Americans who are religious may indeed hold more loving attitudes toward their neighbors, researchers at Baylor College say.

Megan Johnson Shen, a postdoctoral researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, led a study based on survey data from several hundred Americans practicing a diversity of religions, including Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and “others.” She and her colleagues analyzed the degree of religiosity among survey respondents along with attitudes toward different groups, such as African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and atheists.

Religion Linked To 'Loving Neighbors'
A new study from Baylor College shows a positive link between religiosity among Americans and more loving attitudes toward others, once investigators discounted survey respondents with right-wing authoritarian opinions. Shutterstock

Past research has attempted to test science’s “love thy neighbor” hypothesis indirectly by measuring degrees of prejudice or generosity, with investigators finding no link between religiosity and love of neighbors. To reach that conclusion, however, Shen and her colleagues eliminated data they saw as confounding in the experiment: survey respondents who hold “right-wing authoritarian” values toward out-groups. Thus, people who are religious are nicer to others than non-believers — but only if you ignore those who hate others. Moreover, “neighbors” are defined as members of outgroups, though not ones that “violate” the community’s values, adding perhaps a bit less clarity to the mix.

Wade Rowatt, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, says the research explores uncharted science. “Until now, we’ve never really tested whether religiosity is related to love of neighbors” with regard to attitudes toward out-groups, he said in a statement.

By tossing data on study subjects inclined toward intolerance, the investigator says that they were better able to make the comparison and contrast. In determining which data to cast aside, they defined “right-wing authoritarian” by how strongly a respondent agreed with statements such as, “"There are many racial, immoral people in our country today, trying to ruin it for their godless purposes, whom the authorities should put out of action;" and how strongly they disagreed with such statements as "Everyone should have their own lifestyle, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences, even if it makes them different from everyone else."

With that, the investigators found a statistically significant link between religiosity and tolerance for others. "The bottom line is that religiousness is linked with love of neighbor, as measured with surveys,” Rowan said. “The next step is to observe actual rates of volunteerism and helping to see if what people say and do match."

Source: Shen M, Haggard M, Strassburger D, et al. Testing the love thy neighbor hypothesis: Religiosity’s association with positive attitudes toward ethnic/racial and value-violating out-groups. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. 2014.