Fear Thy Neighbor? The Interconnectedness of Religious Intolerance and Insecurity

Image Credit: WKOW

By Miles Williams, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Though intolerance has been a recurrent problem throughout history, it is an especially salient problem in today’s hyper polarized political atmosphere where an erosion of tolerance now challenges long-held values, such as compromise, that keep the wheels of democratic governance turning. Examples range from the U.K. where the infamous Brexit vote, which was in part motivated by economic anxiety and immigrant related ire, now calls into question the long-term future of the European Union, to the U.S. where a developing trend of zero-sum party politics, strained bipartisan compromise, and a mounting contingent of the population experiencing economic fears and a sense of cultural displacement erupted onto the world stage during the recent U.S. presidential election.

Scholars have spent quite a lot of time trying to explain what creates a tolerant society—i.e., a society whose members tolerate alternative political and social perspectives. It should come as little surprise that many analyses that explore and attempt to explain tolerance (i.e., the extension of equal rights to those with noxious views) center on the role of religion.

Though a sizeable body of research shows that religion and political tolerance are not incompatible, some evidence suggests that religious dogmatism has links with intolerance; however, much of this research fails to account for the broader context of that religious belief. A quote that I recently read by John Shelby Spong, a Christian theologian and retired bishop of the Episcopal Church, may help to bring some of this broader context to the fore. Spong stated in a 2005 Q&A on biblical literalism that

Religion is what we so often use to bank the fires of our anxiety. That is why religion tends toward becoming excessive, neurotic, controlling and even evil. That is why a religious government is always a cruel government. People need to understand that questioning and doubting are healthy, human activities to be encouraged not to be feared. Certainty is a vice not a virtue. Insecurity is something to be grasped and treasured. A true and healthy religious system will encourage each of these activities. A sick and fearful religious system will seek to remove them.

Leaving aside any theological aims Spong has in mind, his assertion about the role of anxiety in motivating a person’s turn to religion complicates the question of causality. Is fear or religion the source of religious intolerance? It is difficult to say. Thus, the more appropriate question, framed also within a political context, is: how are religious intolerance and insecurity linked in the state?

To answer this question I constructed an original dataset based on aggregate data on 53 countries from the 2010-2014 wave of the World Values Survey, the 2008 International Religious Freedom dataset, and the 2011 PRRI Religion and Politics Tracking Poll. The four measures of interest that I wanted to obtain were 1) the level of religious tolerance per country, 2) the level of religious pluralism per country, 3) the level of trust one has for one’s neighbors per country, and 4) the level of security worry per country. The first measure is based on the natural log of the ratio of the percent of people per country in the World Values Survey that reported either having complete or some tolerance for other religions to the percent that reported either having little or no tolerance for other religions. For the second, data from the International Religious Freedom dataset and Religion and Politics Tracking Poll was used to obtain the proportion of the dominant religion per country, which I use as a proxy for religious pluralism. To facilitate more intuitive interpretation, the proportion of the dominant religion is inverted so that lower values signify less pluralism and greater values signify more religious pluralism. The third measure is similarly operationalized to the first, with the only difference being that it has to do with the degree of trust individuals have for their neighbors as reported by the World Values Survey. The fourth, which is also similarly operationalized, is based on a conglomeration of two questions in the World Values Survey, one having to do with the degree of fear people have that their country will go to war with another country, and the other having to do with the degree of fear people have that their country will fall into civil war.

Results from the analysis are shown in the below figure. The data reveal an unmistakable negative relationship between security worries and religious tolerance and between security worries and trust in one’s neighbors. Meanwhile, there is a clear positive relationship between trust in one’s neighbors and religious tolerance and between religious pluralism and religious tolerance. These relationships are born out even when parsing the data by the political regime of each country. Though democracies possess somewhat higher levels of tolerance and trust and lower levels of security worries, the relationships among the measures of interest still stand.


Figure 1. Tolerance, Trust, Pluralism, and Insecurity


To further account for the possible influence of the predominant religion of each country, in the below figure I replaced the name of each country in my dataset with the name of each country’s dominant religion, as specified by the International Religious Freedom data set and, for the U.S., the Religion and Politics Tracking Poll. While Protestant, Catholic, and predominantly atheist countries appear to fall more on the tolerant, trusting, and secure ends of the spectrum, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, and Buddhist countries find themselves in the most precarious position (though this is certainly not uniformly true). However, though the values of interest for these latter countries are less than encouraging, the fact that the interconnectedness of insecurity, trust, religious tolerance, and religious pluralism still is observable in the case of these countries suggests that these four variables may be tied up with one another more so than with any particular religious tradition per se.


Figure 2. Tolerance, Trust, Pluralism, and Insecurity by Predominant Religious Tradition


Though the question that initially motivated this analysis centered on whether insecurity is the root of intolerance or if intolerance is the root of insecurity, it is impossible to disentangle feelings of insecurity and religious tolerance from one another based on the above analysis alone. This problem is made especially clear when the data are analyzed using a partial correlation network, as shown in figure 3.

A partial correlation network consists of, first, estimation of the partial correlation between two variables, which simply means that the correlation between two variables is estimated in a way that accounts for the impact other variables in a given network. Then the partial correlation estimates are graphed in a network that consists of nodes (the variables of interest) and edges (links between nodes). While the below partial correlation network clearly reveals that security worries, trust, religious pluralism, and religious tolerance are interconnected and that trust and religious tolerance are especially strongly and positively correlated, it is impossible to tell which of these variables is the prime mover. In other words, while in all likelihood one would be safe in stating that each variable reinforces the others, any one of them could have arisen first. Some research even shows that religious values can shift from exclusivist to inclusivist rather easily, depending on how they are primed, which further complicates the identification of a prime cause.


Figure 3. The Interconnectedness of Trust, Tolerance, Religious Pluralism, and Insecurity

Many conclude that a “fearful” religious system is a “sick” religious system, to borrow from Spong’s choice of words. Though the precise meaning ascribed to the concept of a sick religious system will vary from person to person, most will agree that a fearful, distrustful, and intolerant society requires a healing gauze of one sort or another. Plenty of researchers and observers of this phenomenon have proposed solutions, but regardless of which way out is pursued, numerous obstacles stand in the way of implementation. The chief source of frustration is that whichever variable sparks the ensuing chain reaction, the inevitable result is a powerfully, and at times violently, vicious cycle of fear, distrust, and intolerance that seems hard, though not impossible, to break.

Miles Williams is a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

R code and data used for this analysis can be obtained at his GitHub repository.

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