The one finding I would most like to share after more than a quarter-century of traveling throughout this country reporting on issues of faith is how similar people are in their basic desires and ambitions.
Talk to people of faith of all ages in any region of the U.S., and what they are basically searching for is a sense of transcendent meaning that provides hope, optimism and purpose in the face of the struggles associated with being human.
They want to become better versions of themselves, more caring and loving friends, neighbors, parents and spouses. And they see in their faith both the support networks and community rituals and the interior resources such as prayer and meditation a path to a better life.
Yet there remains a disconnect in popular culture, and in many media and academic settings, between the preoccupation with the most radically polarizing figures speaking in the name of religion and what goes on in your neighborhood church, synagogue or mosque.
That disconnect would be comical if it were not so damaging to some of our most vulnerable populations.
So why do we have so many signs of becoming an increasingly polarized nation, where we are willing to apply negative stereotypes to entire groups of people, whether they are atheists or evangelicals, Muslims or blacks?
It is not because such indiscriminate attitudes have a strong basis in science. Behavioral and social scientists increasingly are finding evidence of how individual characteristics – a person’s image of God, the depth of their prayer lives, the number of friends they have in a congregation – transcend faith categories in predicting the impact of religion in people’s lives.
A recent study indicating widespread bias toward conservative Christians by college and university teachers provides some possible answers.
The unpleasant truth supported by this and other research: It is easier to judge people we do not know, and inhibitions about expressing prejudice tend to fall away if enough of your colleagues have the same beliefs.
Those who teach in higher education are relatively OK with some religious groups, according to a study based on a 2012 online national survey that drew 464 complete responses.
Asked to assess religious groups on a “feeling thermometer” of 1 to 100, Jewish people, mainline Protestants and Catholics all achieved an average score of 65 or higher, researchers led by University of North Texas sociologist George Yancey reported in an online article in the journal Sociology of Religion.
Next to the bottom, just slightly above fundamentalists, were Protestant evangelicals with an average score of 48.
Based on the rankings and other survey responses, researchers Yancey, Sam Reiner and Jake O’Connell classified nearly half of the participants as “conservative Protestant critics,” those with negative attitudes toward evangelicals.
The greatest sin of evangelicals: A perceived intolerance toward the academic critics own political views and belief systems.
“They tend to be intolerant of others with different points of view or political positions,” one health care professor said. An English professor said evangelicals were attempting “to change the U.S. from a secular to a religious state.”
In contrast, just 17 percent of the academic respondents were classified as “theological definers,” a group describing conservative Protestants in more neutral, academic terms.
Substituting hostility with more scholarly assessments made a major difference in attitudes, researchers noted.
Thus, while critics gave evangelicals an average score of 41 on the feeling thermometer, theological definers gave an average score of 63.
Bias is easy
Of course, bias among majority groups or those with higher degrees of status, power and influence is not limited to any one social or professional group.
Just how much we judge many minority groups is easily seen in national surveys where atheists and Muslims tend to fall toward the bottom in terms of trust and acceptance.
The work of Yancey and other researchers, however, is helping to provide a greater understanding for such polarization.
For example, the study of academic attitudes toward conservative Protestants suggests some more universal grounds for bias:
They are not like us: Research has indicated academics in general are less religious and more politically liberal than most Americans, and that conservative Protestants are substantially underrepresented on university faculty. Conservative Protestants are also viewed as being less educated and low status, separate from the elite status aspired to by many academics in higher education. In several ways, conservative Protestants may be considered the “quintessential out-group for academics,” Yancey, Reimer and O’Connell noted.
Don’t know them, don’t want to know them: In the study, the harshest academic critics of conservative Protestants were the ones with the least contact, and least likely to seek to establish relationships with evangelicals. Those who took a more neutral academic approach were most likely to have evangelicals in their social network.
“Despite bad press, my (many) dealings with evangelical Protestants remind me that most of those with whom I’ve worked sincerely try to lead lives marked with loving kindness and good will,” one “theological definer” reported..
Easy to pick on, harder to defend: The study also found academic critics felt free to use harsh, emotional language when describing conservative Protestants; more neutral observers largely confined themselves to academic, dispassionate assessments. The open hostility of critics “may produce a silencing effect which keeps conservative Protestants ‘in the closet,’” study researchers said.
Another set of new studies suggests that belonging to a tightly knit and unified group not only tends to legitimize prejudice against others, but also gives permission to be openly hostile to those opposed by a majority of their own group.
Membership in a group where bias is acceptable appears to give individuals a license to “express prejudices they would otherwise keep to themselves,” researchers from the London Business School and New York University reported.
The good news is attitudes can change.
But change requires humility.
And intellectual humility, the ability to understand the limits of one’s own knowledge and to be open to new ways of understanding, seems to be in short supply, even, or perhaps in some cases especially, among academics.
Image by David Keddie at English Wikipedia [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by DaKohlmeyer, Trinity Evangelical Free Church [CC BY-NC 2.0]