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Beyond Allport’s Paradox: The Religion and Prejudice Equation: Part One


The following is adapted from an essay submitted to the Department of Psychology, Carleton University, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the B.A. with Honours degree.  


Psychologist Gordon Allport posited that religion was paradoxically linked with prejudice.  It has the ability to produce or protect from prejudice.  Ironically, social scientific investigations of religion and prejudice are also paradoxical.  The following literature review and meta-analyses will explore how religion is defined in social scientific literature, the impact of time and culture on religious prejudice, and the influence of religious trends, such as the ‘spiritual, but not religious’ groups.  This paper suggests that research into the link between religion and prejudice is confounded by inconsistent definitions of religiosity that cannot be applied across time and cultures. Concluding statements suggest future considerations for researchers, including more studies of the meaning of religiousness to diverse groups of individuals and adaptability to fluid social and political factors that may confound research results.  

Beyond Allport’s Paradox: The Religion and Prejudice Equation

Psychologist Gordon W. Allport is famous in part for his studies that attempted to understand what he called the paradox of religion.  He suggested that religion can give rise to or diminish prejudice (Allport, 1966).  The following research intends to explore beyond Allport’s thesis by demonstrating that not only is the object of study (religious prejudice) paradoxical, but that the method of study holds this quality as well.

Psychological research into the religion-prejudice equation lacks a cohesive methodology and is inherently confounded by a host of individual and socio-political variables.  Two issues will be highlighted.  The first is that simply defining religiosity as a measurement is vastly different across the studies reviewed.  Second, the application of this measurement across cultures and times fails to provide the robustness that one would expect from such investigations.  Most noteworthy is the lack of applicability of religiosity as a measurement that is relevant between samples and across populations.  The scope of this paper posits that research into the link between religion and prejudice is confounded by inconsistent definitions of religiosity that cannot be applied across time and cultures.

The relevancy of continuing such research might be questioned given the methodological issues identified.  A review of recent headlines demonstrates that religious prejudice is becoming more, and not less, salient. Thus, solutions to this issue are urgently needed. In 2012, an anti-Islamic video posted to social media site YouTube set off a series of violent protests in the Middle East that resulted in numerous deaths.    In August of that year, a gunman went on a mass killing spree at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.  For a number of years, there have been reports about the systematic suppression and persecution in China of various religious groups, most notably, Falun Gong practitioners.  A North American study released by the University of British Columbia’s department of psychology revealed that Atheists were considered less trustful than all other religious groups, and comparably as distrusted as rapists (Gervais, Shariff, & Norenzayan, 2011).  Most recently, it was reported that the Boy Scouts of America had finally overturned a ban on homosexuals being permitted membership to their organization, yet have maintained the prohibition on Agnostics and Atheists.  Indeed, a comprehensive study by the Pew Research Center (2012a) shows a marked increase in social hostilities, government restrictions, and harassment of various religious groups around the world.

The following will begin with an overview of research approaches in social scientific investigations of religion and discussion surrounding new religious classifications. Next, summaries of psychological research examining the link between religion and prejudice with accompanying analyses of the aforementioned issues of defining religiosity, generalizing across populations, and the confounding influences of socio-cultural/political factors will be presented.  Finally, social scientific scholarship will be reviewed that addresses these challenges in empirical investigations, specifically with a focus on the emergence of the rapidly growing spiritual, but not religious (SBNR) affiliation.

The Social Scientific Study of Religion

 Traditionally, social scientific research has approached the study of religion using broad concepts to classify religiosity under either the functional or substantive perspectives.  The former focusing on the role of religion in one’s life, while the latter encompassing one’s beliefs, actions, emotions, and connections relative to the sacred (Pargament, 1999; Zinnabauer, Paragament, & Scott, 1999; Zinnabauer et al., 1997).  These approaches have generated a bewildering array of religious variables, with just as many meanings attached to those variables.

Complicating this matter further is the fluid nature of religion itself.  In the last several decades, traditional religiosity has been replaced or complimented by the concept of spirituality.   More and more people are turning away from institutional religion toward an individualized spirituality (Zinnabauer et al., 1999).  An analysis of global religious trends by The Pew Research Center (2012b) shows that 16% of the world’s population identifies as religiously unaffiliated with many proclaiming the SBNR classification.  For social scientists researching religious phenomenon, this group is one that must be seriously considered – particularly now that it is the third largest religious group worldwide, ahead of two major world religions: Buddhism and Hinduism (The Pew Research Center, 2012b).  Yet, more recent research shows how defining religion as a construct has become even more complex with the inclusion of SBNR.  Consequently, modern perspectives have taken a more reductionist approach by attempting to narrowly define the construct.  Particularly, there has been a movement to view spirituality as functional, individual, and positive.  In contrast, religion is relegated to the substantive, institutional, and negative (Pargament, 1999; Zinnabauer et al., 1999).  The recent movement to polarize and ultimately reduce these definitions has not led to more consistent research findings.

*** Read part 2 of Beyond’s Allport’s Paradox here***

M. xo


Allport, G. (1966). The religious context of prejudice. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 5(3), 447-457. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1384172

Gervais, W. M., Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. N. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1189-1206. doi:10.1037/a0025882

Pargament, K. I. (1999). The psychology of religion and spirituality? Yes and no. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 9(1), 3-16. doi:10.1207/s15327582ijpr0901_2

Pew Research Center. (2012a) Rising tide of restrictions on religion. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/Government/Rising-Tide-of-Restrictions-on-Religion-findings.aspx

Pew Research Center. (2012b). The global religious landscape. Retrieved from http://www.pewforum.org/global-religious-landscape.aspx

Zinnbauer, B. J., Pargament, K. I., & Scott, A. B. (1999).  The emerging meanings of religiousness and spirituality: Problems and prospects. Journal of Personality, 67(6), 889-919.

Zinnbauer, B. J., Pargament, K. I., Cole, B., Rye, M. S., Butter, E. M, Belavich, T. G., . . . Kadar, J. L. (1997). Religion and spirituality: Unfuzzying the fuzzy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 36(4), 549-564.


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