Sunday, May 22, 2011

Religion and Racism

Here is a link to a video of students in a biology class in Dayton, Tennessee, discussing why they think evolution is not true.  At the end of the clip, we hear from one young man who unknowingly reveals one of the reasons evolution is unacceptable to so many of the very religious.  He says that blacks couldn't have evolved from whites because they have different color skin.

(In my post Evidence of the Purpose of School Prayer, I included a video of students in Giles County, Virginia, protesting the removal of the Ten Commandments from the walls of their school.  This video and the one from Dayton, Tennessee, give a very good idea of what life is like for non-believers in the U.S. "bible belt".)

Not only does the young man's comment reveal an incredible lack of knowledge about evolution and the biological and genetic relationship between the so-called races, it reveals that for many the implications of evolution regarding racial matters are unacceptable.  That is to say, the implication that whites and blacks are members of the same group is not something they are willing to accept.

These racist believers find it unacceptable to the point of being unbelievable that blacks and whites are related.  They don't want to believe that blacks and whites evolved as part of the same race.  That would mean that they all have black relatives and perhaps even black ancestors--however distant.  They would much rather believe that god put the two groups here separately.  They would much rather believe that they were divinely ordained as separate and, of course, superior.

Although the rejection of evolution by so many religious people seems to be based more on an egotistical unwillingness to admit their holy writings are inaccurate (and a deliberate, willful ignorance of evolution) than on racism, the racial implications assuredly play a role.

Racism is the siamese twin of religion:  Born of the same source, nearly identical, in part inextricably intertwined, yet still distinct.  Religion and racism are both methods of defining one's identity in terms of group membership:  Are you white or are you black?  Are you protestant or are you catholic?  And, unfortunately, they are both also ways of defining others, which seems to always lead to seeing them as less and less entitled to equal and fair treatment.

One could even argue that this is the whole point of both ways of thinking.  That religion and racism are both merely rationalizations of the innate desire to treat those more closely related to you better than you treat those not of your group.  To free the predatory primitive brain from the constraints of the civilized cerebral cortex.

Not coincidentally, both seem to serve the function of bolstering the egos of those who believe in them.  They both allow believers to feel superior to large swaths of humanity without examining any further evidence regarding the individuals in other groups.

Consequently, this comparison is best used when someone argues that religion shouldn't be criticized because it makes so many people feel better about themselves or their lives. 

"The same justification could be used to support racism:  it lets people feel better about themselves by letting them believe they are members of the 'master race'."

In fact, in many cases, it is clear that this is exactly what attracts people to religion.  Especially so in the case of the more exclusive religions, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses who believe that only 144,000 people out of all that have ever lived will make it into heaven.  To make it, one must be one of the religious elite, which, of course, they all think they are.

Likewise with the Mormons who believe that they will each be demi-gods of a sort after death with their own world to rule over populated by members of their family and by those non-believers that they prayed for while still alive.  (That is, the Mormon was still alive.  The non-believer being prayed for and "saved" need not be still alive at the time he is "saved".  This is why the Mormons have built up such a huge database of names that genealogists go to their churches to do research.  The Mormons use these names to accept "salvation" on behalf of the deceased person, who will then end up a subordinate "subject" on the particular Mormon's eventual heavenly planet.)

Likewise with Calvinists, who believe god has already "chosen" his select few and that they will be visited with fortune and favor in this life and the next.

When someone is using the "religion lets people feel better" argument, you can also point out that it can be used to justify almost anything.  First, generalize it for them:

"You are saying, I believe, that religion isn't bad because it meets the emotional needs of some people."

Then tell them to step back and examine that argument and its precepts. 

Then you can point out that this is true of all delusions and is also true of racism.  Make it clear to them that their argument justifies racism and ask them if they really want to rely on such an argument.  Then make it clear that Incorporating false beliefs into one's logic is very harmful.  See also, this post.  Whatever internal emotional comfort the believer gets from these beliefs is outweighed, greatly in most cases, by the harm to themselves and others.

One will also occasionally hear justifications for religion based on the role it played in history.  The response can be the same:  It played a role similar to racism--it helped unify societies and served as a pretext for their imperialistic actions.  In fact, the two were usually inextricably intertwined in the definition of the identity of any group throughout history.

Even today, one sees examples of the confusion brought about by this intertwining on numerous occasions, especially when someone expresses vociferous criticism of Islam in Western countries.  On such occasions, there will almost always be someone who will speak up to accuse the person criticizing Islam of "racism" even though Islam is not a race but a religion.

One also sees this link between religion and racism in virtually every church in the U.S. every Sunday morning.  Sunday morning between 11:00 and 12:00 has been called the most segregated hour in America.  In the same town, churches with nearly identical beliefs will hold separate services in which the congregations will be either all white or all black.

Racism and religion are both the province of those whose training or intellect are not sufficient for them to feel like independent individuals.  For those who know they are still part of the herd--without any real separate identity.  Religion or racism or both defines the herd for them and increases their feelings of group identity. 

This study compared the data from numerous past studies and found that there is a correlation between devoutness and racism.  Those who were religious because they valued tradition and conformity were especially racist.  Only agnostics were found to be racially tolerant.  There was no data on atheists.  Here is a link to the original publication. 

Both religious and racial intolerance have undergone a transformation in the Western world during the last few centuries.  Three hundred years ago it was still considered acceptable to enslave people of other races.  Likewise, it was still acceptable to burn non-believers at the stake.  These extreme expressions of intolerance are no longer permitted.  This is another parallel between religion and racism:  The intolerance can no longer be expressed openly in polite society.  It has been driven underground and can now only be expressed in "code", just like racism.

Make no mistake, however, that primitive, animalistic part of of human nature has not gone away.  It is merely under control because human society currently demands a higher level of civilized behavior.  Should conditions change, it will manifest itself again.  In fact, as political and economic conditions have been changing in the U.S., one is able to see glimpses of the monster surging against the bars holding it in.


  1. I think this comparison is the same as when critics assert the Holocaust as "social Darwinism," and evolutionists cry foul.

    Same here. Believers ought to cry foul. They're two separate topics, racism and rejection of evolution. If, in some individuals they overlap, the same can be said of Darwinism and social Darwinism.

  2. Yes, they are separate topics that sometimes overlap. The point of the post, however, is that religion and racism spring from the same place in the darker parts of the human heart and that the argument that religion should not be criticized because it give "emotional comfort" to people applies with equal force to racism--yet no one would dream of defending racism on that grounds. If "emotional comfort" is an invalid argument with regard to racism, then it is invalid with regard to religion. (And, this is putting aside the fact that the "emotional comfort" argument is an implicit admission that religion is false.)

    The problem with your comparison to the holocaust and charges of "social Darwinism" is that the Holocaust was clearly an example of "artificial selection" not "natural selection". Artificial selection was around for thousands of years before Darwin and has nothing to do with his ideas. His idea was that natural selection, over time, would result in the creation of different species. There is nothing in his work about artificially selecting members of your species for extermination because they don't have the right religion. That is an age old religious idea.

    People with evil intent will always look for ways to make their goals seem respectable, and there are undoubtedly people who invoke Darwin to support their callous social politics. In fact, I have heard people do just that. They happened to be religious people, however.

  3. Is not the idea behind social darwinism that 1) survival of the fittest can be helped out a bit, by eliminating NOW those whom natural selection might take its time in doing.

    (a bit like hellfire believers have often thought 'if God is going to burn them forever and ever, there's no reason I can't get a few preliminary licks in myself.)


    2) whoever is perpetrating the holocaust, the "artificial selection," must be "the fittest" so as to be able to maneuver themselves into that position?

  4. What you are describing is active social Darwinism. Social Darwinism can also be passive, where deliberate inaction allows some to die or fail to reproduce.

    In either case, calling it Darwinism is a misnomer and a perversion of Darwin's thesis. Because in neither case is there evolution of a new species occurring or even being encouraged. Such people may talk about breeding "new men", but they don't intend to bring about a new species. They simply intend to cull the herd of those they consider defective.

    Darwin's thesis has two essential components: 1) natural selection over time--which has no design but is brutally non-random; and 2) accumulation of naturally selected traits resulting in the creation of new and distinct species.

    So-called "social Darwinism" has neither of these.