Does teaching the Golden Rule reduce homophobia?
By Amarnath Amarasingam
The Golden Rule - treat others the way you want to be treated - can be found in all of the world's religions as well as in several secular philosophies. Regardless of differences in tradition, it is a rule that many individuals agree with, and often attempt to put into practice in their everyday lives. But, how much influence does it actually have in changing people's attitudes towards the important issues of the day?
Questions like this can be enormously difficult to answer. However, it is precisely this question that researchers Oth Vilaythong Tran, Nicole Lindner , and Brian Nosek attempted to answer in an article published in the recent issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Previous research into similar questions has noted that while religious and non-religious people express similar attitudes about race, religious people express stronger anti-gay attitudes than do the non-religious. Research is also starting to confirm that adherents to different religions hold differing views on homosexuality. A study of people in Singapore, for example, found that Buddhists had less negative attitudes towards homosexuals than did Christians. One reason for this, although still uncertain, may be the fact that homosexuality is more clearly prohibited in Christianity than it is in Buddhism. Even among Christians, views about homosexuality vary depending on the individual's denominational ties. As Vilaythong Tran and his colleagues write, "Christians who perceive their religious groups to teach 'love the sinner, hate the sin' self-report more tolerant attitudes toward gay people than those who perceive their religious groups as teaching otherwise."
In conducting their research into the influence of the Golden Rule, they hypothesize: "Perhaps when religious individuals are primed with reminders of the Golden Rule by their religion's founder, they may prioritize tolerance and compassion for gay people. Research suggests that activating concepts, goals, or ideas, often known as priming, even without awareness, can influence behavior and attitudes. We examined whether a subtle reminder of the Golden Rule attributed to Jesus (Christianity) or the Buddha (Buddhism) was sufficient to alter Christians' and Buddhists' attitudes and beliefs about gay people."
Some previous research has shown that priming can indeed reduce negative attitudes towards stigmatized groups, at least temporarily. One study showed that when individuals were primed with descriptions of well-known and respected homosexuals, they were less likely to express anti-gay attitudes, and more likely to explicitly express support for gay rights. Tran and his colleagues took a more indirect approach, however, and primed individuals with more general statements of tolerance. As they write, "we anticipated that priming a tolerant religious concept such as the Golden Rule could influence individuals' attitudes toward a religiously stigmatized group - gay people."
The results of the study are revealing and may contribute much to rethinking strategies for reducing homophobia. One of the study's findings is that Christians expressed more negative attitudes towards homosexuals than did Buddhists. However, their overall prediction was not supported by the evidence. As noted above, they hypothesized that priming individuals with the Golden Rule may decrease negative feelings towards homosexuals, especially when the Golden Rule message was from their own religious leader (Jesus and the Buddha). Results from the study showed that such priming from one's own religious leader had no effect on an individual's attitude towards homosexuality.
A far more interesting finding also arose from the research. Tran and his colleagues noted that while Christians who were primed with Golden Rule statements from Jesus did not change their minds about homosexuals, there was an effect when they were primed with Golden Rule statements from the Buddha. As they write, "when the Golden Rule messages were attributed to the Buddha (a religious out-group leader), Christians self-reported being more explicitly negative toward gay people and more likely to believe that homosexuality is a choice."
In other words, the study suggests that when messages of tolerance come from someone outside of our religious group, the message of tolerance may actually produce intolerance. While the study's results apply only to the Christians in the research sample, future research may find such trends in other religious groups as well.
With the recent suicide of Rutger's University student Tyler Clementi, and the raging debate over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," homophobia has once again become headline news in the United States. Recently, Ellen Degeneres gave an impassioned plea to put an end to bullying and homophobia. Comedian Sarah Silverman also argued that public expressions of homophobia fuel the mistreatment and bullying of individuals like Clementi. However, if the results from the study are true, these pleas from out-group members will have little effect. Rather, as Debra Haffner recently argued, the message must come from religious leaders themselves.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate in the Laurier-Waterloo PhD in Religious Studies, and holds a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship. His research interests are in social movements, ethno-nationalism, radicalization, and media studies. Follow him on Twitter.
By Amarnath Amarasingam |
October 7, 2010; 11:29 AM ET
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