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Religion and the Unmaking of Prejudice toward Muslims: Evidence from a Large National Sample

posted on 09.03.2016 by John H. Shaver, Geoffrey Troughton, Chris G. Sibley, Joseph A. Bulbulia

In the West, anti-Muslim sentiments are widespread. It has been theorized that inter-religious tensions fuel anti-Muslim prejudice, yet previous attempts to isolate sectarian motives have been inconclusive. Factors contributing to ambiguous results are: (1) failures to assess and adjust for multi-level denomination effects; (2) inattention to demographic covariates; (3) inadequate methods for comparing anti-Muslim prejudice relative to other minority group prejudices; and (4) ad hoc theories for the mechanisms that underpin prejudice and tolerance. Here we investigate anti-Muslim prejudice using a large national sample of non-Muslim New Zealanders (N = 13,955) who responded to the 2013 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study. We address previous shortcomings by: (1) building Bayesian multivariate, multi-level regression models with denominations modeled as random effects; (2) including high-resolution demographic information that adjusts for factors known to influence prejudice; (3) simultaneously evaluating the relative strength of anti-Muslim prejudice by comparing it to anti-Arab prejudice and anti-immigrant prejudice within the same statistical model; and (4) testing predictions derived from the Evolutionary Lag Theory of religious prejudice and tolerance. This theory predicts that in countries such as New Zealand, with historically low levels of conflict, religion will tend to increase tolerance generally, and extend to minority religious groups. Results show that anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments are confounded, widespread, and substantially higher than anti-immigrant sentiments. In support of the theory, the intensity of religious commitments was associated with a general increase in tolerance toward minority groups, including a poorly tolerated religious minority group: Muslims. Results clarify religion’s power to enhance tolerance in peaceful societies that are nevertheless afflicted by prejudice.