How Spirituality Improves Tolerance

By Traci Pedersen

Feeling angry or intolerant today? According to a new study by York University, if you take a quick moment to remember your religious or spiritual beliefs, you will increase feelings of tolerance and reduce those of hostility.

In light of recent terrorist attacks and other atrocities carried out in the name of religion, York University researchers wanted to see what happens when you remind a person of his religious beliefs just before he experiences a threatening circumstance: Would he feel more or less tolerant? More or less hostile?

In other words, does religion promote hostility—or peace—in everyday life? Their hypothesis leaned toward the positive.

“Based on our premise that most people’s religious beliefs are non-hostile and magnanimous, we hypothesized that being reminded of religious beliefs would normally promote less hostile reactions to the kinds of threats in everyday life that usually heighten hostility,” says lead author Karina Schumann.

Their hypothesis proved correct.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , involved nine experiments with 910 participants—an eclectic mixture of Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus. Many participants received a simple reminder of their religious beliefs by being asked “Which religious belief system do you identify with?” The rest were not asked about their beliefs.

Some of the participants were then exposed to threatening experiences (such as thinking about their own death or failing a test). Next, they were asked to judge and distribute punishments to wrongdoers, criminals and worldview critics.

Participants who had been reminded of their religious beliefs were far less hostile and retaliatory in the threatening circumstances than those who were not asked about their religion. There were no effects on participants who were reminded of their religion but not threatened in any way.

The findings show that people generally associate their religious beliefs with the Golden Rule ideals of forgiveness and tolerance, says study author Ian McGregor, professor of psychology at York. Religious people often turn to their beliefs when the ‘chips are down,’ or in threatening circumstances. Even quick and vague belief reminders—not even specific religious rules—tend to promote more generous, less hostile choices when faced with threatening circumstances, adds McGregor.

Even though news headlines tend to focus on terrorist attacks and other crimes committed in the name of religion, the findings show that, for most people, the influence of religion is far more positive than what is portrayed in the media. 

One reason for this difference may be the participants’ focus on the religious ideals of love and forgiveness, whereas extremist groups may focus on alliances and rivalries, says Schumann.

She adds that more research is needed to determine whether religious reminders could encourage magnanimity in non-Western countries, among less-educated individuals, or during high-stakes conflicts between competing religious groups.

“Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” ~Gilbert K. Chesterton

 

Spirituality & Health magazine is for people who wish to explore the spiritual journey—the journey to self-knowledge, authenticity, and integration. We draw from the wisdom of many traditions and cultures, with an emphasis on sharing spiritual practices. We explore the health of body, mind, and spirit, and we recognize that in our language the words “whole,” “health,” and “holy” share a common root. To subscribe to Spirituality & Health, click here.

 

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