Study of Religious Discrimination in Psychology: Examples & Impact

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Understanding the ways religious discrimination can impact people's thinking and emotional well being is very important to the overall study of diversity in psychology. This lesson discusses examples and impact of religious discrimination in psychology.

What is Religious Discrimination?

Have you ever experienced discrimination because of your religious beliefs or identity? Discrimination is any act rooted in prejudice or misconceptions, and religious discrimination is discrimination based on religion.

If you have been a victim of this kind of discrimination, or if you have seen someone else deal with it, then you know it has profound psychological effects. Yet religious discrimination cannot be stopped simply by telling people to stop, or even by telling them their actions are harmful.

What are the roots of religious discrimination? What is its relationship to human psychology?

Religious Discrimination in History

Over the course of history, there have been many different examples of religious discrimination. In fact, many religions and religious subsects have grown out of a sense of marginalization by a dominant group.

In the ancient world, religion was affiliated with government, militarism and empire in an inextricable way. Therefore, people in a society who expressed different religious beliefs were considered dangerous, and they were either pushed out, targeted, or forced to convert.

In the Middle Ages, both Muslims and Christians began to consider it a deep responsibility to convert as many people to their religious belief system as possible. Religious discrimination in this era took the form of violent crusades against those who expressed differences in belief systems and identities.

As countries began to spread and make more conquests beyond their own borders, religious discrimination became part of the imperialist and colonial era. A well known example of religious discrimination in the United States, of course, is the Puritans, who left England because their religion was marginalized.

Upon arriving on American soil, the Puritans began discriminating against others, like Quakers, Jews, and most insidiously and violently, Native Americans with entirely different spiritual belief systems.

In the modern world, religious discrimination occurs in both subtle and overt ways. Anti-Muslim sentiment can lead to hate crimes and employment discrimination. Anti-Semitism can lead to microaggressions, or subtle acts of discrimination that perpetuate segregation.

Psychological Causes

What is a way of understanding religious discrimination from the perspective of psychology, or the study of how the mind works?

First of all, many people feel a very strong identification, or sense of self and sense of belonging, within the context of their religion. For example, a person who thinks of themselves as Jewish might find this to be such an important part of their identity, that they simply cannot see how another person would not identify this way. This identification can lead to subtle discriminatory acts.

Religious identification can also lead people to feel personally threatened by differences of religion. They may feel that their territory and values are at stake when difference is expressed, and this can lead them to act out.

Fear is another psychological cause of religious discrimination. Many humans naturally fear that which is different or other, and this can lead to the development of biases and then discriminatory acts.

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