Are believers inherently tolerant?

With all the sectarian strife the world has seen lately, religion has begun to get a pretty bad reputation.

In 2010 the Ipsos market research firm commissioned a poll aimed at determining opinion around the globe regarding whether religion should be considered a force for good or for evil. A total of 18,192 people in 23 nations around the world were asked to respond to the following question:

‘In a world of globalization and rapid social change some say religion provides the common values and ethical foundations that diverse societies need to thrive in the 21st century while others say that deeply held religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions, and impede social progress in developing and developed nations alike… Which is closer to your own point of view?’

With daily headlines highlighting sectarian strife and terrorism driven by religious belief in many parts of the world, it is perhaps not surprising that the poll results indicate no high opinion of religion. Worldwide, 52 percent of respondents said they believed that religious belief promotes intolerance versus just 48 percent who saw religion in a more positive light.

That trend was especially pronounced in major Western nations. For example, 81 percent in Sweden, 76 percent in France, and 64 percent in Germany and Canada felt that religion and intolerance go together. However, in the United States only 35 percent held that view.

The Ipsos poll is a measure of opinion about whether religion fosters intolerance. But is there any way to know whether those perceptions are accurate?

It turns out that a number of research studies have been done that throw light on the relationship between religion and intolerance or hostility, with results that indicate religion may be getting a bad rap from much of the world.

A 2014 study conducted at Canada’s York University and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, indicates that when religious people are reminded of their beliefs, their levels of hostility are reduced.

The research team, led by Karina Schumann, now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, conducted nine different experiments, involving a total of 910 individuals. Participants included Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Some were given a prompt to indirectly remind them of their beliefs ‘which religious beliefs system do you identify with?’, while the others did not receive the prompt. They were then subjected to mild stress by allusions to threatening ideas, such as their own deaths or the possibility of failing an academic assignment. Finally, the subjects were placed in a position to judge and assign punishments for transgressors, criminals and worldview critics.

The study showed that those participants who had been reminded of their beliefs made choices that were significantly less hostile and punitive than those of participants who were not reminded.

According to co-author of the study, Professor Ian McGregor, the research demonstrated that just reminding religious people of their beliefs, even without any overt appeals concerning behavior, leads them to make “more magnanimous, less hostile choices in threatening circumstances.”

Other recent research indicates that praying can lessen anger, hostility, and aggression. In a 2011 study published in the journal of Ohio State University, Ryan Bremner of the University of Michigan and Sander Koole of VU University in the Netherlands found that people who had been deliberately provoked reported feeling less angry and aggressive after praying for someone.

In a series of three separate experiments, participants were subjected to insulting comments from a stranger, then asked either to pray for someone in distress, or to simply think about that person.

The design of the first study in the series set the pattern for all three. After completing a questionnaire aimed at measuring their levels of anger, along with other characteristics, U. S. college students were given a highly unflattering evaluation of an essay they had written (the evaluation was fake, designed to produce anger). They were then asked to read a newspaper account of another student who had been diagnosed with cancer. Finally, half the participants were asked to pray for the student with cancer, while the other half were asked only to think about her. Then anger levels were measured once again.

Unsurprisingly, students reported higher levels of anger after having been provoked by the undeserved criticism of their essays. But those who prayed for the student with cancer reported being significantly less angry than those who only thought about her. Although participants were not screened on the basis of their religious affiliation, most of the students in the study identified themselves as Christian.

According to Brad Bushman, a co-author of the study, ‘The effects we found in these experiments were quite large, which suggests that prayer may really be an effective way to calm anger and aggression.’

Given the results of these studies, why then does so much of the strife and violence so evident in the world today appear to be associated with religious commitment?

Karina Schumann, lead author of the York University paper, offers one possibility: ‘Part of the reason for our magnanimity finding could be that in our research we focused on religious ideals, whereas extremist groups may often be more focused on intergroup rivalries and coalitions than the core religious ideals of love and forgiveness.’

What these studies appear to show is that when people become more focused on their religious belief system, those associations work to reduce hostility, anger, and intolerance toward others. On the other hand, when religion is used to categorize people according to what are essentially tribal allegiances — hostility, anger, and intolerance toward outsiders may be exacerbated.

So can we conclude that studies such as these indicate that the best way to reduce sectarian hostility and strife in the world may well be by encouraging more religious commitment, not less? Perhaps God only knows