New psychology research links belief in supernatural evil to stricter immigration attitudes

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A study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that belief in supernatural evil is a strong predictor of more restrictive attitudes toward immigration. The researchers suggest that people who endorse strict boundaries between spiritual good and evil may also see a clear distinction between in-groups and out-groups in the real world.

Previous research has found that different components of religion have different effects on a person’s attitudes toward immigration. For example, more frequent use of services has been linked to greater openness towards immigrants, while ideologies that combine nationalism and religion, such as Christian nationalism, have been linked to more restrictive attitudes towards immigrants.

Study authors Brandon C. Martinez and his team have proposed that belief in supernatural evil may be an underlying mechanism that links religion to views on immigration. Belief in supernatural evil underlies most of the world’s religions, along with a clear division between good and evil. This distinction can then be extended to the material world, where a sharp line is drawn between ingroup and outgroup members. This can then result in the demonization of immigrants and their portrayal as threats to society.

“I am fascinated by the juxtaposition of anti-immigrant sentiment with religious teachings of loving strangers and loving your neighbor. I was interested in exploring the religious roots of attitudes towards immigration. I have worked with the concept of belief in supernatural evil in previous research, so the potential connections here piqued my interest,” explained Martinez, an associate professor at Providence College.

“Spiritual warfare, the idea of ​​a cosmic battle between good and evil occurring on a spiritual level, is a common meta-narrative in some traditions of American Christianity,” said co-author Joshua C. Tom. , assistant professor at Seattle Pacific University. . “This spiritual conflict is often confused with the conflict in everyday reality, especially when it comes to issues of culture warfare.”

“What would otherwise be mere human discord is attributed to a larger battle between supernatural forces. For Americans who strongly believe in supernatural evil, the world has an added layer of hostility, and much of the literature shows that these beliefs predict many attitudes and behaviors even controlling for other social, political, and religious.

“Belief in supernatural evil is both common and consistent,” added co-author Joseph O. Baker, a professor at East Tennessee State University. “When I started researching this topic 15 years ago, there was almost no work dealing with the issue in the social sciences except for a handful of small-scale studies in psychology. social.”

“Given my own background, both in terms of religious upbringing and growing up in a place steeped in religious conservatism (southern Appalachia), I felt there were a lot of potentially important connections between religious evil and other key issues in psychology and sociology.. So I set out to try to map out some of these connections and create space for the study of supernatural evil in the social sciences.

For their study, the researchers analyzed data from the fourth wave of the Baylor Religion Survey, a national survey of the American public administered by Gallup in 2014. The survey included questions on religious attitudes and behaviors, and a total of 1,572 responses were collected.

The surveys also included two questions relating to attitudes towards immigration – one on opinions on restricting and controlling entry into the country, and the other on opinions on related federal government spending. border control. Participants were also asked three separate questions about whether they believed in the existence of the devil/Satan, hell, and demons—these responses were added together to create a composite measure of belief in supernatural evil.

The results revealed a strong and positive relationship between belief in supernatural evil and approval of immigration restriction and control. There was also a positive relationship between belief in supernatural evil and support for increased federal spending to control immigration. These effects remained significant after controlling for several other variables known to predict opinions on immigration, such as partisan political identity, education, and identification with the Tea Party movement.

“Having a strong binary view of the spiritual world of good and evil makes it easier to see other relationships in an us/them dichotomy – usually with us being good and them being bad. It’s important to be aware of how this could turn into a process of dehumanization,” Martinez said.

In fact, for views on immigration restriction and control, belief in supernatural evil was the strongest predictor in the model. For views on increased government spending on border control, only age was a stronger predictor than belief in supernatural evil.

The authors said these findings may reflect moral panic, a phenomenon whereby the public develops an exaggerated and unwarranted fear towards a group or issue. In the United States, political leaders have been known to use language that portrays immigrants as invaders or criminals, which likely contributes to public fear of immigrants.

“Dehumanization is a very real concern when we talk about immigration,” Tom told PsyPost. “Our study suggests that common features of popular American Christian theology may provide cultural resources that can lead to a dehumanizing mindset toward immigrants, and thus influence how we think about immigration policy. Americans who believe strongly in supernatural evil should think critically about how this worldview may color their perspective on social issues that involve their neighbor.

Overall, the study authors said the findings strongly support the idea that belief in religious evil is associated with stricter views on immigration. This suggests that belief in supernatural evil plays an essential role in the link between religion and attitudes towards immigration.

“Belief in supernatural evil is strongly tied to the ‘otherness’ of perceived outgroups,” Baker said. “In this study, we show this to be the case for positions on immigrant policies, but other research has shown this to be the case with punitive views of criminals and restrictive attitudes about gender as well. and sexuality. Thus, views on immigration are only one specific iteration of this general trend. An easy way to understand why this is the case is to view beliefs about supernatural evil as linguistic and cultural efforts to sanctify the rejection of particular categories, both of behavior and of people. Supernatural evil is a shortcut to social demonization.

The researchers noted that their study was limited to an American sample and a predominantly Christian cultural background. Future studies would be needed to assess whether the link between belief in supernatural evil and views on immigration differs in other parts of the world.

“One thing to note is that the data in our study is from the pre-Trump era, so it will be important to explore how these connections may have changed over time with the increased prominence of immigration issues in the public as key political flashpoints,” Baker said. mentioned. “Another important question to address is to delve into the social and psychological processes by which beliefs about supernatural evil are linked to other issues. Our study shows a strong and persistent correlation between supernatural evil and specific attitudes, but a better specification of the mechanisms involved awaits the application of different research methods, such as experimental and longitudinal designs.

“More people, both among the general public and among academic researchers, should pay more attention to beliefs and claims about supernatural evil,” he added. “Supernatural evil is a vitally important and socially consequential part of culture that ‘hides in plain sight’.

The study, “Flowing Across with Demonic Hate: Belief in Supernatural Evil and Support for Stricter Immigration Policy,” was published on April 20, 2022.


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