Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Christian Religion and Ethnic Prejudice in Cross-National Perspective

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

Christian Religion and Ethnic Prejudice in Cross-National Perspective

Article excerpt




A Comparative Analysis of the Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium)


Almost every student of religion has heard about the research thesis that Christian religious beliefs and behaviors are not barriers against but contributing factors to the development and dispersal of ethnic and racial prejudice. This cross-societal study examines this accusing finger of social research by using data from a 1985 Dutch survey and a 1991 Flemish survey conducted in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. The findings indicate that in both societies neither church involvement nor Christian belief have an effect on ethnic prejudice, independent of important background characteristics (education and age) and social correlates (social and cultural localism, authoritarianism, and anomie). Regression analysis also reveals that, next to authoritarianism, the most important predictor variable of ethnic prejudice in this comparative study is nationality per se. Implications of this finding for future research are discussed.


NOTHING IS as treacherous as the obvious. Until the late 1940s, the relationship between Christian religiosity and ethnic and racial prejudice was quite obvious to many people, and maybe to nobody more so than to students of religion. Christian doctrines and teachings were considered to be a repository of man's highest ideals -- social justice, tolerance, egalitarianism -- and were thought to promote democratic and altruistic values among their recipients. However, as soon as American survey researchers, in the aftermath of World War II, turned to an examination of the association between religiosity and prejudice, doubts were raised about the argument that Christians have uniformly championed the democratic creed and that tolerance ranks high in their hierarchy of values. Religious commitment, numerous social scientists reported, tends to be associated not with increased love and acceptance but with increased intolerance and social exclusion, and a meaningful proportion of religious people, whilst worshippi ng the Deity, harbor discriminatory attitudes and prejudicial slants. What is more, the findings of then extant opinion surveys seemed to indicate that this is not the result of pure coincidence. Religiosity itself appeared to be a hindrance to the operation of values centering about sister/brotherhood and social compassion and, thus, to be a part of the problem of prejudice rather than a potential solution to it.

While the religious context of prejudice has received considerable research attention in the past decades or so, it is astonishing to find, and rather disappointing, that there is as yet no consensus, theoretically, over how the association should be understood. At the one extreme, there are researchers who claim that the two are causally related and that, for example, Christian religiosity in and of itself sustains and perpetuates anti-Semitism (Glock and Stark 1966). At the other, there are those who maintain that the observed relationships are simply coincidental and that some antecedent factors, operating in disguise, explain the spurious correlational tie (Roof 1978). Failure to resolve this issue can perhaps best be traced to a lack of knowledge about important non-religious variables which may be responsible for creating superficial patterns of relationship. It is, therefore, incumbent on researchers to investigate the conditions under which the linkage emerges and to examine the factors that might po ssibly extinguish it.

But research on the issue is characterized by yet another flaw, not uncommon in social science practice. Nearly all studies conducted so far have been done within the confines of a single nation (i.e., the United States of America). In the absence of cross-national evidence, however, there is absolutely no way of knowing whether the American findings apply equally outside the particular historical, political, and socio-economic contexts of the U. …

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