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Religion: less ‘opiate,’ more suppressant, study finds

In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx wrote that religion is “the opiate of the masses” – disconnecting disadvantaged people from the here and now, and dulling their engagement in progressive politics.

Religion still has a strong influence, according to sociologist Landon Schnabel, but in a new way particular to the contemporary United States. Rather than making people less political, religion shapes people’s political ideas, suppressing important group differences and progressive political positions.

Schnabel, the Robert and Ann Rosenthal Assistant Professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the author of “Opiate of the Masses? Inequality, Religion, and Political Ideology in the United States,” published in May in Social Forces.

“Religions shape political ideology in accordance with the deeply held identities, interests and values of agentic people [people with social influence, or agency] with multiple overlapping identities seeking meaning and well-being in the face of uncertainty and injustice,” he said.

Schnabel analyzed data from a religion-focused 2004 module of the U.S. General Social Survey (GSS), and more recent surveys from 2008-18. He found patterns consistent with Marx’s claim that religion provides psychological compensation, but in contrast with Marx’s assertions, Schnabel found that this applied more to groups with less social status rather than to groups with less wealth.

People in socially disadvantaged groups – including women, racial minorities and low-income people, many of whom are quite politically engaged – seek religion in higher numbers than white, well-to-do men, Schnabel said, citing previous research. This is because religion provides disadvantaged groups with resources that compensate for lack of social status, he said.

“Structurally disadvantaged groups are drawn to this sense that there’s something more out there than this world where they face disproportionate hardship and marginalization,” he said.

Religious organizations that provide such spiritual possibility then step in with moral schemas that shape political views. As a result, Schnabel wrote, “contemporary American religion – and Christianity in particular – suppresses what would otherwise be larger group differences in political ideology.”

The most striking case Schnabel found in the GSS data was that of women’s views of abortion: fewer women in the U.S. support abortion rights than men. Women are more religious than men, previous studies have shown, and it’s this adherence to religion and its general stance against abortion that Schnabel sees as the reason for the discrepancy.

“If it were not for their greater religiosity, women would actually be significantly more supportive of abortion rights than men,” he writes. He also argues that Black Americans, Latin Americans and those with annual incomes less than $100,000 would also be more supportive of abortion rights if it were not for these groups’ greater religiosity.

“Seemingly paradoxical group differences in abortion attitudes are largely a function of religion,” he said.

Schnabel found similar patterns in attitudes toward specific issues on which some disadvantaged groups are not consistently more progressive, including same-sex marriage, free speech, required prayer in schools, marijuana legalization, and others.

In addition to examining attitudes toward issues, Schnabel also looked at political party affiliations. He found that religion suppresses the likelihood that women, Black, Latinx, and low-income Americans will vote for Democrats. According to the data, these and other disadvantaged groups are already more likely to vote for Democrats, but they would be even more likely to do so if it were not for religion.

Schnabel notes that religion does not disproportionately shape the political attitudes of sexual minority groups, although these groups face structural disadvantages.

“Sexual minorities are looking for the psychological compensation and supportive community that can be offered by spirituality and religion, but aren’t really being indoctrinated by traditional religions,” said Schnabel, “because those institutions are, for the most part, excluding and marginalizing them.” He notes that when sexual minorities are involved in organized religion, they tend to be a part of more diverse and inclusive religious communities that are less likely to reshape their existing politics.

There are alternatives to politicized religion for people seeking supportive networks and community, Schnabel said, including some religious groups that provide meaning and purpose “without the right-wing politics tied up in it.”

But overall, he said, “religion is having a particularly strong impact on people’s politics.”

Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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