Religious Tolerance and Cultural Beliefs About Inequality

June, 2015

Erin A. Chech

Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology

Project Introduction

Religious can be understood as a popularly-held cultural frame for understanding and interpreting variation in religious beliefs and practices. The purpose of this project is to begin to examine the empirical interconnection between religious tolerance and cultural beliefs about other axes of social difference - specifically, class, gender and race/ ethnicity. There is little scholarly knowledge about the connection between religious tolerance and cultural beliefs about inequality. Existing literature examining the variation in beliefs about inequality by religious denomination and subculture but this research has not been extended to issues of religious tolerance.

The driving theoretical argument of this project is that religious (in)tolerance and cultural beliefs about inequality are co-constructed - both are deep cultural frames used by Americans to interpret societal variation and diversity. Understanding this interconnection can broaden scholarly knowledge of the relationship between religious tolerance and other social beliefs, and shed light on the underlying consistency or inconsistency of different types of cultural interpretations of social difference.

Regarding beliefs about inequality, Americans tend to use one of two broad frames to understand economic, gender, and racial/ ethnic inequality. The first is an individualistic frame based on the meritocratic ideology, the belief that societal advancement systems are fair and that those who lack the necessary talent, training, and desire will not succeed; the second is a structural frame that interprets societal inequalities as the result of deeply entrenched structural processes of discrimination, exclusion, stereotyping, and marginalization. Those with more structural frames often support social policies meant to address inequality (e.g., progressive taxation), while those with individualistic frames often do not support such policies.

This project investigated the empirical connection between religiousity, religious tolerance, and beliefs about inequality using a unique quota survey sample mirroring the U.S. population on gender, race/ ethnicity and age (N=1016). The survey asked about respondents' beliefs about race, class and gender inequality, and is the first study able to compare the connection between religiosity, religious tolerance, and beliefs about multiple axes of inequality.

Research Questions and Preliminary Results

This project addresses two interconnected research questions. These questions are described below, along with preliminary results from the survey data.

(1) How is religiosity and religious denomination related to beliefs about economic, racial/ ethnic and gender inequality? Consistent with existing research, I expect that respondents who affiliate with more progressive denominations will be more likely than respondents who affiliate with conservative denominations, especially those that emphasize "free-will individualism," to believe that economic, racial/ ethnic and gender inequality is the result of structural processes rather than the result of individual shortcomings. However, I expect that denominational differences will be mediated by religiosity, whereby the cultural beliefs of the most religiously devout will be more similar across denominations than the cultural beliefs of the less devout. Further, I expect that non-religious individuals as a group will generally be more likely than religious individuals to explain inequality as the result of structural processes rather than individual failings.

Consistent with these expectations, early data analysis reveals that, net of gender, religious denomination, age, race/ ethnicity, and political conservatism, those with the greatest religiosity (measured as the importance to respondent of their religion) are less likely to recognize resistant inequalities along the lines of class, gender and race. For example, those who score highest on religiosity are more likely than those who score lower n this measure to believe that whites and racial/ ethnic minorities have equal opportunities for achievement in the U.S. and that the poor have "gotten more economically than they deserve." Net of religiosity, Protestant respondents are the least likely to believe that prejudice and discrimination are central causes of gender, race, and class inequalities. This echoes hypothesis above that religious denominations that emphasize "free-will individualism" are more likely to use individualistic frames to explain inequality rather than structural frames.

These early findings suggest two particularly interesting results: (a) religiosity, particularly in Protestant denominations, appears to be related to less recognition of the structural underpinnings of social inequalities, and (b) there is surprising consistency in the effects of religiosity and religious denomination across understandings of different kinds of inequality (race, class gender). These are important and novel findings that I will pay particular attention to in my ongoing analysis.

(2) How is religious tolerance connected to beliefs about inequality? Next, I examine the connections between cultural beliefs about inequalities and religious tolerance. Specifically, I expect that respondents who express religious tolerance. Specifically, I expect that respondents who express religious tolerance will be more likely to understand economic, racial/ ethnic, and gender inequality as the result of structural process than as individualistic processes.

Preliminary analysis suggests several interesting patterns relating to this research question. First, those who have greater religious tolerance as measured by willingness to see Muslims and Atheists as sharing their visions of America are less likely to give individualistic explanations for inequality (e.g., to say that individual differences in ability and tale of "God's will" explain gender, race, and class inequalities). Further, those who believe that society's standards of right and wrong should be based on "God's law" are more likely than those who agree less with this statement to believe that racial/ ethnic, gender, and class inequality are due to individual lack of talent and ability and to lack of effort on behalf of the disadvantaged. Finally, those who are most tolerant of their son or daughter marrying a Muslim or Atheist person were more likely to give structural explanations of inequality than those who would disapprove of such arrangements.

Overall, this initial analysis suggests strong empirical connections between religious tolerance and the types of cultural frames that people use to understand inequality. Specifically, those who are most religiously tolerant are also the most likely to understand gender, race, and class inequalities as the result of structural factors like discrimination rather than individualistic factors like ability or effort. Although I look forward to further analysis of these data, these findings provide early support for my overarching theoretical argument that religious tolerance and beliefs about inequality are interconnected and co-constructed notions about how Americans respond to social difference and diversity. Such a connection has possible policy and social action implications: the empirical establishment of this connection suggests that social action effective in promoting economic, gender, and racial equality may also help promote religious tolerance.