The link between subliminal religious priming and increased religious prejudice has been well founded.  But given our current stand on Christianity, that is its withdrawal from stigmatization towards African-Americans, can priming with religious ideologies change our attitudes towards women as well?

Turns out, it can, but in a positive way. In a latest study published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, researchers found that even a faint exposure to Judeo-Christian religious words can increase advocacy of sexism in both men and women.

Across four experiments performed, they found that participants primed with religious concepts were more likely to espouse the statements, particularly benevolent ones, such as “Women should be cherished and protected by men.”

“Many Judeo-Christian denominations and groups still practice and preach different and unequal roles for men and women, both within the religious organization and outside of it, so this research examines how brief activation of Judeo-Christian concepts, both above and below people’s awareness, influences their endorsement of sexist beliefs,” explained Megan Haggard, an assistant professor at Francis Marion University in a statement at PsyPost.

Religious priming increases benevolent sexism
Religious priming can increase benevolent sexism, new study suggests. The effect is mutual regardless of one’s sex and faith.

For the study, the team recruited 384 Belgian and 286 U.S. participants, and drew on two different methods to prime religion. First, the participants were given a task to unscramble sentences that contained religious words, while the control group was asked to do the same thing, but without any religious words. Second, the participants were introduced to a sequence of letters and asked to decide if they were a word or not as quickly as possible.

They found that even a vague exposure to religious words, especially those that tied to supernatural beings like God and angel, altered the participants’ attitudes toward women for a brief moment, and the effect can be observed regardless of one’s gender and belief.

More specifically, they saw higher levels of benevolent sexist beliefs, which appeared positive in every aspect, including those with women’s items being more moral, and having artistic and esthetic values compared to men’s. However, sympathizing benevolent sexism has been shown to undermine the support of gender equality as well.

For now, the samples examined were based on two countries with relatively low rates of both kinds of sexism, hostile and benevolent. Moreover, majority of the participants had Judeo-Christian influence on their culture. Should the study be done among participants belonging to countries with higher rates of sexism or with different majority belief systems, such as Islam or Hinduism, it could yield moderately different results.

“Also, we examined if there were differences in endorsement of sexist ideals only,” Haggard explained. “It is also important to assess whether this leads to different behavior toward men or women, such as increased backlash toward those who violate gender stereotypes. A more naturalistic study, such as exposure through being near a church versus a civic building, would also build upon these findings.”

Priming with religious beliefs also did not seem to have any noticeable effect on hostile sexism, the researchers found. Viewing women as perspicacious rivals who aim to subjugate men is considered hostile sexism. On the other hand, viewing them as fragile and in need of men’s protection is seen as benevolent sexism.

“Because previous research has found that priming religious agents increases pro-sociality toward others, it may seem counterintuitive that exposure to these primes is found to increase agreement with benevolently sexist ideals,” Haggard noted. “However, as sexism researchers have argued, benevolent sexism can be viewed as rewarding those women who fit into the prescribed notions of gender role division within a patriarchal society.”

“Essentially, it praises women for fitting in to the roles men allow them to have. The studies done in the US also feature different types of religious prime words that are categorized by religious agent (like God and angel), religious institution (like church and scripture), and spirituality (like miracle and faith). I think more careful religious priming using these categories may help clarify future findings in this area.”