The title of this post is a pretty big question. Popular media accounts of links between religion and racism are not hard to find (for example, this recent story about a prison inmate suing to receive racist literature on the grounds that it is part of his faith). A recurring theme in discussions of racism and religion is the idea that religions are like “clans” and help us divide the world into people who are in our group and people who aren’t. This mode of thinking might spread from religion to other social categories, such as race. Thus, two things that at first don’t seem related (religion and race) are connected by our general tendency to think in an “us” versus “them” fashion. For sure, it’s not hard to think of examples of groups who promote both racial and religious hatred. The Ku Klux Klan is just one such group and also an example of when religion is associated with harm.
The question of whether religion causes racism is an important part of the public debate over whether religion is responsible for more harm or more good. It’s easy to come up with examples of both. Religion has been cited as a motivation for all kinds of harm, from the Crusades to the persecution of women. But it also is given credit for inspiring profound acts of charity and for leading to better health and longevity. The overall good and bad created by anything, of course, is enormously difficult to calculate, and it depends a lot on what you personally value (for example, is prejudice more or less important than longevity?). Smaller questions about individual goods and bad, however, are much easier to answer. So what does science have to tell us about religion and prejudice?