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Prejudice Against The Religious Outsider

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Missouri Western State University

The study of prejudice in religion has been researched extensively in the field of psychology. Most research accumulated, however, has been measured in the form of self-reports. This study took place in a public setting in order to observe factors involved in helping behavior and to determine if prejudice plays a role in the incidence of a non-believer in need. Papers were dropped accidentally in order to assess factors involved in helping behavior. The factors evaluated were: age, amount of church attendance, and type of shirt the researcher was wearing, either a religious shirt or an anti-religious shirt. It was hypothesized that more help would be received when wearing a religious shirt than when wearing an anti-religious shirt. It was also hypothesized, according to past research, that the majority of assistance received in the anti-religious shirt would be by those who are not religious or do not attend church on a regular basis. Results revealed that out of 79 participants, 39 assisted the "religious" person, while only 13 assisted the "anti-religious" person. In a society founded on the freedom of religion, the results are surprising.


Religious discrimination has been going on for centuries. Evidence of religious hate crimes throughout history: the Crusades, The Inquisition, various campaigns to destroy “witches",the Holocaust, and more presently, Northern Ireland, India, and the Middle East. More blood has been shed and more people have been killed in the name of Jesus Christ than in the name of any other deity. How can organizations based on “goodness" and lack of sin commit such tortuous acts or murder, repeatedly? Biblical scriptures come to mind such as, “Love your neighbor",“Love your enemy", and “Do not judge or you will be judged." These paradoxical concepts have perplexed researchers for decades, leading to a vast amount of literature dedicated to examining the role of prejudice in religion.

The purpose of this investigation was to examine the relationship of prejudice in dealing with religious outsiders, as measured by assistance in a needy situation. It was hypothesized that a person seen as religious would be given more assistance in a needy situation than a person marked as anti-religious. Further, according to previous research, there should be a positive correlation between low or no church attendance when evaluating help received by the religious outsider (Jackson & Hunsberger, 1999).

Several researchers have evaluated prejudice and its place in religion, the greater part finding a relationship between higher church attendance and prejudice (Batson, Shoenrade, & Pych, 1985; Gorsuch & Aleshire, 1974; Batson, 1976). Why is this so? Allport (1966) concedes that the reason churchgoers on the average could more prejudiced towards outsiders is because religion may enhance self-esteem and provide a scapegoat for feelings of insecurity; both prejudice and religion seem to satisfy the same psychological need.

Another probable assumption is that religious people tend to be more dogmatic, or close-minded, than non-religious people. The greatest example of this is the fundamentalist, a person of extreme religiosity and rigid views, who is a likely candidate for religious discrimination (Kirkpatrick, 1993). Feather (1971) also found that members of religious organizations were higher in dogmatism than atheists. An example can be found during my proposal of this article to the class. The only comment I received, when explaining my plan to wear an anti-religious shirt was, "If you don't want to be so extreme you might want to wear a Christian Scientist shirt. They get a lot of hassle too." To be atheist is extreme? If this does not scream close-minded, what does?

What is the importance of investigating the role of prejudice in religion? The main argument is that this country was created because of the need to escape religious persecution, the need to escape from totalitarianism. Yet the findings are consistently pointing to the fact that religious people tend to be more discriminative. This is a paradoxical yet consistent finding. We as Americans need to shed our dogmatic, prejudicial beliefs, not only to maintain the quest for freedom our ancestors fought for, but to maintain our role as soulful humans. The present study has set out to determine if we as Americans treat religious outsiders in prejudicial ways.



Seventy-nine participants were obtained at a Northwestern Missouri shopping mall. Ages ranged from six to 67. The mean age was 26. The participants were all White. Gender was not a factor in the study. All of the participants were treated in compliance with ethical standards, including debriefing.


Three white t-shirts were used including: a religious shirt reading "God Exists," an anti-religious shirt reading "There is no God," and a plain shirt with no words. Papers were dropped to develop a needy situation.


Haphazard sampling was used to collect the data. Each shirt was worn a total of three hours, dropping the papers approximately 18 times per hour. Papers were dropped "accidentally" in order to determine assistance factors. After each participant returned the papers to her, the researcher disclosed that she was doing a study on helping behavior and asked if they would answer a few questions. The questions included: What is your age? Do you perform charitable services? If so, what do you do and how often? Are you religious? If so, how often do you attend church? The researcher asked the participants if they had any questions or comments,then recorded the responses and noted which shirt she was wearing at the time. Results obtained were kept confidential.


Two one way ANOVAs, one comparing the role of age in helping behavior, the other comparing the role of amount of church attendance in helping behavior were calculated. No significant difference was found for the role of age (F(2,76) = 2.043, p > .05). No significant difference was found for the role of amount of church attendance (F(2,76) = .136, p > .05). This study did not find age and amount of church attendance to be factors when determining who will help the religious and anti-religious person in need.

A chi square goodness of fit test was calculated comparing the frequency of occurrence of helping behavior when comparing the religious and anti-religious, as marked by a shirt. It was hypothesized that more help would be received when wearing a religious shirt than when wearing an anti-religious shirt. A significant deviation from the hypothesized values was found (chi-square(2) – 12.86, p = .002).


Complete support for both hypotheses was not found. However, partial support was found for the hypothesis that more help would be obtained when wearing a religious shirt compared to wearing an anti-religious shirt. Out of 79 participants, 39 helped the "religious" person and only 13 helped the "non-religious" person. The second hypothesis that religious people, as marked by church attendance, would be less likely to help the anti-religious person in need was not validated by the results. This sits in opposition to much of the current literature findings that high church attendance leads to more discriminatory attitudes (Batson, Shoenrade, & Pych, 1985; Gorsuch & Aleshire, 1974; Batson, 1976).

Although the results obtained do not give a definite answer as to whether or not religious prejudice can be blamed for the lack of assistance received by the "anti-religious" person, it must be noted that according to a recent census, 92.5% of the American population claim to have a religious affiliation. In light of this fact, the possibility of religious prejudice against outsiders needs to be considered.

Results may have been affected by the haphazard selection of participants; a more random selection may have produced a higher correlation between the amount of church attendance and the decision to assist. Also, the fact that all of the participants were White probably did not yield a sufficient enough representation. In order to make this research more generalizable to the American population, this study could be replicated implementing these changes, perhaps resulting in different findings. However, benefits to the present study is that not many studies, if any, have been done researching prejudice against the atheist, and in addition, not many have done it observationally.

The importance of this research lies in my personal experience as an atheist living in American society. Society seems to perceive the constitutional right of freedom of religion to imply that one must have a religion, as the option of no religion is not a valid choice. It is very hard to be an outspoken atheist without getting shunned, denied, or worse, a lecture in why you are going to hell. While wearing the shirt that said "There is no god" people called me names, whispered and pointed, and even threw things at me. This is not only disheartening to non-believers, it is also scary.

Karl Marx said that religion is an opiate for the masses. If this is true, we must know whether it is a depressant or stimulant for prejudice and discrimination (Batson & Burris, 1994). Past research has pointed directly to religion being a stimulant for discriminatory attitudes. Further research is necessary in order to get a better understanding of the present status of religious discrimination in America today. It is time to but the "C" back into constitution and see how discrimination against non-believers is antithetical to the American dream.

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