individual differences.
“I’ve always been interested in sexism and anti-gay attitudes as expressions of prejudice. As a social psychologist, I was wondering a) why some individuals show high levels of prejudice and others do not, and b) if these differences can be found all over the world,” explained study author Jasper Van Assche, a postdoctoral researcher at at Ghent University and a lecturer at the University of Leuven.
“Together with two colleagues from The University of Auckland, New Zealand, I thoroughly investigated this research question in three studies: one with over a 125,000 individuals from 20 countries in the Americas, one with nearly 70,000 people from 45 countries across the globe, and one with nearly 45,000 people from over 200 European regions.”
The data came from the Americas Barometer survey, the World Values Survey, and the European Social Survey. All three surveys included assessments of antigay prejudice as well as religious affiliation and/or religiosity. Two of the surveys also included measures of sexist attitudes.
The researchers found that the link between religion and prejudice was substantially weaker and even absent in regions with a high cultural acceptance of hierarchy, a high intolerance of ambiguity and unorthodoxy, a high adherence to traditionally masculine norms, and a higher level of collectivism. Regions with such cultures tend to be home to autocratic governments and suffer from high unemployment and economic inflation.
“Interestingly, we found the same two key results in each study. First and foremost, religious individuals tended to score higher on sexism and anti-gay sentiment. Importantly, though, these differences were mainly found in ‘Western’ cultures that are relatively low in power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity, and collectivism,” Van Assche told PsyPost.
“In regions and countries that were higher in those cultural dimensions, the relationship between religion and prejudice was often absent. It thus seems vital to take into account the role of both individual and regional differences when looking at complex phenomena such as prejudice, as individual differences such as religiosity are related to higher levels of prejudice in some contexts, but not in others.”
The findings suggest that these four cultural dimensions can overpower individual differences, partially erasing the association between religiosity and prejudicial attitudes found in less unequal and less exclusionary societies. “Put differently, people’s attitudes within a threatening culture tend to converge toward higher prejudice levels, regardless of their personal religious commitment,” the researchers explained.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“One issue with the current set of studies is that we cannot draw any causal conclusions. Ideally, future research should look at these processes over time to examine if changes in religiosity are related to changes in sexism and/or anti-gay prejudice,” Van Assche said.
“In the same vein, we did not look at all regions and countries in the world, so this hypothesis could still be investigated in underexplored yet highly relevant settings. Finally, it might be worthwhile to study why this association was found in some cultures but not in others. We believe that, for instance, in a masculine society, traditional gender-role norms are created that yield strong top-down effects on the attitudes of its people. Yet, this should be clarified in future work.”
The findings also have some important societal implications in the fight against prejudice.
“I think it is vital for social psychology scholars to communicate their research findings to a broader audience than just their academic circles. We often do intriguing research that can have a real-life impact,” Van Assche explained.
“I sincerely hope that these findings will help policy makers in interpreting why prejudice and discrimination of disadvantaged groups still occurs in their societies, and how we could alleviate this situation. In order to have a nuanced view on the matter, my advice would be to look at characteristics of the person (e.g., their identification with their religious background) and characteristics of the culture (e.g., how much emphasis there is on masculine societal values such as achievement and success).”
The study, “Religion and Prejudice Across Cultures: A Test of the Threat-Constraint Model“, was authored by Jasper Van Assche, Joaquin Bahamondes, and Chris Sibley.