Could Religion be Linked to LGBT Tolerance? Survey Evidence from Africa

By Sarah Dreier

[Photo Credit: Gay Pride Parade in Entebbe, Uganda, 2015]

Last month, the United States banned Tanzanian official Paul Makonda on account of his crackdowns against gays and lesbians in Dar es Salaam. Makonda reportedly tapped “divine powers” to help him fight homosexuality and uses his public station to impose religious worldviews on others. Indeed, African leaders routinely invoke religion to justify anti-gay attitudes. However, our research published in Politics & Religion suggests that religious dynamics can also help moderate such intolerance.

LGBTQ rights throughout Africa

Despite gains in LGBTQ rights elsewhere, political protections for sexual minorities throughout Africa are currently under attack. By the end of 2019, consensual same-sex sexual acts were illegal in 59 percent of African countries; this is a higher rate than in any other continent. South Africa remains the only African country that legally recognizes same-sex marriage or constitutionally prohibits sexual orientation-based discrimination.

Africa’s gay-rights activists encounter significant barriers to their legal and political efforts. Last year, Kenya’s High Court upheld laws criminalizing homosexuality, despite a prominent push from Kenya’s LGBTQ communities and allies. Meanwhile, Ugandan gay-rights activist, Brian Wasswa, was attacked and brutally killed amid whispers that Uganda’s government would consider reintroducing its infamous anti-homosexuality bill.

In recent years, sexual minorities throughout sub-Saharan Africa have experienced increasingly draconian laws criminalizing their relationships, government roundups and crackdowns against themselves and their advocates, published hit lists, and high levels of intolerance among survey respondents across the continent.

According to AfroBarometer Round 6 (2016), 80 percent of surveyed respondents reported intolerance toward sexual minorities (indicating that they would “dislike” or “strongly dislike” having a “homosexual” neighbor). However, although survey respondents from across the continent register high levels of intolerance toward sexual minorities, there is notable variation by country. For example, several island countries and countries in southern Africa indicated greater tolerance, as shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Percent of respondents who would dislike having a “homosexual” neighbor (Afrobarometer Round 6, 2016)

Religious beliefs likely play a role in shaping these social and political dynamics. The continent houses among the most religiously devout adherents in the world – 85-90% of whom are Christian or Muslim – with religious leaders and movements commanding disproportionately high levels of trust, wielding political influence, and elevating the salience of anti-LGBTQ politics. Christian and Muslim leaders often lead the charge against sexual minorities, claiming that same-sex relations violate religious teachings.

However, these topline anti-gay trends – which receive considerable foreign attention – mask internal debates, quietly nuanced perspectives, prominent African coming-out stories, gradual increases in LGBT acceptance, and scholars and politicians fighting against the idea that Africa is “homophobic.”

My coauthors – James D. Long (@prof_jameslong) and Stephen Winkler (@stephenwinkler) at the University of Washington – and I conducted research which challenges prominent narratives and suggests that religious ideas and identities may shape public attitudes in unexpected and unexplored ways. In other political contexts, religious actors have demonstrated tolerance toward outsider groups. We argue that religious diversity can help generate tolerance toward Africa’s sexual minorities.

Religion as a force for tolerance

According to social philosopher Charles Taylor, a defining feature of our current Secular Age is that religious adherents inevitably encounter people who harbor beliefs that are different from their own. Such encounters “fragilize” a person’s assumption that their religion commands an exclusive claim on “truth” and force individuals to acknowledge the possibility that their religious worldview may be wrong.

Drawing on this insight, we hypothesize that local religious diversity may dislodge homophobic attitudes. Religious diversity – and the numerous daily interactions with individuals from different faiths it facilitates – increases the likelihood that a person confronts, questions, or modifies the certainty of their own convictions. In this case, the certainty that their religious beliefs demand anti-homosexual views may soften when they live in pluralistic communities. Religious diversity can therefore produce changes in social attitudes, even as the underpinning religious beliefs do not fundamentally change.

In short, we expect residents in more religiously diverse communities to express more positive social attitudes toward homosexuality relative to residents in communities with lower levels of religious diversity.

Survey Results

To test this hypothesis, we analyze AfroBarometer’s Round 6 survey data, which polled nearly 50,000 respondents across 33 African countries about their tolerance toward having a “homosexual” neighbor.

We measure religious diversity with an index of local-level religious concentration. To do so, we adopt an inverse Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI), which was originally developed to measure an industry’s level of monopoly or competition. In this index, a community that moves toward a score of “1” is very religiously diverse, while members living in a community that scores a “0” all share the same religion. In our data, religious diversity ranges from 0 to 0.86 with a mean of 0.55.

Our regression analysis confirms that respondents living in religiously pluralistic communities register a four to five-point shift (a roughly 50% increase) in their likelihood of expressing tolerance toward gay and lesbian neighbors, compared to those living in religiously homogeneous communities. Meanwhile, the probability of strongly opposing gay and lesbian neighbors reduces by more than four percent among respondents living in communities approaching perfect religious diversity, compared to those in religiously homogeneous communities. These models account for a variety of observable and latent factors likely to drive variation in attitudes at the country, sub-national, district, and individual-level, and they maintain under alternative modeling specifications.

Figures 2 and 3: Effect of religious diversity on attitudes toward sexual minorities (ordered probit). Predicted probabilities (95% confidence) that respondents will (a) indicate strong intolerance of homosexuals and (b) tolerance of homosexuals as they move from religiously homogeneous districts (0) toward perfectly diverse districts (approaching 1). Probabilities are estimated via ordered probit regression (1 = strongly intolerant; 2 = intolerant; 3 = tolerant) and include country-fixed effects but exclude district-clustered standard errors.

Importantly, encountering other forms of social diversity (including ethnic diversity) do not yield statistically meaningful effects on attitudes toward homosexuality. In addition, religious diversity does not consistently affect individuals’ tolerance of other “outsider” groups, perhaps because those attitudes are not imbued with religious significance. This analysis suggests that religious diversity has a unique effect on citizens’ attitudes toward sexual minorities throughout the African countries surveyed by Afrobarometer.

Religion drives mass attitude-formation throughout the world. But these relationships between religion and public attitudes are multifaceted. Our study suggests that religious diversity – a fundamental dynamic of our “secular age” – could help moderate the intolerant attitudes that many religious ideologues perpetuate. On the other hand, social “sorting” into homogeneous communities could allow exclusionary attitudes to fester.

Sarah Dreier (@SKDreier24) is an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Science and a Data Science Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Washington. Her research combines qualitative, statistical, and computational tools to examine the intersections between religion, state power, and human rights.

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