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Faith, Hope and Bigotry

by Milton Rokeach

Milton Rokeach received a Ph.D. from Berkley in 1947 and served as Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University for many years. His best known work include The Open and Closed Mind (1960) and Beliefs, Attitudes and Values: A Theory of Organization and Change (1968). He received the Kurt Lewin Memorial Award of the American Psychology Association in 1984. This article appeared in Psychology Today, April 1970, pp. 33 - 58.


All Organized religions assume that religion teaches man distinct values that he might not otherwise have—moral values that guide him, in his everyday relations with his fellow man, toward higher, nobler or more humane levels than he might reached without religion. But is it true? Do the religious have distinct moral values that set them apart from the less religious? And if so, do these values help or hinder a genuine concern for the well-being of other members of the human race?

Many research studies have shown that there are significant differences in beliefs and attitudes between Jews, Catholics and Protestants, and even between various Protestant denominations. Most disturbing are findings that show that the religiously devout are on the average more bigoted, more authoritarian, more dogmatic and more antihumanitarian than the less devout. Such findings are disturbing from a religious standpoint because they point to a social institution that needs to be reformed. They are disturbing from an anti-religious standpoint because they point to a social institution that deserves to be destroyed.

Value Systems. I wanted to see if these value differences indeed existed between the religiously devout and non-devout, and to see how religious values were related to social compassion. In April 1968 I examined the value systems of well over 1,000 adult Americans ranging in age from 21 to 80. The sampling and data collection were handled by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, a national polling organization. The national sample was selected to represent all adult ages, social classes and parts of the country.

The instrument used was the Rokeach Value Survey, a simple two-part scale that has proved to be a reliable measure of values. In previous research I have found that it regularly gives distinctively different value profiles for men and women, whites and blacks, hippies and non-hippies, artists and businessmen, scientists and policemen, and pro- and anti-Wallace groups.

The first part of the survey consists of 18 goals or terminal values such as a comfortable life and a world at peace which the subject is asked to "arrange in order of their importance to YOU, as guiding principles in YOUR life."

Rank-ordering 18 items in ones head is a nearly impossible task, so we printed the values on special gummed labels that could be moved about the page while one was deciding on his rankings.

Means. Of course, people sometimes agree on their goals in life, hut they differ on the best means of reaching them, so second part of the survey lists 18 means or instrumental values, such as courageous and honest, which subjects are also asked to rank according to their preference.

I split the value profiles into nine subgroups identifying themselves as nonbelievers, Jews, Catholics and six Protestant denominations: Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists. The ranks used are averages. A value ranked one was the value most highly prized of 18 values by the average member of a given religious group. The second-most-cherished value was ranked two, and so on, with the value considered least important by the group being given the rank of 18. These profiles not only help us identify those values that are distinctly religious but also show the typical value profile of the average American nonbeliever, the average American Jew and the average American Christian.

It was immediately evident that all of the groups are similar in some respects. They all generally agree that such end-goals as a world at peace, family security and freedom are the most important, and an exciting life, pleasure, social recognition and a world of beauty are the least important. As for the means of reaching these goals there were other across-the-board agreements. Every group in the survey agreed that the most important means value is being honest, and all approved of being ambitious and responsible, but they all placed least value on being imaginative, intellectual, logical or obedient. These similarities describe a typical American value pattern that might well be different from, say, a typical Russian value pattern.

Nonbelievers. But the profiles of the several religious groups also differ from one another. Jews generally place relatively higher value than Christians on such goals as equality, pleasure, family security, inner harmony and wisdom and they prefer means that emphasize personal competence — being capable, independent, intellectual and logical. The average nonbeliever value profile is similar in many respects to that of the average Jew. Both put relatively less emphasis than Christians on such Boy Scout social values as being clean, obedient and polite.

The similarity between Jews and nonbelievers may mean that Jews are generally less religious than Christians, but it should also be recognized that Jewish people have strong ethnic-cultural identification and are likely to say "Jewish" when asked their religion, even if they are not religious and never attend synagogue.

Other differences appear between various Christian groups. Baptists ranked moral values -- salvation and being clean,forgiving and obedient -- relatively higher than the other Christian groups. And they ranked a sense of being broadminded, capable and logical relatively lower.

On the other extreme, Episcopalians ranked moralistic values generally lower than the Baptists did and personal-competence values higher. Of all the Christian groups considered here, Episcopalians are obviously the most different from the Baptists and generally speaking most similar to the Jews. But this does not mean that Jews and Episcopalians are indistinguishable. Episcopalians ranked salvation and forgiving higher than Jews, and Jews valued a world at peace, equality and pleasure more highly than Episcopalians did, implying that the Jews are somewhat more liberal, peace-loving and fun-loving than Episcopalians. Also, the Jews consistently rank the personal-competence values somewhat higher and the moralistic values somewhat lower than all Christian groups do, including the Episcopalians.

Christians. When we back off from the data far enough to look at the forest rather than the trees, two values -- salvation and forgiving -- stand out above all others as most distinctively Christian. While Jews and nonbelievers ranked salvation last, Christian groups generally ranked it considerably higher—third on the average for Baptists and anywhere from ninth to 14th for the remaining Christian groups. Forgiving was low-ranked—l5th or 16th—by Jews and nonbelievers but on the average somewhere between third and eighth by the several Christian groups.

This typical picture of the Christian value system held up even when we used such other definitions of religiousness as frequency of churchgoing and perceived importance of religion in one’s daily life. Salvation was ranked third by those who attended church every week, but it dropped linearly to 18th for those who never attended; forgiving was ranked second by the weekly churchgoers and decreased linearly to 11th for those never attending. With perceived importance of religion as the criterion of religiousness, salvation was ranked first for those reporting religion as very important in their everyday lives, but last—l8th—for those who said religion was unimportant. The comparable findings for forgiving were sixth for those who said religion was important and 13th for those reporting it as unimportant in their everyday lives.

Sociologists might argue that the differences are not so much a result of religious upbringing as of social-class differences. But when the various religious groups were matched for income and race (about 16 per cent of the sample was black) and then compared with each other, the value differences remained generally the same.

Christians commonly see themselves as a loving, helpful people, but the survey data indicated that loving and helpful were not valued more by Christians than by the other groups.

Guidelines. Values are our standards for living: they guide our conduct, lead us to take a particular position on a specific social issue, predispose us to favor one or another political ideology. They are the standards we use to judge things, to praise or blame ourselves or others. They are the principles that tell us which beliefs, attitudes and actions of others are worth arguing about, or worth trying to influence. But most important, values enable us to rationalize our own attitudes and actions— which might otherwise be socially unacceptable—so that we may always feel morally in the right, or at least keep our self-respect intact. An unkind remark made to a friend, for example, may be rationalized on the ground that it is "just being honest"; an inhibited sex life may be rationalized as self-control; an aggressor nation can be self-righteous if its actions are justified in the name of national security, self-defense or the preservation of freedom.

Bigotry. As already pointed out, research findings show that there is a positive relationship between religiousness and bigotry. But a question may be raised about the validity of the measures of religiousness that have been used. Saying that you are a member of a particular church, or that you attend church with a certain frequency, or that you see religion as important does not necessarily indicate that you are a truly religious person. The hallmark of a truly religious person is the espousal of recognizable, religiously inspired values that are distinctly different from the values typically espoused by the less religious and the nonreligious.

The influence of organized religion is readily apparent in the value profiles we have examined. Persons who are nominally identified with organized religion, persons who frequently attend church, persons who report that religion is important in their everyday lives generally share common religious values that clearly distinguish them from those not nominally identified with religious institutions, from nonchurchgoers and from those who report that religion is unimportant in their everyday lives.

Consider now the two values identified as most distinctively Christian—salvation and forgiving. What kinds of standards for living do they represent and what functions do they serve for Christians? Do they guide social action and foster a concern for the well-being of others or are they used as standards to rationalize self-preoccupation, a withdrawal from worldly concerns or an indifference to the plight of others?

King. A tragedy provided an opportunity to get timely insights into these questions. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated just as the survey was to be sent out and a question was asked on how the respondents felt about it: When you heard the news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which one of these things was your strongest reaction: (1) Anger (2) Sadness (3) Shame (4) Fear (5) He brought it on himself.

I considered that the fourth or fifth response indicated less social compassion than the first three. When the responses came in I looked at the ranking on salvation and forgiving for people giving each of these five types of reaction to Dr. King’s assassination.

About a third of the respondents said that Dr. King had brought it on himself and an additional 10 per cent reported fear as their main response. These two subgroups ranked salvation fourth on the average, while those who felt sadness, anger or shame ranked salvation from ninth to 14th. There was no consistent relationship, however, between reactions to the assassination and the importance attached to forgiving.

In two other questions on the King murder the respondents were asked whether they had felt anger or whether it had made them "think about the many tragic things that have happened to Negroes and that this was just another one of them." Those placing a high importance on salvation were insensitive to such feelings— "It never occurred to me"—whereas those not so salvation-minded were most likely to have experienced such reactions. And again, there was no apparent relationship with the value of forgiving.

Issues. The respondents were asked their opinions on other racial and nonracial issues as well. Did they favor or oppose open-occupancy and fair-employment laws, desegregation in education, interracial dating and intermarriage? Did they believe in inborn racial differences in intelligence, and was the white majority or the black minority most to blame for the plight of blacks in America? What did they think about providing a college education, medical and dental care and guaranteed incomes for the poor? And how did they feel about the student-protest movement, and what role ought the church to play in social and political affairs?

Compassion. On virtually all of these questions the results were the same as those obtained for questions concerning King’s assassination. Those expressing views unsympathetic to the black, the poor and the student-protest movement and those who did not welcome the church s involvement in political and social affairs uniformly values salvation more than those taking a more compassionate stand on such issues. And with only occasional exceptions those who cherish forgiving were no more or less sympathetic on such issues than those who cherish forgiving less. Evidently, Christians who valued salvation were not necessarily the same who values forgiving (the correlation between the two values was only .28)

In general, the negative relationship between religious values and social compassion was strongest for the Protestant groups, especially the Baptists. But the results for Catholics were somewhat less disturbing: for them there was no relationship rather than a negative relationship, suggesting that for Catholics, at least, religious values are more or less irrelevant as guides to a compassionate social outlook.

Millitance. Carl Willis and Faye Goldberg recently examined various differences between black militants and black nonmilitants in Atlanta, Georgia. The sharpest predictor of differences was, paradoxically, their response to the question on racial identification. Militants typically responded that they were black and nonmilitants typically identified themselves as Negro. Next best as a predictor of militancy was the rank-ordering of salvation. Militants ranked it a low 14th on the average; nonmilitants ranked it a high third. One interpretation of Willis and Goldberg’s data is that an Other-worldly concern in black people is incompatible with a militant stance toward the problems of this world. This suggests that militance may grow among black people if they are able to free themselves from commitments to certain religious end-goals.

Impotence. What kind of Christians tend to be preoccupied with salvation? Sociological as well as Marxist theory would suggest that an Other-worldly orientation would appeal most to those who feel powerless, to those who feel that they have no influence over political and social events. This feeling of alienation and powerlessness was measured in the national sample with the statement, Because the experts have so much power in our society, ordinary people don’t hare much of a say in things. Those who agreed with this ranked both salvation and forgiving significantly higher than those who disagreed. This feeling of powerlessness on the part of those identified with Christian values is, of course, at variance with Christian doctrine that asserts that the individual can be a tremendous force for good in this world, by personal example and by active involvement.

Most Bigotry. Allport and Ross concluded from their review of relevant studies that although churchgoers in general are more bigoted than nonchurchgoers, the occasional churchgoer is the most bigoted of all. Persumably, regular churchgoers are more intrinsically oriented and inner-directed, that is, they have internalized a religious creed that they try to follow sincerely. Under this reasoning one would expect the frequent churchgoers to be more compassionate than the infrequent churchgoers who are presumably more extrinsically religious or other-directed.

The findings from my national sample do not support such a view. On virtually all the social issues the frequency of church attendance did not make much difference—the regular churchgoers were no more compassionate than the less regular churchgoers.

To describe the differential reactions to social issues of the people in my national sample, I have deliberately put the matter in terms of social compassion rather than liberalism-conservatism. Liberal and conservative political philosophies are alternative outlooks toward achieving human happiness and welfare, and many of the questions put to the respondents could indeed have been reasonably ordered along a liberal-conservative continuum. But others cannot. The reaction to Martin Luther King’s murder—He brought it on himself, for example—is a calloused, uncompassionate response rather than a conservative response. Similarly, it seems more accurate to say that it is a lack of compassion rather than political conservatism that would prompt a person to believe that blacks are basically less intelligent than whites, or that blacks have failed to achieve equality because they lack initiative, or that the poor remain poor because they are lazy.

Profile. The general picture that emerges from the results is that those who place a high value on salvation are conservative, anxious to maintain the status quo and unsympathetic to the black and the poor. They had reacted fearfully or even gleefully to the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination, they are unsympathetic with student protests, and they do not want the church to become involved with the social or political issues of our society.

Considered all together the data suggest a portrait of the religious-minded as a churchgoer who has a self-centered preoccupation with saving his own soul, and an alienated, other-worldly orientation coupled with indifference toward -- a tacit endorsement of -- a social system that would perpetuate social inequality and injustice.

If is a discrepancy between a person’s espoused values and his conduct and position on important contemporary issues, then these data from a representative sample of Americans strongly suggest a hypocrisy deeply embedded within many religiously oriented individuals. And by implication, the date point to a hypocrisy deeply embedded within organized religion as a social institution.

Yea & Nay. Christian tradition has two primary Biblical sources for its position on human values—the "thou-shaltnots" of the 10 Commandments and the "thou-shalts" of the Sermon on the Mount. The findings presented here suggest that the church has done a much better job of teaching us what not to do than what we ought to do. The findings suggest a pervasive social outlook among the religious-minded that seems to be incompatible with and often opposite to the compassion taught in the Sermon on the Mount. If Christian values do indeed serve as standards of conduct, they seem to be standards more often employed to guide man’s conduct away from rather than toward his fellow man. Moreover, the results seem compatible with the hypothesis that religious values serve more as standards for condemning others or as standards to rationalize one’s own self pursuits than as standards to judge oneself by or to guide one’s own conduct.

Change. There are nightly news reports these days of the efforts by young persons, black and white, to change the fundamental structure of our educational, governmental and social institutions on the grounds that these institutions support racism and the military-industrial complex at home, imperialism and immoral wars abroad. The findings discussed here would suggest that religious institutions are also in need of change.

If the church, taken as a whole, is at best irrelevant and at worst a training center for hypocrisy, indifference and callousness, it is unlikely that the clergy—members of the religious Establishment—will be the ones to initiate the program of radical change that seems to be called for. True, there is a protest movement against the religious Establishment, beginning within the Catholic Church and to a somewhat less public extent within the various Protestant churches, but the research of Rodney Stark and others suggests that the movement is a losing cause. And a recent Gallup Poll reports that of a representative cross-section of adult Americans, 69 per cent felt that religion was increasing its influence on American life in 1957, but that only 14 per cent felt the same way in 1969.

Opiate. Karl Marx proposed—with some justification, my data would suggest—that religion is the opiate of the people. But religion would be less open to the charge that it is an opiate if children were taught that salvation and happiness are the rewards for doing good rather than for not doing bad—for obeying the "thou-shalts" of the Sermon on the Mount rather than the "thou-shalt-nots" of the 10 Commandments.

Such a simple shift of focus, however, will probably require a profound reorganization of the total structure of organized Christianity. And if this reorganization does not come about, the data presented here lead me to propose that men will get along better with their fellow men if they can forget, or unlearn, or ignore what organized religion has taught them about values and what values are for.


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