What about religion? Understanding attitudes in the era of multiple existential threats

COVID-19 temporarily overwrote two on-going existential threats - climate change and the threat of a new refugee crisis. We wanted to explore how do the perceptions of existential threats play a role in (non)religious worldview, national identification, and attitudes towards Muslims minorities among believers and non-believers. Our research demonstrates that religiosity does play a role in attitudes towards religious others during existential threats. COVID-19 did not result in more negative attitudes towards religious others, with the exception of attitudes towards Muslim refugees in Finland among believers. Our main finding is demonstrating the importance of studying different threats simultaneously – different threats have different consequences.

190
Lukuaika: 5 min.

Now in 2021, after a year COVID-19, it may be difficult to remember a time when other than disease-related threats were presented as threats to our existence. The threat of increasing religious diversity has been present in Western media headlines periodically since the 9/11 attacks. In December 2019, the biggest headlines in Finland concerned the repatriation of Finnish women from the al-Hol camps in Syria. News of the threat of growing Islamic terrorism and a threat of the new refugee crisis had been looming in Western media for months. Many right-wing parties in Europe were framing these refugees as threatening European culture but also our physical safety. 

Next to the threat of a new refugee crisis, Europeans have been living in the reality of the threat of climate change. Pictures of icebergs melting were not shared everyday but were regularly present in news outlets. This threat has been taken seriously especially by the youth, with the formation of Extinction Rebellion, a movement that tries to push governments towards more drastic changes in climate policies by anarchic methods. 

Therefore, COVID-19 temporarily overwrote these two on-going so-called existential threats (see Sullivan, Landau, & Kay, 2012). Existential threats do not need to be actual threats – for example the threat of a new refugee crisis is not necessarily ‘real’. Refugees are not threatening us. Rather it is our perception of these threats that affects our physical and mental well-being but also our sense of control, security, identity, and worldviews.

 

Worldviews, existential threats, and attitudes – are some groups more prejudiced and why?

One of the most important worldviews that guide our values and morals is religion. Our worldviews are a source of safety, and worldviews such as religion, are argued to be most significant during times of distress. In my PhD, I have examined the role of religiosity in attitudes towards religious others and how different identities such as religious and national identities affect social relations. Therefore, during the pandemic my colleagues and I wanted to explore how different threats translate to attitudes towards religious groups such as Muslims among believers and non-believers. 

My previous research has shown that religious people have often more positive attitudes towards Muslims in comparison to non-believers (Eskelinen et al., in review). This has been explained by the redefinition of religious boundaries in Europe: whereas secularity is on the rise, religiosity is decreasing rapidly (Carol, Helbling & Michalowski, 2015). Therefore, Christians perceive themselves to be more similar to other religious groups as Muslims, and as a result are more likely to support the religious rights of Muslims in comparison to non-believers.

In our research with Loris Vezzali, Antonio Di Bernardo, and Inga Jasinskaja-Lahti, we examined existential threats in Finland and Italy and their role in explaining attitudes towards three groups of Muslims: Muslims in general, Muslim refugees, and Muslim converts. All of the groups were discussed in the media before the outbreak of the pandemic. We chose Finland and Italy because both are experiencing these three existential threats. However, in terms of COVID-19 threat in spring 2020, Italy was hit very severely, whereas in Finland the pandemic was managed relatively well in comparison to other Northern European countries. 

We thus thought these two contexts with all of the threats present but also with strong religious roots in Catholicism and Protestantism present fruitful opportunities to explore how religious and national identities play a role in this association between perceived threats and attitudes towards Muslims. In other words, do people turn more to their religious and national  groups during times of threat, and then develop more negative attitudes towards religious others? Previous research has shown that threats can strengthen group boundaries resulting in negative consequences and even hostility between groups. 

 

Photo by Amin Moshrefi on Unsplash

Threat of a new refugee crisis affects attitudes towards Muslims, COVID-19 less so

We found that none of the existential threats –  COVID-19, refugee, or climate change – were associated with (non)religious worldview identification; in other words, there was no indication of a statistically positive or negative relationship between existential threats and (non) religious worldview identification. During times of crisis, there is a sign of stronger cohesion (e.g. Drury & Alfadhli, 2019). This is exactly what we found: in both Finland and Italy, the more threat believers perceived from COVID-19, the more they identified with their country, meaning that they displayed stronger national identification. 

The more people felt threatened by a new refugee crisis, the less positive they felt towards all Muslim groups. Nevertheless, the threat of climate change sparked more positive attitudes Muslim refugees among believers in Finland and Italy. This seems to indicate that climate change threat evokes feelings of protectiveness rather than exclusionism among believers. 

Only in Finland did COVID-19 threat play a role in explaining more negative attitudes towards Muslim refugees, and this too only among believers. This could be due to protecting the COVID-19 situation in Finland; there were reports of infections at Lesbos island in Greece (“Coronavirus cases among refugees”, 2020 May 14). 

In terms of the strengthening of group boundaries, national identification was associated with more negative attitudes towards Muslim refugees in Finland. In Italy, a stronger religious worldview identification was associated with more positive attitudes towards Muslim in general and Muslim refugees entering the EU, which supports our previous research (Eskelinen et al., in review).

 

Conclusion with a grain of salt

Our results seem to indicate that at the height of the pandemic, when our data was collected, COVID-19 did not result in more negative attitudes towards religious others, with the exception of attitudes towards Muslim refugees in Finland among believers. Only when people are concerned about a new refugee crisis, do threats translate to more negative attitudes towards Muslims, no matter whether one is religious or not. 

However, we should take these results with a grain of salt. Although one could claim that COVID-19 has not evoked more negative attitudes in society, we have to remember that we did not look at groups who have been most targeted during the pandemic. For example, Asian minority groups have been especially  the target of hate due to the Asian origin of the COVID-19 virus, with the former President of the US naming it the “Chinese virus” (Bostock, 2021 March 22). 

In conclusion, our research demonstrates that religiosity does play a role in attitudes towards religious others during existential threats. Furthermore, the type of existential threat and target group does matter; whereas climate change evokes more positive attitudes towards religious others, refugee crisis threat leads consistently to more negative attitudes towards all Muslim groups among both believers and non-believers. Our results also show the importance of studying different threats simultaneously – different threats have different consequences. 

Viivi Eskelinen is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Helsinki

References:

Bostock, B. (2021, March 22). Trump’s first tweet about a ‘Chinese virus’ caused an increase of anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter, study finds. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-chinese-virus-tweet-sparked-anti-asian-hashtags-spike-study-2021-3?r=US&IR=T

Carol, S., Helbling, M., & Michalowski, I. (2015). A struggle over religious rights? How Muslim immigrants and Christian natives view the accommodation of religion in six European countries. Social Forces, 94(2), 647-671.

Coronavirus cases among refugees on Lesbos Island spark fresh calls for evacuation. (2020, May 14). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/may/14/coronavirus-cases-among-refugees-on-lesbos-spark-fresh-calls-for-evacuation

Drury, J., & Alfadhli, K. (2019). Social identity, emergencies and disasters. In R. Williams, S. Bailey, B. Kamaldeep, S. A. Haslam, C. Haslam, V. Kemp, & D. Maughan (Eds). Social scaffolding: Applying the lessons of contemporary social science to health, public mental health and healthcare. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists. 

Eskelinen, V., Renvik, T. A., Pauha, T., Jetten, J., Kunst, J.R., van der Noll., J., Rohmann, A., & Jasinskaja-Lahti,I. (In review).

Carol, S., Helbling, M., & Michalowski, I. (2015). A struggle over religious rights? How Muslim immigrants and Christian natives view the accommodation of religion in six European countries. Social Forces, 94(2), 647-671.

Drury, J., & Alfadhli, K. (2019). Social identity, emergencies and disasters. In R. Williams, S. Bailey, B. Kamaldeep, S. A. Haslam, C. Haslam, V. Kemp, & D. Maughan (Eds). Social scaffolding: Applying the lessons of contemporary social science to health, public mental health and healthcare. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists. 

Eskelinen, V., Renvik, T. A., Pauha, T., Jetten, J., Kunst, J.R., van der Noll., J., Rohmann, A., & Jasinskaja-Lahti,I. (In review). Support for religious minority rights: Investigating the roles of ingroup identification and perceived diversity threat.

Sullivan, D., Landau, M. J., & Kay, A. C. (2012). Toward a comprehensive understanding of existential threat: Insights from Paul Tillich. Social Cognition, 30(6), 734-757.